What I learned in my first job: Bank Teller

Man Walking up Ladder to CloudsOctober 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of my entrance to the job market. It has been a tremendous ride so far, across organizations, sectors, countries and continents. Recently, on my way to the office of one of my new roles, I saw, literally, the writing on the wall: Right there, on a gigantic billboard pasted on the side of a Times Square skyscraper, read: “The further I get, the further I want to go”. I must say it resonated with me and my professional wanderlust. This wanderlust has become increasingly crisper and clearer over the last four years or so; a result of a deep self-awareness and a realization that life is very short. So my professional mantra these days is: The roles and work I take on must align with my values, vision and legacy I want to leave behind. (It’s much tougher than it sounds, believe me). As I bask in the clarity of my mantra today, I can’t help but remember my first job fresh out of grad school twenty years ago: I was a Bank Teller I. You all gotta start somewhere and my starting point was the bottom of the bank career ladder, in third teller window, the marble floored main branch of a community bank in uptown Charlotte, NC.

In October 1993, the economy was bad reverberating from the Bush years and yet to pick up for the Clinton glory days later on. I had just successfully defended my Master’s thesis and graduation was scheduled for December that year. I had managed to squeeze a two year program to 16 months. As excited as I was with completing a significant milestone, the grim prospect of finding a job was looming large. So, in those pre-internet and big-banks-rule days, the personal touch was king: I printed15 copies of my half page cv (today it’s about five pages condensed but into two), wore my only suit and walked up and down Tryon street. I walked into every bank branch and handed my cv to the customer service representative who promised to pass it on to HR. About three weeks later I had received fourteen thank you letters via snail mail informing me that there were no openings matching my qualifications at that time and wishing me much success in my future endeavors. On week four, a lonely letter arrived. It was from the community bank and they were inviting me for an interview for a bank teller I position. I was ecstatic! Though nervous, I did my homework and aced the interview. A couple of weeks later I was offered the job for the unbelievable salary of $15,000 per year. I felt that was quite low so I asked if we could discuss an increase. They agreed and gave me an additional $500 per year.

And so, I learned to count and pack bills into bricks for overnight storage in the bank’s gigantic basement vault, to keep my teller box balanced, to serve customers, to remember their names, and to try to anticipate their needs and recommend new products. I learned a lot, but I hated it. I felt like a loser because at that time a bank teller job did not require a college degree, let alone a Masters. I longed to work for the largest bank, the one whose brand new 59-floor skyscraper cast a shadow on the community bank every day after 3 pm. I longed to use my fresh knowledge in international economics to drive strategy and country policy on economic development, but how? I secretly admired the NationsBank Tower, designed by I.M.Pei, towering in pink granite with a crown like pinnacle and casting a shadow everyday after 3 pm in the community bank’s lobby, darkening my teller window. I realized I could control one thing: My perseverance. So, I persevered. I made sure my teller money drawer was always in balance to the last penny, I learned all my regular customers’ kid and pet names and I kept reading the Economist subscription -a gift to myself for getting a job- during my breaks. With that salary I couldn’t afford a car, so I rode the city bus. At first, I was shy striking up conversations because I didn’t like talking about my job during the 40 minute bus ride. Later, I realized I was a natural networker, so I networked…on the bus. As a result, a year later I landed and interview which resulted in a Letters of Credit Specialist job in the Letters of Credit Division of that big bank, NationsBank at that time, Bank of America today that towered over my teller window!

I stayed at Bank of America just shy of ten amazing years of learning and growing, taking on new roles every 18 months and rising up to Vice President and Six Sigma Black Belt And somewhere in there, thanks to my perseverance I sought mentors who helped me tremendously, I learned to navigate a large organization, sharpened my networking skills, volunteered in Habitat for Humanity and Junior Achievement, traveled on the job an in one of the bank’s corporate jets, made new friends and kept reading the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Project Finance and the Financial Times. I also had the exquisite honor to meet and be invited for lunch on the 59th floor corporate dining room with the Bank CEO Mr. Hugh McColl, whose guiding words about success (“you gotta have brains, guts and public speaking skills”) became the impetus of the next 10 years of my career.

As I traversed into the not-for-profit sphere (thanks to a secondment by Bank of America to a NYC not for profit), and then into government followed by private consulting, teaching and thought leadership across geographies (US, Middle East, South East Europe) and countries, I learned each of the different languages each stakeholder group uses for the same things; I learned to bring them together and realize the value of Private Public Partnerships and that the best results are achieve only when stakeholders from the private, NGO and policy worlds align together their values and their work for a local or global cause. (cue to my current professional mantra shared earlier)

By now, I was also strongly committed to giving back to my community: I wanted young professionals to learn who they were and to network early so I mentored often: high school students, recent graduates, professionals in transition, entrepreneurs, start up teams. I also wanted people to find their own voice so they could reach their own dreams so I founded a TEDx event as a platform for ideas worth sharing: today it has grown to over 1,680 followers and has spawned another TEDx event, several start up initiatives and the interest of the media, private sector, academia, policy makes and of course, investors. I wanted students to reach beyond borders, whether physical or mental: so I designed and taught a “Networking skills beyond borders course” engaging foreign embassies and missions to present their countries and cultures via presentations and food. I mentored, I connected people regionally and I wrote and spoke locally and regionally about the issues that impassioned me: governance, transparency, economic growth, CSR, empowerment and accountability (esp. for women and youth) and entrepreneurship among others.

So, while it is true that the further I get, the further I want to go, looking back at that first job, the same values that carried me then on that lonely sidewalk job search that day and the following twenty years, still carry me today and hopefully beyond: integrity, perseverance, passion, hard work, learning, sharing, dreaming big and always giving back.

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