March 8 is International Women’s Day, so we figured what better way to celebrate than to get to know one of our own powerhouse woman leaders with a little Q&A? Read on to learn more about our Head of Operations Sara Hernandez, her 20 years at the bank, and what drives her to show up for our customers, our team, and our community every day.
What is your background story? How did you get into the banking industry, and what was your path to where you are now?
I accidentally fell into a career in banking. I started as a part-time teller while studying Agronomy at UNL. About a year into being a teller, I learned I was terrible at science and also learned that I was going to be a mom. My priority shifted from being a student to becoming a full-time worker and a mom.
I moved from being a customer service representative into a loan assistant role, where I started with consumer loans, home equity loans, title and lien perfection, and servicing, then shifted into collections and lending. When loan volume was slow, I helped other areas and worked on many projects across departments/roles. I was working at a small institution, so I had a chance to work in all aspects of banking (customer service, deposits, lending, accounting, etc.). Being able to see how a financial institution functioned in all facets and being able to work on a variety of projects gave me a great foundation.
In 2002, I had a friend talk me into moving to Union Mortgage, which was an affiliate of UBT. I didn’t know anything about mortgage loans! At the time, UMI was starting their back-office operations area and I had a huge opportunity to learn, create, and grow. When UMI dissolved, UBT brought us into the bank where we merged with the bank’s mortgage team. I had leadership experience prior to coming to UBT, but my first official leadership role at UBT was as a mortgage post-closing supervisor. Through many department changes and challenges in the mortgage industry, I had opportunities to take on more responsibility, and to work through a variety of projects. Through projects and changes in the lending division, I expanded into working with all retail loan areas and leading more diverse teams.
In 2007, I returned to school as a nontraditional student. I took classes at night while being a full-time leader, employee, wife, and mom of two amazing and busy boys. I finished my BA in Business Administration in 2015.
One of the biggest shifts in my UBT career came when I was asked to lead the creation of the Loan Operations Division. It gave me an opportunity to work with every loan area of the bank. It was one of the most challenging professional experiences I’ve had.
Just a little over a year ago, I transitioned into my current position as the Head of Operations for the bank. I have the amazing privilege of leading a division that includes traditional bank and loan operations. There are 180 people and over 15 distinct areas within Operations. Listing the breadth of responsibilities of the Operations Division would fill several pages!
I just celebrated my 20th UBT anniversary. What I love most about my job is that every day is an adventure, there are abundant opportunities to learn and grow, and I get to work with incredibly talented and amazing people.
What challenges did you overcome in the banking industry?
I don’t think the challenges are unique to the industry — the pace and complexity of change, customer demands and expectations, “always on”/always connected expectations; what we do is evolving faster than ever before. The demands feel bigger, stakes feel higher, and there’s more transparency into everything. Everything is happening in real time and can be broadcast quickly. We’re working to make the complex simple, to connect processes, people, and technology. We have to keep making it easier to do business with us, scaling effectively, and supporting growth. And I want us to be a place people want to work, a team that wants to work together, where we work hard and have fun — it’s a challenge to bring all of this together.
On the personal side, challenges faced were being a working mom in jobs that demanded more than 40 hours of time, building confidence, learning the nuances of the industry, learning how to lead myself and others, and integrating work and home.
How has your experience as a professional woman changed over your career?
So many changes! For me personally, the changes, growth, and transformation flowed in parallel with the stages of my family and my career — 23 years of banking and career growth during different seasons of life. I hope others who’ve worked with me feel the growth in wisdom and grace I’ve gained through life and work experiences. I’m glad I’ve grown beyond the person I was 23 years ago, and I also know I have a lot more growing to do.
When I think back about where I started, I didn’t think of myself as a professional career woman. There wasn’t anyone around me who talked about that. The last few years, I’ve seen a surge of advocate groups, conferences, podcasts, books, and widespread resources for women in leadership and banking.
Openness about challenges of being a working parent as well as support for caregivers has increased over my career. There’s more transparent and open discussion around topics that were once “taboo,” as well as greater support for those experiencing challenges. I think there’s more openness, acceptance, and support around the reality that we each come to work as a whole person. There are points where life is just really hard, and there are more people and resources to help now.
What makes you feel the most empowered?
Trust, freedom, and flexibility; knowing that someone genuinely cares about me and they’ll give me the space to try things, yet call me out with compassion if I run off the rails.
Why do we need more women in leadership?
Diversity in experiences and perspectives. Women who’ve experienced barriers can help advocate change and provide support for others through the wisdom they’ve gained in their transformation and challenging journey — it’s not limited to women helping women, it’s about being able to understand the challenges and create positive change for others, paving a way. Visible role models — “if you can see it, you can be it.”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
It’s all going to work out OK! And a lot of times it’ll end up even better than you imagined, and there is growth and a lot of good that can come out of pain. It’s a long and winding road — don’t get so focused on reaching the destination that you miss the journey. You can’t avoid failing, so focus on failing forward and progressively getting better instead of feeling like you have to be perfect before you start.
What advice would you give to any young woman starting her professional career?
Growth and success don’t come in a straight line, it comes in winding paths and plateaus — it’s like climbing Mount Everest. You must get comfortable with discomfort. You can’t grow without that. Another way to think about it is like a rose bush — there’s beauty and thorns and you must do some serious trimming and pruning to get more flowers. You can’t bloom beautifully without some painful pruning.
- Surround yourself with people who make you better.
- The best way to predict your future is to create it.
- You can learn something from everyone and from every situation, even it if it’s learning what not to do.
- Be you! Don’t try to copy someone else — learn from others, but take those tools and create your own style.
- Be curious!
Thanks to Sara for sharing her time and insight with us, and happy International Women’s Day to all of the amazing women who we’re lucky to count as co-workers, customers, and community members.
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