The test of leadership

By Evan Sparks

Building on a longstanding program that—in partnership with state bankers associations—develops programs to cultivate rising banking talent, ABA honored its first-ever class of Emerging Leader Award winners at the ABA Annual Convention last fall. In these profiles, learn what drives a few of these successful bank executives.

Kristina M. Schaefer
EVP, Chief Risk Officer and Chief Administrative Officer
First Bank and Trust, Sioux Falls

Raise your hand

Sometimes, leadership calls you into unexpected situations.

Kristina Schaefer was chairwoman of the South Dakota Bankers Association last year when a controversial issue emerged in the state capital of Pierre. The proposed bill? A measure that would block banks with policies that limit credit for gun companies from doing business with the state. Similar legislation has popped up in other states, just one of several areas where banks have become a battlefield for a proxy culture war.

“Most community banks don’t have a policy that limits firearms,” says Schaefer. “But we decided that this is a slippery slope. We wanted to bring home the message that banks should decide who they want to bank.”

She’s certainly not uncomfortable with guns—Schaefer is from a farm family and grew up pheasant hunting like so many South Dakotans. And while she emphasizes that “we weren’t making a statement on guns,” advocating on behalf of banks pitted her against gun rights advocates. The day she testified in a committee hearing was a lobbying day for a gun rights group. “The guys who testified in front of me put their clips right there on the podium!” she recalls.

She managed to thread the culture war needle, and in a win for SDBA, the bill ended up not proceeding. But it wasn’t the first time Schaefer raised her hand answered the call of leadership.

She began her banking career in high school and joined First Bank and Trust in Brookings, South Dakota, while in college. After college, Schaefer went to law school and began practicing business and banking law. After a time, she was invited back to First Bank and Trust as its first in-house counsel. She’s grown her role substantially from compliance and one-off corporate projects. She raised her hand for new opportunities and now serves as general counsel, chief risk officer and chief administrative officer. (As the executive overseeing the chief human resources officer, her portfolio also includes a 20-employee onsite daycare at the Brookings headquarters.)

Schaefer also raised her hand in advocacy and state leadership. During her leadership with SDBA, she helped plan a new women in banking event. She would have been happy to get 50 attendees, but they maxed out the room with 125. In 2022, the event drew 300 and “helped us all connect to our bigger purpose as bankers.”

When bankers do raise your hand, Schaefer reminds them to be intentional. “If you are willing to raise your hand, commit to it,” she says. “I always want people, when they think of Kristina, as the person they can count on to show up.”

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Ryan Coaxum
Vice President
Guaranty Bank and Trust, Austin

Pass it on

Ryan Coaxum’s entry into banking was a gentle nudge from Mom—”you need to get off the insurance,” she told him. “I looked at it and said, ‘I need to get a career!’” Coaxum joined Sovereign Bank and rose through the ranks from part-time teller to personal banker and credit analyst. But his boss, a senior lender named Travis Brown, had bigger ideas for him. One day, Brown asked Coaxum what he wanted out of his career. Coaxum shared his goal of continuing to grow. “That sounds great, but you need to go back to school and finish your degree,” Brown said.

“It lit that fire under me,” Coaxum notes. “On my lunch break, I went to Huston-Tillotson University and I enrolled in the night program.”

Armed with his degree, Coaxum’s bank was acquired, and he joined Brown at a de novo called Guaranty Bank and Trust. The switch was “the best thing in the world.” Despite working 15-hour days to launch the bank, the relationships he was building kept him charged up. “People give me that energy.”

Coaxum benefited from Brown challenging him to grow and from mentors like Texas Bankers Association CEO Chris Furlow, who has been a “guiding force.” Now, he aims to invest in the next generation of bankers. “Representation is a big deal. I want to see more people that look like me in the industry,” he reflects. “That’s why I work so hard outside of my traditional nine-to-five job. The legacy for me is in every life that I touch.”

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Abby Nguyen-Burke
Senior Vice President and Team Leader
Eastern Bank, Boston

Find an advocate, be an advocate

Abby Nguyen-Burke leads a “small but mighty” team of three serving women- and enterpreneur-of-color-owned business enterprises at Eastern Bank. Her passion is supporting underserved small business owners, and her team has been able “to leverage the special purpose credit program as one of our credit solutions,” she notes, which opens up the door to “collaborations with referral community organizations and nonprofits that provide technical assistance and microloans in addition to bank financing.”

Her goal: “Helping small businesses grow and prosper,” she says. But she didn’t get to that goal overnight. Nguyen-Burke joined Eastern Bank as a teller in college. She was studying criminal justice and sociology, but she decided to stay in banking—in part because of a great branch manager. “I want to be her someday!” Nguyen-Burke told herself.

As she rose up the ranks to become a manager herself, she got to know an SVP and team leader in Eastern Bank’s community development lending division who was also inspiring. “I want to be her someday too!” she told herself—and a decade later, Nguyen-Burke had reached that goal.

Mentors like them were important to her career, but Nguyen-Burke emphasizes the need for sponsors or advocates—those who will speak about you to others, not just to you. She salutes quite a few senior executives at Eastern Bank who were “always willing and ready to say my name and push for my leadership roles.”

Now, Nguyen-Burke seeks to model the same kind of advocacy for her team. “I aim to advance a plus-one” for projects, meetings or conferences to create growth opportunities for her ambitious and talented team members. She strives to be “mindful and purposeful about who I talk to,” advocating for and celebrating clients and colleagues alike.

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Meet the other Emerging Leader Award honorees

Adam Johnston | SVP, North Louisiana Regional Manager | First Guaranty Bank, Bossier City, Louisiana
“I have found that being the youngest person in the room can be a good thing as long as you work harder than everyone before you get into the room, while you are in the room and after you leave.”

Billie Jo Parker | Senior Vice President | Pinnacle Financial Partners, Memphis, Tennessee
“I’m proud to be a banker. For me, it’s been such a rewarding and challenging career path. To know that banks can help serve the communities that we’re in by helping small businesses flourish, helping families buy their first home or send their kids to college, it’s a unique and powerful opportunity that we get to be a part of.”

Hazel Davis | VP/Compliance and Community Development Officer | Jefferson Bank, San Antonio
“My passion for banking is rooted in the support we provide to the individuals and businesses in our communities. Banks do more than offer products and services, we listen to customer aspirations and support their goals with sincere service. We build communities with our time, talent and capital.”

Kirsten Agard | VP, AMP, Closing/Post Closing Manager | Umpqua Bank Home Lending, Portland, Oregon
“To me, an emerging leader is someone who’s open to learning, growing and failing. Someone who crushes their goals individually and as a team, and someone who thinks outside of the box and is willing to share their unique ideas and perspectives.”

Lydia Levin | SVP, Channel Strategy Manager | Zions Bank, Salt Lake City
“I am passionate about how the banking industry connects people to their goals and dreams —entrepreneurs and families alike. To work in an industry that helps create value for its local economies takes a certain kind of person, and they’re the bankers I respect so much and love working to train and develop into greater roles.”

Nicholas E. Vrba | EVP and Secretary of the Board of Directors | First State Bank and Trust Company, Fremont, Nebraska
“With patience and a strong work ethic, the results of one’s labors show. I wear my youth as a badge of honor and look forward to the next opportunities that presents.”

Sandra Starnes | SVP and Director of Marketing Citizens Bank, Batesville, Arkansas
“It is an amazing time to be in the banking industry. Bankers have been a trusted partner in success and [managing]challenges for decades. Through unique partnerships and thoughtful innovation, financial institutions are equipped to take that community building legacy exponentially farther. Advocating for the future of banking can be as simple as education. In short, spread the work and light the fire.”

Shanna Fuller Cahalane | VP and Director of Marketing and Community Development | Reading Cooperative Bank, Reading, Massachusetts
“Banking touches everyone and should be for everyone. I’ve seen firsthand that when community banks reach out to the unbanked, they can help them climb the financial ladder and improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. It is a privilege to be both an anchor and a lifeline in the communities we serve.”

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About Author

Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal and senior vice president for member communications at the American Bankers Association.