This interview is the ninth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Wanda Speight, Senior Vice President, Senior Credit Officer, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC)
Risk Mitigator. Problem Solver. Powerful.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
It would be, “Look how far this girl from North Philly has come.” Part of it is that I came from an average working-class family that definitely put a great emphasis on education and I was very fortunate in that I was surrounded by a supportive community between my immediate family and our church family. My parents moved to a more middle-income community that exposed me to the importance of hard work and education. At this point I have almost a 40-year career under my belt and at least for the first 20 years I never felt like I was blatantly overlooked because of race or sex. Part of it is that even if I was, I didn’t let that hamper me. I was determined to work hard no matter what. (Wanda Speight pictured right.)
What are some of your career highlights?
I think about times when I have received promotions or worked on big projects. The time I got promoted to a vice president…the recognition that I had worked hard and been able to develop a solid book of business. It was wonderful to be recognized for the value that I added and brought to the company and the visibility.
We have about $600 million in assets under management and about 450 different loans and investments. I’m responsible for overseeing the risk in that portfolio. We make loans to small businesses as well as large transactions. A loan may be as small as $50,000 and others are close to $50 million that we finance.
Another highlight was the first time I worked on a really large transaction resulting in $60 million in financing. When that transaction closed, it was such a thrill. Equally important was the time I closed a loan with an agency which provided Head Start programs for very low-income children. We were at the closing table and the Finance Director brought a check, but the closing fees were higher than expected. I went into my wallet and paid the balance. It was important to me that those children in the program received the same quality of care as their counterparts in higher income and more affluent areas.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I love solving complex problems: breaking them up into small pieces, figuring them out, and resulting in a big win. I was recently named Senior Credit Officer so I’ve been tasked with taking the whole credit and portfolio management function, breaking it down, and rebuilding from scratch. I’m hiring new staff and taking a different approach. I’ve done that in prior jobs and appreciate that the senior management recognizes the contributions I can make and trusts that I can figure out all the pieces.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington is what I am currently reading. It’s about reassessing one’s career and priorities.
Earlier in my career, I would have said The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. For me, it was helpful just in terms of how to prioritize my time and what things to think about in terms of being successful. Both of my parents worked for the federal government. We didn’t have a lot of the “corporate talk” around the dinner table. Mom and dad had a job; I didn’t think much about careers and interacting with other people. This book was helpful in framing how to prioritize my time and think about different situations.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
I remember one time I was working for a bank and we visited a nursing home we were considering financing. The residents were mostly older, African American women who weren’t in the best shape. The women didn’t look cared for and were not involved in activities but sitting in chairs. That visit tore me apart and we ended up not providing finance to that particular owner. The staff described a good quality of care during the visit, but I was thinking that I wouldn’t put my parents in a place like that.
Another example is when I had been working less than 10 years and we were at an off-site training. One of the middle managers made some comment like, “Everything I do is white. My hair is white. My shirt is white. I only do white things.” I knew to stay away from him.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
I am more selective with meetings and agendas — not just the business agenda, but one’s personal agenda. If a person doesn’t make positive contributions, but rather wants to hear themselves talk, then I am conscious of not spending my time with them. I have enough on my plate that I don’t want to waste my time. I’m also more selective with what I volunteer to do. I realized that sometimes I was volunteering when it was really someone else’s job.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
On the weekends I am really selective with how I spend my time. I’m lucky that my kids are functioning young adults with full-time jobs, and graduates from college or graduate school. Some portion of weekend is used just to rest. I get massages on a regular basis and love to travel. I try to schedule the time. I’m not one of those people who feels I can’t take time away from the office, so I just schedule it.
I also consciously connect with a good friend for dinner or brunch to invest in the value of friendship.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
Know yourself. Know what feeds your passion and will motivate you to set priorities and focus to achieve a goal. Know what you want out of your career and what sacrifices you are willing to make. Know your trade-offs and don’t feel like you have to do everything. Write things down and do a reality check once a month or yearly and make sure you’re heading in the right direction. Make sure you are doing what makes you happy.
When I was in third grade I figured out I wanted to be a banker. At that time, they had banking in the school and I was always good in math and my teacher selected me to collect the class’ weekly deposits. I was the teller in third grade!
Earlier in my life I had five-year plans. I used to plan everything. When I started my first job after college, I had a budget and would put $20 away in savings for clothing to “invest” in tailored business suits to demonstrate to my mangers and clients that I should be taken seriously.
I have a really strong faith. I am so sure that God has certain plans for me. Not only did I go into banking, I went on the commercial side instead of the retail side, which is more complex and has more opportunities for growth. I went into a commercial credit training program and at that time I was the second Black female that the bank had chosen to go through this program. When I went through the program, there were some phenomenal people who could tell that I was smart (I had graduated from college at the age of 20.) There are unwritten rules about how to navigate in the corporate sector, yet I had a support system to help me with that. I worked with that bank for five years and then moved to another bank and worked there for five years. That team was phenomenal again. I was in an area that really helped me grow and develop my professional skills and expertise. I am convinced that some of it was hard work, some of it was my intelligence, and some of it was someone looking out for me.
We also have to give back and be supportive of our community and of other women. Be there to listen. Contribute your time and your money. I remember my first job where a White woman in a different part of the bank saw me and scheduled a lunch. During that lunch, she laid certain things out about the work and offered her advice and mentorship.
Another mentor suggested that I get real estate experience. It has been so valuable and opened up unbelievable opportunities for me to travel and do interesting transactions. It wouldn’t have been something that I thought about doing.
Lastly, I’ll say that it’s important as women to make sure we understand what’s important to us, what skills we want to learn, and what balance we want to have to be self-fulfilled and feel like we have made a difference.