Banking has been good to me. I worked for nearly a decade and a half for a national bank and approached eight years with a high-growth de novo. I've loved the variety of holding positions in areas ranging from private banking and trust and wealth management to bank marketing and communications and government and investor relations.
I've been equally lucky this year. As the startup sold and opportunities felt limited, I was presented with my dream job at SmartBank as chief experience and strategy officer, initially focusing on the merger between two community banks. I passed through the glass ceiling in a surprisingly graceful way — absolutely no shards whatsoever.
I'd like to say the C-suite job is what compelled me to make the change, but that's a superficial answer. The truth is that even before the job materialized or the startup sold, I was asking questions about the culture that had evolved within my former company. The organization's culture had shifted and felt less like of a fit for my talents and style of leadership.
The experience led me to reflect on how organizations cultivate cultures that allow women to thrive as leaders. The banking industry will capitalize on the potential of women only as it actively seeks to attract, support and engage them.
No one leads in a vacuum. This means women leaders must operate within a corporate body that reinforces her vision, style and talents. Further, modeling the new face of leadership is essential as banks work to position themselves as relevant, dynamic and full of opportunity for young female professionals.
I'm a student of organizational psychology, specifically the topic of "engagement." I especially love Brene Brown's challenge to "rehumanize" the workplace. In her book Daring Greatly, she writes, "When learning and working are dehumanized — when you no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform — we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion."
In considering a midcareer transition, I was inspired by SmartBank's entrepreneurial story and pursuit of innovation. Most important, I was impressed with the leadership's attention to culture — which is rooted in their vision of community banking truly being about people.
To feed this culture, SmartBank discusses company values regularly in team meetings. Associates at every level know they are held to standards that were developed by the founding team, including acting with integrity, trying out new ideas, and communicating in an honest, open and respectful way. Performance incentives are designed to encourage and reward team performance rather than individual achievements, and associates actually receive bonuses for community engagement.
A similar approach would benefit banks across the industry. The Harvard Business Review in 2012 dedicated an entire issue to discussing the value of happiness, explaining ways to keep employees engaged, promote rapid learning and foster creativity and innovation. As employees thrive, so do organizations and financial results. Investing in engagement and being open to new forms of productivity are imperative in an industry that has too often held to traditional standards. If we commoditize our workforce, so too will our clients feel and respond to this commoditization.
Investing in culture and engagement is the secret sauce for long-term outstanding performance. This idea was reinforced during my recent meeting with hotel developer and operator Mitch Patel, chief executive of Vision Hospitality. He talked about how his company's paid sabbaticals and paid volunteer time nurture a thriving work environment. I asked Mitch if, as the author and businessman Stephen Covey recommends, he treats his associates as he would treat his best clients. Mitch looked at me almost fiercely. "No," he said. "Better!"
I asked Mitch why he's advanced so many women into leadership within Vision Hospitality. He described his female leaders as team players who are passionate about their work and effectively cultivate relationships and develop their staffers. With high emotional intelligence, these leaders reinforce a culture that Mitch intentionally designed.
The success of any organization depends on its ability to foster an environment that is open and inclusive, allowing diverse individuals to share insights and experiences that make the company stronger. A bank with a vibrant culture is one in which high-potential women of all ages should be able to imagine themselves thriving. By the time I retire, I'd love to leave behind an industry that has excelled at attracting, cultivating and leveraging female talent. I smile to think how strong and smart that world will be.
Stefanie Crowe is SmartBank's chief experience and strategy officer. She is a co-founder and general partner to The Jump Fund, an angel fund made up of accredited female investors funding female-led startups based in the Southeast.