Perhaps no one is more surprised by Rosemary Gaidos' rise to the top at Webster Bank than Gaidos herself. After stints at Bank of America and other financial institutions, she joined Webster in 2005 and was promoted to Director of Operations, Security and Facilities in October 2010, a position that puts her in charge of 10 percent of the company's employees.
"What were they thinking?" Gaidos says with a laugh. "I still find it such a surprise. I've had some amazing mentors, including women leaders who have given me support and opportunities, but I'm blown away with the idea that I'm considered a role model in the bank. I guess you don't realize the impact you have on people."
Robert Guenther, Webster's senior vice president for public affairs, thinks the status is well deserved.
"She plays a critical role because she's really the person who makes the bank function," he said. "She's one of those people behind the scenes who make everybody else look good."
Such a high-powered career didn't always seem likely for Gaidos, who, after an early marriage and divorce, put herself through the University of Massachusetts at Amherst while working full time and raising two young children on her own. She doesn't underestimate the role that experience played in shaping the person she is today.
"I was only in my mid-20s, but I had a lifetime of experience compared to the other students," Gaidos said. "I think that gave me a huge advantage because I was so grateful for the opportunity to pursue higher education and start the next chapter of my life. It made me very focused on my school work."
Armed with a finance degree, she received offers from several industries but was attracted to banking because "it has a direct impact on consumers on a daily basis. You can really see how what you do benefits others."
She has found that being female in a traditionally male industry has been something of a mixed blessing.
"Women are naturally wired for bridge building, collaboration and focusing on the big picture," Gaidos said. "On the other hand, senior leadership is still represented predominately by men, so you do have to be twice as good because there might not be as many opportunities, but the qualities that women possess really add value if they're recognized."
While she's modest about her attributes and accomplishments, Gaidos recognizes the reasons she has been entrusted with so much responsibility.
"Having been a single mom, I'm naturally resourceful and resilient. I think people saw in me some transferrable skill sets, like the ability to put together teams and set up processes. Just like a good athlete may be good at more than one sport, something that works in one discipline also works in another."
"She's a bridge builder," he said. "She has huge responsibilities, dealing with everything from fraud to identity theft to security and all the back-office operations, but she's built a real network of trust inside the bank."
Gaidos puts it another way.
"Everything that goes wrong in this bank is my problem. My team isn't one of the glamour groups, but we have to know that what we do makes it all happen. We're the foundation for everything else."
Gaidos enjoys coaching and mentoring her employees, and they consider her approachable, even on personal issues. Her reputation for accessibility became so well known that some employees duplicated the sign from Rosie's Place, a Boston women's shelter with a mission of "offering emergency and long-term assistance to women who have nowhere else to turn." The sign now hangs on her office door.
She also likes getting involved in the bank's community service activities. In 2009, she coordinated Webster's United Way campaign, which was the most successful such effort in the bank's history despite a poor economy, and she recently conducted a presentation for Junior Achievement to help young people learn about preventing identity theft.
A native of Western Massachusetts, Gaidos holds a number of professional designations, including Certified Internal Auditor, Certified Regulatory Compliance Manager, and Certified Risk Professional. She appreciates the fact that Webster has given her opportunities to grow within the organization.
"So many places overlook internal talent," she said. "I believe in this company and I'm glad they believe in me."
In addition to a grown son and daughter from her first marriage, Gaidos and her husband, Scott, have two teenage boys. In her free time, she enjoys knitting because "it clears my brain out. You have to really focus on it, so you can't think about other things."
Gaidos doesn't know what direction her professional life might take in the future, but she isn't worried about it.
"I'm so proud to work here, because Webster does so much for the communities we serve," she said. "I'm thrilled to be part of it at a level where I can be influential and make a difference. If nothing else ever happens in my career, I'd be OK with that."