Wells Fargo’s Senior Executive Vice President and Head of Operation, Lester Owens and DiversityInc CEO, Carolynn Johnson sat down together recently for a spirited virtual conversation on Owens’ career in the banking industry; the career lessons he’s learned over his 30 years on the job; the leadership advice he’d like to share with others, as well as an inside look at the diversity and inclusion efforts currently underway at Wells Fargo (No. 25 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021).
This conversation that follows is a look back at their powerful and impactful talk, edited lightly for length and clarity. For exclusive interview clips with Johnson and Owens, scroll further down the page.
Carolynn Johnson: Thank you for joining us today, Lester. How are you doing?
Lester Owens: I’m glad to be here. I’m looking forward to having a conversation with you.
Johnson: Awesome. Before we dive in, can you share a little bit about your career path with our readers?
Owens: Sure. I’ve been in banking for just about 30 years. I have come up the ranks. I started from probably the lowest level that you could think of. After graduating from college, I had no idea what banking was about, but one day, I just decided to give it a try. Like many people, I didn’t really have a network of people who were guiding me through my early career path, and I just decided and said, “Okay, I’m going to try banking.” And, I did, and it has worked out.
I’ve worked for a number of different banks. My skill set, which I learned very early on, has focused primarily on project management — the ability to take large projects and bring them to completion. I also learned early in my career that I enjoyed working with people – guiding them and teaching them the art of what I’ve been able to learn.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to be recruited for new positions throughout my career. Whenever someone who I’d worked for left and went to another bank, they gave me a phone call and asked if I was interested in coming. And, I generally said yes. Because of that, I’ve been able to spend time in almost every country around the world — in various parts of Asia, Europe and many different cities and states here in the U.S.
I’ve been in my current position at Wells Fargo for a little over eight months. It’s a bank that has great name recognition. It’s a bank that looks to help many of the diverse communities that we know and love. I run Operations, which is about 70,000 people. We’re part of that core process that makes the bank run each and every day, and I’m part of the bank’s Operating Committee.
Johnson: Why do you think banking worked out so well for you up to this point?
Owens: People often ask me what kind of skill set they need to succeed in banking, and I always tell them it’s the ability to work hard, the ability to network and build relationships, and most importantly, it’s the ability to have an open mind and a great work ethic. I’ve always focused on doing the best job I knew how to do in the job that I was in, and that’s what ultimately helped me create a career path going forward.
Johnson: That’s great. And it’s really inspiring to hear how you got started — knowing that when you graduated, you didn’t know what you wanted to do. I think a lot of people don’t think about the different job opportunities that exist within different industries like banking. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be the head of Operations for such a large employer like Wells Fargo with over 200,000 employees — 70,000 of which you’re responsible for?
Owens: When most people think of banking, they think of a bank branch. I have responsibility for operations covering everything from the investment bank to the commercial bank to the retail bank, and everything in between. I describe it to people like this: think of it as if you were a car dealership; you walk into a car dealership and you see the salesperson and the general manager, who are trying to get you to buy a car. But, what you don’t see are the people actually manufacturing and building these cars. And, that is what operations really is – it’s the ability to service the clients in the most effective way possible. It’s making sure we have strong risk management, and it’s also about transformation – building and designing products that allow you to provide clients with best-in-class service capabilities.
Johnson: Building off of that, people in corporate America also often have different perspectives about diversity, right? Depending on who you are or where you grew up, those opinions can vary greatly. As a person working in the business world, what does diversity mean to you?
Owens: I believe that people follow the lead of their leader. And, what you do in that role matters. People will look to you and follow you accordingly. I’ve met many people from all walks of life. And there is nothing better than when you’re sitting around a table (or in the Zoom call) and you find a diverse group of individuals with different ways of thinking or a different perspective on things, just because of their background. And when you start to watch people interact and you see the dynamics that go along with the conversations, to me, it’s absolutely phenomenal.
Owens: I’m also a firm believer that every individual deserves an opportunity. I tend to have some of the more diverse groups in my organization. When we hire people, we want to see a diverse slate of individuals, which is paramount for us. I also make sure that we go deep into the organization – and I tend to look deep in my organization so that I know a lot of people – we give people stretch assignments so they also get an opportunity to elevate themselves. Making sure that you give people a platform to be successful is so important. And, it’s about treating everyone equally.
We all need to be able to talk to and be comfortable with people who don’t look like us. Some have called it having “courageous conversations” — being able to be open-minded and having a conversation. At the end of the day, I make sure these ideas are always in the forefront of the conversations we are having. It’s no different than when we talk about other concepts like risk management, transformation, or the work we are doing to support our clients. This is not a one-time conversation. You’ve got to continue to foster these ideas and make sure people understand there’s a value proposition behind it, as it relates to helping to elevate people.
Johnson: Looking back at your career, whether it was your experiences with mentoring or sponsorships or programs you have going on now, what has been the biggest lesson learned over the course of your career, and how has it shaped your leadership style?
Owens: I can think of a few, in no particular order: One is to be consistent in how you deliver. I think I’ve created a reputation where, if you gave me something, people knew that it would get done with the highest quality and on time. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. Number two, I believe, is to always treat people with respect. What people want to know is that you care about them. And if you know my reputation, people will say the guy works hard. He demands quite a bit and he asks really deep questions to understand the subject matter. But I think people would also say, “He will go to bat for me.” I realize the value of people — without them, we’re not going to be successful.
Another thing I’ve learned over the years is that you do the right thing by the client all of the time. They respect it. And the business will grow as a result. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time with clients making sure that we met their commitments. And finally, I’m really big on risk management – it is important to do things the way they are supposed to be done so that you don’t cut corners.
Johnson: Those ideas are all so vital and important. That’s a great message to get out. It reminds me of an interview I did with Medium once. One of the questions was “What would you have liked to have known earlier in your career?” And my answer was “It’s okay to be kind.” Because sometimes when we watch people, we pick up on what we consider to be cutthroat or no-nonsense attitudes — but being kind, I think, is something that sometimes gets the job done even more effectively, especially when you are dealing with people.
Owens: Someone once asked me, “What are some of the things you have learned in your career?” And for me, one of the things I have learned is to be confident. And sometimes, you could look at many of these big corporations and think, “Can I really do it? Am I smart enough to do it? Should I ask questions?” And you realize that you are on par with everybody else. As you climb that ladder, the key is to learn and feel confident that you can ask the questions — knowing that you and your coworkers are all ultimately on equal footing.
Johnson: Absolutely. I love it. Before we wrap up, I have one more question for you: do you have any final words or pieces of advice that you’d like to give folks who are thinking about working in banking or financial services, or who might even want to stay at Wells Fargo and advance their careers?
Owens: I think the advice I would offer, especially for people who are trying to still climb that ladder, is to remember that there is no crystal ball. The advice I would give people at the end of the day is that success is about doing the best job that you know how to do; creating a reputation that allows you to be consistent; and, making sure that people understand the value you are bringing to the table. That, and networking. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about my career when I started out and, all of a sudden, people started looking after Lester Owens, and it did make a difference.
Johnson: That’s a great answer. Thank you so much Lester for your time today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. And I wish you the best of luck as you continue to help the company get to the next level. And it’s been a pleasure again. So thank you so much.
Owens: Thank you.