a person in a suit and tie smiling in an office
Mike Sebring, Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Citizens.
| Courtesy of Citizens

It’s not easy to reinvent yourself right after getting laid off. But that’s exactly what longtime banking sales executive Mike Sebring did, pursuing a new career path working in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“I realized I didn’t have the required experience, but my proven track record of being an inclusive leader while knowing the business and how to generate revenue was my differentiator in getting my first DEI role,” Sebring says. “I had a lot to learn to get up to speed, but now I get to do what I love each day.”

His latest role is Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Citizens, where he’s already made strides on several strategic initiatives.

Here, he talks about how he’s successfully navigated changes in his career, the biggest misconception people have about working in banking, and his advice for anyone who wants to pursue a career in DEI.

What has helped you make pivots in your career?

Throughout my career path, I have had some incredible coaches and advocates who have encouraged me to take on new roles when I felt I wasn’t qualified. Whether it was in retail banking, wealth management, or DEI, I always fell back on my soft skills by being an inclusive leader, always aiming to perform at my best, and placing diverse people around me who were smarter and passionate at what they did.

What was it about Citizens that made you want to work there?

At first glance, their marketing images and communications gave me a sense of belonging—I could see myself fitting in. I was also looking to work at a U.S.-based bank that was growing and had a great reputation. Citizens has a great legacy and success story. The interview process was easy, the people were kind, and you could feel the sense of collaboration in their interactions. Once I was able to spend time speaking with their senior leaders, I instantly knew this was the place for me, and now almost two years into my role it feels like home.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about what it’s like to work in the banking industry?

I’d say the biggest misconception is you must work in a retail branch. The evolution of banking, technology, innovation, and future thinking is the path forward. Banking now offers roles that didn’t exist just a few years ago. Agile thinkers, engineers, and designers make up many of our growth areas. Everything is under the lens of change management and transformation to adapt to the changing landscape of how customers want to do their banking and the intersectionality of fintech firms. Banking offers just about any type of sub-industry you can think of: procurement, marketing, communications, HR, corporate affairs, government relations, and more.

What are you responsible for as the Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion?

As my boss reminds me, in this job I “own nothing but influence everything.” These past few years have proven to be an exciting and challenging time to strategically focus on three key levers: culture, talent, and market. My team oversees our DEI learning journeys for colleagues and a new diversity scorecard to measure key metrics such as senior leadership demographics, diverse hiring slates, and supplier diversity. DEI really does touch every part of the business in some manner so trying not to boil the ocean is key. Our six grassroots Business Resource Groups (BRGs) also allow our colleagues to connect with others like them and provide valuable sentiment on our DEI progress.

In the past year, due to external events around social justice, we have also increased our focus and investment on access to capital, affordable housing, small-business grants, and donations to nonprofits that support Black and brown communities.

Are there any special projects you can tell us about?

This has been a big “test and learn” year for several exciting projects. I mentioned the diversity scorecard, but we also rolled out an exciting course called Ignite Inclusion, which is required for all colleagues. This course sets the stage to build three important capabilities: valuing uniqueness (others different than you), building belonging (where all people feel an attachment to the company/colleagues), and deciding fairly (building processes that provide equity for important decisions such as hiring or performance reviews). We are also building out a change management process, which will drive DEI deeper into our existing procedures to increase fairness and equity throughout the company.

What are a few of your short- and long-term goals for how Citizens approaches DEI?

In the short term, we want to continue building a sense of belonging and psychological safety among our colleagues, which our customers will then also feel through the services we provide. In the past 18 months, the war for talent—particularly women and other underrepresented groups—has increased substantially. Every company has expanded their pools of talent through remote work and other attractive offers. This has made it even more important for us to leverage our existing colleague base as a source of referrals because they can share that sense of belonging and culture.

Longer term, we will need to increase accountability around DEI by embedding it into our goal-setting process and potentially our recognition and bonus structure to reward those managers who see the value DEI brings to their business performance. I would also add that our social equity efforts will continue to be a focus by integrating our $10 million investment in 2020 into our business as usual processes.

What have you accomplished in your role since joining the bank in 2020?

A lot—and with the help of many hands. I have never worked for a bank where there were so many champions at all levels who have made DEI an integrated part of their function. We have literally expanded every strategic area by bringing in specialized diversity roles in recruiting, communications, wealth segments, and suppliers. We have been able to not only accelerate, but also amplify our environmental, social, and corporate governance efforts, which include being more transparent in our annual reporting on our progress so far.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career in DEI?

This is an incredibly rewarding profession—one that takes the skills of people management, influence, strategic thinking, and role modeling. This is not the type of work you can do in a silo. The thing I love the most about this type of work is the external community of DEI practitioners who are all very willing to help each other. The saying “a rising tide lifts all boats” is very true, whether it’s in banking or across other industries.

If you’re considering a job in DEI and have little to no experience, take inventory of your transferable skills, communication style, performance, drive, and leadership skills, and start creating examples of where past roles fit the mold of working in this space. Data and analytical skills are also extremely important to understand the “why” behind the numbers to tell the story.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Advocate for others and build your network. You never know when life creates a path change for you so it’s always good to have others to help you find a new one. Who knows? That true path may find you like it did for me.

Updated 12/22/2021