Early in KeyCorp's search last year for a new chief information officer, Chairman and CEO Beth Mooney was given a preliminary list of candidates. She reviewed it quickly, then returned it to the recruiters handling the search and told them to start over.

The reason: There were no women on the list.

The search firm re-canvassed the market. Its next list included the name of Amy Brady, then the chief information officer at Bank of America. Within weeks Brady had joined the $88.3 billion-asset Key and today runs all of its technology and operations, overseeing 4,500 employees and contractors worldwide from Key's headquarters in Cleveland.

"The first time I sat down and talked with her, I had no doubt that she was the right person for the job," Mooney says. "Had we not pushed back and just taken that first slate of candidates, we would never have seen an Amy Brady."

Mooney did not set out to hire a woman; as CEO of a public company, she says her responsibility is to find the best person for a job, period. But, as with every job opening, she insisted that the slate include women and minorities.

Mooney, who began her banking career at Republic Bank of Texas in the late 1970s, vividly recalls the days when she was the only woman in managers' meetings. Now, as one of the few women running a major banking company-and the only female CEO at a top 20 U.S.-based one-she says she feels an obligation to nurture female talent.

More importantly, Key places a high value on having a diverse executive team. Key's 15,000 employees include thousands of women and minorities, and they "want to see their image in the people who are leading the company," Mooney says.

Mooney, 58, is obviously Key's most visible female executive, but other women also play prominent roles in the organization. In addition to Brady, another direct report is Maria Coyne, Key's head of consumer and small-business banking. Meanwhile five of the holding company's 13 directors are women. No large or regional banking company has a higher percentage of women on its board.

"One of Key's values is the importance of diversity," says Barbara Snyder, the president of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a Key board member since 2010.

"Our ability to understand the needs of customers is strengthened by having a diversity of talent."

But Key wasn't out to make a statement when it promoted Mooney to chairman and CEO.

"We wanted to get the very best leader we could for Key," Snyder says. "It was great to make history, but the most important thing was to ensure that Key would have a great future."

After a nationwide search to replace outgoing CEO Henry Meyer, the board simply concluded that Mooney-then head of Key's community bank, overseeing all of its major business lines-was the best candidate "by far," according to Meyer.

"Finding the right fit is what boards strive to do, and Beth was the right fit," says Meyer, who stepped down in 2011. "The fact that she is a woman is just an added benefit."

Prior to joining Key in 2006, Mooney held a variety of posts, including market president and chief financial officer at AmSouth Bancorp in Birmingham, Ala. Before that, she was with Bank One, in roles including Ohio market president.

At Key, Mooney is focused on what may be banks' greatest single challenge these days: growing revenue. She has addressed the issue head on by buying back a credit card portfolio, acquiring roughly three dozen branches in upstate New York and beefing up Key's commercial mortgage servicing portfolio. She's also spearheading an efficiency drive that puts the bank on pace to trim overhead by roughly $200 a million a year through branch consolidation and other cost-cutting measures.

Those moves are a big reason why Key's share price is up nearly 40 percent over the last year, to $11.67 as of Aug. 30. By comparison, the KBW Bank Index is up roughly 28 percent in that span, while the S&P 500 has risen about 16 percent.

Pleased as she is with those accomplishments, Mooney is perhaps even more proud of improvements in morale, which Key measures through an annual employee engagement survey administered by Aon Hewitt.

According to Key, engagement scores for companies surveyed by Aon Hewitt in 2012 declined by an average of 3 percent from the previous year, while Key's score climbed 5 percent.

Mooney has spent considerable time and resources strengthening Key's balance sheet and positioning the company for the future, but says all of that would be for naught if employees didn't buy in. "How do you have good client interaction if you don't have employees that are proud and engaged?" she says.

Those who have worked with Mooney describe her as a collaborative, inclusive leader who strongly values input from others.

"You see a lot of people [in business] who are their own counsel, but Beth's style is to listen to a number of points of view before reaching a decision," says Grayson Hall, Mooney's longtime colleague at AmSouth who is now chairman and CEO at Regions Financial. (Regions and AmSouth merged in 2006.)

That inclusive style resonates with employees like Brady, who left a high-profile job at the nation's second-largest bank by assets largely because Mooney offered her a genuine opportunity to shape Key's future.

"I like that Beth is trying to build a diverse executive team with different experiences and different points of view," says Brady. "Beth is looking to me not only to run technology and operations, but to also be part of an executive team that is driving strategy."

Coyne, who is Key's head of consumer and small-business banking, says employees appreciate that Mooney strongly encourages them to take on new challenges. Under Mooney, Coyne has transitioned from a role primarily overseeing business banking to one in which she is now responsible for the bank's entire retail branch network.

"That's one of the things I love about our organization," Coyne says. "There's always opportunity for people that are willing to stretch themselves and try new things."

Mooney, for her part, says it has always been her style to solicit multiple opinions, because doing so is what generally will produce the best outcome. Still, in every discussion about whether to make an acquisition or invest in a new product or hire or fire an employee, there comes a time to cut off debate and make a decision.

"I'm not one of those people who tries to shape and manage the message. I get energized by lots of discussion and feedback," Mooney says. "But I make it real clear that I have the 51 percent vote. At the end of the day the decision is the decision."

Key hired Mooney away from AmSouth in 2006 with the thought that she might someday succeed Meyer. Meyer didn't know Mooney when he saw her name on a list a search firm had given him, but as he talked to more people about her, he sensed that she was exactly the type of leader Key needed to head its retail and business banking.

"She was described to me as being like a velvet hammer," says Meyer.

"She's a very good listener, has great people skills, but when she's determined she will knock down walls to make things happen."

Mooney's determination is evident in a story she often tells about how she got her start in banking. Though she graduated near the top of her class at the University of Texas, the first question she was asked in job interviews was how fast she could type.

Eventually, she talked her way into an interview with the head of training at Republic Bank and she did not leave his office until securing a spot in the bank's management training program.

"I sat for three hours and I wasn't going to take no for an answer," she says. "I promise you if someone did that to me today, I would call security."

There was no way of knowing back then that Mooney would someday wind up in the C-suite of a major bank-and as a role model to a generation of female bankers.

Brady is matter of fact in saying that the opportunity to work for Mooney was the primary reason she uprooted her family-including two teenage daughters-from Atlanta to join Key.

When Mooney began her career, there were few women at banks working in middle management, let alone in the most senior roles. With the industry's pool of female talent deeper than ever, Mooney suspects that the pace of women moving into the C-suite is ready to accelerate.

"I'm proud to be the first female CEO of a top 20 bank," she says, "but when my career is done, I hope that to be a footnote, not a headline."