At a time when the number of top female leaders in the financial services industry continues to lag behind their male counterparts — at more than 4:1 globally according to a 2019 Catalyst report — Lisa McGeough co-heads not just one, but two of Wells Fargo’s businesses. To succeed against those odds, McGeough leaned on the experiences gained over a 30-year career in financial services, which has taken her from the trading floors of Wall Street to executive boardrooms throughout the U.S. and around the globe.
“I believe strongly in the value of fresh perspective and have consistently sought opportunities to see the business from different angles,” she said. “An important question to ask is ‘Why are we doing this that way?’ because it encourages people to speak up when things don’t make sense or should be reimagined. This practice benefits our clients and our business, and empowers our teams to own results.”
“I talk a lot about the need to treat your career like a company, and in doing so you have to become the CEO of your career. You have a strategy, a board of directors — those are your mentors, advisors, and even your customers — and a marketing plan that is proactive and thoughtful.”
— Lisa McGeough
Flexibility in the face of change and a willingness to seek new challenges have become standards in McGeough’s career playbook. In just the past decade, she has led half a dozen divisions at Wells Fargo, including heading the Industrials Group in Wells Fargo Corporate Banking and running the bank’s Financial Institutions Group. In 2015, while serving as regional head of Wells Fargo Securities Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), McGeough was named one of Financial News' 100 Most Influential Women in European Financial Services.
Today, as one of Wells Fargo’s highest-ranking female leaders, McGeough oversees Corporate & Investment Banking and Wells Fargo International. Yet, even with her biggest role to date, McGeough maintains the same determination to seek out better ways to manage the business.
“Wells Fargo’s approach to international was often managed in silos and would have benefited from more local expertise on business requirements and infrastructure needs,” she said. “We now have the opportunity to look at Wells Fargo’s international presence holistically, set and reset strategy with a global perspective, and actively engage with our stakeholders — and through all of this ensure we put our global customers at the center.”
Leading such significant change — at times from the other side of the globe — and essentially having two jobs is not always easy, admitted McGeough, whose first year in her current role included attending more than 700 meetings and flying around the world seven times over. In navigating these challenges and her own self-reflection, McGeough reminds herself to “control what you can control” and relies on both her own experiences and guidance from her trusted advisors.
“I talk a lot about the need to treat your career like a company, and in doing so you have to become the CEO of your career. You have a strategy, a board of directors — those are your mentors, advisors, and even your customers — and a marketing plan that is proactive and thoughtful,” she said. “This is not a scenario where someone sprinkles fairy dust on you and things just happen.”
It is a lesson McGeough said she learned quickly at her first job on Wall Street.
‘Girls can’t trade’
Growing up in New England as the daughter of business-owning parents — her mom was the CEO and her dad the vice president of Technology for their IT services company — McGeough, whose maiden name was Mitchell, had a front row seat to witness the work ethic and perseverance needed to succeed in business and in life. She took that gritty self-determination to Maine, where she was a multisport athlete and graduated magna cum laude from Bowdoin College — earning a degree in economics — and was then recruited to join Salomon Brothers’ training program in New York City.
For the 21-year-old McGeough, the energy of a Wall Street trading floor matched perfectly with her own competitive nature and spoke to her desire to find a team-oriented career. But she says initially there were roadblocks.
“When I walked on to the trading floor for the first time, I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do. But it was a very different time, and I was told things like ‘girls can’t trade,’ when I expressed my desire to pursue that path. So I started off in sales, while still learning as much about trading as I could.”
As she fought the headwinds of a male-dominated industry and honed her trading floor survival instincts during the workday, she returned to her studio apartment in the evening, where she would dine on bagels for dinner.
“There were quite a few people who didn’t make it through the training program, but for me this was my one shot to start my career. I learned about the reality of ‘sink or swim’ and the critical importance of thinking quickly on your feet,” she recalled of her first months in New York. “When you graduated from the training program, it was up to you to find your own job at the company — to network, advocate, and market your capabilities to the business leaders in New York to determine where your best fit was.”
McGeough spent several years at Salomon Brothers, working in institutional fixed-income sales while also establishing the foundation of how she wanted to run her career. She met her husband there, and took a hiatus from the working world to have their three children. Not surprisingly, McGeough also approached motherhood with a strategic plan.
“I stayed home for five years and had all three of our kids in 40 months,” she said. “Fortunately, I was lucky to have a great partner in my husband Daniel, and he agreed to stay home so I could return to work in the mid-1990s.”
McGeough worked at Morgan Stanley for eight years before relocating with her family to Charlotte, North Carolina, to join Wachovia before its merger with Wells Fargo. As her career blossomed, she remained guided by her core principles, which included a willingness to raise her hand, an openness to accept new career opportunities, and a desire to put herself in the room where decisions are made.
And now that she is the one making those decisions, she recognizes the responsibility of successful female leaders to support the next generation of women.
“In this industry, women are still in the minority, and that can feel very lonely. So paying it forward is absolutely critical — making sure women see someone down the road who has faced similar obstacles, who has been successful, and who is mentoring, coaching, and supporting them behind the scenes when job opportunities arise.”
McGeough’s place among the most successful women in the business world has been recognized with industry honors and inclusion in the prestigious Committee of 200 — an invitation-only membership organization of women entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. Yet, as high as her career path has taken her, McGeough noted that perspective remains as important as ever in getting the job done.
“I still mentally start every day at ‘zero’ — to remind myself of the importance of moving with urgency and evaluating how I can make myself and our business better today,” she said. “The people who thrive in the business world are the ones who are perceptive, decisive, and move themselves and others forward.”