‘Most Powerful Woman in Finance’ Shares How She Has Overcome Obstacles

By Dave Hendrick

Barclays Investment Banking Vice Chairman Barbara Byrne was the only woman in her class of seven first-year associates when she started at Lehman Brothers in 1980.

She was also told that she was number seven of seven in her class, but that the silver lining was she “dressed well.”

Such comments were typical of the pervasive sexism in finance during that era, and inspired in Byrne a commitment to outwork and outlast the naysayers — and not do so quietly.

“I got angry and decided to speak my mind and have not stopped,” Byrne told University of Virginia Darden School of Business students at a Leadership Speaker Series event. It seems to have worked. American Banker named her the second most powerful woman in finance last year, and she has steadily risen up the publication’s 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance rankings for years.

In addition to becoming a vocal presence, Byrne, a self-described night school MBA dropout, made herself into an indispensable teammate, becoming an expert in financial products and tax laws — the person who knew the most about carving out cash flows.

Her knowledge, along with an ability to pitch and land lucrative spinoff deals, put Byrne on an upward trajectory that saw her become managing director at age 33 and move from energy to technology when a large digital equipment company wanted a strong corporate finance banker to lead its affairs.

Byrne said she initially thought “servers were like plates,” but now discusses Microsoft strategy and General Electric’s plans for artificial intelligence with those companies’ executives. Her time in the tech trenches also solidified her belief that she was only as good as the team around her.

If she wasn’t a preeminent technology thinker, she’d make sure there was someone on her team that was.

“From a career perspective, one of the most important things I’ve learned is how to work on a team,” Byrne said. “Organizations deeply silo themselves into functions, and people don’t think about the whole.”

A well put-together team allows the group to consider the holistic view, and makes for a stronger enterprise, in general, Byrne suggested.

Byrne said her teams know that they are a “we” operation, sharing credit for successes and bearing responsibility for setbacks.

“The moment you start talking ‘I’ versus ‘we,’ you’re done,” Byrne said.

In addition to offering greater capabilities, Byrne said the ‘I’ mentality is a poor foundation on which to build a career, noting that when the selfish employee inevitably stumbles, there will be no one around to help pull them up.

As the mother of four children and a woman at the highest level of global finance, Byrne knows she is still an anomaly. She said she is distressed that there has not been more progress on diversity in her industry, although she thinks the Millennial generation will make considerable inroads.

The Barclays vice chairman, who also serves as chairman of Barclays Social Innovation Facility, said she wakes up every day energized to push for more opportunities for underrepresented groups in finance.

“I don’t like the fact that I am unique, because I don’t think I am that unique,” Byrne said. “I’m someone who has just stayed at it.”

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About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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