What could theatrical training offer a person preparing for a career in financial services?

Plenty, according to Citi Retail Services’ Leslie McNamara, who returns this year to PaymentsSource’s Most Influential Women in Payments because of her critical role advising some of the nation’s largest retailers on their omnichannel and payments strategies.

“Oddly enough, acting and singing on stage in high school has served me well in my professional life,” McNamara said. “I learned how to take on new roles, how to connect with an audience in a presentation setting and how to project confidence—even in situations that might be outside my comfort zone.”

Leslie McNamara, Managing Director and EVP, Head of business and market development, Citi Retail Services
Leslie McNamara, Managing Director and EVP, Head of business and market development, Citi Retail Services

In her role at Citi, McNamara is helping retailers adapt to fast-changing mobile commerce and payments technology to connect to consumers shopping online and in stores. Private-label and cobranded credit card programs under McNamara’s umbrella at Citi include The Home Depot, Best Buy and Sears.

McNamara’s days are busy, but two items on her desk serve as connections to her core values. One is a priceless clay pot made by her son when he was in kindergarten, a constant reminder of her love for her family.

The other object McNamara keeps close is a small stone carving of a bear made by the Zuni tribe of Native Americans.

"In Zuni culture, a bear is considered to be a guardian figure representing strength and courage. For me, this is symbolic of the role Citi Retail Services plays on behalf of protecting its interests and the sales growth of our retail partners,” she said.

Over her 35-year career, McNamara has seen a lot of improvements in the workplace. But she remains disappointed by the “stubborn, varied and exasperating” obstacles women face across many industries while trying to secure a level playing field.

"Women still have not achieved equal pay, equal representation at all levels or even equal rights, in some cases,” McNamara said.

Too often, McNamara said, she walks into executive-level meetings where she’s the only woman in the room, or one of a very small group of women.

“Diverse leadership has proven to be more effective, yet it still hasn’t manifested in most companies. A more inclusive approach to decision-making—with broader input and participation from women—would present potential economic and performance gains that could benefit us all," she said.

One way to drive progress is to challenge your own preconceived notions of who’s got more knowledge, McNamara said.

A case in point: “One year I had a manager who was 10 years my junior and initially I assumed he’d be a burden,” McNamara recalls. “In fact, I learned more from him than from many managers since. His humor, humility, curiosity and ‘curbside coaching’ were amazing, and he was incredibly generous with his time and honest feedback.”