The Path of an Accidental Banker
By Jennifer Sobotta
Attending and enjoying the June BOLT Summer Leadership Summit, listening to the speakers, and connecting with old and now new friends makes me think of how I got to be where I am today. This year’s BOLT Summer Leadership Summit made me think of it even more as we talked about career pathing. So much so, that during my next turn at the podium I introduced myself as “Jen, the Accidental Banker.”
During my studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point back in the 90s, I had no intention of going into banking. I wanted to be a marketer after all and didn’t (and still don’t) care for numbers enough to be a lender. That was how I looked at banking back then — only the positions that you would see walking in as a customer.
My senior year, with the help of UWSP Career Services, I sent over 80 resumes, had 30 interviews, nine second interviews, and three job offers. Not one was in the financial services industry.
My first real job was on a marketing team at a rural hospital/nursing home. It was very community focused and located in a lovely rural area. I had the chance to learn from an experienced leader more than tactical marketing, but the art of navigating internal meetings, public relations, and community events.
When it came time to look for more growth with another company, a friend recommended a local bank that was expanding. I took a chance and happily joined the team at the end of 1998 with a lot to learn. My mentor there had led teams at a few other banks previously and shared her expertise constantly. My path to where I am today wasn’t straight, but it was paved by leaders willing to share. That’s an important lesson.
Within two years, that mentor retired, and I took a leap of faith that I could be the next marketing director. The bank took a chance on me and invested in me as I grew as a leader. They sent me on to the ABA School of Bank Marketing & Management and countless other conferences and seminars to learn new methods and software to fine-tune my craft. Through the years, I built my team up to three in the marketing department, and the bank grew to $500 Million in assets and 14 locations. Yet, it was again time to move on to the next challenge.
I received a call from an old colleague, a lender who I didn’t always have a chance to talk with much. He told me about the opening at Forward and encouraged me to apply. That gentleman has risen to the role of president and is the leader I now report to. A great lesson that every interaction with people is important — you don’t know when and what is noticed.
The past 12 years have been a blur, much like when you are speeding down a highway. I’ve seen the same level of investment in me as a team member and more in all of us as leaders. We all challenge each other to innovate, to remove the traditional roadblocks, and push back at the naysayer mindset sometimes found in financial services. We understand that banking isn’t a transaction, it’s now an experience.
Forward is now approaching $1 billion in assets with 12 locations, seven insurance offices, and three investment offices. When I look around, there are many accidental bankers like me with the list growing each year.
As the current Building Our Leaders of Tomorrow (BOLT) Board chair and thinking of the time spent working with and learning from the Wisconsin Bankers Association (WBA), we are all lucky to have this resource. From serving on the Marketing Committee, then as its chair to being part of BOLT and now proud to be this year’s chair, I wonder what will be next. Where else can I continue to learn and lead through that process?
One final lesson that has stayed with me for over 20 years. My 90-year-old grandfather swung a golf club for the first time as I was practicing in the yard after his birthday party. Knowing he would never play a course, I asked him why even learn to swing the club. He told me, “you never stop learning until you leave this earth.” Best lesson ever.
I may not have chosen initially to be a banker, but the path I’ve taken has been created by the lessons of leaders around me. Good luck on your journey.
Interested in attending the next BOLT Summit?
Sobotta is vice president – marketing director at Forward Bank in Marshfield