Six leadership lessons from Bank of America’s Titi Cole

10.3.2014 Article, Careers, Charlotte Center, Leadership, School News

Bank of America executive isn’t afraid to highlight what makes her different

By Page Leggett (’87)

Titi Cole stands out.

The Bank of America retail products and underwriting executive says people are likely to remember her because of her Nigerian accent (it’s lovely), her height (she’s tall), possibly her race (she’s black) and her unusual name. And as long as people are going to notice her, she wants it to be for the right reasons. So, she strives to have a distinct point of view.

She revealed the pride she takes in what makes her different to a group gathered for an Oct. 3 lunch and learn session at the Wake Forest Charlotte Center. Students, staff, faculty, alumni and local businesspeople came together to hear lessons from an executive who believes we should accentuate our differences.

That part of her talk stemmed from a question from the audience. Someone asked Cole if she felt her journey had been harder because she’s a black woman. “Not harder,” she responded. “Just different. But we’re all different in some way. Use your difference as an asset.”

Cole’s work responsibilities include developing business strategy for the bank’s payments business, the debit business and electronic and emerging payments product portfolio. Cole, who has a master’s in business administration from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and her group serve the bank’s 40 million U.S. retail banking customers.

She has the heart of regional banker. Yet she says the only way to innovate in banking is to work for a big bank. And she wanted to be where the innovation was. She brings humanity to her job and says she never lets her team forget: “Behind every account is a person.”

“We exist to help make our customers’ financial lives better,” she says of Bank of America. And she works to communicate that to her team and the bank’s customers. “Customers need to know that we care,” she says. That’s the bottom line.

Cole shared six leadership guideposts she’s learned over her career.

  1. Stay grounded in who you are. That’s the only way to be an authentic leader.
  2. Be adaptable. Someone gave her this advice about joining a big company: Don’t join for the boss, because that will change. Don’t even join entirely for the job, because that, too, will change. Join because you want to be part of the culture.
  3. You don’t have to do it all yourself. A mentor once told Cole, “Superwoman doesn’t exist. Trying to be one will make you crazy.” She says no one can do it all herself or himself. “Ask for help,” she told the audience. “It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of self-awareness.”
  4. Keep learning. “Nothing is as humbling as learning something new,” she says. “And humility drives empathy.” Cole picks up a new skill every year. Sometimes it’s job-related; sometimes it’s entirely personal. She took guitar lessons twice a week in 2012. Last year, she took up running and is already training for a half-marathon.
  5. Be positive. Your attitude matters. “If you aren’t having fun,” she asked, “what’s the point?”
  6. Communicate clearly and simply. This rule, she said, might be the most imperative of the six. She encourages her team to avoid acronyms and jargon and speak in “plain English.”

Other advice from Cole:

  • When starting a new job, get a clear understanding of how your success will be defined.
  • When interviewing, don’t let the hiring manager be the only one asking tough questions. Candidates should ask hard questions, too. “Tell me about a time you failed” and “Give me an example of a tough HR decision you had to make” are fair questions.
  • Managers should ask, during the interview process, to speak to their potential peers and the people who will be reporting to them.
  • Advancing doesn’t always mean going up. Cole says lateral moves can be beneficial, if they allow you to expand your skill set.  “Just don’t get stuck in an endless shuffle of lateral moves,” she warns.

Much of what Cole said resonated with Sarah Wetenhall, a Bank of America commercial banker who’s also second year student in Wake’s evening MBA program. “I especially liked her message about standing out,” Wetenhall said. “I don’t blend in, and I’m glad to hear that’s good.”

Titi Cole’s audience at Wake Forest won’t soon forget her – and not because of her voice, height or name. It was her powerful message of standing apart from the crowd that engaged this lunchtime crowd.

Page Leggett is a freelance writer/editor/communications strategist in Charlotte, N.C., and a 1987 graduate of Wake Forest University.