Evelyn Dilsaver on Being an Exceptional Leader

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Evelyn Dilsaver, Board Director and former President and CEO

An East Bay alum of ’77, Ms. Dilsaver currently serves on 11 boards, both corporate and nonprofit. Her experience crosses every area of management from finance to business development to being president and CEO of Charles Schwab’s $200 Billion Asset investment management firm.

In her presentation to the Women in Leadership classes, Ms. Dilsaver took student questions throughout a conversational tour of her career, touching on many topics of interest to her audience of young professionals. A student asked: “How has your volunteerism had an impact on your career?”

“I really believe in giving back,” Ms. Dilsaver emphasized. “Because we are lucky. We’re the top 35% in the United States that actually have a college degree and can do something with it.” Beyond that, Ms. Dilsaver explained, volunteering can be a critical piece of building your professional reputation. “99% of your success is showing up,” she explained, “and many people don’t. So they’ll volunteer because they think it’ll look good on their resume, but they never show up, which means others who are on that board don’t actually give you a very good reference. So I think volunteering is important, but you have to be passionate about it, because otherwise you don’t show up.”

Ms. Dilsaver’s tenure at Charles Schwab prompted another student to ask, “How did you decide to make a lateral move from your Controller role to Vice President?”

“I always knew I wanted to be a General Manager,” Ms. Dilsaver recalled, “and I couldn’t get there following the straight line of the Controller.” She asked the company for the chance to gain the necessary skills to move up, and they said yes. “I think part of it was because I was the first Asian executive at Schwab,” she said, “so they were willing to give me that chance. And because they trusted me. I had a good relationship with the other executives, and I gained a reputation for somebody who was focused on doing what was right for the company.”

She began to move between different roles in the company, working on gaining a diverse range of experience. “It was hard,” she said. “I would see my peers move ahead of me in promotions because I was learning, I was always new on the job. And then I’d have to kick myself and remind myself why I was doing this.”

Ms. Dilsaver spoke candidly about the experience of being the only person of her background in the room, both as a woman and as an Asian individual. “When I was at Ernst & Young Public Accounting,” she said in example, “the client would come in and talk to the men in the room, thinking that they were the ones in charge.”

A student asked her, “How did you handle pushback or negative feedback, being a woman in these top-ranking positions?”

“A lot of it really boils down to your own leadership skills,” Ms. Dilsaver answered, “and the respect your team has for you. They’re the ones that are going to stand up for you and tell the others, ‘Hey — she’s the boss.’ Surround yourself with people who have your back.”

Building on the same topic, another student asked, “What strategies and approaches have helped you exercise an influential voice and be taken seriously?”

“You have to build a relationship so that people trust you and your brand moves ahead of you,” Ms. Dilsaver said. “So the brand I had developed at Schwab, which is all about doing what’s right for the company, helped me to have a voice that people were willing to listen to, even if it disagreed.”

When it came to building her own image, Ms. Dilsaver shared an anecdote that she finds unforgettable. “I had the head of Human Resources at Schwab tell me, ‘You know, you’re too nice. You have to be just like me — people hate me but I get stuff done.’ It was actually the opposite of what I wanted, so I took the opposite of that advice. I can still get things done without having people hate me.” In proving this point, her success speaks for itself.

Ms. Dilsaver’s talk culminated in a quintet of lessons learned that she hopes to pass on to the next generation. “This is built around the acronym ‘ASSET’,” she said, “because we’re all assets.”

To wrap up the evening, Amy Schioldager shared some closing remarks. Ms. Schioldager, a fellow retired C-suiter and current board member, met Ms. Dilsaver years ago through a mutual colleague. “I don’t know if you’re aware,” she told Ms. Dilsaver with a smile, “but I was the little bird who told Asha that you should speak at this class.

“When I started looking for my first board,” she told the group, “Evelyn was one of the very first people I called, so the network [is crucial]. You just never know who you’ll meet that can be very helpful in navigating your career.”

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For more information on the program, please visit Women in Leadership Program, CBE.

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