Greenleaf Trust breaking barriers for women

Firm’s intentional professional development is designed to leave no one behind.
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Local wealth management firm Greenleaf Trust is reaping the results of years of work to bring about a more inclusive financial services industry.

The firm — based in Kalamazoo, with offices in Grand Rapids; Traverse City; Bay Harbor; Birmingham; Midland; and Greenville, Delaware — has about 160 employees and offers wealth management, trust administration, retirement planning and other financial services.

Karen Baldwin. Courtesy Greenleaf Trust

Karen Baldwin, senior vice president and director of human resources who has been with the firm for 12 years, recently spoke to the Business Journal about Greenleaf Trust’s work toward diversifying its corner of the financial services industry.

Greenleaf’s current executive leadership team is composed of 33% women, and at least 70% of promotions during the years 2019, 2020 and 2021 were of women. As of last month, of the promotions so far in 2022, 57% were of women.

About 83% of the firm’s middle management members — e.g., team leads, assistant directors and coaches — are female, and about 68% of its middle management-track employees, such as mentors and intern leaders, are female.

The rising number of women in the ranks has come about because of Greenleaf’s intentional actions to treat its employees as its most valuable asset and to give equal opportunity to all who wish to advance through the ranks, Baldwin said.

“We are always looking at ways that we can take every measure to make sure that our people are well cared for and that they’re prepared to take advantage of the opportunities for advancement that come about,” Baldwin said.

Greenleaf has created several ways to equip its people to reach the next milestone in their careers.

It has created special committees and work groups that allow people in different divisions to work together cross-functionally, learning about the other parts of the firm and how they can work together to create positive change within the organization, Baldwin said.

Greenleaf also offers quarterly coaching for all team members to listen to them and understand where they want to grow. If a team member so desires, they also can receive one-on-one leadership coaching on a weekly or monthly basis.

“We take all that information, and those leaders come and sit with me and with our president a couple times a year,” Baldwin said, “so that we can talk through every single team member and what their goals are, what plays are being put in place for them, what kinds of things they might need to learn, what gaps of knowledge they have, who we can partner them up with, what projects are out there that we can have them lead or be part of so that they can gain those skills to move forward in those roles.”

Additionally, Greenleaf strives to put new hires into roles where they can continue to develop and grow into a leadership position if that’s a future goal of theirs.

About one-third of Greenleaf’s employees wear a leadership hat, Baldwin said. Although the gender makeup of the lower ranks and mid and senior levels are becoming more diverse, just a year ago, 100% of the executive and C-suite positions were male. Now, the 11-member group has one female. With so many women rising through the ranks, the gender balance is expected to increase, Baldwin said.

“When you start in the financial services industry, the majority of people that are in those executive positions are men,” Baldwin said. “And we recognize that, and so we’re working very diligently on these next-level leaders who are coming up within the organization to groom them for these executive-level positions. All the way down that line, there’s a huge effort for women to be in those leadership roles and to be moving up that path to that executive level.”

This year, the firm has invited its new leaders and its mid-level managers to join a cohort of people who will be learning together via book discussions and coaching meetings with Baldwin and the firm’s president, Michael Odar.

Baldwin, the HR team lead and an HR specialist also will work with the brand-new intern leaders and mentors to help them navigate their journeys to management and leadership.

“We’ll be working together … and providing opportunities for them to see, what does that really look like if you decide to become a leader? What’s involved in being a leader? What is family medical leave? What do you do if you have somebody who is struggling? How do you coach, and all of those kinds of things?” Baldwin said. “It’s a transitional opportunity for them to learn, what does it look like to be a coach, what are some of the things that you’d be responsible for? Then moving into that next level where they’re meeting with me and the president, and we’re talking through, what are some of the scenarios that you’re dealing with now? How can we best support each other? Who can we partner you with on the executive team (who) can help you learn and grow? What opportunities are there for you to take on and to be able to showcase those talents within the organization?”

Baldwin said many of the leaders who were just promoted went through this process, which also included hearing from special speakers on best practices for leadership.

Outside of the opportunities for professional development and mentorship for women, Baldwin said during the pandemic, the firm increased its flexibility for working mothers. 

“There has been so much that has changed in our world, and for all of our team members in their homes and at work, but because we’re so committed to our clients and to our team members, we’ve really worked hard to go back out to them and listen to them to find out what is going on and what’s causing them stress,” she said.

Time was a huge issue for the parents whose children were in virtual school, so flex time increased — with some parents who needed to take the morning hours to help their kids with lessons adjusting their hours to afternoons and evenings.

The firm also created a relief fund that was in effect during the first year-plus of the pandemic, called Greenleaf Cares, which allowed full-time employees to be reimbursed for resources related to working from home, such as office furniture, internet costs, child care, additional computers for their children, etc.

“We partnered with them to be able to give them what they needed to make sure that they had every obstacle that could potentially be in their way removed so that they could do what they needed to do,” Baldwin said.

The firm also allowed employees to use dollars from the firm’s wellness fund to be reimbursed for housecleaning services if they wished. That policy became so popular that it still is in effect.

The firm, which always has emphasized cross-training, relied on its division leaders to ensure the work was divided as evenly as possible between parents and non-parents, and when extra work fell on cross-trained non-parents, they were encouraged to take time off later to make up for it, Baldwin said.

Besides its efforts to increase gender equity, the firm also is working to increase racial and ethnic diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry through its scholarship and internship program, which the Business Journal previously featured; its wealth developer program with Kalamazoo Public Schools; and through its recruiting of new employees.

Baldwin said the scholarship program, founded in 1999, is starting to pay dividends.

“Those students who have graduated and have gone on to work in the world now have great experience to be able to come back to Greenleaf,” she said, adding that 28% of the firm’s new hires last year were either past scholars or interns.

The wealth developer program is a four-hour experience held monthly on Saturdays from September through May, where students can learn about the various aspects of the financial world.

“It’s set up with the objective to grow the financial investing knowledge of participants and drive awareness of the different financial career paths that might be available to them, as well as share about the Greenleaf Trust scholarship and internship program, because these are all juniors in high school,” Baldwin said. “It’s a cool program that teaches them about investments, and, upon completion, they earn an investment account that will be funded with $500 that allows them to continue their investment journey after they graduate. We’re hoping that that will be a pool of candidates for us, as well.”

The firm has learned over the years that children need to see representation of people like themselves and the possibility of a career in finance from a young age, which is why it is investing in students.

On the gender equity front, Greenleaf Trust has not set a target number of female leaders it hopes to have by a certain date, Baldwin said — but that’s not really the goal.

“We’ve really taken the mindset of working to educate women within our company and to continue them on that journey to get them to those positions, versus having a committed number, say, 50% of our people need to be women. We want everybody to feel good about moving into those roles and not feel like they were there because of some number that we needed to achieve.”

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