Key Steps to Senior Level Business Success


By Claudia Merkle

What do the CEOs of GM, PepsiCo, IBM, and Fidelity Investments all have in common?  They are all women.

How did they make it?  One of the keys is to realize that as women, much of what we learned as girls may be counter-productive to being successful in the business world.  So, we have to adapt.  We must learn how to thrive.

That’s why one of my passions is finding ways to help other women in the mortgage industry succeed, whether that means mentoring, giving advice, or leading by example.  Women can be more prone to excel in certain areas and often bring a diverse skill set to the table. The question is: how can we foster that talent and put more women in senior level roles?

Section 342 of the Dodd-Frank Act directs financial institutions and their vendors to diversify their workforces to include women and minorities to the maximum extent possible. The new standards provide covered entities with a framework to conduct annual self-assessments of diversity and inclusion efforts. It’s important to note that the standards are voluntary: there isn’t an enforcement mechanism in place under Section 342. Yet mortgage lenders and other financial institutions would be wise to follow the framework outlined under Dodd-Frank. A diverse workforce can improve financial performance, lead to more innovation, and finally, can help attract a diversified customer base.

Whether you’re a woman just starting her career or you’re already in a leadership role—or somewhere in between– here are some valuable techniques to reach whatever level of success is in your dreams:

1) Make things happen. Women can have a tendency to step back and politely wait for others to tell them what to do.  Instead, think about the best ways to move your organization forward, then sponsor or launch an initiative to do that.  And part of setting the pace is to constantly be thinking about what the next steps are for your team or for your organization.

2) Listen carefully. Women do this very well. Make sure you’re listening carefully to those in your department, on your team, and in the entire organization. Listening is the key to effective working relationships among employees and between management and staff.

3) Trust your instincts. As women, we have the unique ability to know how things are shifting, whether it’s good or bad. If you have a sense that something is shifting in your organization, think about what you need to do to either change the course or further the course. Then, set the pace by taking action.

4) Get organized and be prepared. Many women are great at organization and preparation. Prepare for that meeting, write that document, or put that agenda or deck together! Prepare for what’s ahead: the meeting, the day, the month, or the year. This is an area where women can really shine.

5) Be yourself.  Do not try to become something that others want you to be. You’ll ultimately be happier, and if your true self doesn’t mesh well with your organization, it’s not a good fit.  Being yourself also allows other co-workers and customers to get to know the real you, and being authentic makes others feel more comfortable.  People prefer to do business with people they like and are comfortable with.

6) Develop a network. Cultivate trusted advisors and seek out strong mentors. It’s great to have someone you can turn to and ask questions like “Am I heading in the right direction? What do you think of this plan? Can you help me think this through?”

7) Maintain high organizational awareness. That means staying connected to the other departments in your organization. What’s top of mind for them? In my current role, I work to involve women—and men for that matter—who are in management roles outside of the C-suite in executive level meetings. I do so because they often have insight into company operations or specific projects that senior vice presidents may not have. I also try to understand where others are coming from, which women are very good at. Put yourself in their shoes. Understand their perspective and you’ll be able to talk to others in productive ways.

8) Lead by example. If you work on incorporating all of the above techniques, you will be leading by example. And that can include so many things: Inspiring your teammates or your direct reports. Demonstrating a great work ethic. Even how you dress and how you prepare for work can set a great example for other women.

9) Know that knowledge is power.  Really understand your business. Understand your company. Understand your industry. Get as much education and training as you can. Knowledge IS power, especially in the business world. Actively seek out opportunities for education and training. Doing so will help you develop the profile of an executive.  In addition to pursuing a degree, women can become more educated by joining professional organizations and attending mortgage industry conferences. Read the key trade publications and stay abreast of current issues.  When seeking a job, look for companies that offer training programs and professional development opportunities.

10) Find the humor in your day. Enjoy the things at work that make you laugh or smile. A good sense of humor is infectious, helps you maintain perspective, and can ease stress in difficult situations.

Financial Institutions are encouraged to diversify when hiring

There’s good reason for mortgage lenders to focus on hiring and placing more women in leadership positions. Mortgage lenders should be aware of what’s known as Section 342, a little-known provision of The Dodd-Frank Act governing diversity. In June 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and other federal regulators set standards to measure whether financial institutions and mortgage lenders regulated by the federal agencies are encouraging diversity in their policies and business practices.

On so many levels, hiring women is just good business.

Claudia Merkle

Claudia Merkle serves as chief operating officer (COO) for National MI. She oversees underwriting, operations, servicing, sales, marketing and business development. Merkle has over 25 years of experience within the mortgage banking and mortgage insurance industries, and has held previous executive leadership positions in national and regional business development, operations and risk management. 



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