Seeing Yourself at the Table

Why representation matters for women in banking.

By Alaina Webster, Managing Editor

Women in positions of authority isn’t a new idea. Or to rephrase, a woman, singular, in a position of authority isn’t a new idea. However, multiple women in charge, perhaps even a higher number of women than men, that’s taking some getting used to. As women demand more — an equal number of — seats at the table, it’s clear they will have to rely on one another to get there.

“Some of my toughest adversaries early in my career were women,” Debbie Bianucci, president and CEO of Chicago-based BAI told me. “I can think of one situation where all I wanted was for this person to accept me and support me, and as it often happened back then, many women seemed threatened by other women.”

Bridgette Williams

Bridgette Williams, board member of Lead Bank (Kansas City) and executive director of the Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, echoed Biannuci’s thoughts: “In many cases, that’s what women have been trained to do, compete against one another,” she said. “My position has always been why are we fighting over one seat when there’s 15 seats?”

But, the times, as Bob Dylan said, they are a changin’. In speaking with four women in banking the words I heard again and again were: mentor, support, train. Women are recognizing that there is power in numbers, that pulling out the chair next to you does not mean giving up your own seat.

But first, why women anyway? What are women bringing to the table that is essential to bank growth and prosperity? In a March interview with NPR, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, told reporter Steve Inskeep, “If you look at how banks which have women on the board, have women in their executive teams, are managed — in terms of risk profile, you see those institutions are better. They are less risky. Their profile is better. They are safer for investors … although it’s not causality, it’s correlation.”

Debbie Bianucci

What’s more, the number of women opening businesses and entering the financial sector as consumers of more than just checking accounts is rapidly increasing.

“The number of businesses opened by women in 2018 was double that of 2017 or 2016 each day,” said Jessica Nollet, vice president business banking team lead in Kansas City for St. Louis-based Enterprise Bank & Trust (also featured in last month’s Generation Next column). “And in the world of banking that has been predominately male that’s a huge change. I think it’s almost a bigger change than the whole age difference because women do business differently. Women want a deeper relationship with their bankers, but they also don’t have the time. They refuse to go golf for a whole day to make a relationship.”

For Williams, having women in the bank and on the board ensures that the bank mirrors the community. At Lead Bank, she said, there are a higher number of women than men throughout the organization, including on the board. “Your higher management and your mid-management is not all dominated by men,” she said. “I would say that has to be part of the organizational brand — to make sure that the bank represents the community in terms of gender.”

Jessica Nollett

(This seems like a good time to remind readers that there are more women living in the United States than men.)

Asked how the female-led board impacts the bank’s culture, Williams replied, “I think that having a majority woman-run board mandates that women who are in the bank make the same as their male counterparts, and that is really important. I would say as important as having women in the industry, it’s very important that the jobs mirror the wages. I think having more women on the board, those types of questions are asked, and expectations are clear.”

Julie Kleffel, executive vice president and community banking executive at Seacoast Bank, Stuart, Fla., believes women bring a different style of leadership and management that benefits banking culture, helping bankers develop deeper relationships with customers.

Julie Kleffel

“When you lead with your heart, which really implies that you’re leading not only your associates but the customers whom you are responsible for, it goes back to the foundations of leading from a place of trust and integrity,” Kleffel told me. “To me, that means leading with a level of transparency, and I think being a woman in the industry, that transparency comes to bear and becomes a window allowing people to really feel safe to provide feedback … I think being a woman really does bring a different lens to the organization that is unique, and it really comes from leading from within your heart, at the center.”

While we are seeing more women in banking and other industries, there’s still not gender parity, at least not according to a recent report from Korn Ferry and The Conference Board. In a survey of 300 human resource executives, 62 percent believed the representation of women in leadership positions has improved during the last five years, but 66 percent believed there is still an inadequate representation of women in leadership positions within their own organizations today. Even more telling, perhaps, was the finding that 40 percent of those surveyed did not believe women are gaining the experience necessary to help them advance. In short, they lack support, training and mentors.

“HR and business executives need to step back to better understand and address the systemic reasons behind the gender imbalance,” said Rebecca L. Ray, executive vice president of human capital at The Conference Board. “Reasons include pay inequity, hiring manager bias and accountability, a lack of sponsors and champions, as well as the lack of programmatic support for the integration of work and life.”

So, how can women work as “champions” for other women, and what should newcomers to the financial industry seek out?

Kleffel advocates seeking out organizations that are known to value women in leadership roles. “I think the most important thing that any female can do is seek mentors who faced similar challenges in the roles they are in or who could help guide their way as they continue to move up the ranks through a c-suite organization,” she said.

This person doesn’t always have to be a woman either, she cautioned. “Women should seek mentors from a balanced approach, both female mentors as well as male mentors. In light of the #metoo movement and the concerns related to that, I think it’s sometimes difficult — if I were speaking from a man’s chair — there may be fear in being a mentor to a female, but the great thing is that there are resources out there for men to access, whether that’s other female leaders who have benefitted from male mentors or whether that’s going through their HR executives and professionals in the space around how to be an effective mentor to a female.”

At Seacoast Bank, Kleffel shared, middle and senior leaders started an associate resource group called Women Who Mean Business to give employees, particularly women, a forum in which to discuss challenges and issues specific to women in the bank. “Ultimately, our CEO, who is male, stepped up and participated and supported that. I think it’s the culture of the company, but it also is a ‘give back’ from the females who have benefitted from mentorships along their career,” she said.

Williams sees a need for emotional intelligence training for women entering the business world. “There’s no question that for the most part women have the knowledge and the ability to do the jobs that their male counterparts do,” she said. “I think where the [women in banking] programs could be more helpful is helping train the emotional intelligence that occurs when you’re in a male-dominated industry … knowing when to draw a line in the sand, when to back off, when to push your agenda, when to ask for help. It’s those things that I think create a clear difference between men and women.”

“Open” mentorship is something Kleffel came back to frequently. At Seacoast she sees a culture in which mentorship is routinely and visibly demonstrated by those in senior leadership roles, and this sense of transparent support and advocacy flows down through the ranks.

“I had females who openly offered to share with me in a very candid, safe environment, and then I was able to continue to ask them how I’m doing and ask them … am I making a difference, am I absorbing what you’re telling me … ultimately, that’s what really catapulted me in the current organization because those females came there early on and have not stopped investing in me,” she said.

Bianucci, in her senior position as head of BAI, accepts her role as mentor and makes a point to be the antithesis of the adversarial women she encountered early in her career. “As a woman who has navigated this industry, I think it’s important to share your experiences and ideas with women who are looking for their next opportunity. I mentor a number of women who are conducting job searches or considering new responsibilities in their current organization. I find it rewarding to provide support, encouragement and suggestions that I’ve learned throughout my career,” she said.

“We talk about the importance of performance, attitude and composure when exploring opportunities inside or outside of their organizations. Times have changed, and women have become better at presenting their skills and attributes with confidence. That said, while the industry has made progress, we are still challenged to increase the number of women at executive and board levels. I know banks are committed to looking for ways to develop and advance women to assume greater responsibilities. It’s good business for the organization, and it’s important for the industry.”

Working with the up and coming talent in BAI’s Emerging Leaders program has given Bianucci important insight into the next generation of bankers and reinforced her belief that training and supporting these individuals is essential for the future of the industry. “It takes time for anyone to gain the experience they need in order to increase their responsibilities, men or women, which is why our Emerging Leaders program is so important. It’s vital to develop this fresh and eager talent,” she said. “They’re passionate and energetic about the industry, but with ever-increasing competition for top talent, we need to provide development opportunities for our future leaders, both in knowledge as well as skills. This isn’t just about women, it’s really about diversity and inclusion. It’s about finding ways to nurture talent to drive the industry forward.”

Along with calls for support and recognition, another sentiment ran throughout my conversations with all of these women: hope. All of them believe the financial industry is on the right path — it just needs to stay the course.

“I think we’re just beginning to see improvements overall in the industry,” Kleffel said. “I do believe women still need a forum where they, especially younger women — meaning in their tenure — I think they still need a forum where they can bounce concerns, thoughts, ideas around in a place where they can be candid, and from there they can shape that conversation as it moves up and through and across broader organizations. Do I think that everything should be centered around women only? No. I think everything in life requires balance, and so I would encourage any female in the industry to never stay siloed — whether it’s a silo of knowledge of a specific trough … or whether it’s a silo of gender.”

“Women bring value,” Williams said. “They’re not hiring women just because they need to hire women. Women bring a different perspective. People can relate to them, and they are clearly capable of doing the job they’re hired to do.”

Bianucci, reflecting on her early days in the industry, sees tremendous progress. “The level of support I see … both formally and informally is remarkably more advanced than when I was young,” she said. “I think we have a responsibility to own what it takes, to help the next generation to be successful, not to be threatened by it, but to be inspired by it.”

Nollett, in an aside, shared a most endearing sign of progress, a sign that the world at large can see “leader” and “female” as equal terms.

“I have a four-year-old at home … I’m the boss, my boss is female, so he thinks all bosses are female now, which I think is pretty cool. I don’t know if my husband agrees, but I think it’s cool.” 

Alaina Webster, Managing Editor,

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