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Settlers Bank SVP Trisha Thompson: “Always be willing to learn something new, especially if no one else wants to”

Always be willing to learn something new, especially if no one else wants to. The only thing we ever know for sure is that things will change. By learning all, you can increase the likelihood that you’ll be prepared for both unanticipated opportunities and misfortunes. I remember when online check ordering was a new thing. […]


Always be willing to learn something new, especially if no one else wants to. The only thing we ever know for sure is that things will change. By learning all, you can increase the likelihood that you’ll be prepared for both unanticipated opportunities and misfortunes. I remember when online check ordering was a new thing. When presented to staff my group did not want to embrace it and didn’t see it as necessary. I stepped up and asked to learn the system. Over time I established the habit of stepping up to determine the “new” things that no one thought would last or failed to value. So often the skills I learned allowed me to advance in my career or whether periods of downsizing or outsourcing.


I had the distinct pleasure to interview Trisha Thompson. Trisha is a Founder and Senior Vice President at Settlers bank. She leads the bank’s Human Resource and Marketing areas and is a member of its executive management team. In her role, Trisha provides support for the bank’s highly experienced professionals who in turn give the clients the best service imaginable. Trisha gets to tell the world how this elite group of experts can help simplify their banking and achieve their financial goals. As one of the founders of Settlers bank, Trisha takes great pride in seeing the bank and its staff regularly recognized for excellence. Trisha is committed to life-long learning and once pursued a career in education. While she ultimately found her dream job in the banking industry, Trisha still visits area classrooms regularly. For her work with students, particularly in the area of financial literacy, Trisha has been recognized as a Business Friend of Education by the State Superintendent of Schools. Trisha completed the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a graduate of Sauk Valley College, Dixon, Illinois.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up the child of an entrepreneur. I loved being part of our family business and had deep respect for my parents’ ability to grow a business from nothing but hard work and determination. Being raised in the entrepreneurial experience provided me a unique perspective. I’ve always felt a sense of ownership for my work (regardless of where I was employed), always believed that I could make a positive impact, and always sought continuous improvement.

When I entered the world of work, I knew I wanted to solve problems, to build, to create. But where? My diverse interests led me to a non-traditional career path. I wanted to explore as many opportunities as were available to me. I began my career in education as I have a passion for helping others discover their strengths and achieve their potential. I transitioned to sales and service and grew into management roles. To that point, I’d never considered a career in banking. However, one day a board member from a nonprofit where I’d previously served — who also happened to be the human resource officer at a financial institution — reached out to me. Within four days I had begun my career in banking. It’s astonishing now to look back and see how all these things worked together to prepare me for all that was to come.

When the day came that I was named Human Resource and Marketing Officer in a well-established community bank, I saw all the pieces beginning to fall into place. I’d found the role that allowed me to exercise all the varied skills I’d loved acquiring throughout my career. But the best was yet to come! About five years into my tenure as HR/ Marketing Officer, a former colleague called me to discuss an exciting opportunity. He and a business partner were chartering a bank. They invited me to partner with them to build a bank from nothing but hard work and determination — and years of solid industry experience.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When we opened the doors of Settlers bank on December 3, 2007 spirits were high. In less than a year our team had organized a bank: raised $10 million in the capital, built every policy and procedure, created every product and selected every system. We’d completed the build-out of our space and on-boarded staff. All of this had been accomplished in record time, and we set out to disrupt the banking industry. And then, the Great Recession happened. Long-established banks were struggling. Many were suddenly unable or unwilling to make loans. Without the legacy issues and problem loans other banks were dealing with, we found that we were able to help business and families when few others could. What could have spelled catastrophe for our foundling bank, set us apart and proved our strength.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

If you’ve ever worked in a bank, you know what a bank routing number is. Even if you haven’t worked in a bank, you may know that this is the 9-digit code on the bottom of your check that identifies the bank where your account is held. But, do you know where routing numbers come from? As a bank in organization, obtaining this number was crucial. Many of the vendors we needed to provide our services would not even speak to us until we could give them with our routing number.

Our initial group of three founding members had a total of more than 50 years of experience, yet not one of us knew where routing numbers come from. We all came from established banks that had likely received their routing numbers decades before. I contacted the FDIC. Wrong. The Department of Financial Institutions. Nope. Finally, I googled it. Yep, Google. I found that a private company “sells” routing numbers and that banks pay a whopping $15 a year to use them.

What did I learn? Never assume you know it all. Sometimes the smallest thing can gum up the works. Oh, and never underestimate the power of Google.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes Settlers bank unique is its commitment to provide every employee the opportunity to be an entrepreneur. What better way to grow a successful business than allowing the experts in each area to run their departments as their own business? To have input into how things should be done, and how to make things better?

This week as our CEO walked through the bank he was approached by a loan processor. Not a senior manager or an executive. This employee might be viewed at some companies as “rank and file.” This employee offered his hand to the CEO. As they shook hands, the employee thanked the CEO for the opportunity to be a part of the Settlers bank team. He expressed appreciation for a workplace where he is appreciated, where his input is valued, and where his voice is heard.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! I love my job because it seems each day I can engage in any number of exciting projects. Right now, I am reviewing our entire hiring and onboarding process. In my research, I’ve found that more and more employees are seeking a balance between high-touch and high-tech (coincidentally, so are our clients!) So, I am creating workflows that will allow new employees to complete much of the tedious paperwork associated with a new job online. Now new team members will be spared providing the same information over-and-over again on a series of forms and will be able to focus on engaging with other team members sooner.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

A newer initiative that has resulted in excellent results for our team has been our Idea Forum. Every employee is invited to forward her/ his ideas for enhancing or improving any aspect of the business. Every single thought is vetted, and many have been implemented. Whether or not the plan is immediately actionable, every contribution is recognized, and contributors receive a response.

So, the advice here is really to provide channels for your people to communicate. Even things you may not want to hear. If you hire smart people, the best-qualified people to do the job, they have valuable things to share.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Develop healthy channels for communication and share as much as you can. Being a smaller company with an entrepreneurial spirit, Settlers bank is incredibly agile. We can make decisions and take action quickly. As the group has become more substantial, we’ve learned the importance of checking in throughout times of change to be sure we are communicating, and no one feels blind-sided or left behind.

Then, equip and empower your employees to make decisions and act. When we opened our doors, we had a staff of seven. We are now approaching 50 employees. While the executive management team would love to be involved in every decision and present at every meeting, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. You’ve hired strong performers. Trust them to exercise good judgment. Allow them to fail and learn in the process.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I begin my career in the banking industry, I felt a little out of my element. It was similar to but different than, the other “customer service” roles I’d played. Then I noticed Lois. The Senior Vice President of Retail, Lois had been with the once-community-bank-recently-acquired-by-a-large-corporate-bank for nearly 30 years. Based on the reaction Lois got when she entered the bank, greeted a customer, or was merely present, I could tell that Lois was doing things right. She was always pressed and polished. If there was a wait at the teller line, Lois was the first to step out of her office to speak with each customer to see how she might help. Many a long-time client would make a point stopping by Lois’ office before leaving the bank.

Once I was promoted from teller to customer service, I was fortunate to have the office right next to Lois’. Before long she had moved from being my role model to my mentor. Have you ever had a person, someone who had nothing to gain, go to bat for you? Serve as your champion? I have. It was Lois. My willingness to learn and my commitment to excellence could have easily been overlooked in that large company. But, thanks to Lois I was given opportunities to learn and grow. She set the standard, and I will always be grateful for her guidance and help.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Of all the beautiful ways I’ve been allowed to serve and share, the one that still touches me most profoundly is Lend a Hand.

One particularly cool fall, as I dropped my daughter off at school, I noticed a little girl. Each day she’d appear in sandals and socks, without a coat. It really troubled me to see this child come to school every day with nothing to protect her from the chill. After this had gone on for a few days, I finally asked myself what I was going to do about it, and Lend a Hand was born.

I went to a marketing officer at our bank and asked if I could start a program where school supplies and necessities could be donated for children in need. I looked to set the program apart by asking teachers and school counselors to make requests on behalf of specific children while keeping their identities confidential. I was required to go before the school board, something I deemed a pretty scary experience at the time and make my case for the program.

Once the green light was given, about 50 requests for assistance were received. Each application was written on the cut out of a child-sized handprint, “Snow pants for a third-grade girl,” “Boots for a second-grade boy.” One day as I worked at my desk an elderly woman plucked a hand from the display. She read aloud, “Funds for a Field Trip, fourth-grade girl.” Her eyes welled up as she said, “I’m taking this one as that trip is something this little girl will remember for the rest of her life.”

Through the years Lend a Hand has grown to provide necessities for hundreds of children in need each year. While the program had to remain with the bank where I worked at the time of its inception, I still take joy in seeing those little handprints disappear each fall.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Experience” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

• Always be willing to learn something new, especially if no one else wants to.

The only thing we ever know for sure is that things will change. By learning all, you can increase the likelihood that you’ll be prepared for both unanticipated opportunities and misfortunes. I remember when online check ordering was a new thing. When presented to staff my group did not want to embrace it and didn’t see it as necessary. I stepped up and asked to learn the system. Over time I established the habit of stepping up to determine the “new” things that no one thought would last or failed to value. So often the skills I learned allowed me to advance in my career or whether periods of downsizing or outsourcing.

• If you want to move up, look for ways to promote the person above you.

Achieving success is not a competition against your co-workers. You’re on the same team! Do all you can to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of your team members.

• Whatever you’re doing do it with all your might.

For me, this is a faith-based statement and reminds me that what I do and how well I choose to do it transcends my role or place of employment. Doing less than my best, while it may still fall into the realm of “satisfactory performance,” does not allow me to achieve my purpose or fulfill my potential

• Take time to sharpen the saw.

I am a huge fan of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but I still struggle with this one. However, once I began forcing myself to unplug and disciplined myself to take time away from work I started to find inspiration in the most unexpected places. I return to work refreshed and often with solutions or ideas that I would never have discovered otherwise.

• Don’t be afraid of hard conversations.

Years ago, I played a team-building game that really brought this point home for me. Staff was divided into three groups. Each group selected a member to be its carrier. The carrier had to carry a ball and drop it in a basket about 10 feet away. BUT just before the moderator shouted, “Go!” each carrier was blindfolded. The first team was secretly instructed to give its carrier only positive reinforcement. No matter what, they were to tell the carrier she was doing great. The second team was to remain silent, giving its carrier no feedback at all. The third team was to give its carrier factual feedback based on her actions. Once the game began all three carriers were off to the basket, or at least they thought so. Needless to say, the carrier from group two, thanks to the constructive feedback, easily navigated her way to the basket and won the game. When the carriers removed their blindfolds the carrier who had been given only positive feedback turned red in the face. “You guys! Why did you keep telling me a good job? I’m not even close to the basket!”

Sometimes that kindest thing you can do is provide someone with the information they need to course correct.

You are a person of significant influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m a problem-solver. That’s what I love to do. I’d invite people to do what they can to solve the problems they see. We are each wonderfully unique and view the world in our own particular way. While I noticed the little girl shivering in the cold without a winter coat, maybe I overlooked her parent struggling with depression. While no one of us can solve all of the world’s problems, each one of us addressing the issues we can in our little corner of the world would have a profound impact.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” ~Thomas Edison

Often in my daily life, I reflect on my years working with children. What I enjoyed most was their curiosity and excitement about, well, everything! Whether the activity of the day was painting or singing, dancing or building, they’d reply, “I can do that!” This quote and those memories challenge me. While I’ve learned some things and had some accomplishments, I’m excited to know it’s just a sliver of the possibilities, and there is so much more to know and explore. I am thrilled to be surrounded by people who aren’t satisfied with “the way we’ve always done things,” and can’t wait to see what’s next.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have the opportunity to meet and speak with Malala Yousafzai.

Malala is a courageous inspiration for women everywhere. I’d like to hear first-hand how she found it in her to stand against an establishment where women had no voice. The difference she has made, making education available to women and children in Pakistan, is profound. Here is a person who started a movement, and it would be an honor to meet her and learn more.

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