Interview with Christiana Riley, CEO of Deutsche Bank USA
“A gender quota does not make the talent pool any bigger or better”
Deutsche Bank’s CEO Americas talks about women on management boards, uncomfortable discussions and her plans for more racial and ethnic diversity.
Ms. Riley, when Citigroup became the first major American bank to appoint a woman, Jane Fraser, as CEO, you called that "great news”. You are the only woman on the Management Board of Deutsche Bank. How long will it take for a woman to become CEO of Deutsche Bank?
We are getting off to a good start, my goodness (laughs). Look: Deutsche Bank is committed to attracting and promoting the best talent at every level and to being an attractive employer. Appointing the CEO is, of course, a matter for the Supervisory Board. It is our responsibility to ensure that there’s a deep enough pool of women eligible for roles on the Management Board. We have more work to do in that respect.
The United States seems to be further ahead than Germany in terms of gender diversity. There isn’t parity, but women already hold one in five Management Board seats in large corporations.
There are indeed more women at the executive level in corporate America. But there are also prime examples within the political sphere in the U.S., for example, where the "glass ceiling" is quite firm. Germany has many female cabinet ministers and a female chancellor. This should be part of a fair comparison of both societies.
But why are there more women on management boards in America?
It might have something to do with the United States having a very raw form of capitalism that will necessarily gravitate to a deeply meritocratic approach. As more women entered the workforce, they were able to advance their careers accordingly.
You are American, but you have pursued your career in Germany. The German government now plans to introduce a mandatory quota for women on management boards. Is this a solution for accelerating high-level careers for women?
I'm not sure, because companies should be mindful of developing talent in-house. Deutsche Bank has an increasingly deep pool of women in senior roles. Louise Kitchen and Rebecca Short sit on the Group Management Committee, the executive body just below the Management Board. These are women who, like myself, have gone through in-house development programs. On the level below that, I can name many more women who we are specifically targeting to take the next career step over the next three to five years. Goals are essential but setting a quota does not necessarily make the talent pool any bigger or better. Careers take time.
How long did you have to wait?
Ten years ago, I was part of the first global class of 30 women selected by the bank for a development program at the INSEAD Business School, among other places. The program was designed to give female executives more visibility within the bank and to signal that the bank was seriously invested in the success of these women. The number of women who are promoted that way has grown year after year.
There are high-ranking female executives from Germany who thirty years ago made a conscious decision to pursue a career in corporate America because they did not see any women with children on German management boards. You have two school-age children yourself. Are attitudes changing in Germany?
Role models are important. I have left organizations because I didn’t see myself represented at their top levels. When I had my children, I also struggled to find role models who found a balance between family and career. But that is changing in Germany, too.
In America, it is common for mothers who want to progress in their careers to return to work relatively quickly after giving birth. How did you handle that?
I returned to the bank six months after my first child and three months after my second. That was unusual in Germany. My husband is a banker, too, and we've worked this out together. We never traveled for business at the same time, for example, and of course, we paid for private childcare - which is a financial burden and therefore not an option for everyone. In the U.S., the cost of childcare is entirely tax-deductible; in Germany, only to a certain extent. Sometimes career decisions come down to practical things like that.
In the past, you have attached little importance to your role as a woman in a male-dominated industry. As CEO of the Americas, however, you are addressing the particular challenges faced by women and minorities. How come?
On my way up through the organization, I was very goal-oriented. I was given specific tasks and was rewarded for doing them well. In my new role, the responsibility is much bigger. As CEO, I am responsible for shaping and driving the culture of the organization. Also, corporate leaders in the U.S. are taking a more active role in addressing major societal issues. Unsurprisingly, in the current climate, we are concerned about the catching-up we have to do when it comes to diversity, especially concerning the inclusion of under-represented minorities.
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in May caused a reckoning with racism and discrimination in America. In an internal podcast, two of your Black employees demanded fairness and an "uncomfortable discussion" about the topic. How did you deal with this?
Many companies quickly announced grand initiatives. We wanted to stop and listen first. First of all, I was new to my role, and secondly, I hadn’t been back in the United States for more than a year. Also, actions that are not grounded in the experience of our employees were not going to have the same effect. So we scheduled a series of - due to the pandemic – virtual meetings with representatives of the Black Leadership Forum, the employee resource group for our Black employees, with our executive team and with Management Board members from Europe.
What did you learn?
First and foremost, our Black colleagues want to be seen as Black. “See me for who I am. I am an African-American, and therefore I bring unique perspectives.” That was one of the most important messages. In Europe, more people subscribe to the idea that treating everyone equally means no longer pointing out differences – being ‘color blind’ as it were. In America, our colleagues embrace their identity - whether it is the ethnic or cultural background or sexual orientation.
What other insights did you have?
Some employees felt that they were unable to express their level of ambition for fear of being culturally perceived as aggressive. Others felt that their job and thus, their personal economic prospects were more at risk than those of their white colleagues. That is a challenging dynamic, especially in a bank. An essential part of our risk management is that everyone feels empowered to speak up when something is going wrong. That is why we wanted to allow our employees to speak about their experiences.
You grew up in an affluent, predominantly white suburb outside of New York and went to an Ivy League school. Did you have to think about race as a teenager?
I grew up in a privileged world, and I am very aware of that. This makes the conversation around understanding the experience of others all the more necessary. In America, we also wrestle with racial issues because they are much more complex than gender diversity. It is not only about cultural identity, but also about a fundamental problem in American society: the socio-economic imbalance, the unequal distribution of wealth. The challenge is that due to historical patterns, African-Americans over generations have had fewer opportunities for social and economic advancement. We could have a long conversation about which institutions and policies still reinforce that today.
Is this debate uncomfortable for you as well?
Absolutely. But people in my position must recognize how much their circumstances contribute to their success. I didn't have to worry excessively about paying off my student loan or whether I would fit in in a corporate environment. That is not the same for many colleagues. Only by recognizing how different other people's experiences are before they even get to the starting line, their first day of employment, can we realize our need to change and reflect about ways to include all of our employees.
You responded with structural and personnel changes to the discussion about racism and added a seat for non-white employees in your leadership committee. What was the reason for that?
Women are already well represented on our executive committee. Still, we were utterly nondiverse from a racial perspective - and we were not the only ones on Wall Street, by the way. Until we get to the point where an African-American or a Latino becomes head of a department and is thus promoted to the committee from within, we chose this solution. Equity analyst and managing director Paul Trussell, one of the two leaders of the Black Leadership Forum, currently holds this position. He is a role model for aspiring employees. I know from my own experience how vital such a role model is.
What other plans do you have?
We are continuing our open discussion groups, which have been attracting up to 500 employees. Alongside the leadership representation of minorities, we are also focusing on executive succession planning. Each of the department heads who report directly to me has a diverse candidate in their succession plan.
We aim to increase the number of African-Americans at the two highest career levels of the bank in the U.S. by 50% within the next three years. When recruiting new staff directly from college, we want to increase the share of African-Americans to 10% by 2025. This is slightly higher than the overall percentage of Black graduates from American universities. To this end, we want to cooperate more closely with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) such as Howard University, where the Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was educated. When recruiting new employees with work experience, we insist on a formal search process with a diverse slate of candidates.
Recruiting new staff is one side, but isn’t it also about preventing them from leaving the bank?
That's right. To that end, we launched an in-house development program in September, targeting our Black employees with six to ten years of professional experience. It is a critical career phase in which many employees are deciding whether to continue at our bank or to pursue other paths. We also train managers to ensure that minority employees receive the necessary feedback. And finally, we pay attention to our relationships outside the bank. Our foundation will increasingly focus its commitment on activities that support low-income and "diverse" communities. We are also evaluating how we can promote diversity among our vendors - in particular as we build out our new office space in Columbus Circle here in New York.
The push for more diversity is not entirely uncontroversial. President Trump ordered companies to discontinue diversity training. Do you sense push-back or is everyone at Deutsche Bank "woke" - that is, sensitive to issues of social justice?
I will ask my colleagues on the Management Board at the next meeting how "woke" they are. But seriously: The bank fully endorses all of the measures I have just laid out. There was one hundred per cent support when I came to my colleagues in the aftermath of George Floyd‘s murder and said that we urgently needed to contribute to this debate and make sure the world knows how we feel. The Management Board recognizes that diversity is a global issue, even if it takes different forms in different markets. Deutsche Bank wants to be perceived globally as an employer that stands for diversity and ensures that everybody is included and can bring their full selves to work.
This work currently is mainly done remotely, but you are leaving your skyscraper on Wall Street and plan to move into your new Columbus Circle headquarters at the southwest corner of Central Park in the summer. Will everybody come back to the office?
We have always planned a phased return in line with the construction progress. So we will certainly not have a big bang next July, with everyone returning to the office. We have to be very mindful of the health and safety conditions as well, of course. Let's be optimistic and assume that we have reached sufficient vaccination levels by the third and fourth quarter of 2021 so that we can all safely return to the office. We have relocated some of our activities to our operations center in Jacksonville, in the low-cost state Florida. The past few months have also shown that we have more options when it comes to offering our employees improved and more flexible work arrangements and a better work-life balance. Now it is a question of how to maintain this flexibility and how to use it positively. But I believe that the vast majority of our staff will simply be excited to come back into the office and engage with their colleagues.
The interview was conducted bei Norbert Kuls.
About Christiana Riley: Ms. Deutsche Bank
When the New York investment bank Greenhill needed to fill a position in Germany in 2001, they chose a young employee who had studied French and Italian literature at the Ivy League Princeton University. German skills? None. "Hey, you're the one who speaks European languages. You'll figure it out." Christiana Riley tells the story of how she ended up in Frankfurt with a chuckle and a shake of her head. But the confidence of her Greenhill bosses was justified. The junior banker not only learned German and earned an MBA degree from the London Business School; she also embarked on an extraordinary career – though not with Greenhill. Riley joined Deutsche Bank in 2006 after a stint at McKinsey, headed the bank’s strategy department after a few years and then became the long-time CFO of its corporate and investment bank. A year and a half ago, her career came full circle. Riley was sent to New York to get the bank’s Wall Street branch back on a growth trajectory after she had forced hard cuts in that business. Riley, a member of the Management Board and the first woman to lead the U.S. subsidiary, must energize employees who grew tired of negative headlines - about fines for money laundering or clients like Donald Trump. To that end, the 42-year-old confidently uses Linkedin, the social network, posting photos from the new headquarters’ construction site - sporting a hard hat and a face mask with the rainbow flag.