By Courtney Westlake
Constant listening and learning from the leadership are essential to building and bettering a company.
So has been the mentality of Sarah Phalen, as she has concentrated on continual communication across the branches and departments of Illinois National Bank (INB) as president and CEO.
Over lunch at Café Brio, Phalen told me that she never aspired to be president while in her early career – she is naturally more introverted – but that she simply wanted to have a fulfilling career. It is a position that she has become extremely passionate about now though, because of those around her.
“I just want to make it better, a little stronger,” she explained. “I have the best combination with the employees, the board and our customers. I feel lucky that I get to be a part of it. I view my job as more support to make sure everyone has the resources and room to do the work that they are so good at and keep the process moving in the right direction.”
Though the banking industry both locally and nationally is still largely male-dominated, Phalen said she has never experienced the “glass ceiling” in her own career. She feels fortunate to have had an extraordinary female mentor in the late Linda Culver, who was president at First of America in Phalen’s early career there and then later her supervisor at INB.
“She was a true model of what a leader is,” Phalen recalled. “She set a great example for both males and females in that role.”
Sexism in leadership can be a touchy subject, and I was interested in getting Phalen’s take on the subject as a company president, especially with all of the publicity surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and other books and articles on women in leadership.
Sarah admitted that being a female in leadership in banking is not something that she ever thinks about and said she feels lucky she hasn’t experienced discrimination in her career. Now the mother of three, Sarah has worked hard to find a balance between family and career, especially when she had twins who spent time in the hospital after birth.
One of the people that has helped maintain that balancing act is someone that Phalen works with daily both at the bank and at home: her husband, Pat, who is INB’s executive vice president. She acknowledges that a successful career would have been much harder to achieve without Pat’s support.
“Pat is very hands-on and helpful (as a father),” she said. “He’s always treated me like an equal, so when we had kids, we shared the parenting responsibilities. There were times when I was on maternity leave when he would come home so I could go in to meetings. When our kids were babies, we would take turns coming in to work at night.”
The couple has worked in banking since they first met, and when Pat was recruited to lead the trust department when INB first started in 1999, Sarah knew she wanted to be a part of it too.
“We were all in folding chairs, and our desks were in one big room,” she laughed. “I ran the branches, and I remember working so many nights and through the weekend with Pat.”
I asked about the challenges of working so closely with her spouse, and she told me “I’ve always appreciated working with Pat because we’ve always had that common language. We’ve understood what each other was working on, our frustrations and excitement, and it’s been something we could always relate to.”
Relating to others is something that Phalen consistently strives to achieve. She makes it a point to visit each of INB’s 11 branches on a regular basis, and builds company morale with employee social events after hours. And she is always open to learning from her employees. I told her I believe that is the mark of a true leader: willingness to admit that you don’t have all of the answers and asking for help from others.
“Everybody knows so much more about their own areas of expertise. That’s why it takes everybody,” she agreed. “That’s what I love so much about what I do: I get to spend so much time with my staff and learn from them. Sometimes we get lost in the procedures and regulations, but everyone just wants to feel valued.”
After spending the afternoon with Sarah, it’s no surprise that INB has achieved high regard and a loyal customer base in central Illinois. With a leadership that is as passionate, humble and open-minded as Sarah is, INB will only continue to thrive in this community with employees who can truly relate to their leader.
By the way, I reverted back to Café Brio’s shrimp quesadilla for the second time, and it was just as delicious on round two.
Courtney Westlake is a freelance writer from Springfield.