08 March 2023

Wells Fargo’s Mary Mack on creating trust in uncertain times

Mary Mack, CEO of Consumer and Small Banking at Wells Fargo, shares how she’s led teams through layoffs, mergers, massive disruption, and personal tragedy

Tanya Ott

Tanya Ott

United States

Deloitte’s Center for Financial Services launched the Within reach series in 2019 to evaluate the progress financial services institutions have made toward achieving gender equity in leadership roles, and to discover the practices that could spur measurable growth in the number of women leaders. That involves both diving deep into data and sharing the voices of individual women who have reached the upper ranks of their organizations.

Mary Mack, Wells Fargo’s chief executive officer of Consumer and Small Business Banking, knows the power of sharing her real-life experiences. Over the course of her 38-year career in the financial services industry, Mack has weathered mergers, organizational shifts, economic downturns, and other forms of business disruption. She has also experienced personal tragedy with the sudden death of her daughter at age 23. “All of us experience ups, downs, triumphs, tragedies, and we all bring that with us every day. The more I could demonstrate that, the more I’d have a team that saw that I got the fact that life happens.”

Mack says that openness, and the trust it fosters, is essential to leading teams through change. She sat down to talk with The Press Room about trust, adaptability, and how to communicate in the face of disruption.

Mary Mack: For me, building trust is about being real, authentic, [and] consistent. People know who you are and who they’re dealing with. They know that you have their back. They know that if you are thinking about something or have feedback for them, they’re going to get it. They don’t have to worry about what they’re not hearing. They don’t have to worry about what is not being said.

Q: The proportion of women in leadership roles in financial services firms has grown in recent years, but the progress hasn’t been as swift or evenly distributed as many would like. Today, on the Press Room, I talk to one leader who’s spent decades in the industry and has come up with what she thinks is a winning formula [for] building diversity of all kinds.

I’m Tanya Ott, and I’m really excited about our guest today. American Banker says Mary Mack is the fourth most powerful woman in banking.1 She runs the Consumer and Small Business Banking operation for Wells Fargo. That includes the retail branch network, small business, and a lot more—the list is very long. But she told me she ended up in the banking space by accident.

A: I was graduating from Davidson College in 1984, which was back when public universities in particular were graduating students with, as I say, hard skills that were tangible and easier to describe than some of the soft skills a liberal arts education might produce and deliver. The careers office came to me and said, “Hey, would you be interested in doing a CEO tour while we sell the benefits of liberal arts education?” So, I went around the country with Davidson talking about the value of understanding how to problem solve, how to communicate, how to motivate, and other things that we may have learned over the course of a liberal arts career, and that led to job offers in financial services.

I didn’t go seeking them, but I happened to do a presentation one night in Charlotte and all the bank CEOs that were then in Charlotte or in neighboring communities were there. I ended up going to First Union [which later became part of Wells Fargo] out of that. I spent 20-something years as a wholesale banker, from small business up through to [the] corporate investment bank at First Union and then boomeranged back to our consumer business; spent a few years in consumer; made a couple of career changes; was [with the] retail broker dealer for a dozen years; was running that when I was called to come and address something that would be announced a few weeks later after I joined, which was the sales practices work that started [at] Wells Fargo.

Q: Over your career, as you’ve looked at potential opportunities, how do you make the choice of where you go? What’s your strategy behind that?

A: Well, I’ve tried to think about opportunities where I could learn and grow. I’ve now become probably more of a change agent at the organization, focused on those situations that needed cultural change or other change. I came in just before the sales practice announcement at Wells Fargo to completely overhaul what was happening in our consumer bank. So, I’ve been drawn to those things. I really like figuring out the complexities of that kind of change and motivating people to get on board with it.

Q: I think when you’ve been in it for long enough, every career has disruption. Sometimes, it’s an economic disruption, sometimes it’s a corporate disruption. Talk a little bit about some of the disruptions that you’ve dealt with, how you dealt with them, [and] how that built resilience.

A: Like anybody I think who’s been around our industry for almost 38 [years] in my case, I’ve been through all of the disruptions you describe—financial, organizational, and the like. I was at Wachovia during the financial crisis when Wachovia was ultimately bought by Wells Fargo. I learned a lot of things through those situations. I’ve actually been displaced a couple of times, which I talk to our team a lot about because I want people to understand that can happen over the course of a career. It’s an opportunity [to] reinvent yourself, to learn new skills.

I learned a lot about communicating. When people are unsure of what’s happening, they want to hear from you. They want to know what you know. They want to know what you don’t know yet. And they want to be assured that when you do know, you’ll share that in the appropriate way. [There are] a lot of learnings that come from that. There’s also an opportunity to learn and grow and take transferable skills into new situations in ways that are fun as somebody growing in a career.

Q: You experienced disruption at an unimaginable personal level in 2014 in your family, and you chose to be really open about that experience with your colleagues. That must have been something you had to really think about.

A: I don’t know, honestly, Tanya, how much I have thought about it. It was something that was naturally part of my story. I really believe all of our stories come with us, and the more authentic we are about those, the better you can lead teams in an authentic way.

In 2014, I was probably six or eight months into my role as CEO of our retail broker dealer, when our beautiful, talented, 23-year-old daughter became very ill and passed away within days of having a headache. She was our oldest of three. We have three daughters and Mary Warner was getting ready to move to be with the man she had planned to marry, [and was] headed [for] business school.

We were all rocked. It was the humanity of [Wells Fargo]  that gave us solid ground to figure out how to journey forward as grieving parents. I feel like I owe a lot to the people in Wells Fargo Advisors and in the organization who really wrapped their arms literally and figuratively around us as we began to heal.

I’ve learned a lot through that process, not the least of which is that, one, we’re not alone. There is a really important power that comes from understanding you’re not alone. Unfortunately, it’s a club that nobody wants to be in, but when you’re in it, you do anything to help anybody else in it. I was the beneficiary of that.

It’s also the fact that all of us experience ups, downs, triumphs, tragedies, and we all bring that with us every day. The more I could demonstrate that, the more I’d have a team that saw that I got the fact that life happens. We’ve got to figure out how to make our work work with our life and our life work with our work. And so, for me, it’s been an important part of who I am, and the way people experience me and us and this company.

Q: Do you mind talking about this?

A: [I’m] actually really glad that you asked me about my daughter, because first of all, a lot of people are afraid to ask that question. I’ve had people say to me before, “well, gosh, I didn’t want to bring it up because I didn’t want to remind you.” “Look,” I would say, “do you really think I forgot? Because it’s a part of who I am.”

It’s also really important perspective, [which] is super important for people. We can all get appropriately very worked up on certain issues or things that happen. I mentioned that I’ve been displaced twice over the course of my career. I began to see those as opportunities to reinvent myself in a new way, to learn new things, to dive into new problems when I might not have made that change on my own, had the circumstances not made the change for me. But through that, and particularly since our daughter’s death, I’ve had perspective, which has been super important.

People ask me a lot, how can I go in and do the hard things that I’ve had to do in the business world? It’s a really important job, but it’s a job, right? The worst day here doesn’t compare to the worst day I’ve ever had. That’s [an] important perspective when you’re leading teams through change. It didn’t make me stronger, but maybe it made me realize how strong I was. And I can dig into that strength when I need it at critical times.

And every time I tell my story, somebody reaches out and says, “that gave me the courage to come back or that gave me the courage to ask for help, or that gave me the confidence that I could take the next step, or it gave me the clarity that I needed to take some different action,” whatever it was. To me that is such an important responsibility that I have, and [it is an] opportunity that I have to help somebody that I might never meet or that I might [not] hear from. It’s also a part of my story because my daughter is as important to me as my other two that I'm blessed to watch turn into amazing young women. I don’t want to lose that part either.

Q: I’m told that “authenticity” is your favorite word. Why is that?

A: I started using the word “authenticity,” I think, before I began hearing the word in the broader environment more. Having been in this business for as long as I have—I can really date myself by telling you what we wore and the way we thought about the business when I joined—what I found was that I was literally spending some amount of my energy reinventing myself on the way in in the morning into something that I perceived the organization I was working for wanted. When I finally realized, at whatever point, that that really wasn’t a great use of my energy, and I would benefit, the organization would benefit, the work would benefit if I put all of that energy into the work, then I adopted this way of being that said, “I am what you see.” For me, it was all about using my own energy in the place it mattered most, which was to be able to pour it into the work or pour it into my role as a mom or pour it into whatever it was that was most important in the moment.

I like to follow people who are real because I trust people who are real. And if you’re bringing all of that with you, then I can see that. When I got in touch with what I liked and what I valued, it was what I brought to the team to hopefully attract people who value the same thing. It’s important for people to see that all of us are real people with real challenges and hobbies and celebrations and tragedies, and we still come together and get really hard work done in the workplace.

It’s part of what creates trust. And all of that has been important, honestly, particularly given some of the situations that I’ve had a chance to be a part of here. Trust is really, really important and when I started changing things in the consumer organization that I joined in 2016, building trust immediately was fundamental because I was changing a lot for the people that were in our environment. And the only way you can do that, I think, is for people to see [me] as a real person.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about that trust, that realization that once people trust you, you as a team can do amazing things. How important has that been and how do you teach that to the people who come after you?

A: For me, building trust is about being real, authentic, [and] consistent. People know who you are and who they’re dealing with. They know that you have their back. They know that if you are thinking about something or have feedback for them, they’re going to get it. They don’t have to worry about what they’re not hearing. They don’t have to worry about what is not being said.

One of the things I learned in my Wachovia-to-Wells Fargo experience was that when people are going through dramatic change, one of the things that helps the most is hearing from leaders—finding out what you know, what you don’t know, what you know but can’t share yet. They begin to trust that if you say that over and over, and when you do begin to share information, they begin to trust that you will as that becomes available. And so, I started out with the same approach.

In 2016 to 2017, I traveled 51 out of 52 weeks. Anywhere that American Airlines flew, I went with them. I did that because being face to face, building relationships was a super important part of the journey forward and hearing from people. I spent the first part of every conversation telling them about my family, telling [them] about how I got here, because if I could get them to open up and tell me what they were worried about and give me their ideas, then I got more input and more investment for them into the future. I said it [in] a lot of meetings, I said, “Look, I’m going to lay [it] out. There’s no big reveal here. There’s no big surprise. I’m going to lay out the change path and get your feedback.” And if they would look at me with blank stares, I’d say, “okay, if you all don’t react, then just know I’m moving forward. But if you like it or don’t like it, I need to hear from you.” And at that point, hands would go up and people would jump in, and I’d get better ideas in the room because they knew I was just putting out there, [that] there’s no hidden message here.

All of that has been super important. And then people will take the hill. I mean, I’ve had leadership teams that really kick it into fifth gear because they know it’s an environment where I’ve got their back and where they’re going to hear the truth about it. And we’re going to accomplish great things. And it’s going to be fun doing it.

Q: One other follow up question on that. You said that you traveled everywhere. But how do you build that trust when travel is not an option? How did you do that during the pandemic?

A: That was what was really interesting, because during the pandemic I couldn’t get out to see teams that I was asking to come in anyway. And it was a lot of communication, a lot of outreach to people. It was building ways to get their voice, to get their ideas, and then acting on the ideas, and making sure we were linking back our actions to their feedback so that people would know that even if you can’t see me, we’re listening because your feedback is showing up in what we’re doing. A lot of times people don’t make those connections and don’t necessarily connect those dots, so we have to connect them for them.

Q: You also talk a lot about learning across difference. What does that mean to you and why is it so important?

A: For me, it’s immersing myself into diverse situations so I can understand more. I’ll never be able to walk in your shoes, but what I can do is understand, create better and broader awareness of what some of the challenges are that you may face as a person of color or as a woman, in my case, in the environment and our LGBTQ community. What are the challenges that you may face and how do I learn about those?

I serve as the executive sponsor of our Native Peoples Employee Resource Network. I’ve learned a lot culturally about the native people and what are the challenges and what are the some of the things that they may face that I don’t understand because I’ve not had those experiences.

Q: How do the sorts of roles women usually have in this industry affect their path to the C-suite? How do you see career development working today and how is it changing?

A: I hope it’s changing a lot. If you think about some of the silver linings of what we’ve been through in the pandemic, we have discovered different styles of working, different ways to interact. I think that’s beneficial for all of us.

But if I think about over the course of my career or other careers, a lot of us as women—and I do hesitate to talk as if I’m talking for all women because our experiences are unique, too—but a lot of us as women face certain time-consuming challenges at the points in our lives when promotions may happen early in your career. You’re having children. You’re adopting children. You’re taking care of aging parents, whatever it might be. When many of those responsibilities fall on women, then we may make choices that offer flexibility in a different way than some of our male counterparts. You end up with gaps, when you look at the trajectory of careers, that are many times exactly to that point in our lives. So, if we’re seeking out flexibility, we may seek out different roles that don’t necessarily lead you into business leadership roles in the same way.

We’ve got to be conscious of that. We as women need to think about and make the right choices for us individually. We across the industry need to think about how to repair those wrongs and create opportunities that are more suitable for all of us to bring the flexibility. And I don’t know that the need for that flexibility is [as much] a gender issue today as it was when I came into the workplace, because I think there are plenty of men that are looking for the same flexibility at certain points of their career.

Q: Why is gender equity in the industry important both to you personally and to the industry as a whole?

A: I happen to lead today a very diverse team which is better and stronger for that, because we have figured out the ways to bring ... we’re not perfect by any means, but we bring more voices into the room. I get more ideas. I get people with different networks than mine, introducing me to people that I might not otherwise know or meet. And all of that is creating a richer, more talented team to solve different problems and problems that are different today than they were yesterday or 10 years ago.

Q: One of the things that we’ve talked about in our research is something called the multiplier effect: The more women you have in leadership roles, the more women you have coming up through the ranks. Is that something that you have seen in your career and how important do you think it is?

A: I have seen it across different dimensions beyond just gender. But yes, it is what I’m talking about when I say that when I have more diverse teams, they have more diverse networks, and they introduce me to those networks. I have now been fortunate enough, with several the hires that I have made recently, to have majority diverse panels because I have diverse talent, either racially and ethnically diverse or gender diverse, for instance, who are introducing me to their networks in a different way. And therefore, I’m getting more voices at the table and getting different voices at the table, and I’ve just broadened the talent wins. So, yes, I do think that there’s a different appreciation for the variety of skills, the more skills you put at the table.

Q: How can organizations embed inclusion and diversity into business efforts instead of making them a nice-to-have add-on? How do we make sure that we're including the whole range of diversity and that it’s equitable for everyone?

A: If I think back over a very long career, when we first began talking about diversity—and we probably didn’t talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we talked about diversity and inclusion—that conversation’s evolved. A lot of those diversity initiatives started with training and a back-end scorecard or recruiting and then some sort of measurements that were applied to the business after the business results were finalized. The evolution of that is to embed DE&I into the workplace decisions. They are the business. In consumer, if I look at the emerging- and new-household formation, the growth in demographics across dimensions, the workforce demographics that are changing, it’s a business imperative, not just on the consumer end, but for the recruiting and hiring pools. I think that it becomes part of the business, not something we apply after the business is done. We’ve made more progress across our industries in that. But I think it’s got to be at every stage of the decisioning, not just a measurement stick.

I don’t want to suggest the measurements aren’t important. They’re super important. The granularity of measurement is important. We can’t homogenize all diversity and have a number that goes up and feel great about that, because in that approach, you’ll have certain groups that may benefit, while all groups don’t. So, we’ve got to measure at a granular level. You’ve got to measure more frequently and then at the end.

Until we demonstrate progress and hold ourselves accountable to progress, everything else are just activities. We don’t get rewarded on activities, we get rewarded on progress. Those activities can lead to better inclusion, better equity results, more diverse teams and outcomes. But at the end of the day, that’s what it really is all about.

Q: What do you hope the conversation about gender equity in this industry is going to look like in 10, 20, 30 years?

A: Well, honestly, I hope we don’t have to have it. The very fact that we are having so much conversation about gender diversity and equity suggests to me that we haven’t made the progress that any of us want to have made. We’ve made some, for sure. But the ideal state, which only happens because we continue to focus on it and measure our progress and hold ourselves accountable, is that we’ve eradicated those differences because of a true appreciation for the business value of doing that. I just can’t emphasize enough that we’re limiting our talent pool if we’re not thinking about how to engage talent across all of those dimensions. We’re not doing it for women. We’re doing it because we need women’s voices at the table.

Q: That’s such an important distinction. What one thing would you change to make a difference in gender equity in this industry?

A: I don't know that there is one thing to change. I do think the focus on outcomes is important and it's got to continue. But we've all got to lean in and help.

When I first began some of the DE&I work and DE&I work across gender, it was believed that women who had already achieved more in their career needed to do more to reach across and help women who were younger in their career, as opposed to thinking, well, gosh, I struggled through, and it was hard and so you should too. We started talking about that very early in my career. You saw women leaning in to help other women. We all have a responsibility and an opportunity to do [that], because why does it matter if you’re not helping the people who come behind you to have a more successful path and an easier path? That’s what we all should be doing as well. That’s what I hope for, is for everybody to have an easier road of it, because then it means that something that I did, and we did, made a difference.

Q: Mary Mack leads Consumer and Small Business Banking for Wells Fargo. Our conversation is part of a series with women leaders on the front lines of the financial services industry. The road to leadership is different for everyone. For the executive vice president of Freddie Mac Multifamily, it was lessons from the softball field. For the CFO of T. Rowe Price, it was something she calls the seven-minute rule. You can find out what’s the most important thing you can do in those seven minutes by going to deloitte.com/insights and finding our series we call Within reach.

We’re on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight and I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for listening and have a great day!

  1. Rebecca Stropoli and Ingrid Case, “Most powerful women in banking: No. 4, Mary Mack, Wells Fargo,” American Banker, October 5, 2022.

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Cover image by: Alexis Werbeck

The Deloitte Center for Financial Services

The Deloitte Center for Financial Services, which supports the organization's US Financial Services practice, provides insight and research to assist senior-level decision-makers within banks, capital markets firms, investment managers, insurance carriers, and real estate organizations. The center is staffed by a group of professionals with a wide array of in-depth industry experiences as well as cutting-edge research and analytical skills. Through our research, roundtables, and other forms of engagement, we seek to be a trusted source for relevant, timely, and reliable insights.


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