Being herself: Deanna Strable-Soethout
KNOW YOUR WORTH: FEARLESS STORIES AT WORK, BY
Speaking up used to be a struggle for Deanna Strable-Soethout.
When she was in her 30s, Strable-Soethout became the youngest person to hold the position of senior vice president at Principal Financial Group®, one of the largest financial companies in the world. But in those executive meetings, she often found herself surrounded by coworkers 20 to 25 years older, most of them men.
Men with far more experience.
It was intimidating. And a little lonely.
“I wasn’t comfortable expressing my opinions,” Strable-Soethout said. “And if you’ve ever been in a group that you don’t participate in, you know that it just gets harder and harder to speak up.”
So she talked to her boss, and made it her goal to speak at least three times every meeting. Even if that meant a quick thought, or a question, or a summarization.
For a few months, she checked off those boxes. And her mentality changed.
“It slowly became less scary, more natural,” Strable-Soethout said. “If I hadn’t gotten through that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Building confidence in the boardroom was just the next in a string of life lessons Strable-Soethout learned while bringing her own kind of fearlessness to work, rising from small-town Iowan to first-generation college student to chief financial officer at Principal® — a working mom and caregiver for much of that time.
Now, she’s passing on her experience to others.
Comfortable In Her Own Skin
Strable-Soethout, 52, describes her professional life in three chapters. After finishing college at Northwestern University, she started at Principal in 1990 as an actuary. In the mid-1990s, she ran various product lines within Principal’s insurance businesses and was named president of U.S. Insurance Solutions in 2015. In 2017, she became chief financial officer.
Through each chapter, she watched as other women leaders copied the styles and personalities of men. They didn’t let their guard down. Strable-Soethout wanted to bring her full self to the executive level, to not change who she was to fit someone’s else’s ideal.
She made it a point to tell stories about her family to coworkers. She openly juggled attending their sporting events and concerts with her office schedule.
Later, she heard how impactful these actions were to her women peers.
“I wanted others to see that you can be successful in your own way,” Strable-Soethout said.
Strable-Soethout has plenty of firsthand experience stepping outside her comfort zone. In 1992, she volunteered to work on assignment in Belgium. She was 23, hadn’t left the country before and was doing it alone.
At that time, Strable-Soethout said Europe was 20 years behind the United States in regard to the role of women in business. The office where she worked had five people — none of them close to her age. She was lonely.
During one of the first weekends, she settled in and told herself, “I have to dig in and do something to get over this tough part.” She found an English-speaking church and invited to dinner a new friend who knew the area. She started meeting people. The experience helped her be comfortable with the uncomfortable — a transferable skill for a woman in a male-dominated industry.
“Belgium set me up for the 10 plus other times that I stepped up to hurdles I had to clear,” Strable-Soethout said.
Now, as a mentor for countless young professionals and executives in the finance industry, Strable-Soethout uses those experiences to help others find their own career paths. She hopes to give them a “different image of what a successful business person can be,” and assure them that there’s no right way to grow.
“I talk to young people who don’t want to advance in their job because they feel like they have to change who they are — but I tell them you don’t have to be any way but your own,” she said. “Be yourself at work. That’s why they hired you and have given you opportunities.”
An Intertwined Life
Throughout the past two decades — she’s an empty nester as of this fall — she and her spouse Dwight have balanced work and family, which many young women face in their professional lives. According to the American Association of University Women, 23% of working mothers say they’ve been treated as if they aren’t committed to their work because they have kids.
For Strable-Soethout, it’s not about balance but finding an organizational fit for your life. A workplace that’s flexible enough to allow her to focus more on her job at some times, and more on family or personal life at others. Principal provided that flexibility, and it’s been invaluable.
In 2005, Strable-Soethout’s parents were in a car accident. Her father was killed and her mother seriously injured. As the closest sibling, Strable-Soethout was thrust into a caregiving role, at the same time raising young kids and building her career at Principal. For more than three months, she slept at the hospital every night until her mother was comfortable. She was honest at work about her situation, making it easier to shift priorities as needed.
“I’m a down-to-earth executive,” Strable-Soethout said. “And I think I’ve helped people, especially working mothers, see that advancement is an option at Principal.”
Strable-Soethout’s parents were her own role models. She watched them balance their own jobs — her father was a factory worker and her mother was a secretary — while raising three children. They didn’t have much money but stressed the importance of learning. When Strable-Soethout chose Northwestern, which was much more expensive than other options but offered a higher level of education, they encouraged her.
“They recognized the goal,” Strable-Soethout said. “Behind the scenes, they figured out a way to make it work. … Investing in yourself and focusing on meeting your goals has always been a part of what they raised me to believe.”
The Value of Perspective
Because of her own experience overcoming barriers in the finance industry, Strable-Soethout views her role as an executive as lifting others up and understanding how to serve clients better, no matter their backgrounds. She founded and led Principal’s first women’s executive leadership group (Women in Leadership) with the goal of developing talent within the organization and fostering networking between women professionals.
One of the projects the group undertook was understanding how financial advisers could be successful working with women, who their research showed didn’t feel well-served by these financial professionals, who often tried to connect only with their male partner. Women often outlive men, meaning they hold the wealth. So Strable-Soethout and her team got together and started thinking about how to bring more diversity to Principal’s adviser roster to foster deeper relationships.
“When it comes to finance, women want to be free to ask questions, and to know they’re being heard and understood,” Strable-Soethout said. “The same thinking should apply when working with clients with diverse backgrounds.”
Her thinking influences Principal culture. Strable-Soethout is passionate about bringing different perspectives to work. She believes having a variety of voices fosters better decisions and, ultimately, better business.
If team members can bring their full selves to work, she says, they’ll be more productive and happier.
“We want more voices at the table,” Strable-Soethout said. “We’re training our leaders to know that’s an expectation — to value diversity of thought and experience. It ultimately makes us better decision-makers. It also makes our employees more comfortable, which will hopefully inspire them to stay with us longer.
“Encouraging diverse teams, and leading those teams, ensures everyone has a voice. It’s the first foundation to making sure everyone finds their way to fearlessness at work.”
Northwestern University is not an affiliate of any company of the Principal Financial Group.
Insurance products and plan administrative services provided through Principal Life Insurance Co., a member of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, IA 50392.
Principal, Principal and symbol design and Principal Financial Group are trademarks and service marks of Principal Financial Services, Inc., a member of the Principal Financial Group.
©2021 Principal Financial Services, Inc.