Women in Business: Q&A with Geri Thomas, Chief Diversity Officer and Georgia State President, Bank of America

Geri Thomas is Chief Diversity Officer and Georgia State President for Bank of America. She serves as the chief strategist and leader for diversity and inclusion globally and serves on the bank's Global Diversity & Inclusion Council. As Georgia State President, Thomas is responsible for driving business integration opportunities across Georgia to grow market share and deliver the full power of Bank of America to individuals, companies and institutional investors. She also oversees the company's corporate social responsibility strategy locally, including philanthropic grants, community development lending and investing and volunteerism activities.

Thomas joined Bank of America in 1970 in Consumer banking support. Progressing through a number of Human Resources leadership roles, she became global diversity and inclusion executive in 2002, and was named the Georgia State President in 2009.

She is a member of the Consortium of Chief Diversity Officers at Georgetown University, where the country's first diversity master's program resides. She is currently a member of the Board of Councilors of the Carter Center, the Buckhead Coalition, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, the Georgia State University Foundation, Leadership Atlanta and the Executive Leadership Council. In addition, Thomas is a member of the executive committee for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and serves as a trustee of the Woodruff Arts Center.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have had the opportunity to do so much professionally, and I have an incredible family that has supported me throughout out my career. I am very blessed.

How did your previous employment experience aided your position at Bank of America?
I came to Citizens and Southern Bank (which was later acquired by Bank of America) after my freshman year in college for a summer job and I never left. I continued to work throughout college (Georgia State University).

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think the word "balance" creates an unrealistic expectation. The goal is on creating a balance for your work and family life that works for you. My children are grown and have their own families now, and over the past few years I had taken on the role as caregiver for my mother and husband of 43 years. Sadly, I lost both of them last year. As I focused on the health challenges of my family, I never felt conflicted about my professional duties and my family. I knew I had complete support from everyone at the bank and that helped me to gain absolute clarity on what's really important in life.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Bank of America?
For me, the highlights have been the challenges. Throughout my career with the bank (43 years), we have gone through multiple acquisitions which also provided the challenges. Only once was I with the acquired company (Citizens & Southern Bank) and of course it's different. The challenges around being acquired were the cultural differences and uncertainty about my role and value I had brought to the company. The highlights as the acquiring bank was the ability to grow and be able to provide more services and products to our customers and benefits to our employees while integrating the best of both cultures.

What advice can you offer women seeking to start their own business?
My advice would be to have a plan and adequate capital to get you through start up. Have the resilience to hang in there and trust your capabilities.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Like many women, I had two roles, as a mother and an employee, so I would say it was balancing both roles and trying to give 100% to both - some days were better than others. My children are grown now; but throughout my career, I was always clear with my managers and those that worked for me family must come first.

How is Bank of America a diverse employer, and through your recognition by the National Council for Research on Women, how will you build upon the company's successes?
We are committed to having a workforce that is a reflection of our customers, clients and communities around the world. We work hard - both internally and externally - to attract, retain and promote diverse talent. We have made significant progress but there is always more we can do. I am thrilled to be recognized by the National Council for Research on Women; this is a reflection of the commitment our company has - starting with Brian Moynihan our CEO - to creating a diverse environment where all of our employees feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The mentors I had early in my career were more like my coaches. There was not an abundance of people who looked like me so I had to establish relationships that were reciprocal, where I could also provide them insights they did not have. They told me to make sure I always had people I could go to who would be "sources of truth" for me. Personally, I grew up in a culture where community leadership was an expectation and requirement, and that commitment has served me well personally and professionally in all of my roles.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Dr. Maya Angelou - she is an academic and so creative, insightful and not afraid to give her point of view. Oprah because she has had such a huge impact on people around the world. I also greatly admire Carla Harris, a Vice Chairman at Morgan Stanley I have the honor of serving with on the Executive Leadership Council. She does as much for her community as she does for Morgan Stanley and that's always an inspiration.

What do you hope to achieve during your time at Bank of America?
I would like to see us get further than where we are today on our diversity & inclusion journey. That means continuing to provide opportunities for our diverse talent through developing existing bench players while simultaneously, aggressively, recruiting new talent. If we do that right, diversity and inclusion will be totally integrated into the fabric of our organization and then we will have succeeded.