Leading by Example

FORUM spoke with Rita Cook about why support leads to success and how Bank of America gave her the opportunity to pay her success forward to future leaders.

By The FORUM Magazine Editors

Businesswoman stands addressing female colleagues in meeting
Businesswoman stands addressing female colleagues in meeting

Rita CookRita Cook, Midwest region executive, Global Commercial Bank at Bank of America Merrill Lynch delivered the opening keynote at Women’s Executive Forum. FORUM spoke with Cook about why support leads to success and how Bank of America gave her the opportunity to pay her success forward to future leaders.

FORUM: What is the importance of representation in higher levels of leadership?

Cook: You aspire to what you see. If you never see anyone like you in a certain role, you might not be able to imagine yourself there. When I started out in my career more than 20 years ago, I never thought I would be in the position I am now. That was an unconscious reaction to the fact that I didn’t see anyone like me in those roles. I aspired to other roles, even leadership roles, but not running a business.

It’s fortunate that I work for a company like Bank of America, where half of our worldwide workforce is female. Forty percent of our CEO’s direct reports are female. Thirty percent of our board is comprised of diverse individuals. It’s not just about the diversity of what you see on the outside. It’s diversity of thought background and socio-economic experiences which contribute to a rich, inclusive culture and innovative spirit.

That’s the thing about diversity—it’s not just a check-the-box exercise. It truly drives better business, because you’re thinking differently about situations—about products, service experience and what your customers need. The demographics of the United States are changing. Businesses need to understand who makes up their consumer base. Whether it’s retail, financial services or a not-for-profit organization, you need to know the people that you are serving. You can’t do that if you don’t have diverse representation.

If everyone at an organization thinks in the same way, they’re missing out on the wants and needs of huge populations of individuals.

FORUM: How can leaders ensure that their employees are being setup for success?

Cook: They need to lead by example. When I was offered my current role, I was about to leave on a 16-week maternity leave. I originally said that I would only take 12 weeks, but I was encouraged to take the full 16 weeks. This helped me demonstrate (for women and men) that you can succeed in your career at our company and still have time to have a family, if that’s what you choose.

The next year I was up for a sabbatical, which Bank of America provides on anniversary years, and my manager again encouraged me to take the sabbatical—not just because I deserved it but because if I did it, others would feel comfortable taking advantage of these benefits. You need to set an example that women can take their maternity leave or employees can leave early to go see their kids in a play or help coach a softball team.

Diverse representation is important, but it’s also important to provide support. Everyone’s home life and family dynamics are unique. Leaders must provide you the ability to bring your entire self to work and not feel like you have to sacrifice a part of yourself to get to that role. The culture you’re driving is critical to helping employees you’re promoting to leadership roles and the teams they are leading are setup to succeed.

FORUM: What do you mean by “bringing your whole self to work?”

Cook: You operate the best when you can be your authentic self. Studies actually show that if companies create a culture where you can spend time recharging and re-energizing, individuals are able to perform at a higher level. I know we’re all connected 24/7, but I’ve made it a point to not respond to emails at night. Don’t get me wrong, I read them, but unless it’s urgent, I might just craft it and hold it until the next morning. Why is that important? The minute I send an email out, somebody’s going send me one back. If they don’t have the answer they might have to email three other people for help.

FORUM: What are the benefits of having what you called in your keynote a “personal board of directors?

I have people who I’ve met throughout my career, both personal and professional, who I can turn to if I want an unfiltered, unbiased opinion. Their only skin in the game is that they’ve got my best interest at heart. That’s my board of directors. They’re made up of friends, family members, mentors and colleagues who want to help me succeed. I have people on my “board” who see things differently than I do and have different career paths and experiences. If I only talk to bankers and people in my industry, that’s the only lens they’re going to provide.

Many companies have formal, structured mentor programs—people who are matched up together and may or may not gel. Another area is sponsorship, which occurs when somebody is your advocate when you’re not in the room. People can only sponsor you when they know you and they’ve seen the work that you have done. Sponsorship may only come when you are doing a good job and there’s someone who is willing to attach their name to yours.

Mentors and sponsors aren’t there every day and you may talk to them on an infrequent basis, but a board of directors are your everyday people with whom you can be your authentic self and who will be your biggest champions.

About the Author

Written by the FORUM Magazine Editors.

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