This year, Melanie Dressel, president and CEO of Columbia Bank, celebrated her 40th wedding anniversary. Next year, she'll be toasting to four decades in the banking industry.
Climbing the corporate ladder hasn't been an easy feat, but Dressel said she's been thankful for her family, which is also what she considers her greatest accomplishment.
“Our family is just really important. No matter where life takes me professionally or what I may have accomplished or not accomplished, I'll always be happiest that our family is just really important to all of us,” said Dressel. “I always try to remind people that, at the end of your career, what you want is to have your family there to share your life with, and to not exclude them in whatever you're trying to achieve.”
Juggling her roles as an executive and wife and mother is easier said than done, and if you ask her how she's been able to maintain a balance, you might get the same reaction – a chuckle, followed by the truth: “Oh gosh, I don't.”
Her husband, who she said has always grounded her, has lightened her load over the years.
“He was always there. We were a team,” she said. “One of us was always home every night with our children because we felt that that was important for us. I really don't have balance in my day-to-day work life, but that's okay. The time that I do spend doing other things is very valuable to me.”
Dressel said she tries to schedule one day each weekend to spend with family and friends when she's not traveling for work. And, rather than waiting for life to slow down, she and her husband are sure to schedule bucket list travels every year.
She also enjoys reading and talking to people with diverse perspectives – two activities she said help her grow as a leader, too.
“I've found that I'm probably more creative when I'm stimulated by people who don't think the same as I do,” Dressel said. “I tell my children this all the time, 'It's so easy for us to only want to listen to people that have the same philosophical bent. And, I'm different from the standpoint that I really do value listening to other people's thoughts and opinions, and kind of figuring out how that might work in my world.”
Life as a woman on the hot seat
Dressel, a graduate of the University of Washington, got her start at The Bank of California and joined Columbia Bank 20 years ago.
She's served on numerous boards, including the Washington Bankers Association, the ArtsFund and the Washington State Historical Society, and has repeatedly been was named one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking by U.S. Banker Magazine.
From the time she began to rise the ranks, though, Dressel said she's had some telling experiences as a female leader.
“I had some very funny things occur early in my career that are a bi-product of people just getting comfortable with having women in more the officer-level positions,” Dressel said.
Twenty years ago, there weren't as many women in these types of positions, but, even now, when traveling with others – her male colleagues are often mistaken as the CEO.
“I just kind of laugh, because it's more humorous – it certainly isn't upsetting to me,” Dressel said. “People are conditioned, I think, to have more men maybe in leadership positions. And, it's a lot less than it was, certainly, but there are situations that occur and you just have to laugh.”
But, the idea of assuming a position of power has never been an issue for Dressel.
Her childhood dream was to become the first woman president. She loved politics and was the child who couldn't wait to watch the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
“I would just take it all in,” Dressel said. “I don't know what ever possessed me to think that I could be the first woman president of the United States, but at 7 years old I told my parish priest that was what I was going to do.”
That drive led her to study political science and become another type of president.