Passion Is the Key to Success When Battling Diversity Bias

Lovetta Spencer began her career in banking immediately after college, training first in governance and then in credit analysis. Over time, she moved up the ranks and now works at RBS Citizens Financial Group as vice president and senior commercial relationship manager specialist for the not-for-profit banking group. Working in banking as an African-American woman was a unique challenge for Spencer, but discovering her passion for nonprofits helped her attain success.

Spencer recently spoke with Diversity Executive magazine. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

What attracted you to working with nonprofit organizations from the banking side?

I had been working in credit analysis and commercial lending. I had the opportunity to work in real estate groups, with the Merchandise Exchange and the Board of Trade along with traditional manufacturing companies. While I enjoyed my work, I didn’t really find what my passion was in lending. Eventually I tried working with the not-for-profit sector. There I still got to do the role I liked, in credit analysis and lending, but the opportunity to give back in the not-for-profit sector really allowed me to discover that my passion was for community. I’m the one-stop shop representative for not-for-profits at the bank. I’ve worked in that role for Harris Bank, Fifth Third Bank, Charter One and now at RBS.

As you were growing in your career, did you face diversity bias in your industry?

It’s definitely a male-dominated field. There are a very limited number of African-American women in the not-for-profit banking industry. It’s a specialized industry because it’s one thing to understand commercial banking but not-for-profits have a whole different structure. Here, you have to go through additional training just to be able to work with these type of clients.

How did you handle the difficulties that came along with that diversity bias?

What I realized was I don’t have to fit in. For a while, I was trying so hard to do things like the other bankers — men — or how a man would do things. It was not until I was five years into my career and was seriously struggling because I wasn’t sure if this was the right role for me when I was finally given my own book of business and realized that I didn’t have do it that same way everyone else does. I started bringing my personality and my expertise into the picture and my clients started trusting me. My clients even said to me: “I appreciate that you have a different perspective, that you are out-of-the-box.” They wanted my knowledge, they didn’t care that I was a woman or the color of my skin.

It was then that I realized that I didn’t have to be like everyone else, I didn’t have to fit in and I needed the strength and confidence to see this.

Were the organizations you worked with supportive of your different perspective?

Ironically, I had to leave an organization to prove a point: that I know what I am doing and I don’t have to change who I am for anyone. I was working for an African-American male who felt I needed to act like everyone else to be successful.

What personal traits do you need to be a successful leader?

I think what helped me to be a better leader was to be a better listener. I think it’s important to listen to all points of view. All opinions matter. As a manager, you might not be able to respond to someone’s opinion at the moment, but all opinions matter. You will have a better team following you if they understand and know that their voice will be heard and that their opinion matters to you.

So many managers think that to be a leader you need to talk, but to be a leader, you need to listen.

What do you consider to be one of your biggest achievements?

My biggest accomplishment actually just happened. I was chosen to step away from the job for three months, while still being paid, to share the skills I have developed in a corporate setting with a nonprofit entity. Initially I was going to work with the finance team, but I decided to work at the program level at the Boys and Girls Club of America. I had the opportunity to go in and work with the kids, giving them the skills to succeed, and sharing that education is an opportunity cost and not to be taken for granted. What we consider to be small lessons in the workplace can become huge points of definition for those following our example.

I was also a team leader at Fifth Third Bank. Some people define accomplishments by if they managed a team or led a group of people, but if I made a difference to the 200 children this summer, then that’s a greater achievement.

What advice would you offer for leaders and those aspiring to leadership?

You have to find your passion or you will never become a leader. Passion dictates how hard you are going to work. You have to get into your passions, and then you’ll be working so hard that you won’t notice that management is looking at you to be the next leader.

Mary Camille Izlar is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.