SCHEELS Is Putting An Emphasis In Developing Female Leadership

Written by: Brady Drake

Photos by Kayleigh Omang

SCHEELS, one of the most reputable brands in our region, has taken big steps to empower its female employees. One of the main ways they have done this is through their Women in Leadership Development Program (WILD). To give us a better view of the program, its impact and SCHEELS’ wonderful culture as a whole, we sat down with some of the women involved with the program.

Michelle Killoran, CFO

Michelle Killoran, CFO

Michelle Killoran started off with SCHEELS as a part-time office assistant while she was a senior at Concordia College and worked her way up until she was named CFO in 2012 and was added to the board of directors. Now in her 20th year at the company, Killoran helps drive the company forward while also continuing to work on developing female leadership in the company, an initiative she was involved in starting.

You were responsible for helping to kickstart the WILD program. Can you take me through that in the beginning?
In 2013, I started the Women’s Leadership Summit which was for female leaders across the entire SCHEELS company. At the time, there were a lot of females in mid-level leadership roles that were looking for additional leadership training and not necessarily just the traditional leadership training that we focus on at SCHEELS.  There were a lot of females that were looking for guidance on tough conversations, mental health, and work/life balance. We continued to hear that they were looking for more. The person in charge of leadership training and development within the company came to me and said, “I keep hearing females asking for this, but I can’t lead this type of training because I’m a man.” After some discussion and brainstorming, I decided to give it a whirl.

We had our first Women’s Leadership Summit in 2013. It went well and we decided to make it an annual event and in conjunction with the WILD (Women in Leadership Development) meetings were born. I really enjoy the Women’s Leadership Summit because it gives me an opportunity to meet and interact with women throughout our company. I am fortunate because I’m also able to learn and grow from them and their experiences.

How are you trying to push things forward with the meetings?
If you look back at SCHEELS 50, 60 or 100 years ago, the leadership teams were very male-dominated. Slowly, over time, women have become more and more present in leadership positions. Steve D. Scheel was a big proponent of that and he really pushed blended leadership teams, knowing that diversity in thought and perspective drives greater results. As a female growing up in my career at SCHEELS, I knew that I wanted to continue to push that forward. We have so many amazing females in our corporate setting that have now made the WILD meetings their own. They’re setting up the meetings and coming up with content based on what they hear women talking about in their offices. They’ve done a great job making it their own here in the corporate office.

How are you still presently involved in the planning for WILD?
I am and will always be an advocate for leadership training.  At SCHEELS, we pride ourselves on the development of our people throughout their career.  I still host the Women’s Leadership Summit annually and we talk about the WILD meetings every year at that event. We encourage all of our stores to hold WILD meetings and to promote growth and development of up-and-coming females within our store locations. I’m also part of the committee for the WILD meetings at our Corporate Office.

What is unique about how SCHEELS supports female leadership within the company?
I think there are a lot of different things that are unique about SCHEELS. As a whole, SCHEELS is a different company than most due to employee ownership and organic growth. But, I think one of the most unique parts about SCHEELS is that it’s grown quickly and therefore has provided many new career opportunities along the way. When I started with the company, there wasn’t anyone that held the title CFO. Never when I started my part-time role did I think I’d be able to get to that point at SCHEELS. The sky’s the limit for both females and males at SCHEELS and I’m honored to now hold that title.

Did you have any mentors during your early days at SCHEELS?
I would say Steve D. Scheel.  While not a traditional or formal mentor for me, I’ve certainly learned an incredible amount from him during my career. Truly, I credit him with me still being at SCHEELS. He’s always been an advocate for me and he’s always supported me in my endeavors.

Nikki Fjerstad, E-Commerce Sales Leader

Nikki Fjerstad

Nikki Fjerstad is one of the leaders from E-Commerce on the committee for WILD. She has been with SCHEELS for 16 years and has been involved with WILD for the last six years.

How did you get your start at SCHEELS?
I started with part-time shoe sales in 2004. I was going to Minnesota State University Mankato and just wanted a discount on my snowboard and wakeboard. I met some really great people who convinced me to give it a shot and I realized I really love selling and I love marketing products. It was a really great gig to make some money as a college student. Then, I feel like SCHEELS just sucks you in because of the culture. I’ve been with SCHEELS ever since. Eventually, I helped open our Eden Prairie, Minnesota store and worked as an assistant store leader. Then, I moved out to Reno, Nevada and helped open that store also as an assistant store leader. Finally, I moved to our corporate office here in Fargo where I worked as a Buyer for four years and then I took the Sales Leader Position for E-Commerce five years ago.

How crucial has SCHEELS culture of developing employees been for your professional career?
I got a mentor very early on. She was my very first supervisor. She’s still at SCHEELS today and she taught me that whatever you want, you have to ask for. So, that was my first real impression of that strong female leadership. But, it’s not just the female leaders in our company that have supported us. Every store leader that I have worked for along the way has been a male, but they have supported me in every single aspect of my wants and needs for growth within the company. I’ve held five different positions in the last 16 years and every single one of them has been 100 percent supported by the leader of each area. They were always pushing me to apply for new positions to get me more experience and more growth.

Can you take me through what it’s like planning for the WILD events?
There are different female representatives from each of our offices, we call them female WILD leads. We all get together and bounce ideas off of each other. We bring different content pieces that each of our teams may want more training on or that we have liked from different presentations that we have seen. I feel like we’re all very Type A personalities with our female leads so we’re very productive and efficient but there’s also those side conversations on kids, homes, or even hair stylists so it’s fun to just kind of get a group of strong relatable women together. It’s fun.

Why do you think SCHEELS places such a big importance on leadership development?
I think it’s because we’re employee-owned, honestly. We are 100 percent owned by our employees so we place all of our emphasis on our employees and their betterment because, ultimately, we all want to retire and all want to retire well. So, if I don’t perform my best or don’t coach my associates to perform their best, there’s no growth and there’s no betterment as a company. That’s why it’s no surprise that SCHEELS is thriving. Business is good.

There’s always that conversation about having a female mentor or a male mentor or whatnot but I don’t think it’s at all a gender thing. I think it’s all about how we empower our associates. Whether you’re a part-time cashier as the first impression of SCHEELS to Mr. Steve D Scheel himself, there’s always that drive to make things better because we are proud to be employee-owned.

Brittany Schaan, Social Media Specialist

Brittany Schaan

How did you get your start here?
There’s a lot of tenure around here and I’m a newer addition to the team. I’ve been here for about a year and half. The job came about through mutual connections. I had a couple of conversations with the hiring team and we felt like it was a mutual fit. I was hired and moved into my current role as a Social Media Specialist on the marketing team.

What are some things in addition to WILD that SCHEELS does to raise the bar in support of women?
There are some different opportunities that come up. For example, a couple of weeks ago, we were contacted by a group at NDSU by a professional club that was female-focused and wanted to hear from female leadership.

What does it feel like to give back at an event like that?
I think it’s really eye-opening and cool to get to hear from various women around the company in different roles, tenures, and responsibilities. It was also interesting to hear from students about concerns they have as they get into the professional world and to help them address them.

What has your experience been like with the WILD program?
My experience has been very much as an attendee. It’s a really unique experience that happens quarterly where all of the women in our corporate office meet. It’s all based around educating and empowering women so it’s very inspiring. The topic ownership changes quarterly from team to team. The speakers and topics have been both internal and external. We have had a number of speakers come in and talk about wellness, be it mental, physical or financial. We also learn about opportunities to get more involved in our community.

What’s the most useful thing you’ve taken away from those meetings?
There’s a lot of comradery. We sometimes get so siloed into our different teams. I see and meet with our marketing team every day of the week so it’s an interesting time to hear from different areas of the office and their experiences.

How has SCHEELS helped you to feel welcome?
SCHEELS is a very unique place. It’s very team focused and gives you a sense of being a part of a family. There’s a lot of checking in on what people have going on over the weekend, how their family is doing or their side project outside of work. It’s really supportive in that way.

How do you try to empower your fellow female workers?
I think by celebrating each other. It’s celebrating successes whether they’re small or large, I think it’s important to reach out to somebody and let them know that you think they did a really great job.

What is your favorite thing about working for SCHEELS?
I would say my favorite thing is that I’ve been told from day one that you can make your path what you want it to be.

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.