Women Rising

By Kerry O’Leary

“You should become the president of your bank.”

This simple statement, which a bank CEO said to Peg Scott during a reception while she was attending the Graduate School of Banking in Boulder, Colo., marked a turning point in her career.

Scott began her banking career as a teller at a small, family-owned bank in Greenfield, Iowa, and potential for growth was bleak. She watched the bank hire a lender with no banking background. When she asked an executive why he did not consider training someone from within the bank for the position, he replied: “I probably should have, but I never thought about it.” Fast forward nearly 10 years, two higher education degrees and three promotions. Scott, along with her husband and other community members, formed a holding company and bought the bank when the family decided to sell.

“Today, I work closely with several of my younger staff trying to fit that mentor role because I know how helpful it can be and that one conversation can make a huge difference in someone’s career,” says Scott, who is now both CEO and CFO at Union State Bank. She encourages rising leaders at her bank to “use anyone that will help you grow.” Taking knowledge about anything and from anyone is a key to building leadership capacity, she says. “Do not limit your knowledge to your current job, but try to learn even more in other areas. If you ask questions and advice regularly, a mentor will evolve organically.”

Scott believes in including everyone in the bank in decisions, developments and announcements whenever possible, a testament to her personal career trajectory. “I come from a long history of non-leadership positions at the bank, which is why I try to mold the culture at Union State around inclusion. I ask opinions of everyone, often. If I want people to follow me, they need to be involved to best support what drives our mission.” As for the single most important quality of any leader, Scott says there is not one, but many. “A leader must be willing to take full responsibility, really listen, stay calm, focus, work harder than anyone else and laugh.”

Leadership vs. management

Mary Ann Scully is quick to point out the difference between management and leadership. “You don’t have to have people reporting to you to be a leader,” she says, something she learned by moving from management to independent work and back again throughout her career.

About five years into banking, she admits she “finally” fell in love with her career prospects and the potential to make an impact on people as both a banker and in a leadership role. A cash management consultant at the time (a role that came with a small staff working under her), Scully learned early on that good leadership skills would stick with a person no matter their position. She is today chairman and CEO of Howard Bancorp in Baltimore.

However, she recalls the lack of diversity, inclusion and mentorship programs in her early banking years. “I was in my 30s, and those are critical years for building a career, so I was almost forced to find leadership inspiration informally,” she says. Scully reached out to people organically, sometimes sending copies of projects she was working on to senior employees at the bank, looking for feedback on anything. Howard’s most recent acquisition—which vaulted the bank into position as the fourth largest Maryland-based bank by assets—has led to the creation of a formal women’s leadership program, with regular meetings, expert speakers and mentorship opportunities, as well as more diversity in the leadership makeup overall.

Scully’s advice for rising leaders: “don’t necessarily set your sights on climbing the ladder.” She notes that often a vertical path perpetuates siloed leadership and processes. “Be willing to take a lateral move, be willing to move a step down even,” she says. The creativity and flexibility to map out a career in multiple, not always linear, directions will pay off, says Scully.

Sources of inspiration

Christiana Thornton is a natural people person, a trait that has driven her leadership style. She describes herself as open and engaged and relies on the support of others to accomplish her goals. “When leaders are transparent and open, the culture is, too. I know I don’t have all the answers, and I truly want to tap into others.” She attributes the success of the New Hampshire Bankers Association, which she leads as president and CEO, to its ability to show everyone their ideas and engagement make a mark on the organization—a testament to her personal capacity to cultivate enthusiasm amongst all levels and roles. “The more one feels they are a key partner, the more it drives their active involvement and engagement.”

She also attributes her personal success to the strong relationships she’s built along the way. Early in her career, she consistently met with bankers, colleagues and other peers both in and outside of the industry for advice and guidance. “You have to be curious, and observe others that are successful in their roles,” she says. “Observe those that you admire as strong leaders, and then seek them out; learn from them.” Thornton notes this is not always an official mentor/mentee relationship, but rather finding leaders that share similar values.

Thornton, who says she has had countless mentors in the state association and banking sectors, doesn’t forget to seek inspiration from outside of the industry. “Often those areas I have been most challenged by during my career are not directly related to my job. The key to my success at the office has been linked to my ability to learn from others about work-life balance, time management and priorities.” As a wife, mother and community leader, she recognizes the need for not just one, but many sources of inspiration. “And those mentors will change throughout your leadership journey as your develop in your career. It’s important to recognize that you need different mentors for different facets of your life.”

About Kerry O'Leary

Kerry O'Leary
Kerry O'Leary is a senior writer at the ABA Banking Journal.