Written by Melinda Ennis-Roughton Tuesday, September 25 2012
Dorothy Savarese, President & CEO of Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank
Conjure up an image of a bank president, and you might think of the top-hatted old guy in the Monopoly game or a grayed-at-the-temples gentleman in a pinstriped suit. Women like Dorothy Savarese are changing those clichés. As the president and CEO of the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, she has twice been named by U.S. Banker and American Banker as one of the "25 Women to Watch" in banking.
Cape Cod Five Cents is an independent community bank with 15 locations throughout Massachusetts and deposits of approximately $1.5 billion. After beginning her career as a commercial lending officer for several economic development consulting firms, Savarese joined Cape Cod Five Cents 12 years ago as a commercial lending officer. Today, she is the first woman president in the bank’s 150-year history.
Womenetics talked to her about her rise to the top of an industry not known for C-level women executives.
Womenetics: Tell us about how you found your way into the world of finance.
Dorothy Savarese: During the time I worked in economic development, I recognized the importance of the job generation engine that small businesses represented. At the time, the availability of adequate credit for business was limited in the private sector. So, I worked in a number of settings to establish and expand public/private partnerships to provide financing to small and medium-sized businesses. I found that I really enjoyed partnering with companies and helping them obtain financing. I decided I could make the most positive impact on the government and nonprofit sector through work as a banker.
Womenetics: What are the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated financial industry?
Savarese: The interesting thing is that there are many women in the financial services industry, but they tend to be in certain segments, such as customer service, retail, human resources and marketing. The ranks thin when you look at management of P&L areas and at traditionally male activities like commercial lending and the C-suite. My background was in business lending, so I became a commercial lender after I entered banking. I was frequently the only woman in the room, and I found that being accepted as a professional by customers and peers took longer and had to be restarted with each new person. I saw that as a challenge that made me work harder and that once trust and credibility had been established, the gender issue dissipated. It used to bother me that there were many social and professional barriers to women’s advancement. Then I deliberately changed my perspective. Instead of seeing this as a barrier for me and other qualified women, I began seeing it as a financial industry problem that had to change to be competitive. The challenge was similar to access to credit that inhibits business growth. That was life-changing for me. It created an interest alignment with men in the industry since we were all looking for ways to compete more effectively. There have been remarkable gains for women in non-traditional areas of the financial industry. Research supports the fact that diversity of perspectives and talents helps companies succeed. However, there are still many challenges ahead.
Womenetics: What are the advantages, if any?
Savarese: The most obvious is that at CEO and senior management conferences I never have to wait in line to get into the restroom.
Womenetics: When you were moderator at last spring’s American Bankers Association (ABA) Women’s Leadership Forum, you encouraged the audience of women leaders to “unleash talent.” Tell us what you meant by that.
Savarese: It’s incumbent on women leaders to use their positions to unlock the talent of all who work with them and for them. As we learned from other businesswomen at the conference, sometimes they’re not sure how to move ahead. It’s up to all women who’ve risen to a high level to guide and encourage promising women. In addition, we have a responsibility to learn and engage in good self-examination to identify our own roadblocks to being fully effective. Overcoming our personal roadblocks honors our obligation to unleash our own talents.
Womenetics: Also at the ABA forum, you said the people who helped you along the way were men – with one exception. Tell us about that one exception.
Savarese: I learned a lot of lessons from the woman who challenged me and sponsored me early in my career. She was a pioneer. She gave me two significant opportunities early in my career – I actually worked for her in two different settings. She was a demanding taskmaster and was willing to say the hard things a good sponsor says about attire, informal organization and work style. She also let me learn from failure.
Womenetics: Tell us about your male mentors.
Savarese: I’ve had many outstanding mentors over the years. One man in particular, my boss for many years at my current institution, made the most impact. He was always direct with feedback but in a delightful, humorous and positive way. He saw my potential and actually created a new job in our institution for me so I could move out of commercial lending and become involved in product development and strategic planning. Through example, he taught me to be a better listener with our customers. He had a brilliant strategic mind and helped me focus on megatrends. One of the most important things he taught me is that sometimes you can’t force a fit – that you have to let things “ripen.”
I currently have a mentor who provides advice to our organization on people selection, development and team building. His understanding of the array of personalities is amazing. The modest amount that I have been able to absorb has been equivalent to getting another MBA. He has helped me grow personally and continually challenges me.
Womenetics: Do you have special programs for creating development opportunities for women at Cape Cod Five Cents? If so, what are they?
Savarese: As a small institution trying to thrive in a rapidly changing world, resources always seem strained. In our community, we have had an outmigration of young people, so our focus has been very much on recruitment regardless of gender, just because this presents such a challenge. We have been engaged in strategic planning and have delineated a mentoring program for women as a high priority.
Womenetics: What’s your best advice to other professional women? How about specific advice to women who want to enter the financial industry?
Savarese: I would begin with the advice I give to anyone entering my industry: You don’t have to change who you are to be successful. I’d also stress the importance of setting goals and doing hard work to reach them. But I would go farther with women and say that just as in learning a new sport, you have to immerse yourself in understanding the industry, the organizations and the informal and formal rules. Believe in yourself and dispassionately observe what people who are successful do and learn from that. As my former mentor said, when he wanted to grow a pumpkin for the 4-H fair, he first went to a fair to see if they gave out ribbons for largest, or heaviest or most symmetrically shaped… You get the picture. The other thing is to truly understand the difference between women and men in dealing with the issues of advancement. Go for advancement, even if you think you don’t have all the skills and it’s too risky. One of the best ways to learn is to fail. Trust me, I’ve had a lot of “experience.”
A few other thoughts are – follow the paths that align with your interests but strongly consider traditionally males areas because they typically have paths to management. And finally, try to find an organization with values that resonate with your own.
Womenetics: How do you balance career and personal interests or family?
Savarese: It’s hard for me to have hard and fast rules on this, as times and challenges change. My adult son feels like he got an appropriate amount of my time and plenty of love growing up. I work in time to keep close with my sisters and brothers but don’t spend enough time with friends. A breakthrough for me was shedding my hard wiring that I would perform all domestic tasks myself. I now seek ways to delegate.
Womenetics: What did you want to be when you were a little girl?
Savarese: When I was in elementary school, we had career day with a Navy representative. I told him I wanted to be a Navy jet pilot with a career path to an astronaut. He laughed and said, “We’d have to put a whole new ‘head’ on the carrier.” I said, “So, we can put a man in space, but you can’t figure out how to put an extra toilet on a ship? Sir, I think you need me in the Navy!”
More from women in the financial industry:
Studies show that monetary riches don't translate to a wealth of personal fulfillment, but Suzanne Durbin of GV Financial Advisors helps her clients invest in their happiness.
Mary Ellen Garrett of Merrill Lynch offers relatable financial advice based on several real-life scenarios. Find out how to make the most of your money even if you don't have very much of it.
Meredith Moore used her competitive edge to thrive in the wealth management industry, despite the loss of her mother, a battle with brain cancer and divorce.
Melinda Ennis-Roughton is the principal and owner of an Atlanta-based marketing firm called MelWorks Inc. with a range of clients from Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta to RaceTrac Petroleum. She is also a freelance writer specializing in women’s issues and film criticism, and was a film critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution from 2004-2007. Previously, Ennis-Roughton held a number of executive marketing positions at companies including Brand Atlanta, Church's Chicken, Fitzgerald & Co. and Arby's, where she was the first woman to hold the position of senior vice president of marketing.