When Nicole Kitowski began working at Associated Bank at age 16, she never imagined the professional journey she would take.
“I began as a co-op student, working as a teller, weekdays after class and on the weekends,” said Kitowski, who is now Chief Risk Officer for Associated. “Being a teller is the ‘boots on the ground’ of banking. I loved the opportunity to learn hands-on while interacting with customers and completing training offered by the bank.”
After graduating high school, Kitowski was promoted to the role of teller supervisor and became one of the first members of her family to go to college. She earned an associate degree in accounting and completed an accounting internship with the company. During this phase of her professional development, Kitowski gained key computer and technical skills as well as a passion for communications, data and technology.
To learn more, she took an executive assistant position in the technology department, just as the company was starting to consolidate its bank charters and build centralized support teams. “I was fortunate to, at a young age, play a role in bringing our banking regions together to leverage centralized technology and support.”
“At the time, the technology department was much smaller and predominantly male; however, I had a strong female IT manager who helped me envision a leadership position in a STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) career,” said Kitowski.
During her 10 years in Associated’s technology department, Kitowski took on several new roles, rising from business analyst to the solutions manager for all internal delivery and customer facing applications, and gaining knowledge and drive through each experience. She also leveraged the company’s educational reimbursement program to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science taking both evening and weekend classes.
When the company launched its strategy department in 2011, she jumped at the opportunity to become a senior strategy consultant. “I wanted to see banking at another level, and I knew the strategy consultant position would give me a wider view. I learned a lot about ‘top of house’ issues, planning and communications. It broadened my thinking and introduced me to many different areas and people.”
Her work within the strategy team helped her successfully launch the company’s retail project management office, which led to the creation of an enterprise project office within the Operations and Technology team. “This was my dream job. I loved project management and technology implementation. I had a great team of people and was able to work in partnership with all lines of business and develop execution plans to implement new technology and products.”
After only a few short months, Kitowski was presented a new opportunity that truly transformed her career.
“In 2012, our company was working to implement required enhancements to its Bank Secrecy and Anti-Money Laundering Programs. I joined our Risk and Compliance team for the opportunity to lead these efforts,” said Kitowski, who led the company’s strategy and the cross-organizational team that supported it. Smart program design, strong leadership and hard work of the project team drove the project to successful completion in just two years.
As she had throughout her past, Kitowski sought to learn more about the fight against financial crimes and the importance of safe, sound banking practices. She obtained her CAMS certification and was offered the role of Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) Officer, then Deputy Risk Officer and ultimately in 2018 was named to her current role of Executive Vice President and Chief Risk Officer.
Now, almost 30 years after starting as a teller, Kitowski oversees Corporate Risk Management which includes Enterprise and Operational Risk, Corporate Compliance Services, CRA, Credit Risk Review, Information Security, Fraud, BSA, Investigations and Physical Security.
“I never thought I’d be in the role I am today. Sitting on the executive committee seemed completely out of reach when I began. However, over a period of years and positions at Associated, I came to believe that we can only be limited by our own self-imposed limits, and with ongoing growth, education and teamwork, anything and everything is truly possible.”
The Power of Mentorship and Community
Kitowski’s career path has been, in part, thanks to the tremendous support of her family and the many mentors who encouraged her to broaden her goals.
“I can’t point to just one mentor. There were many, both women and men, who believe(d) in me and taught me to believe in myself. They all taught me something different and guided me through my career. As leaders, coaching and mentoring the next generation is a both gift and a responsibility.”
Today, Kitowski serves as Associated’s Women’s Colleague Resource Group (CRG) executive sponsor, an internal group that provides resources, coaching and mentoring for women.
The Women’s CRG is one of six CRGs at Associated created to help build greater organizational awareness of the power of diversity. Each group takes specific actions to address the unique needs of the populations within our company and our markets. CRG efforts have resulted in initiatives that influence workforce development; workplace culture, policies and programs; and marketplace practices. In addition, the groups engage with nonprofit community partners, other businesses and organizations to help ensure we are building an inclusive environment for our colleagues, customers and the communities we serve.
The Women’s CRG specifically aims to support Associated’s female colleagues and build opportunities for them throughout the company. At present, 32 percent of senior vice president positions are held by women at Associated. Women further comprise 65 percent of the workforce.
“I want to focus on how women can empower each other. Unfortunately, women don’t always do a fantastic job with that. I know we can do better in supporting, encouraging and mentoring each other and the women’s network helps us make a difference.”
Kitowski also gives back as Associated’s wellness committee sponsor. She has an extreme love of physical activity and strongly believes wellness is a foundation to personal success. The wellness committee provides colleagues with opportunities to enhance all components of their total wellbeing: financial, social, emotional, spiritual and physical. Since inception of the wellness committee, colleague survey ratings on ‘Associated cares about my health and well-being’ have increased dramatically.
“I believe if you have a well-rounded life and are personally in a good spot, you are a more productive and happier colleague. This makes a huge difference in the success of an organization.”
In the community, Kitowski serves on the board of directors for New North and on the audit committee of the board for Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. However, her primary passion is about leading efforts across the state to bring more awareness and visibility to tackle issue of human trafficking.
Kitowski has created her path and started to make her mark in history with Associated Bank.
“From becoming a teller intern to now being a member of the executive committee – I’m proud to work for a company that has helped me shape and grow an ever-evolving career and that has given so much back to the communities we serve,” said Kitowski.