Leadership in Practice: A Conversation with Sally Roth, President of Regions Bank, Greater St. Louis and Area Executive for the Upper Midwest Region.
Q: Can you give me a two minute synopsis of how you got to where you are?
A: Well, it is a second career. I taught secondary education, which was a terrific experience, but I was drawn to banking as a profession, understanding that really nothing happens in a community without a bank somehow being involved. When I quit teaching to begin raising a family, I took accounting courses, and then a part-time job working for a small bank. When our youngest started school, I started at Mercantile Bank in the commercial lending division. From there, I went on to run Large Corporate for Mercantile, and then was president of their West County banks. In the middle of all of that, Mercantile sponsored my MBA at Washington University, where I got my formal business degree. From there I went to Bank of America, and then ultimately came to Regions Bank six years ago. Regions is the eighth-largest bank in the United States. In greater St. Louis, we have 60 branches and hold number one market share in the Metro East market. I initially joined Regions to run the wealth management area. When the leadership position for the commercial division opened up, due to my background, I was put in charge of that area as well. When my boss, Mike Ross, was made regional president, his position opened up and I was lucky enough to be named to that position. I am what they call an area executive, which means I am responsible for Iowa, Missouri, and western Kentucky. I also serve as president of the greater St. Louis market.
Q: How has your leadership style changed over the years?
A: Early in most individual’s career, leadership style tends to be more tactical because you are not in a strong position to influence strategy. As you move up the leadership lifeline, responsibilities become more strategic; as such your leadership style needs to become more reliant on the people that work for you to execute. It is all about the quality of people that you have on your team. I tell each of my managers that they are the CEO of their own subsidiary. They run their lines of business as if it is their own business.
Q: Are there any critical experiences that have shaped your approach to leadership over the years?
A: The banking environment is ever-changing. It went from being a regulated industry to deregulated industry. There was meaningful consolidation for some banks and expansion for others. I have been on the acquired side and the acquiring side. It used to be that banks only took deposits and made loans. Now we own a number of financial services businesses such as brokerage and insurance companies. As an example, Regions owns Morgan Keegan. As I went through all of this recasting of the industry (which continues), I have learned that flexibility is absolutely key. Also, knowing the business is very important too. You have got to know as much about the business as you can, so that people know that you know what you are talking about.
Q: Have you had mentors along the way?
A: Tom Jacobson, chairman of Mercantile Bank, was kind enough to select me as the Bank’s candidate for Washington University’s Executive MBA program. Being selected was a big deal and I appreciated that. Another mentor was Lee Kling, chairman of one of our predecessor banks. He recently passed away. He had an incredible knowledge of the St. Louis market. He would share his knowledge and perspective and that was very helpful for me. I also have learned a lot from Mike Ross who is our regional president. He has a really great leadership style and is very respectful of other people. You can learn from somebody like that and I have.
Q: Does mentoring play a role in your leadership?
A: I have very talented people working for me. I encourage them to run their groups as if it is their own business and have them coach their own associates. By doing this, the mentorship cascades through many layers. I tell them they need to do three things in order to be successful…get to know as much about your business so you can serve as a resource, let people know that you care about them by being proactive and follow through on your promises so that people know you can be trusted.
Q: How would you describe the leadership culture of your organization?
A: I think you have heard that a company’s culture starts at the top. Our chairman, Dowd Ritter, embraces Regions’ core values. He is very consistent in demonstrating this and that flows through every layer of our organization.
Q: Does that culture then have an impact on the business and how you are perceived by your clients?
A: Yes, our core values are “do what is right”, “put people first”, “reach higher”, “focus on your customer”, and “enjoy life”. Our tag line is “Make life better”. It is all designed to better serve our associates, clients and the community.
Q: What do you do in the organization to build and maintain a culture of leadership?
A: Communication. Our chairman hosts a webcast once a month. It starts with a video highlighting an associate who lives our values. This reinforces their importance. My boss has meetings with us continually where he is passing the same message down to his management team. I host town hall meetings to ensure that the same message is heard. We also survey our associates to see how they are doing, how they feel about things, making sure that we are underscoring the importance of those core values and living them. Ongoing communication is paramount in maintaining a consistent cultural message
Q: How do you actively develop the next generation of leaders?
A: We have an active testing program. Anyone entering a leadership level will get tested. Every year a talent assessment is done on each associate. The assessment covers everything from commitment, to knowledge of the business, to being able to influence others. Each manager does an assessment on his people and then we talk about it. From that, there is a dialogue between the two as to opportunities for improvement. The whole process is designed to help each associate get to the next level.
Q: Do you have anything else to say about leadership?
A: People who are successful leaders are those who are able to influence others within the company. Whether it is within a peer group, being able to problem solve and being able to influence the outcome, or representing the interests of your line of business to upper management. Of course, it goes without saying that you have to be considered knowledgeable to be able to persuade.