May 23rd, 2013 | 1:00 pm

Voice of Experience: Michelle Y. Lee, Northeast Regional President, Wells Fargo

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michelleleeBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“We have an obligation to mentor young people in our industry,” began Michelle Y. Lee, Wells Fargo‘s Northeast Regional President. “Be very deliberate about sharing your knowledge with young people who are making their way and figuring out their career. Your legacy is defined by how many people you’ve prepared to take your place when you’re ready to move on.”

Reflecting on her 29-year career in the industry, Lee says she didn’t always understand the importance of seeking out mentors early on. “I don’t think when I first started out that I knew the value of having a mentor and an advocate. I really admire the young people I see today who seek out mentors deliberately. I didn’t know the importance of building those relationships.”

That’s not to say she didn’t have guidance, though. “Certainly, when I look back I see unofficial mentors and people who took me under their wing.”

She encouraged young women to seek out mentoring relationships early and to be deliberate about it. “It probably would save them some of those embarrassing mistakes we all make along the way – or at least guide them on how to recover when they do make them,” she said with a laugh. “And make sure to look for diversity in your mentors – both men and women can provide different and important viewpoints.”

Career in Banking

Though Lee has been in the banking business for almost 30 years, her original passion was music. “After getting a degree in music from the Boston Conservatory, I started at a bank as a teller. I came into banking thinking this would be an interim job until I got famous,” she said with a laugh. “Then I realized I really enjoyed it.”

After five years working in a retail branch, Lee entered a management training program. As her responsibilities increased, she became a branch manager, than a market manager, she recalled. “I had just about every role possible in retail banking.”

Nine mergers and five company name changes later, Lee is now the regional president of Wells Fargo’s Northeast community banking market, handling retail and business banking. “I lead five states, 8,500 team members, 770 branches, and 17 business banking teams. There are a lot of things in 29 years to be proud of, but being selected as regional president was an important opportunity for me,” she explained. “This was the first time I was in a senior level role during a merger – which we all know is not always a safe place. But I landed a great role at Wells Fargo and I’m very proud of the vote of confidence the bank has given me.”

She added, “There’s nothing like a merger to reset the game, and that a new company was willing to get to know me meant a lot to me.”

Lee is also proud of the people whose careers she has helped build along the way. “I can look throughout the company and see numerous people whose careers I’ve helped advance and that means a lot to me. That’s the true legacy I’ll leave someday.”

Facing Changes

Lee’s is enthusiastic about taking on and understanding the various facets of change she is facing in her career. For example, she is enthusiastic about the opportunities that exist in growing the Wells Fargo brand in her market. “The merger between Wells and Wachovia is in its fifth year, but we’re only in the second year of our name change. We are still focused on building our brand, especially on the East Coast, where Wells didn’t have a retail presence,” she said. “We’re still focused on telling our story and defining who we are to the customers in this market.”

She is also following the evolution taking place in the banking industry. “Everyone in banking is keenly focused on the regulatory changes and how they impact the industry. We are waiting to see how the CFPB shapes up and what is going to look like.”

Finally, she said, “I’m also focused on really understanding all of the various generations we serve and what their evolving needs are. How will we as an industry stay in front of that? How do they want to interface with us?”

Being Open to Opportunities

The retail side of the banking industry is fairly diverse, Lee said, with lots of opportunities for women to advance. “But other areas haven’t seen the same trajectory of growth for women in key roles, like brokerage or corporate banking,” she explained. “There are still roles that are largely dominated by men and the challenge is to ensure that as women enter the banking industry they are taking a broad view of the opportunities.”

Lee continued, “For example, Wells Fargo has 82 business lines. The challenge is to get women interested in other areas. We have to be deliberate about developing expertise and recruiting women.”

She encouraged women beginning their careers to keep their minds open to a broad array of opportunities. “Try not to think too linearly. Very often people want to climb the corporate ladder, and that whole concept is very linear. But I think that we think too narrowly about the width of the ladder,” she said. “Once I got into senior leadership roles, my next promotion wasn’t usually the next job up – it didn’t exist before I got there. I think that’s true for any company that has a lot of business lines.”

“I’m very happy with my career, but if there’s anything I could go back and change, it would be to look at all of the opportunities and work in other areas besides retail and to understand that leadership is transferable.”

Women at Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo provides a number of networking and leadership development opportunities for women. Its team member networks, including its women’s network, enable employees to build relationships, network, and build leadership skills. “It’s a grassroots effort,” Lee said. “And that’s what makes it so effective. I think we do a good job as a company of applying a diversity lens.”

Lee herself takes part in the bank’s executive mentoring program. “Members of the corporate management committee mentor high potential and talented team members who are mid-to senior-level leaders,” she explained. “I’ve mentored three in the last two years, and I’ve found that to be very rewarding.”

Prior to the merger, Lee was also the executive chair of Wachovia’s African American Women’s Leadership Program. “It was a very rewarding experience and it was the first time we had done something like that.”

In Her Personal Time

“Music is still very much a part of who I am,” Lee said. In her spare time, she enjoys writing music and singing. “And sometimes I do it at work too,” she said with laugh.

Lee was recently honored by the Girl Scouts of Greater New York as a role model for women. “It’s important not just to invest in the young people in your organization. But it’s critical to be involved in your community,” Lee said. “That helps strengthen your company down the line – we’re all building the future for our companies.

2 comments

  1. billie lee

    That’s my amazing daughter! She has been totally committed to her job all her life and has been sucessful in every area of her career! Proud of all her accomplishments, and input towards helping others! May God continue to use you!
    Mom!

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