The Cooperative Bank’s first woman president & CEO reflects on
women in leadership roles and the importance of mentorship

By Carol K. Dumas

Women are running for president. Women run major corporations. But women still have far to go in terms of leadership numbers and equal pay.

While Lisa Oliver has witnessed many positive changes in the workplace for working women in her more than 30 years in the financial services industry, The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod’s first woman president and CEO agrees that women still face challenges related to gender in the business world.

Like many women in leadership roles, Oliver faced the inevitable climb up the ladder in the male-dominated business world.

“What’s changed is that there are more women in the workplace, women have a voice at the table and they are role models and mentors,” says Oliver, who joined The Cooperative Bank just two and a half years ago. “There are more organizations that mentor women and grassroots organizations for women to share experiences. What hasn’t changed: there are not many women in the senior ranks of organizations and women are under-represented at the board table. We still see that climbing, too few minority women on senior management teams and men are still being paid more than women.”

In a relatively short amount of time, Oliver has become such a mentor in both her historic role at “The Coop” and in the Cape Cod community, serving on the board of the Cape Cod Foundation and Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. Sixty percent of her management team is made up of women.

One of her most notable accomplishments since joining the bank is the establishment of The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod Charitable Foundation Trust, launched in 2018.  “The Coop Foundation” will significantly expand the bank’s philanthropic reach, awarding grants to 501(c)(3) organizations that meet the fundamental needs and challenges of people in the communities the bank serves. Oliver serves as president of the foundation’s board of trustees.

Oliver grew up in Kingston, N.Y. At Colgate University she majored in International Relations and French, as far from the world of finance as one can get. “I was also a math and science brain and sort of fell into banking in college through friends,” she adds.

After graduation, a lot of banks were offering management training programs, so Oliver was accepted into an 11-month commercial banking program at European American Bank in New York City. After four years of the Big Apple, she migrated upstate, joining Ohio-based KeyBank, where she rose quickly through the ranks and into leadership roles during her 25 years. Not that it was a piece of cake. Like most women, she had to balance motherhood with a desire for a successful career.

“My challenge was having to prove myself as talented and capable, which led to me being passed over for promotions,” she reflects. “At one point, I was next in line for a promotion at one point, but the bank hired a man, from outside the bank. I think I was viewed as too nice, which could be translated as not tough enough. These experiences made me more committed and made me a better leader and helped advance my career.”

Oliver was executive vice president and head of business banking at KeyBank, leading the company’s $3 billion business banking unit. Early in her career, she led business banking teams across Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York as the Northeast sales executive and segment leader. After moving to Cleveland, Oliver served as the president of the Greater Cleveland District for 13 years, guiding the bank’s 85 branch locations, as well as the commercial, business and private banking sales teams to success.

While her determination to succeed and advance in her career is part of her DNA, Oliver was also guided by an important mentor, one of her bosses at KeyBank. “He believed in me and often asked for my input, acting upon what I’d said at a meeting, for example,” which gave her confidence. “One way to demonstrate leadership is to push an employee in a positive way. He asked me once, ‘What your next job?’ I said, ‘Are you firing me?’ ‘You are driven and ambitious and I want to help you find your next role with the bank.’” He spoke on her behalf to other leaders at other banks. “He put his name on the line.”

Women’s management styles differ from men’s in important ways, Oliver says.

“We have a very strong empathy and emotional intelligence. Yet women can be a ‘velvet hammer’ as leaders,” she says. “Women are great collaborators and willing to share success and the spotlight. Maybe those are softer skills, but they are under-rated, under-valued skills and ones that can advance goals and objectives.”

Interestingly, since working moms in particular have been demanding more flexibility in the workplace, both genders have benefited. “Men are now asking for flexibility in the workplace, which has given women more equality in the workplace. There’s more shared responsibilities at home,” Oliver says.

But salary parity remains an issue between men and women. “I still believe there is a belief that women don’t need to earn a lot of money,” she says.

At The Coop, Oliver is consciously building a culture for the future. “What makes a great leader? I have a list 18-pages long of what makes a great leader,” she says. “One thing I’ve learned: it’s OK to go 35 in a 50 MPH zone; you don’t always have to go full-court press. See opportunities rather than obstacles. Leaders have to embrace change and history, it’s a constant nuance.”

She also notes that poor leaders can inspire great leaders. “They can teach you how not to treat people,” Oliver says.

Oliver declines to name specific women role models, preferring themes.  “I admire women who’ve overcome tremendous odds and who continue to persevere and achieve success. I admire women who are ‘firsts;’  women with tremendous philanthropic vision. Women who’ve taken an unpopular stance and who haven’t been afraid of putting themselves on the line to effect change.”

Working moms are her “heroes,” she says, especially single mothers, but she also admires women who’ve stayed at home to raise their families. “My mom and her mom did so much good, where they were.”

Women remain their worst enemy, says Oliver frankly. “From inside out, we are our own obstacles. We have to believe in ourselves and  have a voice. Work-life balance will always be a challenge. The millennial generation is the first generation where I’ve seen more parity with men and women seeking that balance.”

“Women wait to be tapped on the shoulder,” she continues. “Waiting for validation causes us to fade into the distance. My biggest challenge is doubting myself and my capability and being my own worst critic. But I’m stubborn and a risk taker; many women are not risk takers. You have to trust that you are going to make the right decision, that there will be mistakes along the way, and that’s OK.”