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Leadership involves some risks: Speaking from experience, these leaders in Willmar, Minn., say women need to be willing to ‘put ourselves out there’

MaryAnn Doyle discusses the path that brought her to her position as the president of the Bremer Bank in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 2
Annette Benson, left, and Jennifer Lownsbury talk about the path that led them to becoming partners at Conway, Deuth and Schmiesing in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 2

Sometimes, you just have to be willing to jump off the end of the dock.

It’s not always comfortable for women to move into leadership roles, according to MaryAnn Doyle, president of Bremer Bank in Willmar, but it’s important for them to “put ourselves out there.”

Doyle started out working in the basement of a Bremer Bank in Minot, N.D., and “I never dreamed I would end up where I am today.”

Neither did Annette Benson and Jennifer Lownsbury, partners in the Conway Deuth & Schmiesing accounting firm in Willmar.

All three are natives of the area — Benson and Lownsbury are Willmar High School graduates, and Doyle graduated from Benson High School. All three attended Ridgewater College.

But after Ridgewater, they all had other ideas.

Benson, 50, had planned to move to the Twin Cities and build a career there.

Lownsbury, 37, headed off to finish a degree at the University of Colorado and didn’t intend to move back to her hometown.

Doyle, 58, went with her husband when he was transferred to Minot, and they didn’t know if they would end up close to home, either.

Because she didn’t know anyone in Minot, Doyle answered a classified ad for a job at Bremer. “I answered the ad in the paper because I wanted to meet people,” but the story of Bremer, a bank connected to a foundation that gives back to its communities, intrigued her from the beginning.

She continued working in banking through transfers to Hibbing and then to Willmar. While working at the Green Lake State Bank in Spicer, she happened to see an employment ad for a job at Bremer in Willmar. She was happy where she was and wasn’t looking for a job, she said, but she liked the idea of returning to Bremer.

Doyle worked as a secretary, teller, vault teller and personal banker before moving into working with commercial banking. Her last job before being named president was business banking sales manager.

Doyle likened each step she’s taken in her career to “jumping off the end of the dock. … The more you do it, the easier it gets.”

After she became bank president, she said, she was a little surprised by how many young women came to the bank and congratulated her. Some said, “You give me hope.”

It made her realize “that there aren’t a lot of women in leadership roles” in the community, she said. “I feel strongly we could do much better than that.”

For Benson, the plans to move to the Twin Cities were waylaid when she met a nice man and got married instead. She was first hired at CDS for a tax season in the early 1980s. When another employee left, she started working as a computer operator and then moved into internal accounting.

She wanted to work with clients, though, so she moved into public accounting and studied to become a certified public accountant.

“I’m glad I ended up where I did,” Benson said. She was the firm’s first female partner, in 1997.

Lownsbury said she had decided “to get out of Willmar.” After studying at the University of Colorado, she worked for a Colorado firm that had many women in leadership roles, and they set a good example for her.

After that, “I always wanted to be in leadership,” she said. After Colorado, she worked five years for a Twin Cities accounting firm. She and her husband moved back to Willmar when they both found career opportunities at the same time.

The three offered a few suggestions for young women who want to move into management or leadership roles in their careers.

“Part of success in any kind of career is to always be a little hungry to learn something new,” Doyle said. “I think in the Bremer team, that’s recognized; it’s a smart way to look at people development.”

Benson said it’s important for anyone to pursue educational opportunities in their field, whether it’s formal classes or keeping up with professional reading.

The women agreed that networking and mentoring are important at any level.

Mentors don’t have to be women or even in the same profession.

Doyle and Benson said they have had male and female mentors in their careers.

“Seek out a mentor,” Benson said. “It doesn’t have to be in the same field, it’s more about reaching goals; they may have a bigger network than you do.”

Benson said the original partners in CDS were good mentors to her as she moved into the partnership.

Doyle suggests people reach out to leaders around them to set up networks, too.

Lownsbury said the Leadership Perspectives program at the Chamber of Commerce helped her get to know people in other fields and to begin a network in the Willmar area. CDS also has internal leadership and mentoring programs.

Another way to develop a network is to become involved in community organizations. Bremer and CDS urge their employees to seek out causes or organizations they believe in and to volunteer in the community.

Lownsbury said it’s important to set goals and continue working toward them.

When people talk about a glass ceiling for women, she said, “I don’t see it as an obstacle, I see it as a challenge.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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