IT might seem a distant memory now, but the global banking system really was on the edge of disaster in 2008. That the thrusting executives responsible for the near collapse were, to a man, male begs an obvious question: would the financial crisis have happened if the world’s biggest banks were run by women?
Debbie Crosbie laughs, considers her words and, perhaps speaking on behalf of female banking executives everywhere, says: “I don’t know if I can offer you a theory that we would have prevented the financial crisis.
“What is true is that the more diversity and balance you have in teams, the better teams perform.”
Crosbie, 45, is chief operating officer of CYBG plc, the newly independent owner of the Yorkshire and Clydesdale banking brands.
She asks: “Could there be more balance and diversity in larger organisations? Absolutely. I was reading that in the top 350 companies only 10 per cent of females are in top executive positions.
“It is well proven that people who have the right consideration to diversity and balance get better results in the long term.”
Different people with different genders and different backgrounds come at problems from different perspectives, argues Crosbie.
“What that promotes is more careful thought and a better outcome all round.
“I often have experience where too many people from too similar a background rush to the answer that is not often the most customer-focused answer and not the right answer for the long term. I think having that mix is a good thing.”
Crosbie maintains that her organisation, formerly owned by National Australia Bank, has a good track record in assembling diverse teams. The UK operations were headed by Lynne Peacock from 2004-11, one of the only female banking CEOs at the time.
Crosbie adds: “You have to be committed about being serious about being open to new ideas. It is too comfortable for leaders to have their own preconceived notions reinforced and it is much more brave for a leader to look for people who are different, who have different views from you and who will challenge you.”
She has differing views on the need for quotas. Nobody would want to find themselves in a job because they were making up numbers, she says. But she believes that targets could be useful for raising awareness of the benefits of having a more diverse team.
Crosbie is adamant that organisations that want to be more attractive to female talent must be flexible.
She says “I have a great story there. I was the first executive that this bank has allowed to work part time.
“I found myself pregnant and I was an executive and did what all female executives did then, which was I was in the bank until the day before I gave birth.
“I got the opportunity to return pretty quick to work and the reason I was able to do that was because I was offered the chance to come back three days a week in the same executive position.”
She worked part-time until her daughter, now 13, went to school. Crosbie says: “I think you can make it work as long as the people who are about you are committed to making it work with you. If you have a situation where everybody is keen to demonstrate it is not workable then it won’t work.
“There is a big obligation on the individual to be as realistic as the organisation.
“For example, I have great family support. My childcare worked really well for the days I was at work and I was realistic about what I could and could not do.
“As long as you are realistic about that, you are open and your colleagues are supportive, I don’t see why it can’t work.”
She agrees that there must be a cost to the economy when talented female employees leave the workforce to become mothers.
“You see so many females doing so well and then they tail off. The only thing I would be a little careful about is a lot of people make those decisions consciously.
“What I chose to do isn’t for everyone and you have to accept that some people will choose to do different things.”
Born and raised in Glasgow, Crosbie is the daughter of an engineer father and care-worker mother who instilled in her the value of hard work.
She was an ambitious, if not entirely organised, teenager. Looking back on her 18-year-old self, she says she would be surprised to learn how disciplined, punctual and tidy she has become.
After Strathclyde University, she joined Prudential as a graduate trainee and worked in the City of London. She joined Clydesdale Bank – where she opened her first bank account at the age of 13 – as a project manager in 1997.
Crosbie progressed through the ranks and rose to become chief information officer before taking a seat on the main plc board in 2013.
She served as acting CEO following the departure of Peacock’s successor David Thorburn and was in the top seat in April 2015 when the Financial Conduct Authority hit the lender with a record £20m fine for mis-selling failures and providing false information to the City regulator.
Crosbie says: “I wouldn’t think about that as taking the flak. I would think about that as I got the chance to put it right. Everybody in an organisation, whether you are new, whether you are old, has to take responsibility for those things.
“We have hopefully put that right now. We are moving on and it is all about making sure people see the evidence that not only are we putting past mistakes right but we are really listening to customers for our future.”
The best advice Crosbie has ever received is not to take herself too seriously (although serious during much of the interview, she does make a couple of amusing off-the-cuff jokes). Nor does she point to a single mentor during her career.
“Every single person I have worked for – many of them I am still in touch with today – they have taught me something and I have learned something about the way I am.
“The new chief executive, David Duffy, is a fantastic example. He has a whole different set of experiences and I have learned another whole stack of things from him in the last six months.”
Duffy joined Clydesdale and Yorkshire in June 2015 after turning around the nationalised lender Allied Irish Banks. Crosbie says she has learned from him “the power of compelling storytelling”.
She adds: “He is a great motivator and the staff have gained confidence from the way that he has explained things through storytelling and making it real for people. He has renewed confidence and I see the impact that has on staff.”
The demerger and initial public offering has created a FTSE 250 organisation based in Leeds.
CYBG has set aside £1.7bn to deal with legacy conduct issues and has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in new technology platforms and refurbishing key branches.
Crosbie believes its potential is huge as a standalone entity. “We have got a great balance sheet. There has been a huge amount of effort in the last three years in preparing Yorkshire and Clydesdale for the journey.
“We have a great set of loyal customers. We have a deposit base that would be the envy of all the other challengers. We are different because we are full service. We have a great motivated set of people who see this as such a fantastic opportunity.
“We have all the ingredients that a lot of our competitor challenger banks would be very jealous of.”