20 Questions with Catherine Bessant, BBA ’82
–By Terry Kosdrosky
Catherine Bessant, BBA ’82, is on the front lines of a new kind of battle. As chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, Bessant is responsible for the security and privacy of the bank’s systems and accounts. It’s a never-ending task to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.
“As a large company, we face attacks every day,” she says. “Our strategy is simple: Get the best talent and invest in the best protective defenses. I have a world-class team on ‘the wall’ 24/7 and that is the key to successful protection of the firm.”
While making sure Bank of America is both safe and leading in technology is her job, diversity in business is her passion. Bessant is executive sponsor for Bank of America’s LGBT Pride Executive Council, LGBT Ally Network, and its Disability Advocacy Network.
“I say it pretty simply: Diversity always wins,” she says. “Achieving true diversity isn’t always easy, and isn’t always about representation and numbers. It requires thought, deliberateness, organizational and personal self-awareness, and inviolate commitment from top to bottom. It requires courageous conversation and change.”
In September, Bessant was named the No. 1 most powerful woman in banking by American Banker magazine.
- What’s the most thrilling/adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
Going on a photography expedition to Cuba last year with (fellow Michigan graduate) Peter Turnley, the award-winning photojournalist, and 12 people I had never met. It was exciting, fun, great learning, and totally out of my comfort zone. Producing photos for nightly review was terrifying. And when I see my photos on my walls now, I can’t believe they are actually mine!
- What is your favorite quotation?
“Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be” —Abraham Lincoln. This quotation is on my desk, handwritten on a yellow sticky note, and has been for years.
- First album/CD you bought?
Earth, Wind and Fire’s All ’n All. I can still sing almost every word. And I still have that vinyl album!
- What’s most played in your music library?
Country music, preferably current, and of course anything Bob Seger. I think of Seger as “comfort music.”
- Who is your personal hero?
My mom, Ursula Pombier, who passed away at 80 in July. She was courageous, a pioneer, and full of love and optimism. Always had time for her kids, a talk, lunch, and a laugh. She took adversity head on, and was a rock in every way. She built a great career, loving family, was a committed civic leader, and did more than her part to change the world.
- Best business decision?
It had better be the next one I make. Every decision has to be approached such that it becomes the best one ever. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.
- What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?
Being natural and authentic is always the winning combination. It took me a long time to realize that, but it makes all the difference in what can be accomplished and how one feels about those accomplishments.
- Most-cherished Ross experience?
Spending time in Gerald Meyers’ Crisis Management class. The intellect and skills and passion of the Ross students just blew me away. I literally burst with pride from what our school has become. Not sure I could “make the grade” today, but today’s classes are so inspirational. Of course, nightly time in the library followed by trips to Charley’s … and Pizza Bob’s milkshake runs will never be forgotten. My time at Ross was a million ordinary moments that add up to a rich and cherished experience.
- The thing you learned in business school that you’ll never forget?
The difference between dependent and independent variables (thank you, Cliff Ball) and the distinction between correlation and causation. So many people don’t know the difference and I use those concepts every day.
- Most important thing happening in cyber security right now.
The creation of a legal framework for dealing with cybersecurity and cybercrime. We have to be clear about who the “bad guys” are and stop punishing the victims. It’s the Wild West out there, and we have to have a global system of law and order.
- First website you access in the morning?
FitBit. I work out every morning starting at around 5 a.m. no matter where I am in the world. I am addicted to counting my progress! Accountability and measurement — that’s what it’s all about!
- Favorite comfort food?
Egg salad (no bread, my college roommate Megan Pryor’s recipe), grilled cheese (mom-style), and any and all macaroni and cheese. Bring it on.
- Most influential Ross professor?
Ray Reilly. The case method on steroids and before the case method was “cool.” He taught me that there is no substitute for preparation, that ideas in your head have to be expressed to mean something, and to be willing to take a risk to express an alternative point of view.
- What’s the most exciting development in fintech right now?
The velocity of change, the creativity of competition, and the power of disruption and potential disruption. Fintech is great for the marketplace and for customers and we work every day to leverage its learnings and power.
- What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Easy. A teacher. I even set up desks in our basement in the summers when I was a kid to hold “classes” for the younger neighborhood kids using workbooks, lessons I created, etc. The real deal. It’s why I love coming back to Ross and participating. The thrill of academics and brain power, and to stay ahead.
- What are you afraid of?
Cliffs and edges. Not a fear of heights, but a fear of falling. I honestly think I must have fallen down a shaft or off a cliff in a previous life. I will never, ever, visit the Grand Canyon, and I always check to be sure an elevator car is actually there before stepping through elevator doors!
- What or where is your ideal retirement spot?
Anywhere I think will be magnetic to my kids and eventually to their families. Preferably within sight of water, but anywhere they are will be my ultimate joy.
- Best way to develop future business leaders?
Focus on their development as one of the most important things you do as a leader. Put people in stretch roles. Coach like crazy. Future business leaders rarely “just happen.” Having talented and effective leadership is in my opinion the single greatest determinant of an organization’s success. The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made always come back to not having, getting, or developing talent. Conversely, the best decisions have always been where I’ve invested effectively in developing great teams and leaders.
- Favorite sport to watch?
I love sports of all kinds. I’m always avid about the sports my kids are or have been in: swimming, field hockey, tennis, soccer, lacrosse. I was raised in a baseball family and will watch football every day. I love a good competition of any kind. No surprise to my friends and colleagues, I am sure.
- Best trophy or award you’ve ever won?
The Charlotte Ballet’s Dancing With the Stars People’s Choice Award. Dancing in front of 2,000 people with a professional ballet dancer and with no natural grace was both terrifying and life-changing. Being able to raise a ton of money for causes I care about and winning an award for putting myself out there in a scary way? What award could be better?
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE CONTENT
We asked Catherine a few additional questions for our online audience.
- Unfulfilled wish?
None, really. I believe the words of Jim Rouse, who said, “What ought to be, can be, with the will to make it so. If there is something I want to do, then I believe in making it happen. Any unfulfilled wish is totally on me for not having the will to make it happen.
- Describe your first job.
Babysitting (50 cents/hour on a good night), McDonald’s, and cleaning (no kidding) rows 1 and 2 at Michigan International Speedway after races. I tried it all!
- Must-have app for your phone?
Instagram. It’s the only social media my kids allow me to be on, and it’s a great connect point for me. I check it all the time.
- Favorite drink?
Champagne. Any time is always a great time to drink champagne and dance on tables.
- Most important room in your home?
Our family room. It is our spiritual home base and the place we all gravitate to. It helps that it has easy access to the kitchen. But being with my family makes anywhere that they are the most important place, and in our home that’s the family room.