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Banking As a Career Option

Donna Smith, a commercial banking executive with Associated Bank, Chicago, has more than 30 years experience in the banking industry. We talked to her about careers.

1) Banking has been a male-dominated industry since its inception. What drew you to it?

I’ve always enjoyed finance and I was drawn into banking because I knew it would allow exposure to an array of companies, industries and corporate cultures.

Through my work early in my career, I found a passion for working with middle market companies to help them establish goals and grow their business. That passion continues to drive me today. Obviously, there are more male than female employees at many banking institutions, but I’m not sure I’m willing to say it’s still “male-dominated.” Women in my generation have made amazing progress in our industry and are now beginning to fill some the industry’s most prestigious top level positions.

2) You’ve seen women in corporate environments succeed and fail. What traits do women who succeed have in common?

Women must have a strong sense of themselves – what they believe in and commit to standing strong on those beliefs. If you don’t know where you stand on an issue, you end up being malleable to the environment – and not in a good way.

I also believe that you can never discount teamwork, integrity, respect and generosity in your role as a leader. When you put those traits out there, people will meet you more than halfway with the same traits. That will make solving problems and issues that much easier.

3) Some women argue that rising in the corporate world means sacrificing having a family and a “life.” Do you agree and what’s your personal story?

With my colleagues, we’re all working towards the same goal: increasing shareholder value. I push to maintain that as the driver for all activities for my teams. With that uniting purpose, the focus becomes how we work together to garner business and reinforce our client relationships.

What is life if you can’t enjoy your family, friends, hobby and home?  You can’t really count yourself as successful if one dies away in lieu of the other. It’s a fine line, a challenging line to manage – but it can be done. When I’m away from the office, I stay busy with golf, gardening and serving on the boards of the Metropolitan Chicago YWCA and the Adler Planetarium.

My love of financial services wasn’t inherited by my children but I’m okay with that; they each have their goals and destinies.

4) In successfully dealing with male colleagues who are less than respectful to you and other women, or downright sexist, what tactics have worked for you?

I again go back to integrity and respect. I’ve certainly encountered less than respectful colleagues but I’m stalwart that I’m not going to go down there with them; I’m committed to taking the higher road. People who see you holding your head high, despite their barbs at your, have no ammunition. You’ve taken their power and enhanced your own.

5) What would you advise a woman college senior majoring in finance to look for in determining whether banking is right for her? What should she watch out for when trying to gauge whether one bank is suitable than another to work for?

A career in banking today is much more than just crunching numbers. The industry is based on customer interaction, loyalty, and trust. Today’s aspiring professionals need to understand that it is not just about selling products, but rather working with customers to understand their needs and goals and how we, as financial stewards, can help them reach and exceed these goals.

As young professional women are trying to determine which banks are best for them, I challenge them to consider a broad range of possibilities – from the local community banks to the largest institution banks. There are many predetermined stereotypes on banks based on their size alone, but those are often misleading.

Graduates need to do their research by attending conferences, local industry networking events and by connecting with local alumni to learn firsthand the distinctions between each organization. Having worked with money center and regional banks, I was personally drawn to regional banking as it allows for solutions to drive client interaction, while still providing the latest and well-developed products, services and offerings.

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