By Tessa Brend
As published in The Secured Lender
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What’s it like to be a woman executive in a historically male-dominated industry? 

Young professionals had the chance to listen to top women executives in the ABL industry offer advice on career moves, leadership, diversity, and more at the SFNet’s YoPro Leadership Summit held in Chicago, IL on August 28th. The Women Industry Leaders Panel consisted of moderator Penny Fine, managing director, Originations, CIT Northbridge Credit, and Panelists: Karen Sessions, president, Bank of America Business Capital; Gail Bernstein, executive vice president, PNC Business Credit; Tania Daniel, managing director, ENGS Commercial Capital; Briana Richards, principal, Ernst & Young LLP and Joye Lynn, head of Corporate Asset Based Lending, Wells Fargo Capital Finance.

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What You Wish You Knew When You Were 30

“Not to sweat the little stuff,” said Tania Daniel, managing director of ENGS Commercial Capital.  “If you make a mistake, just let it go.  I can’t tell you how many times I would spend my weekend beating myself up or something I said or did.  I really do wish I would have known that then, it would have saved me some stress.”

Karen Sessions, Bank of America Business Capital, said it’s okay to make quality of life choices.  “I think when I was younger and I had small children I beat myself up over a couple of career moves or I made some choices and worried a lot about them.  I would say that nothing’s permanent and there are different stages in life when you want or can have different things and you make different choices at different points.  Those things are okay.  Don’t worry about them.”

Gail Bernstein, who retired from PNC Business Credit at the end of August after an illustrious career said she would focus more on life balance.

“I did make some different choices along the way to do a domestic job instead of an international but I was always leading something which meant I was at different events at night.  If I had to do it all over again I would probably do less of that,” she said.

After retiring she is going to work on a project on behalf of the CFA for the World Bank and going to try to bring Asset Based Lending to Mexico, where hopefully she can find life balance on the beach.

Joye Lynn from Wells Fargo Capital Finance mentioned utilizing the book Strength Finders.  “I’m a really big believer in Strength Finders and one of my key strengths is problem-solving so my advice to myself would be I don’t actually have to solve every problem.”

Briana Richards, Ernst & Young LLP, joked that what she wished she’d known when she was 30 was that “most of my male colleagues golfing, is not as good as they tell you.”

It’s A Jungle Gym

Moderator Penny Fine brought up Sheryl Sandberg’s book and the chapter called It’s A Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder.  She asked the panel if any of them had taken lower level or lateral moves in their career and what they learned.

Sessions said her jungle gym was due to relocating for her husband’s job.  She gave up her job and said she would find something else.  It was a change and not even a lateral move for her at the time.

“It was exciting.  I think it went well.  It was what I had to do when I had to make that choice and it’s one of those choices, I was probably around 30 or a little older, and it was hard.  In retrospect, I don’t regret it but it was different.  I have taken other lateral jobs.  They always come back to underwriting because I like to ask questions and dig into credit and solve problems and investigate problems and that’s my comfort zone.  Whether that’s the RM position that I took or I did sales like a BDO, but I did keep coming back to underwriting.  For me, that was fun, it was engaging, to try something new and learn something new and I think partially that’s what I love about underwriting.  Every client’s different, every situation is different, and every solution is different.”

Sessions encouraged attendees to go deep in the things they’re going into and gain proficiency but indicated that being in other roles has given her different perspectives which has made her a better leader.

Lynn attributed her success in a change in her career to having credibility throughout Wells Fargo, especially with the credit chain and her senior leadership.

“I’m not particularly hierarchical, so I’m just as interested in learning what the person who started yesterday has to say about something as I am an executive leader three levels above me.  I think everyone has a lot of value to add and it’s listening to those perspectives that’s really helpful.”

Lynn shared some advice she received when she became a manager for the first time.  “Just think about all the mangers you’ve had over your career,” she said.  “The ones that you didn’t like and the things that they did that you didn’t like, don’t do any of that.  The people that you did like and that built you up and you thought did a really good job, do all of that.  It’s really that simple.  What motivated you, what got you engaged, what made you want to do something more, amplify those behaviors, those things, and don’t do a lot of what those other people did.”

She went on to talk about how transparency and understanding the why of your role is really important.  “When you’re asking people to take on more and more responsibility and putting more things on their plate or trying to do more with less, trying to give them some perspective on why,” she said.  “Asking them for feedback on what can we take away, what can we make more efficient, better, and then you have to follow up.  If people start giving you ideas and feedback and then you don’t do anything on it, people stop giving you those ideas and that feedback.”

Career Progression

Daniel went from one factoring company to another and made the mistake of thinking that everyone did things the same way.

“I got there and realized that was not the case,” she said.  “I hadn’t asked the right questions before going in there because I assumed that things were fairly similar.  The core of it was, but the culture surrounding that wasn’t and I moved into Birmingham, AL which was a whole different culture itself.  So there was a big culture shock and then I walked into an established organization with a team of people that had been there for 10, 15 years.  Mostly older people, I was the youngest person there.  I come in, not looking like them, not dressing like them, so it was a very interesting experience, it certainly pushed me beyond my comfort zone and made me grow.”

Looking back she wished she had asked more questions about the company and the performance of the company and things she took for granted.

“I would think for anyone making those moves, talk to people who have done it and find out what sort of questions you should ask, I didn’t really do that.  And I wish I would have.”

Richards encouraged people to look at every opportunity.

“That doesn’t mean take every opportunity,” she said.  “When you’ve been at an organization a long time and you’re progressing and you’re strong you will get a lot of opportunities.  They’ve not all opportunities you should take.  You do have to be discerning.  But think it through and figure out which ones really make sense and are going to get you to your goal and talk it out with a lot of people, because there’s never going to be an end of opportunities, you just need to be able to find the right one.  Make sure you do the ones that are going to make you uncomfortable because those will be the most rewarding.”

When you’re making a decision about what job you want, Lynn added, understanding the culture of the group and the strategy of the group, and who your manager is going to be, what that person’s really like to work for, is critically important.

Diversity and Inclusion – Advantage or Disadvantage?

“I’ve always been the only woman in a leadership position and I feel like it’s an advantage,” said Daniel. “It sets me apart from everyone else.  I bring a different skill set to the table that the other people don’t bring.  It’s been a disadvantage only to the extent that some people’s mindset needed to be changed but I never really felt like it was a disadvantage.  What made me special or what made me be able to excel was the fact that I was different and so I think you have to embrace that.”

Richards echoed that.  She gave the example that often her voice sticks out on conference calls because she’s the only woman on the call.  She believes she more broadly gets remembered networking and that her empathy and compassion have helped her.  She’s leveraged her strengths to be the best she can in her organization.

Bernstein said, “You can be a novelty.  I think they tested me much more.  When they saw that I could hold my own, answer their questions, I actually asked them, do you prefer to be dealing with a man and they said it’s very different as long as the person is capable, we kind of like it.  Statistic over statistic says that if you have a different management team and a diverse board of directors it is better for productivity, it is better for profitability.”

Lynn added to make sure there’s a support system for people to help them flourish so that failures can’t be blamed on hiring for diversity.

What advice would you give to women to what to be effective leaders in a predominately male organization?

“Be your own cheerleader,” Lynn said.  “You need to do a good job.  You need to be confident.  You have to find good opportunities to work on.  If you’re not in your local zone make sure you’re asking for those opportunities to be able to shine.”

She added that when you do good things, don’t expect that everyone’s looking and watching.  Make sure that you highlight your own successes so that you’re making people aware.

Bernstein told attendees that they have to take charge of their own careers. 

“If you don’t know what you really want to do, get to know the different departments within your organization,” she said.  “Don’t be afraid because you have no title or somebody else does, or a big title, to ask them to lunch.  It’s just sometimes they get so busy that they haven’t approached you.”

Bernstein said that mentoring young people is one of the things she has found the most rewarding and will miss the most.

“You have to deliver,” Sessions added.  “You have to be responsible and confident.  You have to be part of a team and I think it’s complicated.  There’s been a lot of books about advocating for yourself and asserting for yourself and it’s an art.  You have to know when to do that and when not to do that.”

She also said that it can’t just be you.  “If it’s just you telling someone how great you are, it’s never going to work.  People might see you as just arrogant or constantly in their face.  There has to be someone else, maybe your boss, who sees the contribution you’re proactively making a difference and that person is then having forums to be able to advocate for you amongst their peers and finding places that help you try new things and get more experience to develop you into the next generation of that organization.”

Daniel believes the key is to be confident. 

“If you believe in yourself other people will believe in you, but how do you become confident?” she asked.  “The key there is just to be yourself.  I’m always more comfortable when I’m just me.  I had an a-ha moment several years ago I went to a conference that was geared towards women and the speaker made the comment, ‘when you’re going into a board meeting, make sure you’re wearing black closed-toed shoes, you don’t ever want to wear pink high heels.’  And I looked down and I was wearing my most favorite pink high heels and I thought ‘but I feel most confident wearing those, I wouldn’t feel most confident wearing plain black shoes.’  There was just a moment for me there where I thought ‘I don’t really care what anybody else is doing, I have to do what makes me feel best and that’s what makes me feel most confident.’  And then even when I don’t know what I’m doing, people believe that I do.”

“Work hard,” Richards added.  “Know your stuff.  Be bold.  Stand out.  Celebrate your successes.  Don’t apologize and say you’re sorry.”