And a little bank shall lead them — if it tries hard enough.

Any bank, even small ones, can attract and retain women executives and customers, experts said at a gathering in Washington this week.

But the effort requires creativity and may involve the establishment of mentoring programs or enlisting help from outside organizations, the experts said Wednesday during the Women's Leadership Forum, hosted by the American Bankers Association.

"We try to develop diversity at the bank," said Jane Haskin, president and chief executive at First Bethany Bank & Trust, noting that five out of the seven members of the Oklahoma bank's leadership team were women. "But we really look at who is the most capable of doing the job."

Small banks sometimes lack the resources to offer formal mentoring programs, the panelists acknowledged. But Haskin, as the leader of a bank with just $219 million of assets, repeatedly pointed out cost effective ways for top executives to offer junior staffers the opportunity to rise up. This can be as simple as asking employees where they would like to go in the company, she said.

"We talk to our employees to work out a plan," Haskin said. "We have very little turnover so these people are having to wait for opportunities. We have to keep them engaged and let them know there are opportunities out there."

Helping employees map out potential career paths at the bank also can provide invaluable insights. For instance, executives at First Bethany had considered grooming an up-and-coming employee to take over the customer service department. But when asked about her career goals, the employee said, "'All I can you tell is that I don't want to be in customer service,'" Haskin said.

"Sometimes those things we perceive are not what the employee perceives," she said.

Turning to outside help is another way that banks can add leadership opportunities, the panelists said. As a board member of the Utah Bankers Association, LeeAnne Linderman, executive vice president of retail banking at Zions Bank, suggested sponsoring a conference focused on women in banking. The association's other board members embraced the idea, as did its members.

Chief executives of community banks "were the most enthusiastic," Linderman said. It was "a chance to offer great women that are coming through these organizations opportunities they couldn't internally offer."

First Bethany encourages its employees to join the boards of nonprofit organizations. This allows for leadership opportunities, promotes the image of the bank and gives the employees a sense of giving back, Haskin said. It also sends officers to leadership programs hosted by its local Chamber of Commerce and vocational schools; these programs are relatively inexpensive, she said.

Zions, a unit of $54 billion-asset Zions Bancorp. (ZION), has "a strategic focus" on developing "great diverse talent" and has several formal programs in place, Linderman said.

Through its women's business forum, Zions realized that its female employees wanted a mentoring program. Six months after launching the program, the company expanded it to all employees at the bank, including men. Now in its third year, the program includes about 100 participants, Linderman said. To attract and retain younger employees, Zions offers a young leaders program that includes networking with more senior executives and guest speakers from outside the company.

Joan Cleveland, CEO of SWBC Life Insurance, attracts millennials by focusing on social media outreach and promotes allowing alternative work arrangements, she said during the panel. Her previous employer, Prudential Financial, used an outside program for women, Women Unlimited, that exposed executives to leaders in nonfinancial industries.

The panelists advised women in banking to seek challenging assignments, be confident and keep trying to improve their skills. Clearly defining success would help employees meet expectations. They also emphasized taking an opportunity when it is presented.

"We overanalyze whether we are capable of doing things," Haskin said. "As women, we want to think we are 100% qualified before we accept something. Men always think they are 100% qualified."

The panel had mixed feelings on whether female executives were better at attracting women customers.

Cleveland said that women in the financial services industry were better at understanding "the length of time it takes other women to make an informed decision."

Strong service is what customers want most, Linderman said. Yet women in the upper ranks can provide an advantage, she said, and Zions has been running a women's financial group for more than a decade to focus on the needs of female business owners.

Haskin offered an inexpensive way to connect with women customers. Her bank recently hosted a "ladies night out" for its largest depositors, who were asked to bring a guest with them. The event was hosted in a tea room and included snacks, employees modeling clothing and a presentation on identity theft.

The event resulted in several new accounts being opened, and attendees were blown away that a bank would take such care to plan an event for its customers, Haskin said.

"It gave our customers a real sense of pride in the fact that their bank did that for them," she added.

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