By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Lee A. Merkle-Raymond, Strategic Solutions Executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, is enthusiastic about the career opportunities within the banking industry. “Banking is core to the local economy, the national economy, the global economy,” she said. “Banking is a great opportunity for career growth – and a firm like Bank of America Merrill Lynch has a wealth of job types and roles. If you have the drive and can deliver results, you can have just about any type of career you’d like in a large global bank.”
She explained that the ability to help her clients achieve their strategic objectives – like raising capital, making acquisitions, or achieving other goals – is a point of pride for her. “Often the solutions that are most complex are the toughest to get through. But the greater the challenge, the greater your feeling of accomplishment.”
Growing with the Bank
Merkle-Raymond said the growth of her own career has coincided with that of the bank. “I’ve benefited from the increasing breadth and scope of the company as my career progressed,” she explained.
She began her career in 1989, and embarked on a fairly traditional lending and corporate banking path. “I started at the bank in Boston as a credit analyst and then a loan officer,” she began. “Then I became a relationship manager in corporate banking for many years, with the focus on companies within the energy and natural resources sector and the technology sector.”
She explained, “After a few years within energy resources, I was offered the opportunity to move to Silicon Valley in the early ‘90s. My partner and I left Boston for Palo Alto, and I joined Bank of America as a result of banking acquisitions.”
After 15 years in corporate banking, Merkle-Raymond decided she wanted to try something new. “I wanted a position overseas, given the expansion of the global economy and the importance of an international perspective. Through internal networking I learned that the best way to accomplish that goal was to go as a manager, not a direct client coverage banker,” she said. After organizational changes created an opportunity, she was named to a position managing the middle market credit and treasury team in the Bay Area.
She emphasized the value of taking a sidestep every now and then. “If you want to progress, you often have to leave your organization to build new skills, broaden yourself and your responsibilities.”
After several years as a manager, she continued, “I was offered an opportunity to get back into corporate banking as a manager of corporate debt products in Sydney, Australia. My role was to help integrate Merrill Lynch’s Investment Banking team into Bank of America’s credit culture and risk framework.”
It seemed like a great opportunity, so Merkle-Raymond, her partner, and their two daughters moved to Australia for 18 months. She continued, “Now back in the US, I have a newly created role in treasury solutions as a strategic solutions executive for Healthcare, Government, and Non-Profit Institutions.”
Currently, she said, her team is working on very large scale projects for federal and state governments and large universities, streamlining payment and collections processes from paper to electronic ones. “I like to say we’re unblocking bottlenecks,” she explained. “We’re making things work more smoothly for millions of people across the country.”
“What I wish I had known when I was younger is that every role requires collaboration – even if you’re an individual contributor,” Merkle-Raymond said.
“Every individual contributor is part of a team – no matter how your job is defined, and no matter how strong your individual contribution, you can only be effective with the help and buy-in of others. Over time, I have also realized that everyone is in sales – whether it’s your opinion or your analysis, you do have to get others to acknowledge your perspective in order to be effective,” she explained.
Merkle-Raymond believes that women in banking have come a long way in the past decades. “Women today are benefiting from the work of women 15 to 20 years ahead of us. We owe the generation ahead of us a huge debt of gratitude for demonstrating that women can perform roles equally, or even better, than male colleagues, and can remain dedicated throughout long careers. Our entire society has accepted the idea of women working, even the necessity of women working,” she said.
“And the corresponding acceptance of men not necessarily being the primary breadwinner is a social shift that has made it possible for women to gain more responsible positions across many industries, and in banking specifically. I think banking is a very favorable environment for women.”
But there are challenges, she continued. “Across businesses in general, barriers are still there at the most senior levels and on boards. It will continue to take time for women to gain experience and for male board members to view women board members as normal and valuable.”
Lesbians in Banking
“Lesbians in banking have the same challenges as in any other industry,” Merkle-Raymond said. “The issue is finding an environment where a person can be comfortable being out at work and be most effective for the organization.”
She continued, “I do believe being out in a client-facing position requires a different level of comfort than being out to your colleagues. There is always a fear of losing revenue for your company. ”
Merkle-Raymond suggested that level of comfort will come from a broader acceptance of gays and lesbians by society at large. For example, she explained, more television shows with LGBT characters. “Many television shows now have a central character who is gay or lesbian. That didn’t exist even five years ago. I think the different level of acceptance on a macro level is reflected by what’s accepted at work.”
She continued, “At Bank of America, our core values include diversity and inclusion. The reality is what you do, how you do it, and what you deliver is really what people are focused on.”
In fact, in the early 1990’s she was a founder and developer of the bank’s gay and lesbian health benefits program. “We had an early employee resource group, got together a task force and did all of the research on what benefits the few other companies offered , how they were funded, the tax implications , and the retention benefits. Then working through the diversity office and HR, we had the chance to present these findings to the board at the time,” she recalled.
She continued, “We had significant opportunity to interact with senior management in a way that was positive and professional, outside our regular business, and it gave executives exposure to our skills and capabilities in a way that was not possible if all we did was our day job.”
Advice for Women in the Industry
Merkle-Raymond believes the financial sector can offer great opportunities for women. “Banking is at the forefront of accepting women and that makes it a very desirable career choice.”
She said she was grateful to senior women for their contributions to her own career. “By and large more senior women are focused on mentoring more junior women. It’s a huge help for women throughout banking and for furthering the goal of having more senior women over time.”
And, she continued, the managers at Bank of America are actively working to promote diversity within the company. “Management is focused on top talent, and tracks the contributions and growth potential of top producing individuals. And in those discussions a broader range of managers gets familiar with individuals outside their own groups.”
This talent planning process helps raise the profile of junior talent within the bank, especially women, she explained. “Women at the junior level, by and large, are more reticent to highlight their accomplishments. This process raises awareness of more junior women in ways they might not do on their own. It’s very helpful.”
She added that she enjoys mentoring young people. “The development of junior associates into more experienced professionals is always very gratifying.”
In Her Personal Time
Merkle-Raymond has two daughters, aged eleven and fourteen, with her partner a former banker. “We met on day one of the new loan officer training program in Boston. My start date and that anniversary are the same,” she said with a chuckle.
She said she was grateful to have had the opportunity to move with her family to Australia for a year and a half. “It was great for the girls to see other parts of the world, to broaden their horizons.”“We want them to know that there isn’t just one correct way, that there are many right answers,” she explained.
The family is the subject of the children’s book Operation Marriage highlighting the impact of gay marriage legislation on children and their classmates.
Lee A. Merkle-Raymond will be a panelist at The Glass Hammer’s upcoming event “Managing Identities at Work Series: Being Out At Work” for LGBT women in finance, law, and technology. For more information, click here.