By Luke Visconti
With all intentions of following a career in music, she took a job as a bank teller to have something to fall back on. She fell in love with banking and, through support, perseverance and an innate ability to bring people together to work collaboratively, rose to the top of Wachovia, now a Wells Fargo company. Wells Fargo is No. 33 in the 2012 DiversityInc Top 50.
As the executive vice president and Northeast regional president, she is responsible for more than 460 branches, nine business banking teams, approximately 5,500 team members, and about $100 million in revenue.
DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti sat down with her to discuss her personal story, including the racial stereotypes she had to fight as well as her deep faith in Wells Fargo’s corporate values and inclusive culture in the workplace and the marketplace.
Read When Will There Be More Women CEOs? for more on women and talent development. For more on stereotypes, read ‘Blacks Should Not Be Satisfied With Food Stamps’: The Danger of Stereotypes.
Luke Visconti: You mentioned that you didn’t intend to be in banking and that it was kind of a mistake.
Michelle Lee: From the age of 5, I never considered doing anything other than music. I think I was born singing. I had this great dramatic soprano voice and ended up going to Boston Conservatory. I graduated with a degree in music, applied voice.
My mother is from Cleveland, my father from Blakely, Ga., and they came to my recitals and asked, “Why don’t you think about teaching or something a little more conventional?” To get them off my back, I applied for a job at the bank. I thought that was a nice, respectable career. I started as a teller.
I had this inquisitive nature about banking. I wanted to understand how it worked. There was this woman in the back room who basically did all of the proof work. I ended up taking on little tasks for her, running numbers and learning. Here was this informal mentor. She was willing to train me to be the backup person when she was on vacation or when she had a day off.
I started attending the American Institute of Banking, taking classes after work. I had this hunger to learn. I think it’s the same side of the brain that makes music theory fascinating to me. Mathematics, numbers all appeal to me.
I eventually got into the bank’s management-training program. I remember talking to my assistant manager. She’s an African-American woman and she gave me an example of another really talented African-American woman who had applied for a similar program years before and didn’t get into it. She said, “I’m just trying to give you a reality check. They’re never going to take a Black girl in that program.”
I was accepted into the program. I was the only African American and probably was the only person who wasn’t just out of college.
Luke Visconti: Why do you think they took you?
Michelle Lee: My work history, references that I received. It probably was the first time in my career that I really got a sense of what other people thought of me. They were willing to recommend me; other people saw potential in me. That’s the first time that I really understood the importance of having an advocate.
A Learning Curve
Michelle Lee: There were probably 25 people in the class. They were all white men and women just graduating from Ivy League schools.
I show up for class. I have on my very best Sunday dress. I’m in a royal-blue dress with flowers on it, and I walk into this class with this sea of dark navy, dark brown, dark gray suits. I knew immediately one of these things is not like the other.
Luke Visconti: Where did you get assigned to after this class?
Michelle Lee: There was an assistant manager at a branch in downtown Newark who had a heart attack. They actually pulled me out of the class a little early. From there I got my first management job in northern Newark, which was a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. No one wanted to talk to me. Trying to bridge the communication gaps that we had, connect with people and establish relationships with them—it was my first lesson as a manager.
Someone approached me about a branch in East Orange, N.J. It was much bigger, much busier, a very challenging community to work in.
I spent about five years at that branch. That was really where I think I cut my chops in managing people. That branch had failed its audit. The previous manager had been fired. The head of operations said, “You’re green. I have no idea why they put you here and I think you’re going to fail.”
On the one hand it scared me, but it motivated me. Three years later, we passed our audit with flying colors. We’re a top-performing branch with the same group of people.
I think about what made this team not behave like a team—they didn’t care, didn’t align with the company’s vision and philosophy around serving our customers. It really was about helping them see the value that they could bring to work every day.
I didn’t think that I was doing work around diversity because that was before all of the focus on diversity and awareness training. But when I think back on it, it was about the same core values.
Luke Visconti: When you think back on those traits that you used to make this branch successful, can you distill them down into bullet points?
Michelle Lee: Part of it was sharing, creating a vision for the team. We knew why we were coming together every day. We came to some common agreements around how we wanted our customers to feel and how we wanted our customers to experience us and what we wanted our work environment to be like.
Then celebrating success; giving people candid feedback; letting them know here is what’s standing between where you are and where you’re trying to go; being a great coach, mentor and not shying away from giving people tough feedback.
A Seat at the Table
Luke Visconti: Tell me about the scope of your responsibility.
Michelle Lee: I’m responsible for New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, all of community banking—over 460 branches, nine business banking teams, about 5,500 team members in total, about $100 million in revenue.
There are 11 lead regional presidents in Wells Fargo with the acquisition of Wachovia. I report to Laura Schulte, who is the president of Community Banking for the East Coast. She reports to Carrie Tolstedt, who is the head of Community Banking for the company. On my expanded leadership team, there are 21 people: 12 are women and four of those women are African American.
Luke Visconti: What do you think about the bank and its ability to relate to people, to be successful in a very demanding marketplace?
Michelle Lee: One of our key priorities is our focus on our communities and stakeholders. In order to be successful, our workforce has to reflect their diversity. Wells Fargo having so many women in senior management roles helps us interpret and form the company around what’s important to our stakeholders.
When I go into my stores, I don’t just see white men as my customers. I see their wives; I see single women; I see single mothers; I see working women; I see women in business.
John Stumpf, his leadership team and his direct reports are very deliberate about getting the voice of our team members. It’s not about having more people than the next organization; it’s really about having more engaged people.
People are engaged when they feel like they are valued, that a company gets them and that we’re not trying to homogenize everybody. When you feel that your leaders, your mentors, the decision makers of the company value your opinion, they seek it out.
Ultimately, that leads to helping our customers succeed financially. [For] any company, regardless of the industry that figures that out, I think it’s a difference maker.
Luke Visconti: I’ve seen the results of Wells Fargo’s engagement surveys. How deep down do they survey the people who report to you?
Michelle Lee: We survey down to every team member that is part of the organization.
Not only do we assess where we are but then each team builds an action plan to address areas where we could do a better job.
What I really like about our process is that we get the opinions and voices of our team members, ultimately solving for areas where we have opportunities or building on strengths. The team members are engaged in figuring out what the action plan is and then holding themselves and each other accountable to it.
Luke Visconti: Let’s talk about diversity management. What are the things that have struck you as being particularly effective?
Michelle Lee: Building competency around diversity—it’s a skill that you build. Where you are along your journey is so colored by what your background is, what your culture is.
We’re willing to apply some resources around developing leadership skills, to set expectations with leaders that they become competent as it pertains to diversity and inclusion. Not to have it be this sort of separate thing that we do because it’s the right thing to do but making it an integrated part of our business practices.
Most corporations will say that our ability to grow, our ability to sustain, is tied to our ability to create a diverse and inclusive environment. How does that actually translate to the bottom line? How do you build it in to your day-to-day business practices?
Understanding demographics, the different needs of your customers, how their backgrounds and culture might drive their needs and desires differently—how as a company, regardless of your product, do you respond to those needs and not have diversity be this thing that’s sitting off on the sideline?
Is it in your recruiting practices? Are you looking to attract diverse talent? How do you on-board a person with a diverse background differently? How do you support that person differently so that they can be successful in their roles.
Luke Visconti: Your organization realized it. How did it happen here? Why was it successful?
Michelle Lee: The one that rings in my head is that every day we come to work to help our customers succeed financially. It’s at the core of everything that we do, including all of our efforts around embedding diversity into our business practices.
Wells Fargo is grounded in its vision. If you were to read, interview after interview, leaders across all different business lines, I guarantee you that somewhere in that interview you’re going to hear the words “We want to help our customers succeed financially.” It’s the pillar upon which the success of the company is built.
If our vision is to help our customers succeed financially, we need to understand who our customers are. Our team members need to reflect the communities that we’re serving. That will be our competitive advantage.
It’s not about whether the vision statement is good. It’s not about the words or that internal guilt that makes you go apologize to someone or do something to correct it.
We bounce decisions that we make against our values system. I’m not saying we get it right 100 percent of the time. When it doesn’t align, we go back and ask how we get this in line with what we believe.
Luke Visconti: You see in great detail what’s going on with the economy from a very feet-on-the-ground perspective. How do you see things going right now?
Michelle Lee: The economy is still sluggish. Our movement out of it is really tied to jobs. Businesses are still hesitant, people are still hunkered down, not willing to grow or build until there is more certainty. I also sense that people want to be hopeful. As a society, that will help the trajectory of the upswing.
Our value-add as a bank is to understand that that’s on your mind, to help you, to provide you with some expertise around how you’ve invested. Helping you do the math on “Do I really need to work until I’m 75 now? What can I do differently today that will help remedy or resolve some of that?”
To me, it’s our time to step up … I’ve got to know the customer who is walking into my branch. They are just trying to figure out how they’re going to make the rent, the business customer like you who is not just thinking about impact to his business but impact to his personal livelihood and retirement needs.
Luke Visconti: I find this to be a very consistent beam across industries: Companies that are focused are successful and the value statement is extremely important.
Michelle Lee: How are we going to hold ourselves accountable to it? Having a vision is part of it. That’s what breathes life into it, moves it off the brochure, off the page, into action.
How was it ingrained into our business practices? It’s in our recruiting practices. I require my recruiting team to make sure we’ve got a diverse candidate pool before we interview. We’re starting to get our team-member networks up and running: we’ve got five here in my region. It’s in our diverse-supplier strategy, where I make an effort to meet diverse businesses who could potentially become vendors and champion beyond those.
Doors for Those Like Me
Luke Visconti: Do you think that having a diverse leadership team creates the kind of environment that encourages good decisions around diversity?
Michelle Lee: Absolutely. We’ve got this pool of talent that we’re developing. These people will be future leaders who’d take our roles. People want to look up and see that somebody looks like them and that they made it. It makes it feel tangible for them; it makes it feel possible.
I’ve been in banking 28 years. When I started as a teller and really had the epiphany that I wanted to be a banker, my goal was to be a branch manager.
No one said “You’re never going to be anything more than a branch manager.” I said “If I could just be a branch manager” because it’s all I could see; it’s all I could envision. But when I saw other women or I saw other African Americans, it made me think “I can do that too; that’s not a road I’m not allowed to go down.”
It probably was 15 years before I started thinking [about] what’s next for me, before I started to take the cap off my career opportunities, take the chain off my own brain around what I am able to do or what I can achieve.
I represent that to a lot of people. I don’t just think that, I know that. People take time to tell me that.