Sara Walker grew up at a time when many women were encouraged to pursue nursing and education as career paths.
“I could have done anything I wanted to but for some reason, it was very trained in me that I should be employable,” which is why she chose business, Walker said. “I wish I could tell you I had a five-year plan and I had these checkboxes. I really didn’t.”
When she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside with a bachelor’s in business in 1981, Walker sort of guessed her way through how to get into the field without a lot of guidance.
“When I started to get into my career and I realized some of the steps I had taken, I started to realize if I had known more, I might have done something differently,” Walker said.
Now, at 57, Walker is senior vice president, senior portfolio manager and chief economist at Green Bay-based Associated Bank, and she offers her advice to a female mentee in the workplace.
What motivates her, Walker said, is being open and receptive to helping others at work, since she didn’t have many role models as she climbed the ladder.
She also volunteers to teach seventh and eighth grade students about basic economics through Junior Achievement’s Project Business program, as well as financial education classes at high schools through Make A Difference.
Walker’s mentee is Erica Lythjohan, vice president, personal trust relationship manager at Associated Bank. Both women work out of the new Private Client Services office in downtown Milwaukee, though their projects don’t always overlap.
“A lot of what I do is not technically referred to as mentoring,” Walker said. “I try to talk to people, including Erica, in a way that they would feel comfortable asking me for something.”
She describes it as being open and available to anyone who has questions – being approachable.
“Erica, in my opinion, has always been oriented to her career decisions. Is this a good path for me to take in my career? Is this a good path for me to take in my life? She’s a planner,” Walker said.
Lythjohan, 39, had completed a co-op at M&I Bank when she was attending the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and had enjoyed it. When she graduated in 2000 with a degree in business operations management, Lythjohan took a job scheduling a production line at a manufacturing company.
“Similar to Sara, when I went in to school, my objective really was to be employable and in the back of my mind, business was it,” Lythjohan said.
But Lythjohan didn’t particularly like her operations role. She started at Associated Bank in 2001 and was initially a receptionist at the Menomonee Falls branch. From there, she became a personal banker and then moved to the trust team as a sales assistant in 2005. That’s when she met Walker.
Her current role as vice president, personal trust relationship manager has allowed her to achieve her goal of helping people manage their finances and has even exceeded her expectations of what a finance job would be, Lythjohan said.
“There’s so many parts of a business or industry that you just don’t know about when you’re in school,” Walker said.
That’s why it’s so helpful to have Walker around to ask for advice at each career crossroads, Lythjohan said. They informally discuss things as needed, and topics range from earning a master’s degree to work/life balance to nonprofit board membership.
“Her door’s always been open, so I just knock on it and say, ‘Hey, can I run something by you?’” Lythjohan said.
She sought Walker out as a mentor because she wanted “somebody that’s experienced, somebody that’s been where I’m at. Just making sure that I’m really taking a look at what I should be looking at – perspective.”
Walker strives not to tell mentees what to do, but to tell them about what she did in a similar situation and share missteps to help them learn from her mistakes.
For example, though she has advanced to a prominent role at Wisconsin’s largest bank and certainly had technical and on-the-job training in finance and economics, Walker still felt she could learn more about leadership and management. So in 2013, she completed an Executive MBA at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She said it taught her a lot and she has changed her management style.
“I was definitely on the high end of the age spectrum for that class. I had an opportunity to go right out of college, and I chose not to go,” Walker said.
Lythjohan started a master’s program, but with Walker’s counsel, decided to put it on the backburner to focus on raising her young son.
“When (Lythjohan) decided to back off, I told (her) not to worry because I was a clear example that it is possible to do it later in life and still get a lot out of it,” she said.
Women tend to be too hard on themselves and try to do everything at once, Walker said.
“I feel a lot of empathy for women who are just about killing themselves,” she said. “They’re typically younger than me, they’re trying to advance their career, advance their education.”
“I just remember that you said, ‘Make sure you enjoy life. Do it for yourself, not because it’s expected,’” Lythjohan said.
Both women agreed that in a male dominated industry like finance, it’s important to mentor female colleagues. Lythjohan plans to take a younger employee under her wing one day, too.
“I am a big believer in the idea both of paying it forward, but also paying it back,” Walker said. “I feel fortunate in how things have developed for me, and I think it’s my duty to help others.”
“I just want to be positive and supportive to all the individuals I come across,” Lythjohan said.