Fighting Corporate Style: Applied Lessons from the Street
Growing up on the rough side of the tracks, I remember fighting many of the bullies in the neighborhood. What I did not know back then was how relevant those experiences would be in my future. The ability to stand up for myself, to not be intimidated, and to face my fears would prove to be a valuable asset and mindset in both the streets and corporate suites.
For openers, I remember one executive who thought raising his voice was going to intimidate me.
I smiled at him and said, “You know, when you have had guns in your face and knives pulled on you, someone yelling is so far away from intimidating that you should lower your voice and have a seat before you give yourself a heart attack. Yelling at me is a real waste of your time and I do not respond to it because you are not talking to me in that tone.” I said it quietly and calmly without flinching, with solid eye contact, and he left my office.
Nearly 70% of Americans are familiar with the concept of workplace bullying, while 19% have seen it happen and 30% have been the target of such treatment.
The incidence of bullying in the workplace was higher among African Americans compared to other racial groups. Therefore, Black professionals are more likely to suffer from the effects of workplace bullying. Also, African Americans reported feeling more isolated at work, and workplace discrimination is also more prevalent among Black professionals. This suggests a lack of workplace support for African Americans, leading to an increase in workplace bullying. Additionally, this lack of support is a sign of a larger culture of discrimination in the workplace.
As I share my stories, I will share some background, including corporate positions and some of the lived experiences that I had no idea at the time would prepare me for life in general and my corporate journey in particular. One of my first corporate experiences was with a bank that was acquired in my seventh year with them. This experience taught me that decisions were business and not personal.
So, take this journey with me. I started this job as a teller at the age of 20 and approximately seven years later, the bank was acquired. I had worked my way up from teller to foreign teller to assistant head teller and I was a branch sales manager at the time of the acquisition. In this role, I found myself in the top three sales reps, battling for the number one spot each month with the other two top producers. Then, the acquiring bank came in and cut the incentivized compensation. They just got rid of the commission structure. I could not believe it.
After that acquisition and throughout the rest of my banking career, I carried an unsigned resignation letter in my briefcase. It kept me grounded in the fact that I was hired and compensated to do a job and either party could terminate that relationship at any time for any reason. I also learned that those employees who were willing to move around were respected and compensated for taking the risk that moving around entailed. I decided it was respect and not likeability that ruled the day and the former was more critical than the latter. I learned the value of mutual respect on the block in the neighborhood.
The new retail sales division leader invited all the sales representatives to have lunch to get acquainted in the corporate executive dining room at the operations center. One of the principles I learned in my neighborhood was that you should not take anything from anyone, and you should not let anyone take anything from you. So, during lunch, the leader went around the room, asking for everyone’s comments about the acquisition and what their experience had been so far. I sat and listened. Most of my colleagues had cordial things to say about the organization and how they looked forward to working for this larger organization with a broader reach and range of products and services.
When it was my turn to speak, I had just one question. I asked, “since the commission was being cut, were the sales representatives going to receive a raise in base compensation commensurate with their average commission? If not for those of us who were producing, it would be a serious pay cut.” You could hear a pin drop.
It was, after all, what we all wanted to know. After a longer than necessary pause, he responded that he did not know and that he would have to check and get back to me. My street instincts decided instantly that he was a liar, and my best course of action would be to explore opportunities elsewhere. How could he not know?
The next day, the regional manager stopped by my office, and I asked him a simple question: Was he staying? He, too, had a pregnant pause. In his case, I understood why he would not want to share his honest answer with a subordinate and potentially have that subordinate share that response with others.
But my instincts said yes, which would have been the easy answer but since that was not the truth, he did not want to say. So, I let him off the hook, and I responded, “I understand.” I floated my resume and in about two to three weeks, I was hired at a higher pay rate, recapturing my lost commission in my new base pay plus additional commission. I started the new position with a resignation letter in my briefcase, no personal items in my office, no plants, flowers, or family photos. Absolutely nothing but my briefcase. That kept my professional life in the banking world strictly business, and there was never any need to pack, as I was always ready to leave at a moment's notice if the department, division, or office was closed.
At one point in my career, I managed sales and operations for low- and moderate-income residential mortgage lending. My team supported homeownership in low- and moderate-income communities throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. People weren't interested in focusing on this population in the early days of this position. There were those who thought low- and moderate-income people were not a good financial risk. With a great deal of work, we structured a unified approach to support this effort. We created a low- to moderate-income portfolio of profitable loans. It turns out low- and moderate-income homebuyers who looked like me were a good risk after all and an analysis of all the lending showed this portfolio was performing just as well as any other loan product group. Another triumph in the trenches!
After that success, I decided the unification of the traditional mortgage banking group and the low- and moderate-income group should be combined. My position had become obsolete, and I shared my thoughts with my vice president at the time. I was good at fixing things, and his job was to determine what needed to be fixed or tackled next. Senior management agreed, and there was an opportunity created for me after speaking up and being proactive.
The next issue to tackle was fair lending compliance, and the role was offered to me. In addition, there was a fair lending exam requiring me to get up to speed quickly to prepare for the compliance exam by federal regulators. However, an outside consulting firm unfamiliar with the position and its role or significance to the continued growth and prosperity of the bank undervalued the position in both title and compensation. Of course, I communicated this fact to my manager and raised my concerns. Initially, my concerns were ignored. Drawing on the lived experiences in my youth from dealing with bullies and others who would attempt to take things from me, I decided on a strategy to win.
The first part of my strategy was to be monumentally successful in my new role and that meant obtaining an excellent fair lending rating my first time out as the new fair lending manager. To do that, I had to create a fair lending program to train approximately 7,000 employees with modules appropriate based on the employees’ roles and their proximity to lending in their various positions. I had to collaborate with every area of the bank, creating content, tests, monitoring, and results reporting to division and department leaders to ensure all retail and client-facing employees went through the training modules.
The second part of the strategy was to be present and in the room to present the fair lending program to the regulators and senior management. This would allow me to overcome the lack of fair compensation and mitigate the possible claim of my inexperience in my new role. I anticipated that my manager would want to take full credit for the work and I would not be allowed to participate in the compliance presentation to the regulators and senior management. So, this strategy required street smarts. I decided to put together a very comprehensive package to present. This presentation included three five-inch binders. I worked on this for about six months with the cooperation of many colleagues across all business units throughout our seven-state market area. It was voluminous and I decided the best course of action was to work up to the day before the deadline and submit all my work to be presented to my manager to ensure my seat at the table.
The morning before the exam, I provided the volume of information that I had been living with for months to the manager for his review and consumption and I waited patiently for his response. Several hours later, my manager emerged from the doorway office. He praised the work that I had done and, at the same time, realized there was no way he could digest that level and volume of information over night. Then, with reluctance on his face, he asked, “Are you free tomorrow? With the work you have done on this and the fact that you have been living with it for months, you are the best one to present this information.” I checked my calendar, knowing full well there was nothing on it. I was planning to be at that regulatory meeting. And I was well prepared to share the information I assembled.
My motivation was simple: I had another $15,000 in income, a vice president title, stock options, a bonus, and additional vacation time hanging in the balance, and I was determined to correct the misalignment of the position based on erroneous data used by the consultant to quantify my compensation package for the position. I knew I had my work cut out for me.
Then the day came, and all went well with the presentation and the opening of the exam period was a success. Over the course of a couple of months, I responded to several inquiries while the examiners picked apart and reviewed the content of my exam package. The exam ended, and we waited for the results. After the wait, we got word that we received an excellent, fair lending exam rating.
Upon receiving that information, it was time to move forward to the next phase. It was now time to revisit being ignored regarding my request for additional compensation. I had removed the “new to the role” excuse as I had gotten the results that would have been expected from an experienced fair lending manager. I was certainly not a newbie. So, I brought forth my concerns and after a few days of no response, I decided to escalate my concerns to the director of human resources. I communicated to the HR Director that I was not calling to cause any issue for my manager but to correct a situation that not only negatively impacted me but also other team members who were moving up the ladder and hitting that arbitrary maximum percentage pay increase. This was in addition to errors made in evaluating the position by the consultant.
I explained that, in my view, long-term employees would have to leave to reach their justified compensation level and unfortunately, our replacements from outside would be brought in at the level that existing team members should be afforded. In my specific case, they would not be able to recruit my replacement with the compensation package I was provided. Fortunately, my message got through and my package was amended to my benefit. I was able to apply lessons from the streets to win in this corporate space. It was fighting corporate style with words, reasoning, and bottom-line logic instead of physical fighting, fear, intimidation, or threats.
Finally, there is the story of “The Bully.” I have found that some people wear their ignorance like a badge of honor, and they are predisposed to assume their corporate title grants them privilege through position power and as such, they can rule over and dominate those they may encounter who have a lower-level title. They are typically not prepared to deal with people they encounter who may have superior personal power. Personal power does not rely on positions or titles.
So, by the time I encountered this bully, who happened to be a senior vice president, I happened to have had a large office with a spare desk in it. Over the years, I have also amassed personal power that shielded me from any thoughts of inferiority, imposter syndrome, or any of the other issues and challenges one could fall victim to in an environment where you are constantly having to fight the microaggressions, twisted compliments, and putting people in check by telling them things like you don’t like Polish jokes because they are told when there are no Polish people in the room, so what kind of jokes do you tell when there are no Black people in the room?
This is the benefit of establishing your own financial base, so your lifestyle is not dependent solely on your corporate job. And when people realize you are not intimidated or beholden to their paycheck and that you just do not give a crap, you have a freedom that is extremely liberating. This reality allowed me to be authentic throughout my career without fear. In some ways, it made the battles fun and winning was rewarding!
So, as I think back about what prepared me for the bully, I must take a trip back to the neighborhood on a sizzling summer day. There were about ten of us young boys in line waiting for the boys’ club to open. Picture this: one of the neighborhood bullies walks up and decides to take a spot in front of the line. And the rule was that if you could not hold your spot and someone took your spot, you had to go to the back of the line. Dejected, a bit embarrassed, and too afraid to do anything about it, the boy in the front of the line gave up his spot to the bully and walked to the back of the line. I immediately started thinking about why everyone is so afraid of this guy. I began to ponder: can he even fight? I have never seen him fight. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. Then the bully and I locked eyes. I started to think. There is about to be a fight and it is going to be a knockdown, drag-out fight. It is going to take a couple of adults from inside the boys’ club to pull us apart. Then I thought about what my dad used to say sometimes as I would leave the house. He would say, “Do not go out there starting any trouble, but if trouble finds you, I want you to make him feel right at home.” I was about to put down the welcome mat for this bully. He just did not know it yet!
So as our eyes locked, the bully began to walk toward me. He asked me what I was looking at. “You want to make something of it?” So, looking him right in the eyes with full authority, I said, “I am looking at nothing and if I were in front of the line, you would not be taking my spot.” Of course, that angered him, so he decided it would be okay to show his dominance by shoving me. As he reached toward me, I punched him right in the nose! In that instant, I was expecting a mini–World War III. After all, this was the tough guy bully who everyone was afraid of but I never saw fight. As he put one hand up to check his nose and saw blood, he said in a surprising whimper, “You made my nose bleed.” I was incredibly surprised, a little disappointed, and a little relieved because fighting would typically get you sent home for the day, and I wanted to shoot pool in the game room. As the bully walked away, I told the boy who was at the back of the line that he could have his spot back.
So fast forward back to the corporate bully; he had not been with the company long. He would come in one day and say he wanted my office and that I could work in one of the cubicles outside my office. So, in a colonizing fashion, he was just going to take my office. One of the lessons from the neighborhood, as you know by now, is that you should never let anyone take anything from you. Then again, I certainly could not punch him in the nose to get him to back off. That would be grounds for immediate termination and assault charges. So, how should I manage this bully type of aggression at work? I pondered that dilemma. Then, as I was about to leave the office one Saturday afternoon, it came to me. Since he does not want to play nice in the sandbox, I will dismantle the spare desk and relocate it to the mailroom. I thought this was a brilliant solution for the tough guy at the office.
I went to work, taking the desk apart piece by piece and reassembling it in the mail room. Monday morning, the plan was all set. I was not sure what day the bully would show up. He did not work in our area daily but visited once a week or so to meet members of his team. All the other visiting leaders used the spare desk without any issues.
It turned out that he was not there on that Monday, and I was going to be out of the office for meetings the following day. So, I decided to do something I had never had a reason to do before and that was to lock my office and inform the team that if the bully shows up, let him know that no one has the key to my office. Sure enough, he showed up on the day I was out, and he could not get in to use my office. He peered through the window and saw that my desk had been moved to the center of the office and the spare desk was gone. He was furious and a showdown was imminent.
The next day or two, he showed up and was true to the bully persona he stormed into for the confrontation. He wanted to know where the spare desk was and who I think I am. I told him I did not know what he was talking about. The calmer I was, the angrier and louder he got. “The spare desk, you moved it!” he said. “Yes,” I said, “I moved it. It is in the mailroom. There is plenty of privacy back there.”
Then, I stood up and said, You know I work here but I am not from here. You can lower your voice, or we can step outside.” With that, he stormed out and called my manager, who was also a senior vice president. About fifteen minutes later, I got a call from my manager, who told me that this bully was a senior vice president and insinuated that this should be a consideration. I responded that my manager had used that spare desk, his boss had used the spare desk, and none of the other leaders who used the spare desk had ever been disrespectful or attempted to kick me out of my office. Furthermore, he was only in the area once every week or two so he could use the spare desk in the mailroom or one of the cubicles. If the cubicles were good enough for me, they would be good enough for him. My manager said to me that you need to handle this, and my response was that I already had. The last word I had with the bully was that I would be here when you were gone.
I left a few years later on my own terms. It took about a year to transition from my position as Vice President and Fair Lending Manager. After which, I spent about sixteen months as the Chief Administrative Officer for a public charter school. From there, I had the awesome opportunity to spend roughly five years golfing, camping, and traveling with my family, as well as spending quality time with my daughters during their formative years.
I've had a great professional journey in a world where some people occasionally treat me like I don't belong but where th
Fighting Corporate Style: Applied Lessons from the Street