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May 1999

The Exemplary Leadership
of Marsha S. Henderson


She looks like a business executive but talks like a community activist. KeyBank President Marsha Henderson has bridged the gap between profit margins and personal idealism, creating a 21st-century model for corporate responsibility. “Leadership can only come from a sincere desire to achieve outcomes that are beyond an individual interest,” the Williamsville native said recently.

“The extent to which you are able to transform your ‘self-concern’ into ‘other-concern’ will determine your effectiveness in getting others to follow you.” In this first year of her tenure as head of KeyBank, N.A.’s Western New York District, Ms. Henderson has amply demonstrated such leadership skills, encouraging some 1,200 Key employees to follow in her footsteps to community involvement. They are volunteering with Scouts, serving on youth boards, sponsoring theatre productions, supporting health care programs, guiding church groups and so on. The bank’s annual Community Report, designed to match its financial twin in information dissemination, details the many initiatives in which KeyBank staffers have played roles.

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Marsha in 3rd grade.

“We take to heart strongly what we say in the report,” says their chief. “The values we take seriously are leadership, responsibility and teamwork...We have 1,200 employees who live and work here. We want them to feel they’re living in a very vital, energetic community.”

Their efforts at making Western New York a better place is a high point of her presidency, Ms. Henderson states. “I am most proud of our very active volunteers in the community—we have so many unsung heroes. I’m extremely proud of what they’ve been doing here—and this is a strong part of our culture here at Key.”

More than just stirring words, Marsha Henderson’s notion of civic stewardship is underscored by her example. She serves on the boards of directors of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Kaleida Health’s Trustee Council and Kaleida’s Women and Children’s Health Research Foundation, and the Independent Health Foundation. She is also a trustee of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and has volunteered on behalf of the March of Dimes (she’s Honorary Chairperson for WalkAmerica 1999), Benedict House, the Girl Scout Council and the American Heart Association.

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Marsha’s mother and father—Gerry and John Spence.

That’s the litany you’ll hear when Ms. Henderson discusses her 27 years in the banking industry. Rather than harping on her career accomplishments, she prefers to highlight the community activities that have been so important in her life and now are a sort of sub rosa mission statement for KeyBank under her aegis.

She came to Key in 1998 after eight years with Fleet Financial Group (where she served as senior vice president and marketing manager of Fleet’s Private Clients Group for Upstate New York) and 18 years with M&T (her last position was vice president and manager in their Western New York Commercial Banking Division). The KeyBank presidency was an offer she couldn’t refuse, just when it looked like her work would necessitate leaving her beloved hometown.

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Marsha and her husband Christopher.

“I could see that it suited a lot of my desires—it was a real leadership opportunity and a chance to contribute more to the Western New York community. I really wanted to stay here!”

Now, when she addresses professional organizations as she has done on the subject of career advancement, she recalls that moment of accepting the challenge of a bank presidency as a “critical decision point” in her life. “Fear can keep us from taking a risk,” she says. “I cannot say that each move in my career was pre-planned but I can say I felt in control of the outcome. I knew it was up to me.”

Early on she dared to take such leaps. When Marsha Henderson was at State University of New York at Buffalo she toyed with the idea of becoming an urban planner, a career goal inspired by the riveting lectures delivered by one popular geography professor. She earned her BA degree with a major in that subject.

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KeyBank Rat Race.

She ended up in banking almost by happenstance, like someone who went on vacation and ended up relocating. A job in retail at the old Hengerer’s Department Store had led to an offer of a buyer’s position; while she was considering that a relative who worked at M&T told her the bank was hiring. She talked to a woman in human resources, who spoke convincingly of banking’s many career opportunities. And Marsha said yes.

“The first work I did was on the computer, data entry for an operational area. But I could see there was opportunity for advancement.” Eventually she worked her way into a management-training program. One of her early mentors at M&T was Charlie Kerrigan in the human resources department ( he later went on to a professorship at D’Youville College), who told her she’d need more than a geography degree if she was serious about banking. Soon she was enrolled at Canisius College, where she earned an MBA in Finance.

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Marsha and Chris at Pebble Beach on a golf vacation.

Even as she moved up the ladder she managed to reach a hand back to help those coming up behind, especially other women. “At the time there weren’t a lot of role models in the business for us,” she recalls, speaking of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The situation has improved, though she notes that while 80 percent of financial services workers are female, they still comprise less than five percent of top administrators.

“I have always been involved in various women’s groups,” says Henderson, who was recently elected to the board of the National Women’s Hall of Fame and is a Pataki appointee to the governor’s Commission Honoring the Achievements of Women. She has been involved in the development of the Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame. One of her proudest moments came when she was elected international president of Financial Women International, with over 15,000 members nationwide and in several foreign countries. She directed the group through a strenuous strategic planning process, spoke to member groups across the country and helped form an affiliate group in Russia.

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Marsha satisfies her love of gardening while traveling to Giverny, France.

All the time her heart and her biggest challenges have remained right here, she says. “We have such a wonderful community, great natural resources, a terrific climate—despite what some say. We need to find the factors that bring us more economic success. We need to make the transition from the old economy to a new one...Our students need to learn skills for the 21st century, not skills for jobs of the past. We need to give them skills for the future.”

“We have to have a common destiny and will for our community.”

Implementing such ideas occupies most of Marsha Henderson’s 60-hour work weeks. When she does finally unwind, it’s likely to be on the golf course with husband Christopher, whom she met while at M&T. He’s vice president and security manager there. “Chris has been a terrific partner in all this,” she says. “We’re both proud of the organizations we work for. I guess you could say we have a friendly rivalry.”

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Marsha with friend Gail Ginnetty at St. Basil’s - Red Square 1995.

Ms. Henderson is also an avid gardener, enjoying planning, planting, and lately, a new hobby—photographing perennials at their Snyder home. “I find it very relaxing,” she says. Clearly, she’s as happy with her home life as she is with what’s happening in the office. In these days of rampant stress and job dissatisfaction, there aren’t many who can echo her words: “Work just doesn’t seem like work to me.”

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.


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