One-on-One with Lisa Riley of Wells Fargo

By Jessica Dyer
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Lisa Riley, Wells Fargo’s regional president for New Mexico and El Paso. Riley described how her career path unfolded in the years after she graduated from college.


Lisa Riley emerged from college with an accounting degree — and a strong desire to not work as an accountant.

A highly social creature, Riley feared it would keep her office-bound, that she would spend more time staring at spreadsheets than interacting with people. And getting to know others was something she enjoyed almost more than anything else. As a kid, she liked to schmooze with her parents’ friends. At her college job at a women’s clothing boutique, she had a reputation for spending too much time helping customers.

So, as she approached her University of Arizona graduation, she veered away from the obvious career path.

“I looked at the companies that were interviewing on campus and I thought, ‘Uhh, I don’t want to work at a ‘big eight’ accounting firm,’ because I didn’t want to sit in a room and look at papers all day. I knew that I would call clients and go ‘Hey, do you want to go to lunch and we can talk about your business and talk about the books?'” she says. “And I was afraid people would go ‘No, you’re just supposed to do the books.'”

Riley never found out for sure if she was right about accounting. She instead headed to a trainee program at Great Western Bank, the start of which has been a long and varied life in the banking industry that finds her today as Wells Fargo’s regional president for New Mexico and El Paso. Her territory includes more than 100 branches and about 1,200 employees, giving her plenty of places to visit and people to meet. Riley, in fact, conducts branch visits every Wednesday. Customers may even have encountered her working the floor in the lobby.

“It’s funny because I’ll go to a branch and, if they’re busy, I’ll stage direct, which is what we call facilitating in the lobby. (I’ll ask) ‘Has everybody been helped?'” she says. “Well, sometimes I’ll forget to put my purse down. So I’ll have my purse on my shoulder, because right away I’ll start to do it. And what I love is people just start to talk to you.”

Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.

A: I was the youngest, so I was probably a little quiet. I was very observant. I had learned from my older brothers and sisters. That taught me what worked and what didn’t for them. So I was a good kid. I didn’t get in trouble. I really learned from them and thought “If it didn’t work for them, I doubt it would work for me, as well.” I liked school. I had close friends. I look back and think, “That was a great, fun life.” It was pretty carefree.

Q: What were your interests?

A: I liked school. I’ve always been a very curious person. I like to learn. … I’m a type of person who likes to learn about people. I was always very curious about my teachers, just who were they, and why did they pick that subject and what was their passion. I could memorize anything, but it is really what do you learn from the experience, so I really wanted to know what makes people tick, even then. Even with my parents’ friends. Sometimes, kids were kind of separated. I wasn’t. I was always curious about what they were about and what did they talk about. Just a very curious person.

School-wise, I was a cheerleader. I had very close friends. I’m a big organized sports kind of person because I think you learn a lot about team dynamics whatever organized sport you’re involved in: what motivates people, how you have to work as a team, what your role is, not letting the team down. I just think there are so many more dynamics. It’s not about winning; it was about so many things I learned.

Q: You were born in Minnesota, right?

A: I was born in Minneapolis, and then my father’s family is from the Midwest and spent time in Illinois. My parents got divorced and my mother moved to Tucson because her parents lived there and (so did) her brother. So junior high, high school, college was all (spent) in Tucson. And Tucson is a great place to grow up. I always say Tucson reminds me of Albuquerque — very similar, one tight community, all about the university because they don’t have any pro sports. It’s big enough, but it’s also small enough, so it was a great place to grow up.

Q: How many banks have you worked for?

A: Great Western Bank got bought out by CitiBank, because they wanted a presence in Arizona. It was a good market, but then CitiBank got sold to Norwest and Norwest bought Wells Fargo. So I’ve been with the bank and all its predecessors for over 29 years. People are like, “That’s a really long time” but, if you know the history, (it’s been) all these different organizations and I’ve done a ton of different roles. Time’s flown actually.

Q: How do you think your innate curiosity and interest in people has served you in this field?

A: I think it served me well. … I worked in learning and development and human resources, and then I came out to be a district manager on the line side and a lot of people said “How can she do that? She’s never worked in the branches.” But if you think about what the business is, it’s a people business. It’s either the people you work with or your customers. People can say “What about the technical side?” I always say you can learn the technical piece. … I taught teller training (early in my career).

I’d never been a teller. You can teach the technical part of it, but what it’s really about is how do you interact with people, how do you get to know them, how do you understand what they need, and how do you get the most from people. It really is about a people business. It’s served me very well. One example I always share is if we had a customer issue and I had dealt with a customer (who had a problem), I never got defensive because I hadn’t grown up in the business, so I never had that perspective of “That’s the policy” or “That’s how we’ve always done it.” I always took the time to listen to the customer and sometimes I learned a lot.

Q: How much customer interaction do you have these days?

A: One of my favorite things to do is spend time in the branches. … We have district managers who our branch managers report to and my style is sometimes I’ll go with a district manager to our branches, but sometimes I like to just go by myself. Part of it is I like to have that interaction without somebody in between. Wednesday is my day of the week that I spend with our branches. I like to go and really see what’s happening. I like to spend time with customers; I like to ask for feedback. I learn the most when I’m in the branches.

Q: What has the fallout been here after Wells Fargo’s unauthorized account scandal?

A: We haven’t seen a lot of fallout here. That’s because I hope that we’ve always done it right. When you talk about my curiosity, it really is understanding what is the customer need, and then presenting options and absolutely with the customer’s consent. We also made so many changes about customer consent, about how we were managing things, monitoring things, looking at quality. We have a lot of metrics we’ve always managed closely. One of the things I’ve always said about New Mexico is I talk about 90 locations (within the state), we’re in really small towns.

We need the customers that we deal with; they’re family members, they’re neighbors. They are people you grew up with. It’s one of the things I love about going out. I’ll go out to Estancia. We’ll (usually) say when customers walk in “Welcome to Wells Fargo.” When you go to Estancia, they say “Hi, Jessica. How is your day? How did that (whatever) go?” And then they’ll introduce me to you and say, “Oh, this is Jessica, and she works over here and our kids go to school together.” … It’s about how do you know those customers and absolutely do what’s right for them.

Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

A: That I made a difference for someone. I think about the team and somebody will say, “I appreciated that you listened” or “I took your advice” or “I want to tell you about something.” For me, it’s always about how do you make a difference?

Q: What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned?

A: I think it’s about always being true to yourself. Sometimes people think they have to change their personality, and I may have done that early on in my career. If you have to deliver a tough message or you have to deliver a message you disagree with, I tell people don’t change your personality. If you’ve worked for someone a long time and you deliver a tough message, still be who you are because it’s that sincerity piece of it.

Q: What are your quirks?

A: (laughs) I have a whole list of them. I’m super-organized. Here’s a quirk: I don’t like legal paper. And I want things to be on one page, so (when) people will present things, what I tend to do is tear apart the presentation and find the one page that’s the most important page. People will say “If you’re going to present with Lisa or have something (for her), have one page.” What happens is I also want to take that one page and go share it with someone. I don’t want to then bring a deck of things. … (But) it can’t be legal. … Things are very organized, (but) how I organize things.

I try not to organize or touch other people’s stuff, but for me it’s very organized. I’m generally the first person there and the last person to leave, so I’m super hands-on. (Also) I want to be part of the team; I don’t like special treatment, so when people will say, “You’re at the head table” (when) we go to an event, I don’t want to be at the head table. I want to sit with the team. I never sit at the lead chair. Like in the conference room, if there’s an end chair, I never sit in the end chair. People know the position I have, why do I have to sit in the chair that says “I’m in charge?” I want to sit in the middle. From a logistical perspective, in the middle you’re much more involved. It’s the visual part of it (too) — I get to see the room more.

Q: What is one food you can’t live without?

A: That would be chocolate. I like just chocolate. Like if you get a chocolate cake, I don’t like raspberries (in it).

Q: Do you have any hidden talents?

A: I would say personally, family-wise I’m always kind of the mediator. … I listen to both sides. I always see the other person’s perspective. When people are upset, they generally call me. I don’t get flustered. I don’t get rattled. I don’t get the team rattled, I don’t get worked up about stuff. I’m pretty even-keeled.

Q: What was your last splurge?

A: I’ve always been a purse person. I’m not a shoe person because I had foot surgery, so probably a new purse. I think I have to admit I actually got one when I was in Italy (recently) because it was cheaper. I had done my research and found it’s cheaper if you actually buy it there. (laughs)

Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?

A: Fun, passionate, dedicated.

Born Lisa Jean Gaughran on May 29, 1962, in Minneapolis, Minn.; bachelor’s degree in business from University of Arizona; married to Ken Riley since 1988; One dog, Newman, that she describes as “a very handsome Weimaraner.”
Wells Fargo’s regional president for New Mexico and El Paso for the past seven years; has been with the bank or its predecessors for 29 years in customer service and support positions; board member for Albuquerque Community Foundation, Economic Forum, Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Kirtland Partnership Committee.
–Riley met her husband, Ken, at work when they were among seven management trainees. “You never know the gift life brings,” she says.
–After about 20 different banking positions across two states, Riley has a list of lifelong friends. She continues to maintain those relationships — but without the benefit of a Facebook account. “Sometimes on Facebook … you’re experiencing (the relationship) at your computer,” she says. “I want to experience it with the person.”
–Riley has a well-known taste for Diet Coke, choosing it over coffee as a caffeine vehicle. “I start with water,” she says while nursing a bottle of straight H20 during a recent 7:30 a.m. interview, “but I will be into Diet Coke (soon).”

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