Ask a Leader: Interview with Eileen Schoonmaker

Dave Walton

Learning from a Leader: Career Development Advice

Interview with Eileen Schoonmaker, SVP & Head of NewCo at DLL

October 2020


Interview conducted by Camtu Vo, Digital Consultant, DLL and edited by Jacob Fahl, Opportunity Development Leader, Hitachi Capital America Corp. and a member of the ELFA Emerging Talent Advisory Council. Learn more about this interview series.

When did you first join the equipment finance industry and what has been the trajectory of your career?

I joined the industry right out of college with Eaton Financial Corp. and would describe my career trajectory in three phases: The first phase was about learning as much as I could about the business and our customers by going into Sales, and later, becoming a Sales Manager. In these roles, I learned how to handle rejection (it happens a lot!), the art of negotiating, resilience, taking lots of risks (even the not-so-smart ones because how else will you know the difference?), the meaning of partnership and the best ways to work with colleagues—all of which are necessary when advancing your career. The second phase was about building—the kind where you roll up your sleeves and help build your organization for sustained growth and longevity. I rotated through leadership positions every three years during this phase—from Head of Ops to Head of IT to Country Manager. I learned to take calculated risks, how to manage a P&L and how to be responsible for the care and well-being of 500+ members. This third phase has been all about Second Acts and Giving Back. Far from being ready to ride off into the sunset, I have a renewed sense of purpose. Now instead of head-down I am head-up and looking forward, not back, working smarter and saying yes to opportunities. I’m also focusing on opening doors for the next generation of diverse leaders.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your own professional development? How did you overcome it?

Unconscious bias is the biggest challenge that I have faced. And not just witnessing others’ unconscious bias but recognizing my own and allowing stereotypes to cause self-doubt and hinder my personal growth.

When I started in the equipment finance industry in the 80’s, it was dominated by white males (and to a degree still is). As my professional career took off, the trajectory of some of my colleagues would go faster and rise higher than mine. I eventually got there, but for a long time I thought, Well, it is what it is, and you have got to break through the glass ceiling. But even if I work harder and longer, I probably still would not be a CEO! Now, if I were to give some advice to my younger self, I would say, Go be CEO!  

I’ve learned to recognize those moments and spend time thinking about what is it about them that is stopping me from doing something that I really want to do, and that I know I can do. You cannot eliminate all your unconscious biases. But what I have learned is to work on being consciously aware. Unconscious bias will hold you back from doing so many great things. So, when I coach others, I look for that.

When did you first get involved with ELFA and how have you been engaged as a Member thus far? How has being in ELFA helped your career?

I got involved early in ELFA as a member. I will periodically attend the main events. But right now, I am more involved on the periphery, supporting aspects of the ELFA like sharing thoughts about diversity and inclusion. As we discussed earlier, I am in the third stage of my professional career, where I want to encourage and advise the next generation to take their spots on any of the ELFA boards.

What is the most rewarding risk of your career?

I was a working mom and wife with three children (the youngest being three months old) and we had just moved into a new house in New Jersey after 10 years in the industry. I received an offer to become Vice President of an organization with one BIG caveat—I had to move to Massachusetts. My husband and I talked over all the reasons why we should not do it. Without missing a beat, my husband turned to me and said, “Let’s just do it.” I was struck dumb and tried to argue him out of it. Thankfully, I lost that argument. We put our house on the market, moved our three young children up to Massachusetts, and had seven really, really, great years there. It was a big risk for my family and career, but it paid off, for sure.

What is most rewarding is the example I set for my children. I was the only female VP at the time. I have two daughters and a son and being an example of what women can achieve was, and still is, very important.

If you had to pick one, which is more important when considering a hire—a soft or technical background? You can’t pick both, and please include which soft or technical skill is most beneficial to success.

The soft skills, but soft would not be the word I would use. Let’s call them “life skills” or “leadership skills,” because there is nothing soft about them. It is hard work. The soft skills take you to a whole new level. The technical skills get you going but the soft skills put your development on steroids.

There are several soft skills I would consider to be the most important. The first is curiosity, as it makes you ask questions to create something better. Risk-taking, or being bold, is also important; think about something and then think what it would look like if it were 20 times bigger than that. This will push you to go further. Lastly is resilience. You really must be willing to get knocked down a lot. You must be ready to be wrong. And you must get back up. Do it again and again; you will always make mistakes, but you will learn and go a little faster, and you will make fewer mistakes.

What are the top 3 pieces of advice you would give to someone just entering the industry?

The first is to have your own mantra. Mine is always be bold, curious, resilient, kind and a door opener.

The second is to find your tribe and cultivate it. These are your mentors, your coaches and your challengers. Cultivating means these individuals will change over time. They will help you and you will help them. They become your network. Also, make sure your tribe is not just those who are like you.

The last piece of advice is to prioritize yourself. Nobody owes you anything you are not willing to put the work in for. It is your professional career, your life. Only you can be responsible for it. You continuously must put in the time, energy and effort. But you are worth it.

Given that ELFA recently updated its mission statement and strategic plan to affirm its commitment to diversity and inclusion, can you give some perspective on what your organization has done or is doing to promote diversity and inclusion?

DLL has a dedicated Diversity & Inclusion policy. We have a playbook and specific initiatives for D&I. Our CEO, Bill Stephenson, signed the CEO I ACT ON pledge committing to take action to make DLL a more inclusive workplace. We have our Allies for Inclusion program, which is bringing awareness and understanding to our members. I am also the Co-Chair of the Executive Inclusion Council, which is made of a diverse group of leaders throughout the organization. We also hired a Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, as we are committed to advancing D&I at a faster pace at DLL.