Ms. Fix-it: Barbara Desoer

By: Pamela Weinsaft

Just as military promotions are offered as a reward for dangerous missions, the key to success in the corporate world may lie in the willingness to take on the challenge of turning around struggling companies or divisions of companies. When women succeed in meeting these challenges, they blaze a trail, advance to senior ranks, and may even shatter that fabled glass ceiling.

Barbara Desoer, bumped from her position of 47 on the Forbes 50 Most Powerful Women in Business in 2006 has been catapulted back into the spotlight this week with her promotion to the rank of President of the new Bank of America mortgage, home equity, and insurance services business. The Wall Street Journal reports that with the acquisition of Countrywide on July 1, 2008, Bank of America became the largest mortgage originator and servicer in the U.S. Ms. Desoer has been given the challenge of pulling Bank of America’s new problem child—Countrywide Mortgage—back into the family fold.

According to the Bank of America website, Desoer joined the bank in 1977. She held leadership roles in Commercial Lending, Credit Administration and Retail Banking before being named group executive vice president with responsibilities for the California Retail Banking Group in 1996. In 1998 she was promoted to president of Northern California banking. Desoer was Marketing executive from 1999 to 2001, when she was named Consumer Products Executive. She was named Chief Technology & Operations Officer in 2005.

In 2007, Desoer was recognized by US Banker, ranking third in their annual ranking of the “25 Most Powerful Women in Banking,” and as the “2007 Business Leader of the Year” by the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. She was also cited as the top-earning CIO in the Fortune 1000 for 2007.

Even with her credentials, Desoer is only the second woman on the eight-member executive team at Bank of America. (Amy Woods Brinkley is the other female member of the team.) Why are women in these positions so rare?

As referrenced on Fierce Finance online, a 2007 poll by Financial News showed that the private equity industry may be the toughest place for a woman to succeed. Regrettably, the legendary and meteoric rise—and fall—of Zoe Cruz (“missile”) at Morgan Stanley and Sally Krawcheck at Citigroup bear out these findings. The recent outster of Erin Callan as the CFO of Lehman Brothers again points out the inequities on the street. Given the climate, Desoer may feel a bit like she has a target on her back; however, if she succeeds at her new assignment, she will be on track for the CEO position currently held by Kenneth D. Lewis.

Interviewed by CalBusiness, the business journal out of the Hass School of Business at U.C.L.A Berkley in 2007, Ms. Desoer remarked, “The only time being a woman has been a problem is when I let it be. Many times I’m the only woman at a conference table, but the challenges are the social aspects of being the only woman in the room and the awareness of that. The only problem is thinking about it too much.”