What it takes for a woman to rise to a leadership role in banking or finance has changed in the last couple of decades, but one thing has not: the hard work and focus necessary for anyone to make it to the top.
“I’ve worked in different areas of banks including HR, retail banking, commercial banking. I’ve been on the sales side. I’ve been in the back office administrative side. And I think all of that varied experience positioned me well for the role I have now,” says Allana Lazeroff, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Genesee Regional Bank.
Lazeroff’s rise began nearly three decades ago when she worked as an intern at Rochester’s former First Federal Savings & Loan. Before the internship ended, a full-time position opened up and she transitioned into it. She has been with GRB for more than 11 years.
“Coming to GRB was an opportunity for me to continue to advance my career and assume a leadership role,” Lazeroff says. “I’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of different things here, ultimately culminating in the role I have today.”
The beauty of working for a small firm, she says, is that there is more opportunity to work in broader areas, as opposed to larger firms at which roles may be more narrowly focused. This allows women, and men, an opportunity to show leaders what they’re made of.
“First American Equipment Finance was a much smaller company when I started with them,” says Lisa Collins, director of credit for First American Equipment Finance of her nine-year career with the firm. “Working with a smaller company does give you more opportunity to wear more hats and learn a little bit more quickly. If you can get in when they’re growing, you grow with the company.”
Collins says climbing the ladder in finance also is about choosing carefully who you work for and seizing opportunity.
“I feel fortunate to have discovered FAEF,” she says, noting that First American’s parent, City National Bank, has named a woman as its new CEO. “I do think that it still can somewhat be a man’s world in banking. (But) I do think it’s changing.”
Nancy Catarisano is managing partner at Insero & Co. CPAs P.C., an accounting firm that grew out of a merger between Catarisano’s own company and a larger firm. At 29, she founded a firm and acknowledges she wore many hats. Following the merger she continually grew her role at Insero until she reached the top.
“I’ve been in public accounting my whole career and I feel like I created my own path because I always looked for the next challenge or mountain to climb,” Catarisano says. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit my whole life. So it really started, I believe, from just growing up that way and wanting to have control over my own destiny and to keep rising.”
And while she says women now are finding it easier to rise through the ranks of finance, that likely is a result of leaders discovering the benefits of having a diverse workforce.
“I think our whole working population is just more aware of diversity in general. So we have made great advancements, whether it be women or any other diverse population,” Catarisano says.
Lazeroff sees it the same way.
“Everybody’s becoming more and more aware of the benefit that diversity does bring to the table,” she says. “I think it’s an important topic for both men and women.”
But women, in particular, must maintain their authenticity, which may not always be easy, Lazeroff says.
“You develop a comfort level with being the only woman in the room or around the table,” she says. “And I think it’s important to maintain your authenticity because diversity, regardless of the type of diversity, whether that’s gender, religion or race, allows a lot of different perspectives. The organization benefits when you have different perspectives represented.”
What it takes for a woman to rise to a leadership role in finance and banking is no different from what it takes a man to attain the same role, women leaders say, and it probably doesn’t differ much from one industry to another.
“I do think there are many things that would be very similar for men and women, whether that’s hard work, having a continual interest in taking on more, whether it’s volunteering for a special project,” she explains. “I think it’s important to be a strong communicator and the ability to present your position or your opinion on things. You want to position yourself as a leader even if you don’t have formal leadership responsibility.”
Adds Collins: “What it takes to succeed in any field is to work on continuously improving yourself, put yourself in uncomfortable situations and take risks. Simple things like taking a course or a class in something you’re interested in learning or getting better at. Volunteer to present if your greatest fear is public speaking.”
It has been said that women sometimes lack confidence in their own skills. Women often will not take on new roles at work unless they are very certain they are qualified in all aspects of the job. Men, on the other hand, will consider themselves qualified if they meet just some of the requirements. Lazeroff says that’s got to change.
“Women need to be particularly confident in their abilities and willing to stretch themselves to try new things and maybe step out of that comfort zone a little bit to take on a challenge that maybe they don’t’ feel completely prepared for but likely they’re very capable of handling,” she says.
And women need to tout their industries and help other women achieve their leadership goals. GRB has launched a women’s resource group at the bank. Some 30 to 40 women participate, Lazaroff says.
“The mission is to focus on personal and professional development for women, but it’s all about how to propel women to whatever it is they want their next role to be, whether it’s taking on more responsibility in their current role or evolving to some type of leadership position,” Lazaroff explains. “So, how do we help bring women along?”
Adds Collins: “We as female leaders in finance have an obligation to advertise our fields so that young women are aware of all of their career choices.”