Promoted and pregnant

Monday, November 30, 2009

Citibank's Betty DeVita could have missed her breakthrough move. But she accepted a posting to Venezuela - and had her baby

Special to The Globe and Mail

As the Citi Country Officer for Canada, Betty DeVita, 48, is responsible for growing the Citibank franchise in Canada. Ms. DeVita, who started out as a part-time teller for Citibank in New York, says she never expected to end up in the C-suite as chairwoman and CEO.

Throughout her 28-year career with Citibank, she has held key positions in the United States, Latin American and Korea. Canada is the American's fourth location; she's been here for two years.

What quality does it take to be on the Top 100 list?

Leadership, the ability to take calculated risks and understand how those risks can support decisions required along the way, both from career and professional perspectives.

What was your breakthrough moment?

There's this infamous list that they put up at Citibank for country head positions, so I did everything to ensure I was on that list.

In 2000, I was asked to move to Venezuela to run the business there. It was absolutely my breakthrough move. At the time, I was pregnant and very worried about the CEO finding out because I assumed he'd immediately take me off the list.

I never took the chance to tell anyone, so I arrived in Venezuela pregnant with a new assignment. I had some regret about not spending enough time off on maternity leave, but it turned out to be a fantastic assignment in the end.

How did your colleagues in Caracas greet a pregnant new boss?

I was the first woman, no doubt about it. It was radical, but people are quite polite at that level. As long as you have a rational leadership style and confidence in managing the position, people accept and move forward and lose the notion of "the woman," or in my case, "the woman who was pregnant." I really didn't feel any issue with that, despite the historical macho underpinnings.

How do you integrate family and work in your life?

You can't have it all, all the time. I have a son, 14, and a nine-year-old daughter.

Sometimes I don't integrate very well and sometimes I hit a home run and do a great job. I try to hold the weekends for my family. I'd rather work late all week and have two days of complete decompression.

Toronto is an easier place to have a better balance.

There's a more holistic view to life here that I'm really enjoying.

Work isn't everything.

What's your support system?

My husband is fantastic. He's more the primary role model in our family and it works. Also, find great help and lose the guilt about having to do it all. Then there's the engagement level. If you're going to be with the kids, or if you decide to be at the office, then do it at 150 per cent. You really have to prioritize well. I try to be there at the events and when it's critical.

Best piece of advice you were ever given?

Make sure you have a voice. Early in my career, I worked very hard on a breakthrough project and was disappointed when my bonus didn't reflect it at the end of the year. I talked to my boss, but wasn't satisfied with his answer, so I asked for time with his boss. After making my case, he said, "I didn't know that," and I was further recognized for my contribution. So don't let your boss always do the talking for you.

There are a lot of executive vice-presidents on this list, but not so many CEOs. Do you think it will be different in five years?

If you look at the statistics on who the graduates are, I think there's some good potential for that to change in terms of raw talent coming out of universities and colleges right now.

I think the challenge is in staying the course and navigating once you're in a firm and how that all plays out over the next five years.

I have to believe in 10 plus [years], the answer is yes. Five seems a little short. I always feel we lose talented women more at the middle/just getting to be senior level. To build up to that level again is quite a development process.

Why are we losing them?

That is the Holy Grail question. Multiple reasons. Women get frustrated by some of the networks and the lack of transparency about how decisions are made on positions. I think family responsibilities still weigh heavily.

At the end of the day, we're still the ones giving birth. Even if you delay - I had my son at 34 and my daughter at 39 - you can see how easily these choices could be made. I'm a perfect example. I could easily have pulled myself from that infamous list I mentioned.

It's a real challenge, which is why I think that flex time and work-from-home strategies are helpful. Maybe you could "off board" and then "on board." You'd probably lose a little in regard to career, but not as much as you would have. And we need to keep working the networking.

Make sure you're tooting your own horn and talking about your brand. The guys are. It's really all part of managing your career.

If the Lehman Brothers had been the Lehman Sisters, would there have been a different scenario?

That came up the other day when I was at a MasterCard development conference and more than 50 per cent of the room of about 150 people thought it would have. But there were so many factors in the meltdown, that's a "would of, should of, could of" kind of call.

Do women view risk differently?

They're probably a bit more conservative and have better overall prophecies to connect the risk and the benefit, and to monitor a bit more than what was done.

To make a broad sweeping generalization, it seems to me that we have more diligence on weighing both sides of the coin.