Recently, I was contacted by a friend who was unhappy about having been offered the position of Community Reinvestment Act officer at her bank.

I had just completed three years as the CRA officer for a multistate bank holding company headquartered in Cincinnati. The experience was the most enjoyable and rewarding of my professional career (which also includes 10 years in the finance division at the Procter & Gamble Co. and banking assignments in cash management and demand deposit services).

Therefore, I was surprised by her disappointment, and asked for an explanation.

In a Rut

She explained that in her city the CRA officers for all of the major banks were African-American.

In addition, some of those persons had held those positions for more than three years, and none of them had experienced any upward mobility. From all appearances, they were in a rut.

In short, she believed that CRA was the place where African-American bankers went to die.

She had spent five years in retail banking and received high praise for her performance. Although the CRA officer position was indeed a promotion for her, she felt that her appointment was the bank's way of saying:

* "You are no longer being considered for advancement in the retail division."

* "Your race is a more important factor than your performance."

Contrasting Situation

Recognizing that your own perception can be your reality, I had to compare her perception to my own, which was quite different.

For starters, I replaced a white male when I assumed the CRA officer's position, and I was replaced by a white male when I resigned.

A quick review of the other CRA officers for the major banks in Cincinnati yielded: two white males, two black females, and one black male.

All are very bright individuals, some with considerable experience in lending. One is an attorney. I assume they will have many opportunities within their banks when their current assignment have been completed.

Managing Careers

However, the conversation with my friend only confirmed for me something that I had believed for quite some time. Financial institutions in general don't do a very good job of career pathing for their employees or succession planning to maintain strength in their key positions.

This becomes an even greater issue for minority employees, who may not have access to the career decision makers in the normal course of business, and usually don't have such access in social settings.

Their ability to influence their career paths may be limited. An assignment to a position such as CRA, which is considered by many banks to be insignificant, only exaggerates the situation.

Testing the Offer

My advice to my friend was to take the CRA officer position once she obtained:

* Some advice as to the anticipated length of her assignment.

* Clear definition as to what she was expected to accomplish in the position and how her performance would be measured.

* Some indication as to what would be a logical next assignment for her.

* An explanation as to what specific qualities her management felt she brought to the position, other than her race.

* The approval to spend some time in different divisions of the bank, to gain greater insight about their functions and how her skills might match.

In short, I advised my friend to "manage her boss," just in case her boss had not planned to manage her.

My advice to financial institutions is that they make managing their employees a higher priority. It is a very important aspect of your business, and should be second in priority only to providing good customer service.

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