A native of Minnesota, Sue Hengel joined Regions in January 2008, just before the arrival of the Great Recession. Before banking, she established herself in the world of human resources – initially, without a college degree – then as Head of Human Resources in an 11,000-employee company in Atlanta. She moved to Birmingham, Regions’ headquarters city, in 1999 to join an international career services and leadership development consulting firm.
Nearly a decade later, she joined Regions as an individual contributor focused on leadership program development. Her role continued to expand to include associate engagement and team development. In late 2015, she became the head of Learning and Development, which includes leadership, professional, skills, and compliance training for all associates.
Sue, you had more than a decade of experience in Human Resources before coming to Regions, including work with a contractor for the Department of Defense. What attracted you to Regions?
“In 2004, I was still working for the leadership consulting firm when I pitched Dave Edmonds (Regions’ former Chief Administrative Officer) on executive coaching. That pitch went nowhere. Or so I thought. In 2007, the story I was told was David Edmonds went to Janet Parker, a leader in our Human Resources division, who retired not long ago, and said, ‘Remember the woman who talked to us about executive coaching? Give her a call.’
“So, I’m minding my own business when I get a call from Regions, and my first thought is that this is going to be my biggest account. But Regions wanted someone on staff, full-time, so I joined. Within days, at least it felt like that, the economy tanked. We’re working with a limited budget in the midst of an economic crisis. So, I started looking at what leadership development meant on our own terms.
“The benefit was that I got to do most of the work myself – building new programs from the ground up. That’s what helped me understand, and shape, leadership development at Regions. In 2010, we introduced our first Leaders at All Levels program.”
Other leadership programs emerged, from Elevate My Performance to Hallmarks of a Leader, all under the umbrella of Leading the Regions Way. How did this resonate companywide?
“I know we’ve progressed based on how often it’s talked about. I hear managers – I hear our CEO – talk about the importance of leadership development. They’re engaged. They’re on calls. And on video (training). They’re personally invested in making sure it’s having the impact we want, strengthening our organization.
This company makes leadership development a joy to be a part of.
Sue Hengel, head of Learning and Development for Regions
“In truth, there’s no ‘easy button’ for being a leader. A good leader must understand who you are, what your strengths are, what the business strategy is, what the team needs and then work to behave in a way that helps your team grow and develop. This company makes leadership development a joy to be a part of.”
How has Regions’ leadership and focus on associates evolved since your arrival?
“A big difference to me is the commitment to engagement. I think back to Grayson (Hall, former CEO), who was the right person at the right time to lead us. When he saw our first associate engagement results in 2012, he looked at me and said, ‘Can you imagine, even as hard as it’s been these last couple of years, what we can accomplish if we focus on our associates?’ I thought, ‘I’m in.’
“We had focused so much on protecting the bank and protecting our customers. Now his focus was turning it inside and making sure we created an environment where people looked forward to coming to work every day. It gave me goosebumps.
“That’s great, engaged leadership at the top, and it continues with John Turner as CEO. In John, we have someone who’s such a terrific communicator. When he’s communicating, he’s also educating and setting expectations – you know exactly what’s expected at Regions Bank.”
How did your upbringing affect your career?
“When I think back on my own history, it starts with my mother, and her mother – two very strong women who raised their families on very little income and even less formal education. I was the first in my family to attend college, working three part-time jobs. I was on the pay-as-you-go plan. When I told my mom that I was going to pursue a master’s degree, she said, ‘Now Susan, why don’t you get a good job as an assistant working for a nice man?’ My response was, ‘Mother, I will have a very good job, and my first assistant will be a man.’ You know what? He was a good assistant.”
While your mother meant well, how did you overcome that mindset?
“By thinking to myself, ‘Stop it. You own this.’ I didn’t go to college until I was in my 30s, because that wasn’t expected of me. The expectation was to get a good job, be responsible. My message is: It’s not your parents’ fault. What they gave you gives you strength or stubbornness – in my case bossiness – and you use it.”
What was the catalyst to you going to college after already establishing a career?
“I’m traveling from Atlanta to the West Coast. I’m traveling first class with my job. And the guy sitting next to me asked, ‘Where did you go to college?’ I said, ‘Well, I haven’t gone to college yet.’ He immediately stopped talking to me, as if I didn’t exist. Yes, I realized, he wasn’t better than me, but it made me want to take another look at furthering my education.
“Betty Siegel was the president of Kennesaw State. I managed a program where she spoke about education, and I thought to myself, ‘You can do this.’ So, I did. Then, when I was wrestling with getting an MBA, I heard her speak again, and I remember her saying, ‘You’ll know when you’re ready.’ Well, I was ready.
“Going to college made me more confident and self-assured. It wasn’t easy, but I did it on my own terms.”
Developing leaders and engaging associates is an everyday focus for Regions Bank. See additional Women in Leadership profiles linked below: