ERIEBANK Regional President: Journey to Leadership


ERIEBANK Regional President, Wes Gillespie, shared his journey to leadership with Crain's Cleveland Business magazine. This is a reprint of that story.

My journey really began as a young kid born in the rough streets of Harlem, N.Y.
We were poor, but everyone I knew was in the same economic status. Therefore, we didn't feel poor. Looking back now, I admire how my dad made ends meet on a chef's salary. My mother passed away at a very young age. At 51, my dad was left to raise 2-year-old twin boys. I am extremely thankful for my aunt, who made a sacrifice and moved from Philadelphia to New York to help my dad raise my twin brother, Presley, and me. I say that because it's important to know where it started for me.
It was a tough environment, but I'm not complaining, because none of us get to choose where we start in life, but the choices we make along the way influence where we end up. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't change a thing. My early life as a young boy had an incredible impact on my personal, and later professional, journey, and ultimately who I have become.
My brother and I were a little rare in our aspirations, because even at a young age in Harlem, I knew I wanted to be a banker. The reason was not profound or even thoughtful for that matter. I just admired the tall bank buildings, and banking looked like a great job — not to mention the people dressed well. It was that simple. I didn't even know anyone in the banking community at that time, or where I would ever begin.
As teenagers, we moved out of Harlem to a small town called Farrell, Pa., which was very much a culture shock for us. That said, we loved the green grass and finally having our own house, and especially getting out of the stress associated with the "concrete jungle." It turned out to be a prophetic decision on my dad's part, because moving helped us craft a new perspective in many ways.
Over my 28-year career, I have seen many starts and stops relative to African-American executives moving into C-suite roles. Some challenges stem from having too few Black executives being groomed for key positions, too many corporations hunting for the same talent in the same places, and the same patterns of exclusion and discrimination that are still keeping Black senior managers from reaching the top rungs of the ladder.
As a matter of fact, and based on many statistics, we are losing ground, as the ranks of those very few occupying these top positions appear to be thinning. A USA Today analysis shows that while corporations and boardrooms have added African Americans over the decades, the executive suite has not. If we are honest, there is irrefutable evidence that systemic racism, and the legacy of inequality, has had a tremendous impact on opportunity. Unfortunately, we are seeing increasing evidence of this reality. We should all feel a collective responsibility to change that. If not, we are part of the problem.
There are many things that corporate America's senior leaders must do to improve diversity at executive levels. I don't claim to be the expert, but I have indeed witnessed 28 years of diversity efforts that have started and stopped. What is very clear to me, and obvious to most, is diversity and inclusion must be a priority, and must be measured with accountability from the top of a corporation.
Diversity and inclusion must be treated with the same importance as business objectives. That will mean something different for most industries, and the strategies will be as diverse as the outcomes. We are very fortunate in Northeast Ohio to have a great variety of educated and brilliant organizations that are leading the way in how we make sustainable progress, and that gives me a great deal of hope for the future.
What continues to stand out to me personally is to focus on what is within my control to make a difference. I knew as a young teenager that I wanted to be a banker, never thinking I would actually be given an opportunity to become a regional president for a publicly traded bank. I honestly didn't think that far into the future. What I did know, however, is that I would study, observe, work hard and prepare for the opportunity when it surfaced.
I learned that I had to embrace being a problem solver and, in fact, lean into problems, not avoid them. I also realized that I had to become a student of leadership, by first being able to successfully lead myself. That meant a strong work ethic, asking for feedback, specifically in blind spots, and being proactive about growing and learning.
I've been fortunate enough along my journey and have been given opportunities to grow and take on challenges with increased responsibilities. I also realized that I didn't have to give up my uniqueness, cultural identity or perspective in order to make a valuable contribution. I have always felt as an African American in corporate America that I've needed to be a part of the mainstream, but have never felt that I've needed to assimilate or compromise who I am.
I am very much aware, and am a realist about our environment, of the lack of diversity and the issues confronting all of us. Yet I do choose to see hope in the essence of our local community of Northeast Ohio, and believe we can do better. My optimism is grounded in my unique experiences and the God-given ability to overcome poor odds, while demanding real change to break down barriers.
I have been fortunate to work for companies that, while not perfect, have similar values to my own, which created opportunities for me. I do believe we've lost ground, but am very hopeful that we are at an inflection point in Northeast Ohio for real, sustainable and measurable change. I realize I am standing on the shoulders of those that came before me, and now I need to be the shoulder for someone else to stand on.

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