Teresa Tanner of Reserve Squad: “Find your voice, and don’t let others speak for you”

“Find your voice, and don’t let others speak for you.” Women so often don’t speak up. Sometimes it’s because there is a culture of not listening to women so much so that we can silence ourselves. So I remind women: remember your principles and have courage — and speak up. As a part of our series about women […]

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“Find your voice, and don’t let others speak for you.” Women so often don’t speak up. Sometimes it’s because there is a culture of not listening to women so much so that we can silence ourselves. So I remind women: remember your principles and have courage — and speak up.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Teresa Tanner.

Teresa is the founder and CEO of Reserve Squad which she launched in October of 2020. Her new venture helps offer companies a way to preserve women in the talent pipeline and ultimately increase gender representation by helping an organization create a new workforce of reserve talent that can be accessed for temporary or project work. The need for companies to help women has never been more important than now in the midst of the pandemic.

Teresa is a former chief administrative officer for Fifth Third Bank, the nation’s 14th largest bank. She spent more than 30 years in operations, human resources and administration for several Fortune 500 companies before leaving in 2019 to pursue a role where she could make a difference.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

In many ways, life led me to this path. As a young working mom, I noticed something about the leaders in my company. They were all men, and they all had something I didn’t: someone at home taking care of the house and family. I talked about this with my husband, and together, we decided to take a radical step. Instead of leaving the workforce as more than a third of working moms were doing at the time, I decided to stay on the job. My husband, however, stepped back from his career. He supported us by supporting me.

It was a decision that shaped my family for decades — as well as my career. Having dedicated support at home freed me from the strain most other women faced trying to manage two full-time jobs at once as well as raise two children. It also paved my path for workplace inclusion.

As I rose to the highest levels in corporate America over the next 30 years, I never took that support I had for granted. Instead, I worked to deliver innovative benefits to help women succeed at work and home. We created programs such as a free Maternity Concierge, mentorships, leadership groups and more. They were a start, but they weren’t enough. We needed new strategies to retain women. That is what led me to leave a job I love so that I could create opportunities for women.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Companies have long offered only two roles for employees — full- or part-time work. That didn’t and doesn’t work for many women, especially during times in their lives when they are caring for their children or even their parents. These two roles of full-time or part-time work weren’t created for the times we live. Think about how four in 10 women are leaving their careers for a period of time. More than a third of women who temporarily left the workforce to care for family said this negatively impacted their careers. Nearly three quarters of all women want to rejoin the workforce after pausing for family. We need to shake up how corporate America defines work.

The pandemic has exposed flaws in our work models that have greatly impacted women — especially working mothers. Companies must take deliberate actions to avoid losing all the progress that has been made in the last few decades in terms of diversity, inclusion and gender equality. These include creating new structures for work that allow women to have more choices about where, when, and how they work; providing real benefits that help women juggle family responsibilities (such as extended maternity/paternity leave and parental and child care support); and establishing metrics to assess gender equity progress and increase transparency and accountability of outcomes.

So Reserve Squad closes the off ramp for women by creating a new lane.

For example, we work with a company to offer women the opportunity to become a Reservist when they are considering leaving the workforce. No longer are full- and part-time employment or gig and contract work the only options. Reserve Squad manages the Reservists — keeping them engaged with company updates, continuous access to training, and opportunities for their company’s project work as well as to serve as brand ambassadors. This allows an employee to move from full-time work to reservist to full-time work without any disruption in service. Companies retain their investment in talent, increase female participation in their workforce, and spend contingent labor dollars more effectively.

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

This is a mistake that was so important it has shaped my career and how I lead others to this day. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are the most damaging. Sometimes you need someone to pull you out of that headspace to hear something different, to look at things in a new way.

At one of my jobs, I wasted a couple hundred thousand dollars of the company’s money. I was aggressive, and I thought that I could solve a problem creatively, not in the normal way.

When I realized that it didn’t work, I felt horrible, like a failure. I wrote a resignation letter and gave it to my boss.

When he received it, he said: Are you kidding me? I just spent $200,000 on your development with this. You are going to learn, and you are not going to quit. And you will do better next time.

We need to give people permission to fail. I failed because I was being aggressive. I’d much rather pay someone to be aggressive and make mistakes than play it safe and never have that break out performance. You can’t make the same mistake, of course, but learn from it.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I was so lucky to have such a terrific mentor when I was in my early 20s. He was several levels higher than me in the organization. He had taken an interest in my development and had asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him that maybe one day I would like to manage people, if I was good enough.

He listened, patiently, and then interrupted.

And then he said, Here is what I think. And he started painting this vision, not little dreams, but big dreams. He said: You will manage people, you will rise to one of the most senior ranks at a company, you will hold a position where you won’t just have small impact, but systemic impact.

I was trembling, and remember thinking: Who the heck are you talking about? It can’t be me. Why do you think I can do this? I don’t even think I can do this. I’ve thought about this so many times in my career — and this was 20 or so years ago. The power of breathing potential into people to see things in themselves that they don’t see yet is so powerful. How do you get people to see things in themselves that they don’t? You show them to dream bigger. This changed the trajectory of my career.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

It makes a lot of sense to be disruptive when we keep doing the same things and don’t get the outcomes we want, or we aren’t getting different results. Sometimes we get so comfortable with what we are used to, that we lose any momentum for a vision. When you change just for the sake of change, you create chaos and it sets you back.

I like to always go back to the why? What are you doing this? Are you not getting the change you need? Are you not getting the outcome you want? Is doing it the same way keeping you from breaking through? Then you need to try something new.

When I worked for Fifth Third, we started something called The Maternity Concierge. What we learned was that new mothers at work needed help. It wasn’t just leave, there was something about returning from leave that was problematic.

I learned that women who took maternity leave left the bank in the 12 months after returning to work at twice the rate of other women. While leave was important, the transition period back was important, too.

We needed to do something for these women; we couldn’t keep doing the same thing and expecting new results.

When we launched the Maternity Concierge program for its employees, our goal was to help retain women employees. After a year with the program, the Bank found that women who enrolled in it were almost 25 percent more likely to remain at the bank six months after returning from maternity leave than women who didn’t use the program.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Never be afraid to be fired.” I had this quote taped to my computer monitor for years. If you are afraid — for financial reasons or those tied to your identity, you will lose the ability to do the right thing and to offer unpopular counsel. You will be tempted to compromise your morals.

Every day, I’ve tried to say: I’m going to do the right thing. I wish I would have spent all 30 years of my career with that intensity. You can drive change. You can shape a culture.

I had a great job and I walked away. But I wanted to get up every morning and say: I am going to work hard to make the world a better place for women. This is the most important thing I can do, and I wake up inspired and excited every day to make this happen.

“View failure as courage and as learning.” It isn’t easy to do that, to put yourself out there, but also learn from your failure.

“Find your voice, and don’t let others speak for you.” Women so often don’t speak up. Sometimes it’s because there is a culture of not listening to women so much so that we can silence ourselves. So I remind women: remember your principles and have courage — and speak up.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We have a chance right now to reshape the way we define work. What was created years ago is outdated and frankly doesn’t work for women or families. We’ve got to look at work in different ways than simply full time and part time. So much depends on this.

I’m on a mission to change the way we work, to change the way companies and women work — which ultimately will lead to more women in leadership roles, more women as directors on boards, and ultimately, gender parity in the workforce.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women are forced to prove it more than men are. In the world of entrepreneurship, you see female founders needing to prove their business cases for funding much more tightly than men do. In my own career, I saw this, too. If I presented a new idea, my business case had to be tighter. A man could say something without nearly the same scrutiny.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Have you listened to Katherine Goldstein’s The Double Shift? She is such an expert on motherhood and work these days, blending her own experience as a mother with telling the real and compelling stories of others.

She said: “The idea of the ideal worker is basically a man with no childcare responsibilities, and that’s how we expect people in the workplace to behave, which can have a really negative impact on working mothers.”

And when you get down to it, that really isn’t just the ideal worker, it is how the entire structure of work was designed. It wasn’t designed for women — or mothers — to succeed. To make that happen, we have to change the way we design and define work to fit our lives now and in the future to achieve true equity.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

We must call on private companies to re-evaluate their internal cultures and policies. Companies must open their eyes to the disadvantages that existing structures have allotted to women and understand now what it takes to help women succeed.

Corporate work must look different than it did before. We must build new ways to leverage female talent at all stages of their lives, even if they need to step away temporarily to care for family matters. Women need not be forced out during periods of transition — we can keep them engaged and help them stay connected to their careers. We must make pausing for family a normal path and continue to support women who do so.

It is within reach. An environment where women can thrive and seek the same opportunities as their male peers includes:

  • Flexible working solutions.
  • Childcare options.
  • Ongoing engagement and support when they need to pause their careers.
  • Access to senior leadership opportunities.
  • Continuous skill development.
  • Equal pay.

That is equity. I believe we can make this right. We know companies that value diversity thrive culturally and financially. When we help women succeed, we all thrive.

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

Do you find a challenge in every opportunity or do you find an opportunity in every challenge?

Too often, especially in the corporate world, people tend to look at why things won’t work — what is wrong with every solution presented. I look at things in a different way. You can accept it as it is or you can find an opportunity to improve, overcome or learn a lesson. One way I can do this is to ask myself constantly: what do I not know about this situation? Even when I’m tempted to emotionally react or judge, I remind myself: how can I seek to understand? No set of variables is exactly the same. It may look familiar and it may even feel familiar. But how do you look and be strategic about these variables? It would be so easy to say there are so many challenges to why the work structure doesn’t fit women’s lives and leave it at that. It is such a big structural change. But we cannot afford to let this opportunity pass us. At our current pace of change, it will take more than 100 years to get to gender parity in the workforce. The time is now — to look at how companies have adapted and changed during the pandemic, and make changes that create a better future for all of us.

How can our readers follow you online?

One of the best places to find me is on LinkedIn, especially during these virtual times, I think it’s a place to learn more about what others are doing and meet people I might not normally run across.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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