How one Minnesota banking exec views industry changes and opportunities for women

By Hannah Mitchell

When Angela O’Neill first entered the financial services industry in the 1990s, few women filled top roles, especially within commercial finance. However, through her perseverance, Angela has advanced to be a commercial and corporate banking leader and a champion for women and other underrepresented groups at Associated Bank and across the financial services industry.

She credits her advancement to a strong work ethic, commitment to client service and leadership development opportunities, along with good managers and mentors who supported her along the way.

Now, as Associated Bank’s commercial and corporate banking market leader in Minnesota, O’Neill hopes to inspire others to achieve their career aspirations in what continues to be primarily a male industry. She says all voices — women’s, men’s and minorities’ — carry equal value and need to be fully considered when creating opportunities for customers and team members alike.

O’Neill recently talked with the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal about her career journey and the importance of women’s advancement.

How have things changed for women in banking since you entered the industry?

Angela O’Neill: Banking had historically been perceived as a male-dominated industry, but within the past two decades, it has recognized the value of a diverse and inclusive workforce. Associated Bank’s leadership, in particular, has taken significant steps to draw from a wider talent pool with a lot of emphasis around developing and advancing women and minority groups. Since 2011, we’ve gone from 17% to more than 32% of senior roles being filled by women.

How has your work on Associated Bank’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council informed your thinking about women in banking?

O’Neill: We started the council in 2011 and it’s been instrumental in our diversity, equity and inclusion programming. Being part of that council opened my understanding of the importance of advancing women and other underrepresented groups in our organization. While I was on the council, I helped start the Women’s Colleague Resource Group in the Twin Cities. In establishing this group and working with other women’s groups in the organization, we’ve built a network where we can help to develop female colleagues’ skills and talents at every level of the organization.

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Importantly, I’ve also seen how our other colleague resource groups focused on pride and equality, cultural awareness, veterans and more are able to share experiences and address issues that affect our colleagues, customers and business decisions.

What are some of the biggest challenges women face in the industry today?

O’Neill: Though women have made notable gains, most of the highest levels of leadership in banking are still held by men. Because we don’t have a seat at the table equal to our male counterparts, the challenge comes in simply making our voices heard. I appreciate it when I see women held in the same regard as our male counterparts. In terms of a level playing field, we’re not there yet, but we are making strides in the right direction.

How has working with male counterparts influenced your behavior?

O’Neill: Female colleagues generally react to situations differently than their male counterparts, and that’s OK. Often women think they have to keep their voices subdued in order to get their point across. However, I’ve learned that I am not going to temper my reactions and it’s okay to be emotional – or passionate – about my work. I am true to myself, and I’ve been supported in my career because of it.

What advice would you share with women considering entering the industry or who are early in their banking careers?

O’Neill: If you can, find a mentor. It doesn’t have to be in your line of business. You have to have an outlet. Sometimes, with the challenges I face, it’s helpful to raise questions or share ideas with people I trust — a trusted advisor group. I have some mentors internally and one former manager who’s a dear friend. I also say don’t be afraid to be the lone voice or stand out on a limb. When you feel strongly about something, stand by your convictions. Raise your hand to volunteer — opportunities come to you when you’re willing to take risks.

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Are there things you hope the industry can do to make banking more attractive to women?

O’Neill: Organizations are trying to attract women and other diverse candidates, yet it’s difficult when you don’t see women or people who are diverse in leadership roles. When recruiting and developing people, reach out to women who exhibit good leadership qualities. Talk with them about development opportunities and give them stretch assignments.

For example, I currently have someone on my team who is not in a leadership role, but could be. She just had her second child. I have a child of my own and am supportive of her decision to put family first. We continue working to develop her leadership skills, and she knows the door is open when she’s ready to take the next step.

Please talk about how diversity makes a difference when it comes to serving clients.

O’Neill: Different voices and opinions — whether it’s on a board, a soccer team, a PTA, a bank — are critical to having a well-rounded organization, making improvements and serving clients.

A lot of our clients are male business owners. Not to insinuate that my male counterparts wouldn’t be as effective (in working with them), but as a female banker I can bring a different perspective to the table. It’s also pretty powerful as a senior female banker to meet other business leaders focused on advancing women. You feel like you’re heard.

How does Associated Bank help women succeed at their jobs?

O’Neill: There’s a tremendous amount of management and leadership training and development for new and existing leaders. One program I participated in, Leading Leaders, took new leaders and individuals we saw potential in and gave them training. Managers work with colleagues on development and career planning — where do see yourself in the next 12 months, five years? As an organization, we put tremendous effort into understanding where colleagues want to go. An organization can only take you so far; you have to be a champion for your career. Opportunities don’t always fall into someone’s lap, but they’re there for those who want to work hard, learn and stretch.

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Why should organizations tap Associated Bank for commercial lending needs? What sets it apart?

O’Neill: We’re a nimble organization. We have all the products and services of a larger bank. You get local leadership and decision-making. I’m part of our Engage Local leadership team in the Twin Cities, which works with other leaders on initiatives to help drive business, volunteerism and sponsorships at the local level. Commercial clients get local decision-making by people who know the market and understand the challenges businesses face, because we’re here. It’s what makes Associated Bank unique.

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