As a teenager, Denise K. Mersinger took a part-time job during a summer as a bank teller to pay for dance lessons. Planning to be an education major in college, she said she will never forget when her father came to visit her one day because he wore such a proud expression on his face.
“He looked over and saw this guy in this office and he asked me ‘What does that guy in the office do?’ And I said ‘Dad, he is the bank manager’ and my dad replied ‘Well, find out what you need to do to get that job’ and I mentioned to him there were no other female bank managers and he said to me to be the first. That was my goal then. I never regretted my decision to go for it.”
Her path to leadership in the finance world began through a management training program leading to a position as a bank manager for a single branch, later becoming a sales and service regional manager overseeing 40 branches. Leaping over to the investment side after helping a client, today, Mersinger is Senior Vice President, wealth management advisor at Merrill Lynch/Bank of America.
Yet there is still a lack of women in the finance field. Mersinger will speak with attorneys who note she is the first female financial advisor they have spoken with all year or that they don’t know many. Involved with the National Academy Foundation’s Academy of Finance, she encourages young women to consider the field. “Girls are not getting the idea they may like it and be good at it,” she said. “…I think it is very, very important to get past that fear because this industry wants them and needs them.”
Kathleen M. Murphy first saw the power of an organization harnessing perspectives from members and being able to provide a broader voice for the industry while working at the National Sheriffs’ Association. After moving to Ohio for her husband’s job, she worked in the financial card services division at Bank One. “I would literally take the technical work that the engineers did and make it into lay terms for the end users which were community banks and credit unions,” she said.
While she was using skills from her Marietta College English bachelor’s degree, Murphy missed interacting with people so she applied for and got the director of communications position at the Ohio Bankers Association. “As a young professional, I was just trying to soak it all up,” she said. “I took advantage of every opportunity I had to learn and to learn from the people that we were there to represent.”
After moving back to the DC area, she served for 13 years as the director of community banking for the American Bankers Association. Her national position lead her to work with many CEOs and industry leaders but seeing the value and power of state associations, she became the president/CEO of the Maryland Bankers Association in 1999.
“You get to know all of the future leaders of your industry when you are in a state association,” she said. “…Often times and I am a big believer in this — you go through a door in life and you are not always sure necessarily why you are going through that door but eventually you go through that door and you look back and you realize ‘OK. That’s why that happened.’ Life makes a lot of sense when you look at it backwards which is one of my mom’s adages and I have found that to be the case.”
Howard Bank CEO Mary Ann Scully notes her career path has been less traditional beginning at First National Bank of Maryland (later becoming Allfirst) to helping launch the Ellicott City-based bank.
“(My career is) a fairly consistent pattern of some traditional promotions but also periodic decisions on my part to do something different even if that meant a lateral move or in certain cases I went from managing 100 people in international banking to managing nobody in the mergers and acquisitions group. … It is deciding that you want either more experiences or more depth or more breath in your career and not just looking for the traditional promotion.”
For women looking to potentially take on leadership positions in finance, area leaders have some tips.
Murphy notes women really have to understand where their passion lies. “To be successful in any job it has got to be something that you enjoy and you love to do,” she said. Focus on your skills and interests and figure out how they tie into the finance industry. Also “figure out who to connect with, who can share their perspective and maybe you can take something away that will help you in terms of your ultimate goals,” she said.
Mersinger has noticed women sometimes lack high self-esteem in the finance world because there are not many in the field. She often encourages women to believe in themselves and step out of their comfort zone.
“We all know that women need other women as role models,” she said. “We need some to break through and become that role model because I think it is much easier for other women to climb that mountain, especially that mountain of fear that they think is so insurmountable, when they see the success of other women.”
Scully encourages women to be risk takers.
“Don’t take a tried and true path,” she said. “Don’t just look at climbing a ladder. You really need to look more at a matrix or a net of one step to the side, one step back, then a step up. Be a risk taker in terms of how you manage your career.”
Women also need to assume ownership for their own career, according to Scully. If you want an advisor or mentor, don’t rely on someone volunteering. Women need to ask first. “You should not wait for a formal mentorship program to start,” she said. “You should seek out people inside and outside of your company and ask them if they will work with you, mentor you, advise you.”