The 1914 photo of the MBA’s first convention banquet in Chicago features about 100 men. Fast-forward 100 years, and Debra Still is only the second woman to chair the nation’s most prestigious association of mortgage bankers.
As outgoing chair Still is a role model for many women in mortgage banking who look up to her for advice. She is a women-in-banking history-maker who, without much fanfare, is trying to support and inspire a new generation of female business leaders. She started leading by example with her own daughters.
The most important lesson your daughters learned from you and are using as professional women?
I think they picked up a very healthy work ethic. Both had aspirations for careers at a very young age, both of them are not so exclusively career-focused that they don’t remember to enjoy the journey.
They also have picked up maybe a way to lead that is inclusive of everybody that we work with, not so much focused on the role but on how they can contribute, which are some of my value systems and aspirations of how I lead.
What would be the best way to mentor younger mortgage professionals?
I’ve been talking to a group of women in D.C. that would like to start a women’s network.
One of the rewarding things as chair was that I have so many young professionals come up to me after a speaking engagement to ask various questions including: How do I get ahead in my career? How do I evolve? I’ve been able to have really healthy conversations with many very young professionals.
I personally believe in a very inclusive culture, whether it’s young men, minorities and different ethnicities, there is room for all of us. Young women who tell me: “Thank you so much for playing a leadership role. You’re inspirational because it makes me believe that they can both stay focused on my career and have a family someday.” That is very, very rewarding.
Was it tough to be only the second woman to chair the MBA?
I’ve been a mortgage banker for 37 years and at Pulte for 30 years, so if you think of it, it has been 30 years of building a career in a homebuilding environment. I’m very comfortable in a male environment, and very used to that, which definitely helped. Our industry still has a lot of men in the senior leadership roles. But I was very pleased though that as I took the leadership role and travelled around the country to meet the senior executives of companies, they have been totally supportive, have totally embraced me. It has been as comfortable and seamless as it has been with my own company.
So while I do believe we need to get a higher level of diversity and inclusion within our industry, I have not felt any resistance as chair from anyone quite frankly, it has all been very collaborative and very inclusive.
You earned your leadership position after decades of hard work, so it came naturally, what advice would you give to the young women who are just starting?
Competency is extremely important. Whatever field you choose, you’ve got to be an expert at it. So being confident is really important to me.
The other thing is to always remember that it is only business and to look at business from a bit of an arm’s length and never take anything personally. Having a debate about disagreements is sometimes the healthiest way to achieve real change so make sure that every business person stays extremely objective about the issues and the debate.
Also, be assertive!
My job is to lead my job is to inspire, my job is to make the environment and the direction clear for everybody else. I do not come from a culture where we are very conscious of the title and problems someone may wear around their sleeve.
Everybody can make a contribution, it doesn’t matter what level of the organization you’re at, everybody plays an important role, and when the folks realize they can make a truly huge contribution to the organization, every job is not just a stepping stone to the next one. You’ve got to really, really, really do your current job to the fullest before you can expect to earn the next one.