Michelle Lee didn’t plan on being a banker. Now, she’s about to become one of the most influential bankers in the country.
Lee, currently the executive vice president and Northeast regional president at Wells Fargo, is moving from her Summit, N.J. base to Charlotte, N.C., where she will replace Laura Schulte as the company’s head of community banking for the entire East Coast.
Schulte is retiring at the end of the year.
Lee started with Wachovia, now owned by Wells Fargo (No. 17 on the 2014 DiversityInc Top 50) 31 years ago, mainly as a way to appease her parents. Michelle Lee isn’t an Ivy Leaguer. Her degree isn’t in finance or accounting.
She graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music with a degree in applied voice.
“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,” she told DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti in a 2012 interview. “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.”
Lee soon found herself fascinated and began attending classes at the American Institute of Banking after work. Eventually, she fought through stereotypes and was accepted into the company’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,” Lee recalled. “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.
“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.”
Lee was hired as an assistant manager at a branch in a predominantly-Latino Newark, N.J. neighborhood and later promoted to a failing branch in East Orange, N.J., where nearly 90 percent of the population is Black.
What she didn’t realize at the time was that her rapid ascent through the company and her turning around of the East Orange branch—it went from failing audits to passing with flying colors in just three years under Lee’s leadership—relied on many of the pillars of diversity management.
“I had this inquisitive nature about banking. I wanted to understand how it worked,” Lee said of her start in the industry. “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.”
That continued into her management role in East Orange.
“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,” Lee said. “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.
“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.”
As the head of Wells Fargo’s community banking operations in the Northeast, Lee has been responsible for more than 460 branches, over 5,000 team members and $100 million in revenue.
Her branches have provided nearly $10 million through their CityLIFTSM program to help homebuyers with down payment assistance in Jersey City, Newark, the Bronx and Brooklyn—part of Wells Fargo’s $220 million nationwide effort that’s helped 8,000 families become homeowners.
“Jersey City, Newark, the Bronx and Brooklyn were significantly affected by the housing crisis,” Lee said. “The CityLIFTSM program will help families achieve successful homeownership which is not just about having enough money on hand and qualifying for a mortgage. It’s also about knowing how to navigate the home buying process, what to expect once you become a homeowner, and having a trusted advisor to turn to when questions come up.”
Wells Fargo has not yet appointed Lee’s replacement in the Northeast, but Lee has worked to develop a diverse team that can step in.
“On my expanded leadership team, there are 21 people: 12 are women and four of those women are African American.”