Tom Eblen: Coal miner's daughter who's one of '25 most powerful women in banking' offers career advice

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 9, 2014 

Hale

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Jean Hale was a coal miner's daughter, the youngest of four children. When women in her family chose a career outside the home, they became schoolteachers.

But when Hale was assigned a "career day" report in high school, she chose to interview Robert B. Johnson, the president of Pikeville National Bank. She can't remember much about what he told her, but it obviously made an impression.

Hale, 67, now has Johnson's job: chairman, president and chief executive officer. The world has changed, and so has her hometown bank.

Pikeville National then had about $18 million in assets and 20 employees. The bank Hale has run for 22 years was renamed Community Trust Bankcorp in 1997. It now has $3.6 billion in assets, 1,030 employees and 86 offices in 35 counties in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Community Trust is the largest bank holding company based in Kentucky. American Banker magazine, the industry's bible, has ranked the coal miner's daughter No. 24 on its list of the "25 most powerful women in banking."

Hale will speak about her career March 12 in Lexington at a business and leadership conference sponsored by the group Women Leading Kentucky. The event is sold out, so I called Hale and asked to share her story with a wider audience.

"Neither of my parents had a college education," Hale told me. "But they were bound and determined their children would, and they did."

Hale graduated from what is now the University of Pikeville, where she majored in business and minored in math. "I wanted to stay in my hometown and there was limited opportunity, so I needed a backup plan," she said. "The world always needs math teachers."

Hale worked for Pikeville National Bank while in college, but quit to finish her senior year because the bank didn't allow part-time workers. The bank's chairman, Burlin Coleman, just assumed she would return after graduation.

But when he didn't specifically offer her a job, Hale signed a contract to teach high school math. Later the same day, Coleman called her home to ask why she hadn't come back to work.

"I told Burlin that if I don't have my word I have nothing," she said. "So I taught for a year, and we had an agreement that I would come back to the bank when that year of teaching finished. That was 45 years ago."

Hale said the incident taught her important lessons about integrity — and communication. It also confirmed her hunch that she would make a better banker than math teacher.

"A lot of people think banking is somewhat boring; it's not," she said. "It's a constantly changing and evolving industry, and I like that."

Hale said people often assume it was hard for her to rise to the top because banking and Eastern Kentucky both have male-dominated cultures. But she said her bosses always judged her on her abilities, not her gender.

"A lot of people don't realize that many times the glass ceiling, so to speak, was not in the workplace. The glass ceiling was in the home," she said. "You talk about the old cliché that behind every successful man is a successful woman. The reality is that behind every successful woman there at least has to be a tolerant man."

Hale is a widow now. Her son, Michael, 42, is a successful engineer and corporate executive in Nashville. He also is the father of her two granddaughters.

"I made a conscious decision," she said. "I wanted to have family and career and I felt like I could do a good job of both with one child."

What advice would Hale give to women — and men — wishing to emulate her success?

■ Embrace education and continuous learning.

"Formal education is like a tool box," she said. "Your success is going to be a result of knowing which tools to pull out and use once you get into the job market. And you have to be able to reason and think."

■ Anticipate and embrace change.

"This is a changing world, and you have to be willing to grasp the changes that occur," she said.

Eastern Kentucky's boom-and-bust coal economy taught Community Trust executives the importance of diversification. So as soon as banking laws allowed for regional expansion, the bank did so aggressively. That has been a key to success.

■ Find good mentors.

Hale said her two best mentors were Coleman and Brant Mullins, another former executive at the bank. "They mentored without interfering," she said. "It was more like planting seeds ... and seeing if you could pick up the ball and run with it."

■ Emphasize communication.

"A leader has to not only have the vision, but be able to communicate the vision and have people buy into it," she said. "You also have to be able to look someone in the eye when you're communicating with them and be able to understand the reaction of their personality. You can say the same thing to two different people and you'll get two different reactions."

■ Be passionate about your work.

"Passion instills confidence in other people. No one wants to do business with someone who doesn't show a passion for what they're doing," Hale said. "If you don't like what you're doing, then I would encourage you to do something else."

■ Give back to your community.

"If a community is growing, all the businesses in the community will grow as well," she said. "It's not just the donations we make, but the actual leadership (employees) provide in their different communities that's going to make a difference."

Hale chairs the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority, which awards state tax incentives, and is a board member of Commonwealth Seed Capital, the Appalachian Regional Health Foundation and the University of Pikeville. She is a former chair of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System Foundation.

■ Operate with integrity, and treat others with fairness and respect.

Hale said Mullins gave her some of the best advice she ever received: "Jean, it doesn't matter how smart you are or how hard you work; in order to succeed you have to have a lot of people willing to work with you."

"And you need to focus on the success of your co-workers more so than yourself," she added. "If you do that, your success will come."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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