head of retirement and personal wealth solutions, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world a more inclusive place. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles.
They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.
Lorna Sabbia (CGS’86, Questrom’88) has worked at Bank of America Merrill Lynch for 25 years, long enough to recall the early days when she was excluded from her colleagues’ all-male golfing trips—even though they knew she played.
Sabbia not only handled the snub, she rose through the ranks at Merrill Lynch, which merged with Bank of America in 2009. Today, she runs Bank of America’s retirement business, overseeing more than 800 employees who manage retirement, education, and health savings plans for individuals and companies large and small. Being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry has strengthened her commitment to helping women and people of color get hired, and succeed, in the banking business. She is a member of Bank of America’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Council and the executive backer of the company’s Diverse Leader Sponsorship Program.
“Their voices need to be heard,” Sabbia says. Whether they play golf or not.
With Lorna Sabbia
Bostonia: How did you get involved in banking?
After graduating from BU, I found myself gravitating to sales jobs. I wanted to control the destiny of my own compensation. So I decided to roll the dice, and I took a job selling insurance right out of college, which was hilarious, because, looking back, I never would have hired me. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I didn’t have this huge Rolodex of people I could call and start selling insurance to, and by the way, I didn’t even know what insurance was at the time.
But it was kind of the best thing that I ever did, because there was no real training. It was super early in my career, and I learned a ton. You just had to figure it out. It was like, here’s the phone. Here’s a telephone book. Here’s your goal on a monthly basis. Go! And strangely enough, I liked that environment, which is pretty much, “You do, you get. You don’t, you get fired.” I love the purity of that. I totally understood it.
So it came naturally to you?
I noticed very quickly that it’s hard calling strangers over the phone and trying to develop a relationship. It’s difficult to do that. I enjoy being in front of people better. So it made you focus on your story and what you’re saying and what you communicate. And at the end of the day, I think communication is a big deal in any role that you play, and I would argue, in any industry.
I think I was decent at it. I noticed that when you look at sales jobs, it’s easier to work with people who have a ton of money because it’s obvious how you can help them. It’s difficult to find those people and develop relationships and then have them trust you enough to start doing business together. That was all very important learning at a very young age.
Was it difficult to get your foot in the door?
For me, it was a process of elimination. I was trying to find my pocket, and it took me a while to get there. I spent two years selling insurance, and then I joined a broker-dealer, a small boutique firm that’s no longer in existence. My goal at the time was to understand the ultra high net worth segments, but I was still in the insurance and estate planning space.
What I noticed over time is that I liked being on the front, meaning I liked to be close to the client experience and understand how we could help that experience. I grew up in a family of accountants. I didn’t want to be in an office, basically focused on analyzing numbers. I could do it, but I didn’t love it. And I started to form opinions and understand what I did enjoy doing.
I’ve had a lot of roles inside of Bank of America because it’s so big, which is really cool. At the beginning of my career, I wanted to control everything. And wait, wait, wait, I love this job. I want to save this job—don’t promote me to another one. I’d love to be an expert and good at something. But I could have trusted the vibe of folks coming to me and saying, “There’s this job over there that I think you’d be really good at, and you should consider it.” Now, I enjoy those conversations.
Now, I do the same thing. I’ll talk to people on my team and say, “What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you know?” Some people do and some people don’t. I still can’t answer that question today and I’m 53 years old. That’s what I love about it—I can’t wait to see how the movie ends, right?
How did BU prepare you for the work world?
I loved going to BU. I lived in an off-campus apartment in Kenmore Square, and it felt like I was simply living in Boston, which was cool and it was me. I work for a huge company, and BU was huge, and I love that I had the opportunity to meet a ton of different people. I love the fact that if I changed my major, I didn’t need to leave BU; they had a lot of choices. I enjoyed it and if I had a chance, I’d do it all over again because the experience was suited perfectly for me. If it was a small, tight campus with a fence around it, I probably would have felt stifled, like I was gasping for air.
How do you view your role at Bank of America?
I have a very large team of talented folks who actually operate the business every single day. My job is to remove hurdles. My job is to inspire, my job is to look for growth opportunities and position our team so that they can be successful.
As a woman who has climbed the ranks in a field dominated by men, can you talk about instances or subtle forms of intolerance you’ve encountered?
I never thought of myself as a woman in a male-dominated industry. I thought of myself as going to work. That’s all I knew. So early on in my career, I would say I was naive to it. You just think, this is what it is, and you kind of work with it. I think we all, and women in particular, have faced some version of intolerance. I think that’s the right word. I remember like it was yesterday not being invited to play golf with the guys right in front of me, being there while the guys are being invited to go. And people knew I liked golf at the time. That’s not fun. Or not being acknowledged in particular meetings like the guys were.
Did you invite yourself on the golf trip anyway?
At the time I didn’t, but I had a conversation with my boss, who was invited right in front of me, and I said, “Let me tell you how that felt, because it felt like I was completely excluded.”
I always say, if they have daughters, they’ll learn. But it’s up to us to share with them in a very caring way. To say, “Hey, you probably didn’t mean this, but I want to share with you what it felt like to be on the receiving end.”
Over time, I’ve gained the confidence to call it out now, when early on in my career, I didn’t—I just felt bad. And when I’ve had those types of conversations, people react very positively and oftentimes they’re shocked. They’re like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s not what I meant to do. I’m so sorry.” They just didn’t know.
Have you seen progress?
I’ve seen huge, huge progress over the last 25 years, which is just joyful. We talk about diversity and inclusion, not only in the company I work for, but I even hear it in conversations with my friends, with the companies they work for, so it’s not a secret topic. It’s part of the DNA. And a lot of companies are trying to crack the code. Everyone’s on their own journey.
I happen to be one of the vice chairs of our company’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Council, so we do everything: we look at numbers, we listen to feedback from our employees, we invest time and money to train everyone. We hold what we call courageous conversations, on all topics, ranging from the scary topics of what may be happening in the environment outside of our doors and what may be happening inside of our doors so we can learn from each other. Topics include what it feels like to be excluded. We also include experts outside of our company for perspective. We don’t have all the answers, and our goal is to truly have an environment where everybody feels super comfortable and welcome to bring their whole selves to work. When that happens, it’s a good thing for our clients.
So I believe there’s been huge progress. I believe we’re much more sensitized—not just about golf. Not everybody plays golf.
What other steps are needed?
There’s a lot more for us to do. I look at it particularly around the topic of women and people of color in general. We want them on the boards, we want them in the C-suite, we want to see more representation at the top and at the top levels of the company. Why? Because their voices need to be heard.
First of all, it starts at the top. You’ve got to have a culture that says this is important. Our CEO is at every single one of our meetings as it relates to the Global Diversity & Inclusion Council. If it’s not important to our board, if it’s not important to our CEO, then it’s not really going to be important to everybody else. That, to me, is immediate step one. If you don’t have step one, it’s not gonna happen.
Then measurement is important. So we look at: where is diversity in our company? Where are the women? Where are the people of color? Do we have the opportunity to pull them through and promote them over time?
Is there a specific change at Bank of America that made a big difference in the workplace?
I think having courageous conversations has changed our environment. Even senior leaders can talk about their own experiences, like what it was like growing up as a Vietnam refugee or listening to teammates who have experienced being, unfortunately, in a violent relationship. Having an environment where we’re bringing those conversations to our workplace is, I think, some of the most important work we’re doing as a company. I think that it allows folks to be caring of their teammates. It allows folks to learn in a safe way.
And we’ve talked about topics where not everybody agrees. It’s just an opportunity for us to say, we know this is on your mind, this is important. And we’re going to have this conversation. So that’s probably some of the most gratifying work that we’ve done at our company.
We’re a very large company, we’re in a lot of different locations, but those types of topics, they’re human topics, and it brings you tighter together.
Why is this diversity and inclusion work important to you?
As a woman in a male, and traditionally a male-dominated, industry who has been in the industry for so long, I have a personal responsibility to ensure that when I go home, there’s a long line of women and diverse leaders who are prepared to take on my job and everybody else’s job.
Your career naturally starts with you focused on you and you only, and over time it becomes about everybody else. For me, there’s nothing more joyful than to be part of anybody’s journey, and their work journey is a big part of their life. If they got to the job they always wanted, or they made the most money that they’ve ever made in their career, or they got a promotion, I’m going to remember those things more than the revenue and the sales and all of the financials.