Women’s History Month is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the women leaders who have crafted successful careers in community banking. For one trio of presidents and CEOs, dedication, belief and cultivating winning teams are just some of the ways they achieve their goals and inspire future generations.
By Roshan McArthur
Alice Frazier: A “we” state of mind
President and CEO, Bank of Charles Town
Sometimes life can throw curveballs. While Alice Frazier, then a public accountant, was auditing Middleburg National Bank, Va., in 1991, the bank offered her a job as a loan review officer. “At that time, public accounting wasn’t as family-friendly to women as it is today,” she remembers. “My husband and I were looking to have a family and knew that if that was going to occur, we probably needed to make a change. So, that was how I got into banking.”
Looking back, she admits that while there were more women in banking overall, there were very few in executive leadership roles. In 1993, she became one of them, when she was promoted to chief financial officer of Middleburg National Bank. During that time, her husband Todd stepped back from his IT career to be a stay-at-home dad to their two young boys. In the early 2000s, she progressed to the role of chief operating officer. When it came to CEO succession, however, she was passed over—a source of great disappointment.
With hindsight, Frazier knows she wasn’t ready for the top job. “There’s a development process that occurs with leadership, that over time you begin to realize it’s less about you and more about others,” she explains. “And I wasn’t far enough along in that development at that time. When you’ve moved into the ‘we’ state of mind, I think you’re prepared to be a better leader.”
Instead, she made herself “uncomfortable” by broadening her experience as an area executive leader of a sales team at BB&T (now Truist Financial). After two-and-a-half years there, she moved back into the position of COO at Cardinal Bank, a large D.C. metro-area bank. Then, when Cardinal Bank was sold, Frazier had what she calls her “Batman versus Robin moment.”
“I have come to realize, in achieving this position, how critically important it is for me to really focus back on women and help women be successful.”
–Alice Frazier, Bank of Charles Town
“I had been Robin now twice at community banks,” she laughs. “And when I refer to Robin, it’s the chief operating officer role, where you’re right there beside Batman making everything happen for him and making him look good, executing on the vision that Batman has. That was very comfortable for me, but I also had a vision of what I thought a community bank could be. And so, I set about really looking for that next opportunity.”
In 2017, she took on the role of president and CEO at Bank of Charles Town, W.Va. Today, under her leadership, it has $700 million in assets, with nine branches and two loan production offices in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia.
Frazier’s passion for people is key to her leadership philosophy. “You have to care about people if you want someone to follow you, to follow and achieve your vision,” Frazier says. “And so, I think it’s pretty important that there is, from a leadership perspective, an intentional focus on your team. I also believe culture matters significantly. There’s a phrase I have in the mission statement that I share with all the employees. It’s that we are a ‘we’ culture. When we focus on being a ‘we,’ we’re a team accountable to each other, and we celebrate the wins we achieve.”
Frazier admits she has high expectations of herself and others, which leads to a second often-used phrase: “Mediocrity is unacceptable, and accepting mediocrity is even worse.” However, those high expectations don’t go unrewarded. “What I think is really, really important is purposeful recognition, being really generous with recognizing folks for things that they do, and in public and in ways that they would like,” she says. “So, we begin every meeting here with purposeful recognition.”
Tied in with that is helping other women achieve success. Frazier says that she was determined to minimize drawing attention to her gender throughout her career because “I just wasn’t willing to allow myself to use that as an excuse.” Looking back, however, she can remember times when she was metaphorically patted on the head in C-suite meetings.
“I have come to realize, in achieving this position,” she reflects, “how critically important it is for me to really focus back on women and help women be successful.”
Jill Castilla: A foundation of service
President and CEO, Citizens Bank of Edmond
In early 2020, Citizens Bank of Edmond, Okla., made headlines for an unlikely collaboration. Led by its president and CEO Jill Castilla, the $380 million-asset bank joined forces with billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban to launch PPP.bank, a website that guided small businesses through the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan forgiveness process.
It was an unexpected pairing, but, seeing the enormous need within the community, Citizens Bank of Edmond had scaled up efforts locally to help matchmake small businesses with other banks all over the country. Its work with Cuban was a natural extension of that work.
It was natural for Castilla, too, who admits she has a “ridiculous obsession with integrity,” enhanced by the road she has traveled up until now. For example, to pay for college, she enlisted in the National Guard from 1992 to 1996, which she says helped her create a “foundation of ethics, integrity, leadership and service” that she carries with her to this day.
“I’ve learned … that the most important aspect of a successful organization isn’t the leader that you have. It’s the talent that’s on the team.”
–Jill Castilla, Citizens Bank of Edmond
During her 10 years in the management development program at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Castilla received a master’s degree in economics from the University of Oklahoma and went to the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Upon graduation in 2007, she accepted a leadership position with a Minnesota-based community bank, but received another call to service two years later.
Castilla’s mother had married into a family that owned part of Citizens Bank of Edmond, and the bank was in crisis. “I moved in with my three kids to my mom and stepdad’s house, borrowed a car, and worked from 6 a.m. ’til midnight every single day, trying to save the bank,” she recalls. She streamlined operations by focusing on technological innovation instead of branches, and since then has focused on creating a fluid and collaborative culture that centers diversity.
Lifting up unsung heroes
This is in part fueled by the high level of discomfort she experienced walking into rooms as a woman rising through the ranks. At one of the first banking conferences Castilla attended, her husband accompanied her, but she was stopped at the entrance to a bankers-only session on the assumption that she was a spouse. She also remembers vendors talking to her husband and ignoring her.
“I try to be really aware of that when I’m at conferences or at meetings where there is highly disproportional female representation,” she says, “to look for those women who you can see feel alone or feel out of place. I want to make sure that I’m connecting with them and recognizing them as the position that warrants them being there.”
Citizens’ sole physical branch has a non-hierarchical office, and Castilla sits in the lobby with her team. She also makes sure her team represents the world around it. “If someone from our community walks into our bank lobby,” she explains, “they should be able to connect immediately. There are half a dozen languages that are spoken by our 65 team members. You’ll see every background, lifestyle orientation, color of skin, religious preference. It’s really important for us to have a diverse culture in our bank, diverse perspectives, diverse ideas.”
Sharing perspectives, Castilla adds, “has completely changed who we are as an organization and made me a better leader.”
Her leadership philosophy? “To be humble, to be genuine and to be highly engaged. I can spend a lot of time speaking, but I find I’m a better leader when I spend a lot of time listening. And I’ve learned, too, that the most important aspect of a successful organization isn’t the leader that you have. It’s the talent that’s on the team and the importance of talent, developing talent, investing in talent, elevating talent, listening to talent and letting talent shape you as a leader. That’s what really yields the greatest success.”
Yvette M. Williams: The glue of the bank
President and CEO, Community 1st Bank Las Vegas
When Yvette M. Williams applied for a job at Community 1st Bank Las Vegas, formerly known as First National Bank, in her hometown of Las Vegas, she refused to take no for an answer. Her tenacity paid off. Twenty-nine years later, she’s president and CEO of the $169 million-asset community bank, overseeing its four branches and 35 employees. She’s also the first woman to hold that position.
Williams worked her way up through the ranks while studying for a degree in business administration at New Mexico Highlands University, with roles including consumer loan officer, internal auditor and chief operations officer. With the encouragement of the bank’s leaders, she also graduated from the Western States School of Banking at New Mexico State University in 2004.
“Being a leader is a selfless act. You need to be able to see what your team can bring you and what you can accomplish together.”
–Yvette Williams, Community 1st Bank Las Vegas
Three years ago, chairman of the board Robert M. Quintana gave her the opportunity to lead the bank. “When Robert offered me this position,” she recalls, “he said, ‘You’re the glue of this bank; you can make it succeed. I know that you have it in you. Everybody comes to you, they’ll come talk to you whether it’s a problem, or whether it’s a success or whether it’s a solution. You know how to speak to them; you know how to speak their language.’”
Tragically, Quintana passed away due to complications caused by COVID-19 in early 2021, but Williams is enormously grateful for his mentorship and for recognizing what her breadth of experience could bring to the bank.
“I noticed in the beginning the bank’s culture was ‘This is the operations [department] and this is the lending department,’” she says. “Having the opportunity to learn different areas of the bank, and changing my focus every three years, helped me grow to the point where I was able to merge it as one bank.”
It’s all about the team
With that deep experience at Community 1st Bank Las Vegas, Williams knows what its truest assets are. “To me, leadership is always about others; it’s about your people. It’s not about me, because I can’t do anything by myself. It’s impossible,” she says. “And if any leader has a hard time with that, it’s going to be a tough road for them. Being a leader is a selfless act. You need to be able to see what your team can bring you and what you can accomplish together.
“I mean, if you’re not one of the people pulling the rope with them, it’s not going to work.”
Asked what her leadership philosophy is, Williams is quick to point out the importance of employee recognition. “If you’re a leader who’s desperate for recognition, you’re going to have a hard time creating a space where people are willing and wanting to make it successful as well,” she says. “I think it’s about your people, and if you’re able to show them that it’s about them, they’ll give you 100% every time.”
As a woman, Williams is aware that she has had to work harder to prove herself than most men would have to. “When I present something, I need to make sure that I’ve had all the boxes checked, that every single thing is perfect,” she says. “It’s a little more of a challenge to present something, because I feel sometimes it’s not taken for the same face value as if a man had just presented the same information.
“I think women need to be able to stay strong, be assertive and be confident,” adds Williams. “It’s amazing when you have a woman who’s confident, how far you can go and how many things you can accomplish.”
Who are these leaders’ role models?
President and CEO, Bank of Charles Town
“The first community bank CEO that I worked for truly taught me the love of community banking, showed me how to be a community banker and how to really engage in the community. The regional president I reported to at BB&T taught me how to speak from the heart. And the last CEO I reported to really taught me about business. He knew I wanted to be in a seat like this, but I was still too thin-skinned. And he toughened that up for me.”
President and CEO, Citizens Bank of Edmond
“I carried groceries out for Lurlene Mabrey, the matriarch of the banking family in my hometown, and she was always asking me when I was going to college, had I taken my ACT? I kept in contact with her and her family as I was going through the Fed and through banking school. Such generosity and encouragement since those early days, saying a few words to someone carrying out groceries, something that motivates them to do something different with their life. … It wasn’t like she spent hours with me, but those minutes were so impactful.”
Yvette M. Williams
President and CEO, Community 1st Bank Las Vegas
“Joyce Litherland [is my role model]. Her father is the one who started the bank, and her husband Ray was the president and CEO for the majority of the time that I worked here at the bank. They’re very generous people and have always encouraged me to continue my education and attend classes. They’ve encouraged me to be able to talk to regulators and grow an understanding of what they’re looking for. They’ve been very influential in my life.”
Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.