Women hold approximately 16 percent of senior leadership positions in financial services companies throughout the United States. While this percentage indicates progress for parity in leadership — women have never held so many high-ranking roles — 16 percent is still well below 50 percent. So, what’s the hold up? What’s holding women back?
The phrase most often thrown around is the “glass ceiling,” but businesswoman and author Kim Azzarelli has another take: the barrier to more women in senior positions is “a thick layer of men.” Still, that isn’t the full story. In a recent interview with Mortgage Women Magazine, National Mortgage Insurance’s Claudia Merkle broke down what she thinks is keeping women from the higher reaches of leadership and how she believes our strengths will get us there. Merkle has been the industry giant’s Chief Operating Officer since September 2016, and prior to that had been National MI’s Executive Vice President of Insurance Operations since 2013. She joined the company in 2012 as the Senior Vice President of Underwriting Fulfillment and Risk Operations and holds over 25 years of industry experience. She knows her way around a corner office.
MWM: My first question for you is, as a strong female leader in our industry, what are some lessons learned that have been most influential for you?
CM: I would say there are three key things. I really learned to prepare along the way. Preparation is key; preparation and practice. I used to wing it a lot. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and think about what you want to say and how you want to present. And then practice it, because that makes a big difference.
Second, find a trusted source. Find someone in the industry—either at your workplace or a family person. It could be someone in another industry, but someone you feel you can talk to. That was a big lesson learned for me.
And then the most important lesson that I’ve learned is you really have to care about peoples’ success. If you want to lead and you want to work with women, all of your employees, or any people you want to influence, you really have to care about their success. Caring goes hand in hand with leadership.
MWM: Do you notice any differences between the way men lead and the way women lead? What special strengths do you think women can bring to leadership roles?
CM: I think women are born trainers, Kristin. I think we have a communication style that starts from the beginning and goes through the meat of the situation and has an ending. A strength for women is to step back and really frame out a situation really well. And that’s not to say men don’t have that ability, I just think it’s a strength for a woman. Communication is key.
MWM: In this male-dominated industry, what do you think are some of the greatest challenges women have in aspiring to leadership roles?
CM: You know, Kristin, this is something that I’ve always thought about. It starts to crystalize a little bit more as you get older and get more involved in leadership. I believe that women have to find their voice; they have to be able to really frame up a situation. Sometimes that’s as simple as, ‘I want to circle back with the group and talk about why we had this question before and what my thoughts are.’ Or, ‘I thought about something we dealt with the other day and I brought a few slides to really frame up some thinking around this subject or department or work flow.’ So, I think framing things up is a way to get our voices heard.
MWM: So, following up after meetings is important, as well as this kind of framing?
CM: Following up with meetings—or a lot of times I would come into an executive meeting afterwards and say, ‘Last meeting we talked about ‘x’ and I’ve been thinking about this, and I have some expertise on this and I’ve talked to a few people, and here are a few slides that I think really pull the entire subject all together.’ And they’re meaningful, it’s not like you are doing it just to do it. You’re doing it because you didn’t really have a chance to say what you wanted to say, or nobody was really listening. Sometimes you have to step back and push that voice.
MWM: So, in light of that, what can women do to improve our career trajectory?
CM: The framing piece is part of it. I think the other piece is constantly looking for leadership roles; take on some projects. Listen very carefully and don’t always think, ‘I’ll wait for someone to do that’ or ‘I’ll wait for someone to ask me to do that.’ It’s saying, ‘I’m going to actually take the initiative,’ and ‘I’m going to create a little task force or have a meeting and become more knowledgeable about something.’ And then again, frame it up, and be additive to the team, and really use your voice.
MWM: On the management side, what do you think managers can do to better encourage and promote women into leadership roles?
CM: Certainly, any leader has to be thinking about the women in leadership in the company first. But I’ve thought back to the people who have helped me and I really listened to people along the way that said, ‘Boy, you can do this,’ or ‘This is something that I would really take on.’ And there are people who you don’t expect. I had an assistant when I was in my late 20s that said, ‘You should really strive to manage more people.’ And then I listened to why’s. A boss that I had said, ‘You’re my succession plan, I just want to originate loans.’ If you listen to these steps along the way, listen to people that influence you.
It’s really important that we influence other women, so tell them that they’re doing a great job and why. And what you see them doing. ‘I envision that you could run this company.’ ‘I envision that you could be our next CFO.’ ‘I envision that you could lead a big group.’
I think that’s one: us encouraging each other. The other thing is, the men that we work around with, I think we need to say to them, ‘You’ve got to look to the women in the company.’ So, if there’s a search for a position, be the first to say to that man or within that group, ‘Let’s really look to the women in the company and for an executive woman to lead.’ So, it’s really upon us to drive that.
MWM: Being intentional about it is definitely a big factor. And it also really goes back to what you said earlier about really caring about other people’s success.
CM: Yes, very important.
MWM: So, what piece of advice made the biggest difference in your career?
CM: I was given the advice once, and I would give it to everyone again: Take a risk. You’ll think, ‘Oh, I can’t make that move,’ ‘It’s too much,’ ‘Will I hurt my family,’ and you go through all these things. You don’t want to be selfish, but if you have a little voice in yourself that says you want to do something, find a way to take that risk and do it. It really does pan out and it’s very rewarding to look back and say, ‘Boy that…’ And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, but taking a risk can really make a difference.
MWM: I heard that a lot of people, including yourself I think at one point, explain that a lot of women don’t want to take that next step because it feels like we won’t be able to take a breath because we’re trying to balance a lot of different things in our lives. Can you describe what your process is in kind of letting go?
CM: I was really bad at letting go. I think women have an insatiable desire to be perfect at everything. We just do, it’s just in our DNA. Whether it’s our home life, whether you’re decorating a room, or whether you’re at work, it’s really hard to let things go. What I’ve done are simple things. You know, the piles are stacking and there’s a pile at home that’s the bill pile and hopefully it’s getting paid. So, sometimes you just have to organize the pile and put it over in the corner and put in the calendar when you’re going to do it. I find that if I calendar something out and say, ‘Monday night I’m going to do my bills after I work out,’ or ‘Tuesday is my me-day’—whatever it is—sometimes that helps you plan your week, and then it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. You’re not letting it go, you’re just compartmentalizing it. And that I think is really helpful.
MWM: In closing, is there anything else you would want to tell female professionals that aspire to leadership or growth opportunities in the future?
CM: I would say that all women are true leaders at heart, mothers and professionals alike. Use your voice, speak up, do what you need to do in order to get to that next step or be really, really great at what you’re doing today. I think women in a company and in the family are always the ones that everyone gravitates to, and that’s tough, but it’s kind of what we were built for. And keep up the great work.
Interview performed by Kristin Messerli, Managing Editor, Mortgage Women Magazine.