Takeaways from SFNet’s Women in Secured Finance Conference

By Susan Carol

SFNet’s fourth annual Women in Secured Finance Conference attracted over 300 attendees for two days of inspiring (virtual) sessions featuring senior executives who shared their perspectives on leadership and communications while heading teams virtually and managing changes wrought by the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The consensus: Workers will not be returning to how it was even after a viable vaccine for the COVID-19 virus becomes available. Many of the speakers – women in top management, who are accustomed to being in the office, travelling, and meeting face-to-face with teams and clients—spoke about remote work challenges. They also offered creative ideas to ensure employees feel embraced during this challenging time.

Jenn Palmer, CEO of Gerber Finance, decided to offer a virtual “Gerber Academy” in which various employees could offer some education time to employee’s children. Since the company is global, the employees’ children could learn about life in other countries and people with math skills could provide some tutoring.

Joye Lynn, head of corporate ABL at Wells Fargo, who sat on the same panel with Palmer, said her team also leaned in to learn best practices and to gain a deeper knowledge from international clients who started experiencing the impacts of COVID-19 and the pandemic shut-downs earlier than the U.S.

Meredith Carter, president and CEO of Context Business Lending, invited her children to create stop lights on paper for door signs with red, yellow, or green lights shaded so the kids would know when they could enter her work space, pause, or come back later.

In almost every session it was stressed that communication needed to increase both internally and externally, plus they said it couldn’t be only on business topics. They pointed to the need to show compassion and care. Some said they now feel closer to their teams than ever before.

Keynoters provided inspiration to use this challenging period of time for evaluating your life’s purpose and the value of hope. On the first day Tiffany Dufu, CEO of The Cru, a coaching company for women, provided advice that actually came from her mom: “If you want something you’ve never had before, you’ll need to do something you’ve never done before.”

Dufu wrote the book, “Drop the Ball,” which advises releasing unrealistic expectations, for example, dropping things on a to-do list that can be delegated. She said major life events led her to just start dropping things she had thought she needed to do; this opened space for her to devote time where it was more meaningful. She said this virus epidemic is doing the same for many people.

In a session on the new balancing act of juggling work and home responsibilities, Palmer said she decided early on to give her employees a clear notion of what to expect. She set the return to office time as March 2021. She said it is important to be clear, decisive, and manage expectations. Many of the speakers noted that the biggest concern of employees is, indeed, how long they will be working remotely.

Later, in a poll, about half of the attendees said they expect to continue working outside of the office beyond the pandemic and nearly half envisioned some sort of hybrid model.

On the second day of the conference, Libby Gill, CEO of Libby Gill & Company, the author of six books, including one on how to be a hope-driven leader, said “We’re all in a state of change and there is some science to hopefulness.” In her keynote she said leaders must provide real hope, not false hope, and focus on establishing stability, showing compassion, and building trust. She said this will enable you to leap forward with expectation. However, she also advised about being honest concerning potential hurdles. Regina Stango Kelbon, partner with Blank Rome, moderated this keynote.

The title of a session, “Is this your first recession?” was immediately challenged by PNC Banks’ Eileen Kowalksi, a senior vice president, and panel moderator, who said, “Does it really matter?” All on the panel agreed this recession just couldn’t be compared to any they had experienced. She noted that an economic team within her bank has advised the recovery is slowing now as the pandemic has worsened in many parts of the U.S., but the expectation is for a recovery in the second half of the year with some bumps, is possible. This is based on a June report she can share with SFNet members.

The panelists observed that the severity of this recession varies by sector and many bankruptcies are on hold–with more to come—after the government props are gone. This panel discussed the accommodations being made to clients they feel can survive this period and the many legal ramifications as well as potential for fraud.

Denise Albanese indicated the importance of monitoring the business of the borrowers and the loan in “real time” – the covid situation renders all situations fluid and ever changing. Typical red flags would be: not allowing for even “remote field exam”; inability to provide data in a timely fashion; major company personnel changes; cancelled orders resulting in returned inventory. 

Valerie Mason, partner, Otterbourg, agreed about the need for real-time monitoring, and said the fraud is not going to be obvious at first because government loan programs are propping things up. There are always going to be bad actors, but what we may see more of are people in businesses that are stressed making bad decisions thinking that they will be able to put things right or business will get better before anyone notices.

In the retail sector, Holly Etlin, managing director, AlixPartners, said those businesses that are reopening, find business volume down 50-60 percent and the July-August time frame is a bad period for liquidations; retailers are planning for a very slow recovery particularly in the apparel sector.

Laura Glass, SVP and regional portfolio executive at Bank of America Business Capital, said lenders are trying their best to find ways to help customers and can look to unencumbered assets such as fixed assets and intellectual property to generate additional liquidity for the borrowers.

In a panel on leading through crisis, Lisa Donahue, managing director at AlixPartners, said “We’re doing lots and lots of communications,” and KPMG’s Andrea Beirne agreed: “We need to over-communicate, not just via Zoom, but one on one.” She said it is important to ask people—both customers and employees—how they are doing and share more personally about ourselves and our experience in this pandemic.

On the crisis communications panel, North Mill Capital’s Betty Hernandez, EVP-chief credit officer, said their first order of business was to make sure everyone had VPN capability, printers/scanners, computers, then a way to do remote field exams.

Donahue said, “We set up an internal intranet for employee discussions. We have also put together a task force to look at options for a more flexible operating model to accommodate what we are viewing as a new normal.  This involves less travel and leveraging the technologies that allow connectivity while remote working.”

Hernandez also said her company is working on a plan for returning to the office, and they know it won’t be the same as it was.

In May, KPMG, for Mental Health Awareness Month, held Friday morning virtual calls with HR executives who talked about available resources such as therapists and meditation tutorials. Beirne, who is a partner at the firm, said last year 50 people came to this KPMG human resources session in-house and this year it was 400 virtually.

Thee was considerable discussion on this panel about reducing the mental strain of distractions and supporting employees who need to create boundaries between work and home. To that point, panelists agreed companies should focus on minimizing as many obstacles as possible so teammates could be productive and comfortable working remotely.

It was noted that remote work will likely continue beyond the pandemic and companies will have to find ways to maintain culture and do such things as onboarding virtually. Hernandez agreed that virtual connection will continue to be valued beyond pandemic health concerns because new technology being embraced now has proven to work, and it is cost-saving.

In the panel entitled “Congrats, You’re the Boss!  Now What?” attorney Elizabeth van Schilfgaarde of NautaDutilh New York P.C. moderated the diverse, experienced panel of Miin Chen, COO of Siena Lending; Regina Stango Kelbon, partner with Blank Rome; Nancy Lee, CEO of ABLSoft; and Tiffany Ormon, managing director of Wells Fargo.

Many employees earn promotions into manager roles because they are excellent individual contributors.  That is great, but what about management and leadership skills?  How does an emerging leader learn the ins and outs of coaching, motivating, and inspiring people who are very different from her?  To tackle these questions, the panelists discussed the value of being able to ask for help as a new manager, and how to build diverse teams and manage inclusively.  The panelists and moderator all shared authentic and thoughtful examples of how they have addressed these important issues in their careers.


About the Author

Susan Carol leads Susan Carol Creative, a full-service communications firm she founded in 1989 that has specialized in commercial finance, healthcare and technology for 30 years.