Lee B. Stephens III, executive vice president leading BNY Mellon’s strategic business development efforts with US public sector clients, recently spoke to a group of 90 students and alumni about his career journey as part of the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s (BMCC) Leadership Breakfast Series. We sat down with Lee following the event to learn more about his career journey, the importance of passion and what he’s learned about leadership.
Let’s start with your career path. How did you end up in finance? Did you always know that’s what you wanted to do?
I was actually pre-med at Morehouse College in Atlanta. I was three and a half years into college – one semester to go – and I realized that I didn’t want to do medicine. The day I realized that, I walked across campus to the business side and changed my major. I graduated with a major in accounting and a minor in finance. I did a summer internship with a bank in New York City and fell in love with finance and New York.
I didn’t change my major because I couldn’t cut it. I changed my major because I didn’t like it. I’m motivated by my passion – it’s what gets me out of bed every morning. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, make a change because you’re going to be doing it for the rest of your life.
Great advice. Is there a piece of advice that you were given early in your career that has stayed with you?
My dad used to say to me, “Son, you have to have a plan.” I’ve always tried to stay true to my dad’s advice. If you don’t have a plan, you don’t have a guidepost.
But I’ve also wrestled with his advice. The thing I didn’t know when I was starting my career is that plans change. You have to adapt. Your ability to be flexible, while still keeping your mind’s eye on your goal is the key to success.
I’ve had the opportunity to hold a number of start-up and fix-it roles that have required me to make changes every few years. I’ve lived in several cities in the US and I even moved to Hong Kong for three years. The vision for the future may not always be clear, but I learned to trust in what may look like detours at the time, as long as they kept me on a general path toward my goal.
You’ve held a number of leadership roles at BNY Mellon over the past 25 years. What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership is about service. It’s not just serving your goal – it’s about your employer, manager, shareholders and clients. You have to realize that you can never be successful on your own. The people on your team bring different orientations, cultural mindsets and skillsets. At BNY Mellon, we want diverse teams and people who bring their authentic selves to the company. As a leader, you need to know what motivates your team – their passions and strengths – so you can get the most from them.
The BMCC students had some great questions for you today. What advice do you have for them and other students?
It was an impressive group of young men and women with some tough questions. My advice for them and others is to find what you’re passionate about and pursue it. Seek every opportunity you can to work in groups and build your EQ. Know that a lot of factors go into success and you will be confronted with detours and distractions. Your career will be an evolution, so you won’t be what you are today, tomorrow. You’re the future of the industry, so seize the opportunities that are in front of you while you’re still in college to learn, take on leadership roles and get involved in your community.