Wisconsin bankers reflect on the importance of women in industry leadership roles

By Hannah Flanders

In Wisconsin, we are lucky to not only see a growing number of women emerging into leadership positions in banks across the state, but to be surrounded by women in leadership who advocate on behalf of our industry each day.

Women Leading Wisconsin’s Banks

As of September 2022, women in the position of president and/or chief executive officer represented 16* of the over 170 banks in the state. While this number has grown over the course of the last several years, a lack of female mentors and leaders advocating on behalf of their female peers is often cited as a reason why the banking industry continues to be heavily male dominated.

Unfortunately, the stark gender disparity often begins even before individuals enter the workforce. According to UW–Madison’s School of Business, the school has 66% male alumni and only 34% female. This issue is not just the case in Wisconsin. Gender inequality is seen throughout the country at many of the largest business schools and is often reflected in the number of women pursuing careers in banking or finance.

Donna Hoppenjan, president and CEO of Platteville’s Mound City Bank and chair-elect of the WBA Board of Directors, states that “women bankers need to be confident and surround themselves with successful leaders in banking.” To her, a critical aspect of this success is having the confidence to attend training and to build relationships with bankers from other institutions.

It is without a doubt that the banking industry has come a long way — even since the turn of the century. According to Jenny Provancher, CEO of The Equitable Bank S.S.B. in Wauwatosa, leaders today are more likely to find a more diverse mix of both male and female decision makers, rather than there being only one or a few women in the room.

“The true nature of a woman is to be in a leadership role, not to change others, but to be the change we wish to see and then lead by example. The world of banking is changing at a rapid pace; what better time than now to encourage our women bankers to pursue leadership positions and lead by example.”

“For us women fortunate to be in a leadership role, we need to make sure we are visible and serve as mentors. We also need to encourage and develop women early in their career. Awareness of the opportunities is a must.”

Creating Opportunities to Grow

In addition to encouraging team members to attend conferences and training events, and network with other professionals — bankers agree that creating a space where every individual feels they have the opportunity to learn, grow, and advance in their careers is a critical step in ensuring that qualified individuals are able to reach their full potential, no matter their gender.

Hoppenjan states that the best reward of working in leadership is empowering others to make decisions and allowing them to grow in their positions.

Dawn Staples, president of Superior Savings Bank, noted that she was able to forge her own opportunities by having the confidence to volunteer and assist on other projects throughout the bank during her down time.

“I was connected to, and mentored by, some pretty seasoned supervisors, employees, and management from all areas of the bank by doing this,” she states. Bankers agree that confidence, and the ability to advocate for yourself and your abilities, is a critically important factor in establishing a team player and a leader.

“I believe a diverse group of people who have the skills needed to fill leadership positions is needed — a qualified mixture.”

“Be open to learning by showing enthusiasm and saying yes to new projects outside of your comfort zone that build your résumé and expand your expertise.”

Gender Diversity Allows for a Well-Rounded Board

In the board room, diversity is key not only in best serving all members of the community but in recognizing the strengths of every team member. The American Banker magazine reported that the push for greater opportunity for women in executive positions must start at the top. This means more gender diversified boards will recruit diverse CEOs who will ultimately recognize the efforts of and promote a greater diversity of individuals into leadership positions.

As Provancher puts it, “[individuals should] surround themselves with good people who don’t see gender as an impediment to success.”

Peshtigo National Bank President Kelly Heroux states that “the banking industry is changing at an exponential pace, and new opportunities are constantly developing. Women who have the motivation and drive to take on leadership roles will excel in this industry.”

In this, leaders should not only invest in the professional development of women in the bank but ensure there is representation at every level.

Heroux adds that both men and women have attributes that can be leveraged within the bank. “It’s important [as a leader] to know your own abilities and your colleagues’ strengths, then build your teams around those qualities.”

“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers, you cannot be successful or happy.”

“Out of high school when I didn’t know what I wanted to go to college for, my dad said: ‘Go down to the Savings and Loan and see about getting a part time job there — the people are nice. While you decide what to go to school for, learn everything you can about everything; you never know when it will come in handy.’”

“Women often pay great attention to detail and have the ability to juggle multiple projects simultaneously. In addition, a woman’s perspective at the table brings another viewpoint that hasn’t always been considered in the past.”

“Sometimes the best thing you can do for a loan customer is to tell them no.”

Leading Our Leaders

The Wisconsin Bankers Association (WBA) has been led by Rose Oswald Poels since 2011. In 2016, the Board of Directors welcomed its first female Chair Cynthia Erdman, who at that time served at Partnership Bank, Tomah, and is currently with Farmers and Merchants Bank of Kendall. Additionally, the Association is expected to welcome Donna Hoppenjan as WBA’s second woman as chair of the Board in the coming year.

Several women have served in leadership roles at Wisconsin’s Department of Financial Institutions (DFI), the state’s regulatory agency, including Secretary-designee Cheryll Olson-Collins, her predecessor Kathy Blumenfeld, and the division of banking’s Acting Administrator Kim Swissdorf.

Not only do these women at DFI and WBA play a substantial role in supporting the state’s banking industry, working tirelessly to advocate on behalf of all Wisconsin bankers at both the state and federal levels, for many, they serve as examples of mentors of powerful women in our industry and encourage more women every year to pursue their passions, break stereotypes, and create opportunities for both themselves and their institutions.

“I believe that an institution is doing their stakeholders — both internally and externally — a disservice if they were not promoting based on merit.”

“It is extremely inspiring and encouraging to see so many more women in executive roles in banking than ever before. Work hard and don’t be afraid to be the loudest voice in the room.”

Recognizing the Strength of Women in Leadership Roles

One frequently cited barrier to women holding leadership positions is stereotyping. In banking, male leadership has been at the forefront for centuries and unfortunately our society has been slow to recognize the misconceptions placed on women taking on these positions.

Staples states that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges women often face when looking to expand their career, however, it’s important to not give up.

Although our society as a whole has become increasingly more accepting of women in positions of power, women are often being held to a higher standard than men. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018, 60% of people say that women have to do more to prove themselves than men to become top executives in businesses.

“Misconceptions such as leading too emotionally, distractions at home, and work/life imbalance affect all leaders — not just women,” said Heroux.

As our business practices and societal norms continue to evolve throughout the 21st century, many women have received greater recognition for their efforts throughout the pandemic. In fact, many businesses found that their women leaders took initiative and acted with resilience during the crisis.

An article by Forbes highlighted that aggressive, transactional approaches to business have created lower engagement, higher turnover, and the emulation of toxic behavior. As diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) become a greater focus of Wisconsin banks, it is important to consider how leadership style plays into this, and how both men and women alike can re-think traditional models of leadership.

It is clear that though the banking industry, and the financial sector in general, is no longer as divided as it once was, there is still work to be done in leveling the playing field for men and women alike by creating opportunities for women to expand their careers and encouraging more diversity at every level.

While women continue to push against tradition and gain leadership positions by demonstrating their abilities, seeking knowledge and information, and taking on greater responsibilities, Provancher encourages women to “actively get involved in making your bank a better place.”

“Know and understand the value that you can offer and to be able to advocate for yourself and the experience you bring to the table when necessary.”

“Over the course of my banking career, I have seen more and more opportunities open up for women. It is important that we continue to provide networking opportunities, leadership development, and think outside of the box. I also would encourage all women to speak up, try new things, and promote yourself — you are your own best cheerleader!”

“Be your authentic self, always! If they don’t like you for you, it is not going to be a good fit long term. Get involved! With your team, with your community, with peer groups, with trade associations. Never stop learning! Banking is constantly changing, and it is a must to stay well-informed of issues, changes in the industry, and the evolution of products and services.”

*As of October 2022, women in the position of president and/or chief executive officer represented 17 of the over 170 banks in the state.

The 16th annual WBA Women in Banking Conference will make its return to an in-person event, while also offering the livestreaming option for those who prefer to attend from the comfort of their home or office. Scheduled for Tuesday, April 26, 2022 in Wisconsin Dells, this is a must-attend event for your women bank leaders!

Founder of Headbands of Hope, Jess Eckstrom, will join the conference as our keynote speaker, sharing her message that aligns with her book, Chasing the Bright Side: Embrace Optimism, Activate Your Purpose, and Write Your Own Story. Each conference attendee, whether attending in Wisconsin Dells or via livestream, will also receive a copy of the book, and a headband will be donated in recognition of each conference attendee to a local children’s hospital. By using her story of creating a million-dollar company from her dorm room, Eckstrom talks about the three essential tools to practicing optimism: confidence mindset, failure management, and purpose activation.

Bell Bank’s Chief of Staff and Executive Vice President – Chief Culture Officer Julie Peterson Klein will share her message on leading with your heart. Peterson Klein has 30 years of banking and leadership experience, the past 23 with Bell, where she leads the company culture for the company’s 1,800 team members. Peterson Klein was instrumental in implementing Bell’s Pay It Forward program, which has given over $19.6 million in the past 14 years to those in need. Her role includes encouraging employee mentorship, empowering employees to lead in community service, and ensuring team members are recognized for employment anniversaries, personal milestones, and outstanding service.

In addition to a great lineup of speakers and presentations, those attending in Wisconsin Dells will enjoy the valuable networking that takes place throughout the conference, including a dedicated session of tabletop conversations to share ideas, ask questions, and learn best practices from your peers.

Get a head start on meeting with your peers by attending an optional networking event on Monday evening. A morning yoga session is also available for those who want an early refresh before the conference kicks off.

Make plans to join your fellow women in banking leaders in the Dells on April 26. You can find more information on the conference agenda, room block details and more at

At some point, everyone faces the burdens of stress. Whether it’s caused by an increased workload or personal struggles, the potential for stress to become habitual poses risks of its own. This stress can become part of a pattern, and this is when burnout begins.  

Tellers, mortgage loan officers, CFOs, personal bankers, and every position in between have all likely dealt with burnout at some point in their career. Catching it early and mitigating its impact is ideal, but knowing how to treat it as it occurs and understanding the complexity of it can be equally as important.  

“I think too many people have this idea that the solution to burnout is variety,” said Rachel Sheerin, CPBA. “When we think about burnout at its core, burnout happens when joy begins to leave your work. It used to be that burnout happened as a result of doing too much of one thing, but that was in a different kind of world. When joy leaves your work, it becomes easier for joy to leave your life. And that is the real danger of it.” 

Managing Burnout Before It Happens 

The most impactful time to manage burnout is as soon as the symptoms begin to show. Just a few of the common signs noted were irritability, frustration, and anxiety, but Candy Allard, AVP/HR specialist at Badger Bank, Fort Atkinson, noted that signs might be less obvious, like calling in sick more frequently or being a bit more quiet than usual. 

“Always encourage employees to ask for help,” said Allard. “Make sure you’re paying attention and see if there are any noteworthy signs that an employee is acting a little abnormal. Most of them aren’t going to immediately tell you what they’re going through. Many of them choose to just work through it.” 

For those who decide to ignore their stress, HR and executive leadership are in positions to be observant and help employees facing these challenges. Kelly Heroux, president of Peshtigo National Bank, stated that a key indicator someone might be dealing with this stress is that they’re making reactive decisions rather than taking a proactive approach. As a result, these individuals will begin to lose focus on their long-term goals.  

“Aside from employees outwardly telling us, what I’ve noticed is short-term thinking rather than long-term vision,” said Heroux. “This past year has been all about thinking of the day-to-day, and now we are reaching that point where we have to reprogram our thought process and get back to thinking of that long term.” 

Heroux added that those in leadership positions play major roles in this type of rethinking, and one of the best ways they can assure overall success is by staying honest and inviting open communication. An article published in The Wall Street Journal cited a study conducted by Harvard Medical School faculty that found 96% of senior leaders claimed to have dealt with burnout at some point in their career. Few of the CEOs, however, ever admitted to anyone that they were facing this level of stress.  

“Everyone can talk about failure after the fact, but no one does until failure is in the rearview mirror,” Sheerin said. “They feel comfortable because they’ve already worked through it. We need to address our failures while we’re going through them because success doesn’t work like the American Dream. Part of progressive executive leadership today is about identifying when you’ve burned out and sharing stories about it.”  

When someone at the top acts as though everything is fine, Sheerin noted that this trickles down and that discussing the negatives while working toward the positives comes with benefits. Sharing these challenges and explaining how to best handle the situation only reminds staff that everyone is in the scenario together, everyone is human, and everyone is striving for the best possible outcome.  

“I’m sure I speak for every bank when I say we have a very open-door policy,” said Heroux. “I think communication is key and it’s important to make yourself available when someone needs to talk about these concerns and to be honest when they do. If our employees are comfortable enough to discuss it, that’s a major portion of the solution right there.”  

Identifying the Source of Burnout  

In an ideal world, the elements of stress could be spotted and resolved before they ever begin to have an actual effect. In the real world, however, dealing with burnout means finding the source of your stress.    

“You can really see personalities change from [burnout], and I’ve noticed that it tends to be those that have kids at home,” said Allard. “They’re going back and forth with whether they’re in person or virtual and if something gets shut down then it becomes a matter of this class being virtual while their other kids are in school, and it’s tough to watch the parents go through this challenge of being teachers and workers and so much more.” 

Allard noted that although she sees many parents experiencing burnout, high levels of stress affect everyone for a variety of reasons. Because of this, some of the biggest stressors might not be coming from work at all, but from the unpaid jobs that are being done outside of the office.  

“Unpaid work is something we don’t talk about nearly as much, and I think it’s one of the easier ways to burnout,” said Sheerin. “You love your family, and your kids, and your significant other, and you want what’s best for them, so you’re always willing to go that extra mile.” 

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding burnout is that you can only experience the symptoms by taking part in monotonous routines. Sheerin noted that it’s much more complex and nuanced than many believe and that people can burn out from just about anything. Heroux added that with all the tasks we take on as workers, she isn’t surprised that sources of stress are coming from more unexpected places.  

“There are a lot of distractions in everyone’s life,” said Heroux. “I don’t think we pay enough attention to how much those distractions take away from our well-being and our focus. It’s important to determine what those distractions are on an individual level, because there’s a good chance that will bring you a great amount of calm. Life can be a lot when you let it happen all at one time.”  

For Sheerin, burnout can happen in the simplest of ways, but it can have lasting effects. Since stress is often likened to difficult, constant, or tedious work that an individual is not interested in doing, I asked whether it might be possible to burn out while working on something someone truly enjoys. 

“I think that’s the only way you can burn out,” Sheerin stated. “If you're not passionate about what you’re doing, you can’t burn out. No one has ever gotten too stressed from passively working their way through life. People in these positions are either passionate about their work, their job, their team, or something that leads to an eventual burning out.”  

Other Tips to Tackle Stress 

There is no single correct way to beat burnout. The important part is that you understand when it’s happening and identify the source of it. Treating it properly will vary between individuals and could require something as small as an afternoon off or something larger like the reconsideration of a project.  

“We try to be flexible in our scheduling, which is what you have to do when school becomes virtual and parents suddenly can’t work in the same capacity that they’ve been doing,” said Allard. “This kind of flexibility is going to be crucial as we look at our work moving forward.” 

Along with checking in with employees, Allard has found success in encouraging mental health by advertising an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to staff. This voluntary, work-based program offers resources such as short-term counseling, free and confidential assessments, and follow-up services for employees facing work-related or personal problems. Reminding employees of similar resources can be an enormous benefit when considering the uncertainty of the pandemic people continue to navigate. 

“Burnout has been around for a very long time,” said Heroux, “but this past year has accelerated the cause and heightened the effects.”  

With so many factors outside of any one person’s control, Heroux finds it helpful to step back from the world for a bit and self-assess. Her method of managing stress includes unplugging from social media, limiting distractions, and determining a good length of time to recharge. This could be an hour, an afternoon, or a full day, and truly depends on the source of burnout. If nothing else, Heroux joins the minority of leaders who find relief in simply talking about their stress. 

“When you’re in the thick of a job, it can be impossible to see outside of what you’re doing,” said Sheerin. “I think the fact that more people, especially those in executive leadership positions, are willing to talk about this issue is a sign that we’re moving in the right direction.” 

Sheerin will be presenting "Burning at Both Ends – Healing and Managing Burnout in Your Work/Life" at WBA's Empowering Women in Banking virtual series, click here to register.

Disclaimer: This content refers to burnout in a broad sense and is not intended to substitute medical advice. For serious health concerns, please seek the advice of a qualified medical professional. 

By, Alex Paniagua