The Breakthrough Artist

By Kerry O’Leary

Rosilyn Houston was a sophomore at California State University, Northridge—determined to become an elementary school teacher—when she took a job as a teller for a local bank. “It was the best job I ever had. And it’s the truth,” says Houston who, at age 19, began the part-time position that would set her on an unexpected career path.

“I was working in this paying-the-bills kind of job, so to speak, and I noticed how connected my role was to real needs of real people,” says Houston, describing her earliest glimpse into banking as the customer’s first impression of the greater Los Angeles area bank branch. “There were a lot of ‘real life’ moments.” She lists a few: customers whose children were getting married, or who were preparing for grandchildren, even burying a loved one—or simply walking into the lobby to quickly ask her the current rate on a CD or a money market account. “But they weren’t just asking about rates,” Houston reflects. ”They were looking for a way to build wealth and to increase their income. I felt very accountable and responsible at a young age.”

An early vision

That was nearly three decades ago, near the Southern California town where she was raised as the youngest of seven siblings. With frontline experience under her belt, Houston embarked on her post-college career in banking, and earned a promotion to branch manager. Over the course of a decade, she went on to undertake, and excel at, several managerial roles—eventually overseeing more than a dozen branches for BBVA’s U.S. retail bank, where she has been for the last 15 years and today serves as chief talent and culture executive. The first African American in the bank’s C-suite and one of the highest-ranking women, her professional milestones—starting with that “real life” purpose she discovered on the frontline—have always been about breakthroughs.

The Spanish-based global banking giant BBVA acquired multiple U.S. banks starting in 2004 and culminating with the purchase of Birmingham, Ala.-based Compass Bank in 2007, after which it became known as BBVA Compass in the U.S. In 2009, it also purchased the troubled Texas-based Guaranty Bank in an FDIC-assisted transaction. The combined company faced the challenge of blending multiple distinct brands into a single BBVA fold. At the time of the Guaranty purchase, Houston was in charge of BBVA Compass’ far north Texas retail market. The bank offered her an opportunity to return to her home state of California and lead the region’s conversion into BBVA Compass. That role would transform both the bank and her career.

The timing was intimidating. “This was 2009 when I got that glorious opportunity,” she laughs, calling it “glorious” with just a hint of sarcasm. “I thought, ‘This is my first big gig, and California is bankrupt with the number-one housing crisis bust and the highest unemployment in the nation.’ We could only go up from here.”

And BBVA did, in fact, break through a particularly stormy banking climate. Houston’s region rose to number one in brand satisfaction institution-wide and saw the highest customer retention of all the markets in the bank’s seven-state footprint. “I guess I somehow made that look easy,” she says. Two years later, she carried that success to a new role in Birmingham, Ala., leading retail operations for the Alabama and Florida region. She would ultimately make her way back to Birmingham—where she now lives with husband, Ron, and youngest son—but not before heading to North Texas to lead retail banking, wealth management and commercial banking as a combined market.

“I had six market CEOs reporting to me,” she says, “and there was a lot of responsibility to shift mindsets and build a cohesive structure.” That role began her executive career, another breakthrough that guides BBVA’s cultural transformation in the U.S. toward a stronger commitment to cultivating a diverse, inclusive work environment. This was a chance for Houston to bring her “real life” customer philosophy internally to help shift the employee culture.

Engagement, inclusion and opportunity

“When I took the job in July 2015 it was a traditional chief human resources officer role,” says Houston about the role that evolved into her current position as BBVA’s chief talent and culture executive for the U.S. Now charged with employee engagement, she naturally turned to her “people” experiences to drive an inclusive, accountable environment at the bank.

“We begin with the why,” says Houston when explaining what BBVA calls a progression strategy, a work-in-progress since early 2013. It’s a framework for developing and ensuring workplace diversity and inclusion, and it starts with employee awareness and education, often during onboarding. “Everyone has to have tools to understand first why inclusion is so important to the organization, and then how each of their roles are responsible for making sure the workplace is a place where everyone feels welcome.”

“And it has to come from the top of the house as well,” she says, mentioning the support and involvement of BBVA’s U.S. Country Manager Javier Rodriguez Soler on diversity and inclusion efforts. The bank has a volunteer council guiding the effort.

Houston has also helped put in place such mechanisms as a “bureaucracy campaign” to encourage employee thinking around how to reduce bureaucracy in the workplace, a mentor program specifically for women, and Ignite, an employee-driven feedback tool that continuously monitors engagement and encourages peer exchange.

“It goes back to our core values, and we have to communicate those values to our employees and actually create opportunities for them to walk our values out.” The values illustrate the bank’s mission: Customers Come First, Think Big and Work as a Team. And they are the starting block for measuring—and benefiting from—employee engagement.

BBVA walks the talk just as Houston does—having recently been named a 2019 Best Place to Work by the Human Rights Campaign and to DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity 2019. “[Diversity and inclusion] is pretty much second nature for us,” she says, mentioning that success in this space goes beyond the bank’s global status with branches in 31 countries. “We wanted to be an organization that truly believed inclusivity is a business imperative. And that when we have a diverse talent and skill set of gender, ethnicity, sexual expression, abilities, veteran status and beyond, that we are a better business.” She reinforces the connection between employee engagement and the bottom line, and says it’s all driven by an authentic purpose.

“To me, our purpose is the heartbeat, and it’s to bring the age of opportunity to everyone.” This is a customer-facing purpose supported by two decades’ worth of investments in digital transformation. Houston remembers the digital shift as a major part of the bank’s objectives over the course of her BBVA career. Even then, she says, BBVA took a people-first approach. “We began to put the puzzles pieces together, to look at everything individually,” she says. This granular vision draws from the same philosophies behind her success as a teller, a manager, a culture shifter and an engagement maker.

Taking it back

Houston recently joined fellow BBVA executives to honor some of the company’s rising stars, a handful of now-managerial employees whom she hired as tellers at the start of their careers. “I told them I am so proud,” she says. “When I’m 65, I want you to hire me back as a teller,” she told them. Between laughs, Houston explains that the path often takes her back to that first glimpse into those “real life” moments in banking that became the connecting thread of her executive vision.

“Right back to where I started is what helps me keep going forward. Full circle.”

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About Author

Kerry O'Leary

Kerry O'Leary is a senior writer at the ABA Banking Journal.