Sandra Pianalto said she was outside her comfort zone. The president and chief executive of the Fourth District Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland usually speaks to groups about the economy or banking. And most of the people in those groups are men.
But Wednesday, Pianalto spoke to Women Leading Kentucky's 13th annual Women's Business and Leadership Conference in Lexington. She was there to talk about what her life and career have taught her about leadership and success.
Pianalto, 57, immigrated from Italy when she was 5 years old. Her parents came to this country with little besides a desire to achieve the American dream for their four children, she said.
As a child, Pianalto became interested in public service while helping her parents, whose English was not as good as hers, study for their American citizenship tests. She later earned degrees in economics and worked her way up the Federal Reserve system, from research assistant to one of the 10 people who periodically sit around a big mahogany table in Washington and set the direction of interest rates.
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Federal Reserve officials have a well-deserved reputation for obfuscation when discussing the economy. But on this subject, Pianalto outlined four clear principles:
1. Embrace uncertainty and take risks. While it is human nature to keep doing what we know we are good at, the most successful people are often those with the courage to get outside their comfort zone and try new things. Pianalto's parents "had no idea what would await them in the United States. That taught me a great deal at an early age."
Women can be more reluctant than men to seek promotions they don't feel fully qualified for, she said. With 15 senior vice presidents ahead of her, Pianalto said, she hesitated when superiors encouraged her to apply for the bank's chief operating officer's job in 1993. But a mentor told her: "First get the job, then figure out how to do it." She went for it — and got it.
2. Commit to lifelong learning. "Education transforms lives," she said. "And the environment for women to lead and influence within their organizations has changed dramatically in a very short time."
Thirty-six percent of American women ages 25 to 34 have college degrees, up from only 12 percent in 1970. During the same period, the rate for men rose from 20 percent to 29 percent. Women have overtaken men in college attainment in this and every other economically advanced country, except Japan and Turkey, she said. But formal education is only one aspect of learning.
"The further you progress in your career, the more important it is to seek wise counsel, to keep on learning," she said.
The world is too complicated for senior executives to know everything, so they must be open to learning and ask good questions of everyone, both above and below them in status.
"We can all learn from the people we encounter every day," she said. Even in the most boring of meetings, Pianalto said, she tries not to leave without identifying at least one thing she learned.
Pianalto suggested that everyone ask their boss for two things they could improve. "You've got to get that feedback in order to get better," she said.
3. Create a culture of respect and inclusiveness. Diversity, collaboration and cooperation are now vital to organizational success, Pianalto said. Everyone deserves respect. Smart leaders create an environment where everyone can contribute and succeed.
Under her leadership, she said, employees have made the Cleveland bank the top performer in the Federal Reserve system, and it has been listed among the best places to work in Northeast Ohio for a dozen consecutive years.
4. Take control of your career. When the Cleveland bank's CEO job came open after she had been COO for a decade, Pianalto said she worked aggressively to convince the board she was the best person for the job. "That's not always in our nature as women," she said.
But even if you reach the top professionally, you must continue to listen to others and be accountable. She likes the question posed by longtime University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt: "Would you follow you?"
"I ask that question a lot," she said. "How accountable are you to yourself, your employees, your customers, your values and your dreams?"