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Executive Q&A DeAnne Steele, U.S. Trust, Bank of America

DeAnne Steele is managing director and investment executive at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management, where she leads a team of investment and wealth strategy professionals for the West and Central South divisions.

Q: Tell us a bit about your banking career and your current role with U.S. Trust.

A: I found my passion in investment management and went on to get my graduate degree at UCLA Anderson School, and became a portfolio manager. Then, I moved to New York, and lived there for about seven years and co-managed a mutual fund. My whole career I’ve worked with families and foundations in managing their wealth. When I had my son, I moved back to California and I’ve been with U.S. Trust for 10 years now. I started out managing the San Diego office and working with clients in San Diego and over time my territory of management responsibility expanded to Orange County and Arizona, then eventually to the West Coast (and) then eventually to Texas. Now I lead the Investment Management Group and Wealth Management Group for the western United States. Those individuals work with our clients in managing and structuring their wealth and investments. … I was lucky enough to be able to stay in San Diego as my territory expanded.

Q: How has your experience within the financial services industry shaped your interest in the topic of diversity and inclusion?

A: I’ve been very lucky to be at a firm like Bank of America where I could grow my career and be — well, I think I’m a good mom, (laughs) and I think my 12-year-old would agree. Being able to stay in San Diego is a perfect example of that, of being able to expand my responsibilities and still be able to focus on family and community. I feel like I’m at a firm that’s very supportive of women and of building careers and having flexibility, and I’ve reached a point in my career where I realized that now it was time to use my platform that I’ve developed to help others. … I really want to change the investment management industry overall because women in the investment management industry in particular are still underrepresented. If you look at the CFA Society, only 18 percent of chartered financial analyst holders are women, so I’ve been working with them to help improve that.

Q: Why is it important to maximize the development of a diverse work environment, and what strategies have you used to do so with your own team?

A: Being a manager I want to make sure I’m bringing out the best parts of diversity within my team, and I view that as cognitive diversity. The point of having a diverse team around you is to have diverse ideas and thoughts based on different people’s backgrounds, ages, education levels, experiences. … So what I try to do on a daily basis is bring that out. That’s been part of my focus, talking about how you create that safe environment in which people feel free to express their ideas, because that’s where you get good growth ideas and also figure out where the hurdles or landmines could be that could get in the way of your growth.

Q: What are the challenges of building such an environment?

Many companies are doing a good job of attracting diverse talent and hiring diverse talent, but we can all do a better job of retaining the diverse talent. So the mother who was contemplating coming back from maternity leave: How do you get her to come back? Or, retaining a millennial who wants to have a voice and wants to have impact and wants to be part of the team. I think this concept of cognitive diversity helps accomplish that. It helps you have a diverse team. When you lose somebody, you’ve invested time and energy and resources in that person. You hired them because you value what they’re bringing to the table, so if they leave you’ve lost that investment, and then you have to start with a new person.

Q: Like other traditional industries, financial services firms have had some trouble retaining millennial workers. What strategies have you employed to improve retention?

A: My son is 12, so I see how he works in the classroom, and the environment is very team based, they’re always working on projects, there’s emphasis on everyone expressing themselves and thinking out loud and coming up with ideas and exploring risks … That’s not new; it’s been happening for a number of years. That was not the environment when I was in elementary school or middle school, but I believe that’s the environment millennials have come from. There is where I think as managers we need to create that environment where you have that atmosphere of thinking out loud and exploring ideas together and having a voice. Retaining millennials is something many companies are focused on because there is a higher turnover rate … My attempt to change that is to give them a greater voice.

Q: Tell us a bit more about your belief in the importance of cognitive diversity.

A: I’ve been reading this book by Scott E. Page, and one of the things he talked about was breaking the Nazi code (system). You’d think you’d want linguists, but they brought together people who were mathematicians and philosophers and historians — a very diverse group, and they cracked the code. Another way to think of it is as a toolbox. You’re not going to build a house with just a hammer. This is our cognitive toolbox. In order to pull that out, though, you have to have time to do it. We’re in this world of Twitter and everyone wanting a quick response, but in order to pull out diverse thought you have to have the time. So if I throw out a problem — and usually, I have my own solution — I don’t throw out the solution. And when someone says something to me that I just totally don’t get, or even disagree with, I say to them: ‘Tell me more, where are you coming from, play this out for me.’ What I find is that they’re hitting on things that are beyond my comprehension, usually, which is the power and where the magic and innovation happens with idea generation. But if you don’t ask that question, you’re never going to get to that. What happens after that is they feel more comfortable thinking out loud, and then everyone around them does it, and we end up with ideas that no one person came up with but the group did, and the solution is better than anything we could have come up with alone.

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