Mary Jo Herseth | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Let Go & Lead / LG&L Interview

Mary Jo Herseth

Jun 17, 2015

Fast Facts


Chicago, IL

Number of employees::

35 direct, 100 indirectly

Number of years in current role::

4 years, 9 months and 33 total years in banking

Previous experiences::

Executive Vice President at Lasalle Bank, Market Executive at U.S. Trust, board member and past President of Threshold; board Member, The Chicago Network; former noard member of Standard Club and Economic Club of Chicago; former trustee of John Marshall Law School

First job::

I was a babysitter and I was the also the first girl umpire for the Boy’s Little League in Buffalo Grove. At 16, I got a job as a bank teller.

Leader you admire the most::

My favorite business leader is Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford. Politically, I admire Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.

Questions & Answers

What are the strengths of the team you are currently managing?:

I have the opportunity to work with a great team that is able to respond to changes easily. They are a mix of both experienced and fresh talent. Those that are experienced bring a lot of industry knowledge to the table and the newer employees bring a fresh perspective to challenges. Those who have been with the company for a long time are willing to accept those new perspectives even though they may be different. That acceptance and tolerance is crucial to an effective team.

In the banking industry, I’m sure you felt the effects of the economic downturn a few years ago. How did you inspire productivity despite challenges outside the realm of your employees’ direct control?:

Our team knew we had an opportunity to make change, to improve. To do so, we brought in outside help to streamline and redefine the processes that weren’t working. Sometimes, we used internal consultants or our own operations team. Making the process more effective can make all the difference to productivity and can even create an opportunity to solve problems we were previously having difficulty solving. My team has the opportunity to work on these outside projects, and making measurable change motivates them.

I also hold brainstorm and creativity sessions. We talk about how managers are utilizing their relationships with outside partners to increase productivity. I like to have them share why they are not reaching a goal instead of simply stating what they haven’t completed. When we talk about the “why”, it is easier to determine and explain opportunities.

What are some ways you unleash the potential of your employees?:

  • Being transparent with them about my goals and objectives, so they know what I expect from them.
    Challenging them on how, what, and why they do things.
    Focusing on explaining and encouraging them to work towards new opportunities.
    Asking an open-ended question, which allows them to be creative. Then, I’m quiet and I listen.
    Encouraging self-assessment, and introspection.
    Giving leaders the opportunity to make what has been said unique, and then helping them make that change with their teams.

What pitfalls should leaders avoid when developing employees?:

Thinking there is an area an employee can improve when they don’t have the tools to do so. It’s a leader’s responsibility to know employees’ strengths and where they have the ability to improve. Leaders also need to recognize that the employee must be aware of the areas they need to develop.

Another pitfall is not asking what your employees’ thoughts are. Change is difficult if you are telling them what to do, instead of the ideas coming from them because many times they know themselves best and will make a better effort if the ideas for change are coming from them.

What is one trait every leader should possess?:

Open ears. Leaders must be able to listen and actually hear what their employees and peer groups are saying. Being able to hear other points of view is essential to your personal growth and your growth as a leader.

What is the single most important thing you do each morning that makes your day more productive?:

I exercise six days a week, which allows me time to think. Respecting yourself and your body changes your mood and also gives you the ability to focus. I really enjoy swimming and do laps every chance I get. Similarly, eating a healthy breakfast is essential. Managing yourself is the single most important thing you can do to be more productive.

What is the difference between leading and managing?:

Managers give you a list of things to do and problems to solve-today’s current work. Leaders recognize the bigger picture and make time to ask questions like “How can we do things differently, better, and be more innovative?” “How do we differentiate?” Leaders can exist at any level and in any position. These people are often recognized and promoted quickly. They get the existing tasks done and think strategically about how to do them better. To be a leader you need to be worthy of followers.

What is the biggest communication challenge today?:

There are too many ways to communicate. It is impossible to keep up on all forms of communication and determine which is most effective and what will get people’s attention. It’s also difficult to determine what is relevant with all of the communication flooding our inboxes. We all have a tendency to use email for all communication when a phone call or visit would be better or more appropriate.

What words of advice can you offer other leaders?:

People need to understand why they are here and where they are going. They want to know what the bigger picture is and how they fit in. Make sure that these things are communicated, understood and reinforced.

What is best piece of leadership advice you ever received?:

I don’t know if there is one specific piece of advice that I remember, but the general adage “You are only as good as your team” has always helped me to be a better leader. It is important to remember that you are a part of a team and you have to know what that team is. Everybody in the team needs to be on the same page to achieve good and desired results.

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