By Douglas Karlson

Women outnumber men in the banking industry, but not at the senior management level. It’s therefore remarkable that at ­The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod, senior leadership is predominantly female, including both President and CEO Lisa Oliver and Lead Director of the Board of Directors Sheila Vanderhoef. ­The women who lead ­The Coop have become role models – both within the bank, and in the communities they serve.

It wasn’t always that way.

When senior members of the leadership team first got jobs in the financial sector – most of them drawn to training programs in New York City or Boston – their mentors were mostly men.

“It was very rare to have a woman in executive positions,” says Anne Tangen of her early days in the finance world of Boston. Tangen is Th­e Coop’s Senior VP and Chief Operating Officer and Chief Information Officer.

Th­at was also true for Lisa Oliver, who joined Th­e Coop last year as the bank’s first female CEO after a long career at KeyBank, where she served as Head of Business Banking. According to Oliver, when she began her career, “management was composed of a generation of people who were raised in a gender-specific way. It was more of a men’s club.”

Oliver recalls her early years in a male-dominated workplace. “I always felt like I didn’t fit in because I didn’t operate the same way and I didn’t speak the same way, and I felt my brain thought a little differently.”

As she advanced through the corporate ranks, Sheryl Walsh, the bank’s Senior VP and Chief Consumer and Small Business Banking Officer, noticed differences too. “Often times the women sought consensus amongst the team, more so than the men did. I also noticed that some of the women required greater analysis of the data before making a final decision. I felt this coincided with the desire to make the ‘right’ choice or decision,” she recalls.

Men tended to be more aggressive, driven for the next opportunity whether they were qualified or not, whereas women tended to question themselves more, says Oliver. “Senior management in the ’50s and ’60s came from a perspective where boys were rough and tumble and learned how to play hard in sports and win, and women tended to be more collaborative and play in a more holistic way.”

Oliver came to terms with that in 2001.

Shuttling frequently between New York City and the KeyBank’s Cleveland headquarters, she picked up a book at the airport newsstand when her flight was delayed. ­The title was “Play like a Man, Win like a Woman.” ­The author was Gail Evans, an executive Vice President at CNN and one of the first women to break through the glass ceiling in television news.

“It got me to understand that men and women do fundamentally operate differently. I realized, that’s OK,” recalls Oliver.

While styles differ, Lee Ann Hesse, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, observes that women are still every bit as competitive as men. “We like to win. We like to be heard. We didn’t get here because we’re overly shy and retiring. We do it in a way that’s respectful. I don’t think our senior leadership group meetings are any less contentious or competitive than in any other organization.”

But the women who make up ­The Coop’s senior leadership agree that being a woman in management is not without special challenges. As the primary caregivers, women, more than men, tend to focus more on how to achieve balance between career and family.

Frustrated by trying to balance work with the chaos of a young family, women often decide to temporarily leave the workforce. “­Then when they come back in they’re not at that senior level where they would have been had they stayed,” explains Oliver. “For that reason, women may find fewer women role models in the senior ranks.”

Raising a family and advancing in your career may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Hesse took seven years off early in her career when her children were little. “I wanted to be at home with my kids. When I returned, I aggressively pursued opportunities. So I think you can do it all, you might not be able to do it all at one time.”

She credits a female mentor at Cape Cod Bank and Trust, her first Cape Cod employer, with inspiring her to be successful. Her mentor ran the Trust Department, and was the only woman in senior management.

“She was feisty, she was strong, she was sharp,” recalls Hesse. “And she was incredibly stylish. She just seemed to have it all and I remember thinking – I was 26 at the time – that’s what I want to do and to be.”

“She did it through A-plus work. And she was a woman. It wasn’t like she was trying to be a man. She did it the way I wanted to do it. She didn’t give up. She didn’t sacrifice, but she was authentic to her gender,” recalls Hesse.

Since then, times have changed. Compared to when she entered the workforce, says Oliver, “there’s much more melding of gender.” It’s now not unusual for a man in a senior position to ask Oliver for advice on work/life balance. It may come from a desire to coach a child in football, or because someone is a single dad. “Twenty years ago, that would never have happened. It’s a sign that things are changing for the good, where the expectation is that everything is shared,” says Oliver.

Whereas most of the senior leadership team at the Coop relied on male mentors, women entering management at ­The Coop will more likely share Hesse’s experience, and have numerous women role models to choose from.

One such role model is the bank’s Lead Director, Sheila Vanderhoef. ­The former town administrator for Eastham, Vanderhoef has served on the board since 1993, and was named lead director last March.

“She’s very much a trendsetter and a role model,” says Hesse, who says The Coop is inspiring more women to shoot for management roles. “I think especially that the board selected a female CEO speaks volumes to that.”

Community connections

­They’re inspiring women outside the bank as well. Whether at nonprofit organizations supported by the bank or at community events, the women at Th­e Coop are very conscious of being role models in the community.

­They’re not the only ones. As a newcomer to the Cape, Oliver says she was struck by the number of nonprofit organizations here that are run by women, unlike other places she’s lived.

“Cape Cod if very forward thinking,” she says. Involvement in the local community is one of the things that members of the senior leadership team say attracted them to jobs at The Coop.

“Th­e desire to give back, invest in the community you live in, is part of being a community banker. We carry the responsibility of community in every business unit of the bank. I am sorry if that sounds corny, but to me, it is true,” says Walsh.

When she joined the bank, Hesse says, “I thought, this is an opportunity to be part of something that will help me pay my bills, and also has such an incredible role to play in the community. I loved that.”

True to that commitment, in their private lives, each member of the senior leadership team also plays an active role in community. Hesse serves on the board of the John F. Kennedy Museum, and is past president of the Barnstable Land Trust. Tangen serves on the boards of both the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club, and is active in her church. Walsh is active in the Cape Cod Child Development Program and the mentoring program at Cape Cod Young Professionals.

Oliver, new to the Cape this past year, has focused on her new role at the bank, meeting with clients and attending speaking engagements, so has not yet become as engaged in local organizations as she plans to be, though she says she will soon be joining the board of the Cape Cod Foundation. Judging from her involvement in community affairs in Cleveland, she will no doubt expand her volunteer work on the Cape in the coming months. In Cleveland, she was active in Junior Achievement, the Cleveland Botanical Garden, and the United Way. She also served on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But her most significant community involvement was with the American Heart Association, where she became active in promoting women’s health, and ran the gala fundraiser, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. “One thing I will say about women is that when they galvanize around an idea, there’s tremendous strength.”

Oliver is looking forward to expanding her involvement within the community as she settles into her new role and her new home.

“­That’s really what attracted me to ­e Coop at this point in my career.”

As successful corporate executives, the women who form the senior leadership at ­The Coop aren’t shy in offering advice to other women contemplating corporate careers.

Cultivate a network of mentors, people you find interesting, urges Tangen.

In addition to that, says Walsh, learn how to delegate early on. ­at helps others grow.

Oliver strongly agrees. Nowadays, people no longer have secretaries or assistants, and so can fall into the trap of trying to do everything themselves. Th­at’s a mistake. “You can’t grow a team if you’re not delegating and creating expectations,” says Oliver.

All agree on one important piece of advice: Be authentic and be yourself. Says Walsh: “It’s better to be a first-rate version of yourself than a second-rate version of someone else. Be genuine.”