Diversity & Inclusion

Personal Life Experiences Drive Passion for DEI

The banking and finance sector has long had a reputation as an industry sorely lacking in diversity and inclusion. For many, the very mention of banking conjures up images of stuffy, older white men in suits. With an increasingly diversified American workforce, the banking industry can’t afford to maintain a lack of diversity based on either practice or perception.

Mike Sebring

Not only does failing to embrace diversity leave organizations at risk of missing out on the contributions of top talent—both directly via hiring practices and indirectly through a lack of interest on the part of diverse workers—but it also puts banks and other financial institutions at risk of missing out on business.

As the American population continues to diversify, so, too, does the distribution of wealth and business ownership. Potential depositors and borrowers are increasingly likely to be people of color. Banks that don’t look like or think like this emerging audience are less likely to attract diverse clientele than those that meaningfully embrace diversity.

Our subject for this installment of our series on chief diversity officers (CDOs) is Mike Sebring, Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at Citizens Bank, which gives him great background and insight into the importance of DEI at Citizens, as well as in the banking industry as a whole.

Stumbling into Banking

“I began my career in banking the way many others did,” says Sebring. “I stumbled into it.” He explains that in 1996, he was working in the grocery business when a friend who was working at Wells Fargo said the stagecoach was coming to Arizona as part of a recent merger. As a result, Wells Fargo was looking for in-store branch bankers. “With no prior experience in banking, I was hired as an Assistant Branch Manager at the location within the grocery store I was currently working in,” he says. “Knowing many of the customers already, I quickly went from selling milk to selling checking accounts for my grocery store regulars.”

A Grassroots Journey to His Diversity Role

Sebring didn’t start his banking career on the path to a top DEI role, at least not with respect to his official job duties. He was a managing director overseeing branches in the Seattle market at another bank when he learned that the bank’s CDO was retiring. “The head of talent acquisition called me to share that in recruiting for a new role, my leadership with employee resource groups, volunteerism, board membership, and community development stood out,” Sebring says. “They appreciated the fact that I knew how to drive business results through diverse teams, which set me apart from many of the applicants who came from academic backgrounds.”

Sebring shares that while he ultimately walked into the role of overseeing DEI for the Americas with no previous DEI title, he had, in truth, “been living the role through my actions for over 20 years.” He accepted the role in 2015 and has spent the last 6 years in various leading DEI roles. He began his current role at Citizens in February 2020.

A Holistic Approach to DEI

Some organizations hire one or two DEI professionals to “tick a box” with respect to their diversity efforts, resulting in disappointing results. At Citizens, Sebring appreciates that “DEI touches every part of the business, customer interactions, and communities we serve.”

Several examples of the initiatives that Citizens has worked on to support DEI include:

  • The launch of a diversity scorecard in 2021 focused on shifting the demographics within senior leadership ranks by increasing opportunities for advancement and growth;
  • Required DEI learning for all colleagues to build capabilities in belonging, valuing uniqueness, and deciding fairly;
  • Additional learning opportunities for managers, including a focus on inclusive hiring to mitigate bias in the hiring process and inclusive performance reviews to mitigate bias during performance discussions and decisions; and
  • Close monitoring of development plans for emerging and high-potential diverse colleagues and the implementation of coaching programs and 360-degree feedback processes.

These efforts are part of the culture and fabric of the organization, representing a focus on process rather than events.

Importance of Resource Groups

A common theme from many of the DEI experts we speak to is the importance of employee resource groups, known as “business resource groups” (BRGs) at Citizens. “Our BRGs are the foundation of our DEI strategy, allowing us to better understand the voices and needs of our diverse colleagues,” says Sebring. “With almost 3000 members in our network, our six BRGs are sponsored by senior leaders and serve as cultural ambassadors to help formulate and influence our DEI strategy within our business units.”

A Dynamic Hiring Process Aimed at Diversity

The hiring function is one of the, if not the, most important aspects of promoting DEI within organizations—something Sebring is keenly aware of. “At Citizens, our hiring process is focused on providing exceptional candidate experiences while ensuring we consistently attract, source, and assess a diverse, high quality applicant pool to fill our open jobs,” he says. 

The organization, adds Sebring, recognizes the importance of challenging assumptions and traditional ways of sourcing talent and of stepping outside of comfort zones—whether that be location, industry, or skill set. “We have implemented several recruiting initiatives to facilitate this process, including partnerships with community organizations and historically black colleges and universities to help identify qualified candidates, a recently expanded diverse hire commitment to interview a slate of at least 50% diverse candidates for senior openings; and develop programs specifically designed to build a strong pipeline of emerging diverse talent internally,” Sebring says. In addition, Citizens has worked to implement tools and training to help de-bias the selection process. 

Closing Thoughts

Sebring believes his personal life experience has been a major factor in his career trajectory. “As a gay man, I have been lucky to have many advocates throughout my career who gave me a shot at something new and saw my potential to stretch and grow, allowing me to leverage my strengths and learn from my mistakes,” he says.

“I’m a big believer in karma and have used my position to advocate for others and pull them up into new opportunities,” Sebring continues. “My ask of those who have read this far is to be an active advocate for those who are different than you. We each have a unique role to play in creating a kinder, more inclusive and equitable society.”