Getting to that next level in a career path can be daunting, exhausting, and quite often both. To make it a bit easier, we’ve asked WBA member executives to share how they managed to take that next step in their banking career and the qualities that they look for when considering those promotions.  

Take Initiative 

Shane Ilstrup, president and CEO of Citizens First Bank, Viroqua, has worked with a range of different employees with various skill sets. He noted that many of the individuals making strides in their careers are the ones who are constantly seeking knowledge from peers, mentors, and their community.  

“Openness to learning is the biggest thing,” said Ilstrup. “The ones who are successful are the ones who are constantly involved, always learning, and interested in being part of the trade. They’re willing to grow. Everyone that continues to push themselves seems to be a good leader for our industry.” 

That willingness is echoed by Kevin Piette, COO and CIO of State Bank of Cross Plains. Not only does he see this in successful candidates; it was a skill that got him to the position he is in today. 

“What helped me the most was initiative, education, and hard work,” Piette said. “It’s the age-old phrase, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink’. You can teach someone all the right things, but without that initiative, nothing will come of it.” 

Along with the proper initiative, the ability to adapt can set you apart from others. Julie Redfern, executive vice president and COO of Monona Bank, reminded that it’s a skill more employers are looking for, especially in this constantly changing industry.  

“A lot of qualities most community banks want are ones that can be used across many facets of life,” said Redfern. “It’s important to be engaged and eager to learn. You can truly learn just about anything, but that information is only as good as the inner drive that comes with it. You can give someone all the tools to succeed, but they need to want that success." 

Make Connections 

Figuring out how to access new connections in the industry isn’t always easy. As members and founders of WBA’s Building Our Leaders of Tomorrow (BOLT) section, all three executives realize the significance of creating those platforms to give individuals the opportunity to achieve that next step in their career. 

“Leadership programs are incredibly important because they give you a lot of those soft skills,” said Ilstrup. “It’s a great asset that banks are able to take advantage of.” 

These programs not only provide participants with necessary skills but allow them to meet others in the industry as well. This goes beyond a simple business connection – it could lead to meeting the people who will help your ideas develop, thrive, and be noticed.  

“We could talk all day about hard work and education because those are the crucial building blocks,” said Piette, “but you also need to have the right individuals — especially managers and mentors — that you align with.” 

And on top of everything else being attained at the end of the day, these programs and community connections are allowing participants to grow and better understand the issues in their industry.  

“If you actively engage and advocate within your bank, within your industry, and within your community, good things will come to you,” said Redfern. “Be present. That’s a huge key to success in any career.” 

Break Expectations 

All three executives had a similar message regarding how to learn these critical skills, build connections, and get to that next point in any career: Be flexible, embrace challenges, and absorb everything. This will allow the constant growth that is necessary to defy expectations and, ultimately, further your career. 

“Keep up with emerging issues,” said Redfern. “Enlighten yourself to things that are outside the traditional scope of banking so you’re thinking about what’s going on outside of your industry, because that’s a lot of what is going to have further disruption if it’s on the fringe.” 

“Opportunity is everywhere,” Ilstrup said. “The talent pool is hard to pull from, and if you can prove your worth, there’s going to be reward for that. Keeping your options open will help you realize opportunity when it’s there, and that’s how you get to that next step.” 

Piette did exactly this, and for him it was lifechanging. He began his education in sciences but discovered through the help of one of his mentors that he loved working with people and customers. His ability to adapt and willingness to keep his options open led him to a career he hadn’t anticipated, but now is one he is proud to provide leadership in.     

“The best plans are changed,” Piette concluded. “You have to go with the flow and figure things out along the way.”

To learn more about topics like this, join WBA's BOLT Winter Leadership Summit