Developing a Culture of Leaders: Women to Watch
Like many college graduates, Jennifer Pestikas didn't exactly go into the field she expected when she received her Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish.
While in the process of completing her degree, Pestikas took her studies to Provence, France for a year where she learned valuable lessons of open mindedness and flexibility. The experience didn't quite draw a straight line to her credit union career, but it did add a colorful piece to the mosaic of her life.
“I think the experience made me perfect for marketing because when I did my liberal arts major, I studied poetry, the arts and French artists, that's part of that degree structure,” the most recent Women to Watch honoree said. “So I have a natural creative bent.”
She learned many lessons on her path to becoming vice president of human resources and marketing at the $750 million Abbott Laboratories Employees Credit Union in Gurnee, Ill. Most importantly, she learned the lesson of never giving up.
“My background shows that with hard work and determination, anything's possible,” she emphasized.
Pestikas started her career as a teller in a community bank and later moved to a large mutual fund company in Chicago. Working in the male-dominated brokerage services industry was challenging for her, but with the support of her parents, she persevered and refused to become a passive participant in her career. She was later recruited by the credit union and worked her way up to the vice president position.
“People think I was dropped into the vice president role but I wasn't. The title doesn't matter; it's the path that matters,” she said.
In her role as vice president of human resources and marketing, Pestikas is dedicated to developing the credit union's workforce. A pivotal moment in this development came when she heard Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, speak on practical ways to achieve your goals. Pestikas took the lessons she learned from this speech back to her credit union, where she initiated a leadership program that focuses on the three I's of leadership: Inquiry, inspire and innovation. She said there's been a great deal of interest in the nine-month long program – 30% of employees have participated in it.
Pestikas said the leadership program has helped her CEO and the organization as a whole operate at a higher level, and has inspired those who have participated to lean forward in their careers.
“I love that I host the leadership group because I get to pass on my experience through this program,” she emphasized. “I think it's absolutely critical … for professional women to invest in their own development – whether it's going to school, a leadership group or a peer group. I think the quickest way to lean in and get to those levels you’re looking for is to really take ownership of where you are. Dig under the covers of what's holding you back and really engage in tools and resources that will propel you forward.”
In an effort to never grow complacent, she's currently pursuing an executive/corporate coaching certification. She wants to build a coaching and leadership development arm within the credit union so she can help propel others forward.
“I want to incorporate the things I’m learning into our culture here … I think it's going to be creating something that will separate our credit union,” said Pestikas.
Ultimately, everything Pestikas does is driven by her desire to make the organization better, she said. She spearheaded the development of a company intranet, for example. The credit union had a shared drive for 24 years, but it lacked organization. The new intranet was a culture enhancement for the organization, she noted.
“It's improved connectivity among employees,” she said. “It's consolidated and cleaned resources, and created standardization of forms.”
Pestikas also implemented prospective employee assessments, which helps hiring managers better determine if a prospective employee is right for a position. The assessment tests often reveal behaviors that interviews may not, Pestikas said.
“I want to make sure it's the right fit, for them and for us,” she said. “It's disruptive to have to hire someone again, so we’re looking for passion, drive and fit.”
She said she also has to be cognizant as to whether the person has the right technical skills for the role because of the credit union's lean staff.
With all this success, Pestikas isn't getting complacent. She said she has a healthy fear of losing what she's got.
“I feel that by never taking my job for granted, I’m hungrier for it,” she emphasized. “I don't assume that I will be in this position forever. Everyone can be replaced if they don't change or get complacent.”
She said women shouldn't rely on their boss or organization to get them to the next level.
“Fill your own tank,” she said. “Getting uncomfortable is the key to change. Do something every day that scares or stretches you.”