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Recently, I had a male bank CEO reach out to me regarding his frustration in getting his high performing female employees to consider promotions or accepting additional responsibilities. He emphasized that he recognized the need to promote women  within his organization and identified three specific women who, based on their skill sets, work ethic, and knowledge, were perfect for the positions he had available. I was shocked when he revealed to me that they weren’t interested in the positions and ultimately turned him down. I asked him to put his experience into a guest blog post but he requested to remain anonymous in an effort to protect his employees who turned down the opportunity. 

From the Desk of A Male CEO | We’re Trying Harder Than You Think

I grew up in a Christian home with a family of 4 in the south.  We didn’t have lavish vehicles or fancy homes, but we didn’t go without.  We lived about 10 minutes outside of town on 5 acres.  My parents kept me busy with chores, sports, and homework.  Every summer beginning at age 12 I would work for my father’s construction business mostly cleaning jobsites and doing chores that didn’t require much technical skill.  But I was extremely pleased to make the $3/hour I was paid.  He always let a friend work with me, so we had fun while we worked and learned some technical skills along the way.  I attended college at a university and continued to get my master’s degree with intentions of going into the construction business to follow my father’s footsteps.

But, like many of us in this industry, somehow, I ended up in the finance industry.  I was asked to join a group that was starting a bank.  This was an opportunity I could not turn down, and I jumped on it.  Fifteen years later, I am a 42-year-old CEO of a $1.5 billion institution with 260 employees.

Every day I turn on the news and see reports on discrimination, disparate treatment, and much more against minorities, females, and those classified due to their selection of sexuality.  For so long, I could not believe there were so many cases where powerful wealthy men took advantage of the less fortunate that belong to these categories.  First, there are some truly evil people in this world and they absolutely disgust me despite their political views or life choices.  But nowadays, the news is now so politically driven depending on which cable channel you’re tuned into that its difficult to know the actual truth.  Having said that, these news reports have seemed to give some of us REALLY bad reputations.  Do you feel like if you’re a non-racist, non-sexist, middle aged white male that you are under attack?  Often, I do.

In banking, you hire for job qualifications and attitude.  Not race or gender.  You want people that smile, say “Good Morning” when customers walk in the door, offer help to others, and do things to help people that may not be on the job description.  At our Bank, we have a lot of these people of all genders and all races that have these qualities.  In our culture, we recognize these individuals quarterly with awards (monetary and non-monetary), recognition on the Bank intranet and on social media, and once a year our big winners make it in the paper.  We run ads promoting our community bankers in local newspapers and publications to show the community how special we believe these people truly are.

So why do I feel attacked?  At every conference I attend for any specific purpose, diversity is discussed in some way.  I, as well as my management team, strive to promote females as well as minorities.  Not to check a box on our affirmative action plan, or to simply appease the Department of Labor or the EEOC, but because having diversity allows for different points of view.  We value those opinions because they help us in so many ways.  It increases our Bank’s exposure to different kinds of people.  People we manage, people we would like to obtain as customers, and people we wish to employ.  It opens our minds to different cultures that we may or may not be familiar with and in turn fosters creativity, innovation, and overall better decision making.  Sounds easy right?  I thought so until I began the search to seek out and promote high performing individuals that I thought should be challenged with more responsibility.

When I became CEO, I identified positions I felt our Bank needed.  Positions of leadership where I believed I’d identified the most qualified people in our Bank to take the reigns and lead the charge with me into the future prosperity of this Bank.  These individuals happened to be 3 females that I knew were the perfect fit for the positions.  They had been in their respective areas anywhere from 5 – 15 years, and I had heard several times that they were excited about growth opportunity.  Confidently, I approached my first star.  She was a loan officer with an abnormally large portfolio, was extremely active in the community, and volunteered to help with most anything that was needed by the Bank.  As we chatted, I began discussing a void I had discovered in the lending function.  After the explanation, I asked, “So… what I would like to do is offer you this position as well as management training including a graduate school of banking opportunity.  This will build on an already strong foundation and give you insight into not only lending, but other areas of the Bank!”.  She wanted to think about the opportunity, which I understood, and would let me know that week.  After consideration, she wanted the job, but did not want to attend any training or travel.  I simply did not understand.  So I asked, “If this position requires management training, you would decline the opportunity?”.  The answer was “Yes.  I feel like being in this job for as long as I have, that I know just about everything there is to know”.  I was shocked.  I still am, shocked.  I respectfully explained why I hoped she would embrace this challenge and explained I would continue my search.  She understood.

Over the next few weeks I approached another female with a job opportunity in a different area of the Bank.  Again, I was met with resist to change.  This time because the individual did not want to be held to sales expectations.  “What is going on?!” I thought.  Was it my approach?  Were we too tough on our expectations?  Do these people not like me?  Maybe it’s someone in their departments?  Believe it or not, the questions continue to swirl.

Finally, a few months later, I approached an African American female to take the reigns of a market and grow the customer base in the town she grew up in and currently resided.  After the previous meetings, I made the delivery of the opportunity as attractive as possible.  Even relaxing the standards that I believed she could achieve.  Again I was met with a firm, no thanks.  This time, she simply enjoyed what she was doing and wanted to remain in her current role.

Now every year I attend a meeting where groups of 20 bank CEOs, classified by bank asset size, sit around a round table and discuss issues, opportunities, specific strengths, the future of the industry, and much more.  These bank CEOs are from all over the country.  While talking to the group during a break, I brought up my recent experiences.  Most of the people in this group are 55+ in age, and I ended up getting many life lessons in what to do and what to avoid in management.  But the summary of all the discussions were that they experienced the same too some extent.  Many had succeeded in promotion of women and minorities but were adamant in explaining it had nothing to do with their gender or race, only their qualifications and attitude.

Then a thought hit me.  We have two brilliant women on our executive management team.  Let’s have them start a mentor program and begin a “Women of Banking” group.  We’ll send different groups to conferences, have get-togethers, and grow this intelligence in our Bank.  The woman I approached did not feel confident to lead this endeavor.  Her response was “I prefer not to be thought of as female, but rather as a hard worker that is part of this team”.  While disappointed, I understood her response.  But I still wanted to form a group and train for future leadership roles and show appreciation.  So often, men build relationships playing golf, hunting, or fishing and this is an opportunity to create something fun and possibly even attract customers at the same time. I approached three different females at the Bank and pitched the idea.

“What if we invite a few female business owners, or even wives of business owners and fly you all to an event, featured speaker, museum, or anything you can think of that would be entertaining and begin a women’s group that will hopefully grow.  We could hold quarterly breakfasts/lunches/dinners and update them on community activities or Bank initiatives.”

While they seemingly liked the idea, I asked for suggestions of places or events to begin the group.  To this day, even after a follow-up I have not had one suggestion.

These are problems CEOs run into much more than people think.  There is no doubt there are sexist, racist, and overall disrespectful leaders out there that give the majority of us a very bad reputation.  But for those of us that want to diversify our leadership, the majority of us, well…  we’re trying harder than you think.

This article was written as a guest blog post for the Girl Banker. The opinions of the author are his own. He has requested to remain anonymous.