Melanie Dressel, president and CEO of Columbia Bank, always knew she’d be in a position of power. The local icon, whose childhood dream was to be the first female president of the United States, has made some remarkable accomplishments since entering the field of banking 40 years ago.
She recently took some time from her busy schedule to talk about her success and experience climbing the corporate ladder with Business Examiner Media Group. You’ll find our interview with her below and her story in the most recent edition of our paper.
If you’re interested in hearing about other successful women in the South Sound, there’s still time for you to register for our 2013 Women of Influence event. The annual program, which recognizes outstanding female leaders, will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 2, at 5:30 p.m. at the McGavick Conference Center in Lakewood.
Where do you see women in the South Puget Sound region making the most impact?
I really look at it in a couple of different ways. One is, what industries, and certainly healthcare and education are two areas that I think women are really making a difference in in our communities. I think about all of our female leaders with community colleges and the University of Washington in Tacoma, for instance. I think that they’re doing an outstanding job just running their organizations and but also laying the groundwork for improvements for the future for the South Sound region. Then, two, another area that I think we have a lot of women doing some interesting things are those who are entrepreneurs. Those people who are starting their own businesses and I think about Jane Taylor, for instance. She started a couple of different companies, plus The Geneva Foundation, which is internationally renowned. It’s just really exciting to see women entrepreneurs starting businesses and really running with the ball.
Do you seen women being drawn more to certain industries?
No, not necessarily. We’ve had a lot of women, for instance, as CEOs in the Pacific Northwest of banks. Many of those banks have gone away or merged or other things have occurred, but banking has always been a great industry for women. Whether it’s that women have been attracted to the industry ,or the industry has been attracted to females, I don’t really think that’s it. But, certainly, we’ve seen quite a few CEOs of banks.
What has it been like to work your way up the corporate ladder?
Next year, it will be 40 years for me. So, I’ve seen a lot of changes in our industry, and have, for the most part, been very pleased with how it’s all evolved. 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. There just weren’t a lot of those when I was first becoming a relationship manager, for instance. Even today, when I’m traveling with our CFO visiting investors for instance, we check into a hotel or get picked up by a car or something, and the presumption seems to be the man is the CEO. I don’t think it’s blatant. It’s just more history of it being a man.
How do you respond to situations like this?
I just kind of laugh, because it’s more humorous — it certainly isn’t upsetting to me. People are conditioned, I think, to have more men maybe in leadership positions. It’s a lot less than it was, certainly. But, there are situations that occur and you just have to laugh.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
I think being a good listener is at the heart of being a good leader.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
I read a lot, and I really enjoy talking with people from all walks of life that just kind of bring a different perspective on things. I’ve found that I’m probably more creative when I’m stimulated by people who don’t think the same as I do. 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.
What is the best decision you ever made?
I would say that the best decision that I made was years ago after being with the same company for 14 years. It was like growing up with a family and I was really kind of reluctant to leave the company because it was so comfortable. The best decision I made was stepping out into an area that I was not as familiar with and certainly there were a lot of risks. I would say that stepping out of my comfort zone and doing that was very important in my career.
What was your dream job as a kid?
I was going to be the first woman president of the United States. I loved politics. I was the child who couldn’t wait to watch the Democratic and Republican national convention. I would just take it all in. 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.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
No doubt, it’s our family. 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. I just celebrated my 40th anniversary with my husband Bob, and I have two sons — one that lives in the area; the other one lives in Miami. Then, I have an extended family of sisters, and my dad who is still alive at 92. Then, a daughter-in-law, a grandson, a granddaughter on the way. 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.
How have you been able to maintain balance?
Oh gosh, I don’t. (Chuckles.) I’ve been fortunate that my husband has been somebody who was a very grounded person in my life. He was always there. We were a team. 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.