By Lorraine Sumulong
As I sit down to write this, I’m Chief Legal Officer of the nation’s 17th largest retail mortgage lender, RPM Mortgage. This is 25 years into a consumer lending career that’s included work at other venerable organizations like Chase, PNC, and the FDIC, plus nine years of school at UC Berkeley for undergrad and law school and Wharton for my MBA.
Sounds like a good run when it’s all crunched into two sentences like that, but like all careers, my run hasn’t been a sprint. It’s a marathon with as many hard lessons as happy victories. Great mentors have always shown me the way, and now that I’ve earned some stripes—or at least a bunch of battle scars—it’s finally time for me to share a few lessons with others who are looking to grow and thrive in this fun and tough business.
Your Education Is Never Over
Education is one the most powerful weapons you can have in your professional arsenal. Learn as much as you can about topics that interest you in and out of the office. You never know when an interest, either personal or professional, will open doors.
Years ago, I was managing a legal department and moving up the corporate ladder. I had my law degree, but I had never taken any business courses. As I rose, I realized that management and leadership skills were the key to better communication and credibility with my peers and superiors. So, I decided to attend business school while working full-time. My drive to keep learning led to earning my MBA, which in turn has offered many opportunities in my career.
Today, working in a heavily regulated field like the mortgage and finance industry, I’m challenged by new regulations constantly being implemented and adapted. I need to stay current and become educated on regulatory developments and understand the minute details of industry regulations, so I can advise our company on the best ways to protect our consumer customers and our business interests. Local, state, and federal laws and regulations change constantly, and unlike school, the grading system is pass or fail. Educational discipline helps you to stay sharp all the time, no matter what stage of your career you’re in.
Let Your Accomplishments Speak for You
Many people shy away from promoting themselves in fear of being judged or coming across as having a big ego. However, self-promotion is the key for standing out in the workplace. But how do you do it without coming across the wrong way? Easy: let your accomplishments speak for you.
Most ambitious people let their aspirations drive their self-promotion. However, it’s much easier on you and your team members if you always focus your work on the objectives of the business.
More specifically, focus on outcomes, not the work that’s going into achieving the outcomes. If you do this, you’ll find that self-promotion and communicating about what you want to achieve is quite natural and accepted by your peers and superiors.
Prepare for and Take the Long Road
Most people, and especially ambitious people, have an idea of where they want to go, and tend to lose steam when the path they envisioned starts revealing twists and turns. It’s best to just admit now that your career won’t follow a linear route. If you see it this way, the wins you rack up will be more rewarding. Persistence and resilience will help you navigate any detours and achieve your goals. Just think of these challenges as simply presenting you with a different route along the way.
I’m an introvert, but I have a job where I lead and manage people. I talk to regulators, investors, and executives regularly, which can be quite intimidating. And during my career, I have left jobs that I was doing well at so that I could take on work that gave me new skillsets and deepened my knowledge base. Making these career path changes have been some of the toughest decisions of my life, but each time I’ve steered away from my comfort zone, I’ve achieved confidence and personal satisfaction that no compensation reward could ever match. And in some cases, the compensation was there too!
Always Prioritize Networking
A well-cultivated network is your most valuable career advancement asset. You can have all the skills you need to be successful in your career or a specific role you’re seeking, but it can easily fall flat without the right people supporting you at the right moments.
Likewise, networks are critical for knowledge to make you better at your job. If there is any situation I am unfamiliar with, I tap into my network for real life cases and insights on that topic. And I do the same for my connections which keeps these relationships fresh and mutually beneficial.
So, if you get sleepy or complacent on your networking, it can make you a less effective employee and/or leave you short on career options.
An example: I’ve been involved in many networking groups over the years, and now, I’m most actively involved in the Bay Area Asian American General Counsel Network and the San Francisco Bank Attorney Association. I was recently invited to join a new Fintech Attorney group, which is a highly relevant group for our current era. It’s coming at one of the busiest times of my career, but I’m readjusting some of my current routines to accommodate it because I cannot afford not to participate in a group discussing the most important issues going on in our industry right now.
The Only Dumb Questions Are the Ones You Don’t Ask
Asking questions is a sign of a confident and curious person. Companies value employees who actively engage in meetings and discussions. So, although your first instinct may be to stay quiet if you are unsure, speak up.
As I said, I’m an introvert so my personal nature is to stay quiet. But my professional nature as an attorney is always full of questions, so as I’ve matured in my career, I have become more comfortable with asking, even if I don’t know and people think I should.
Lacking the courage to ask questions is something I observe in colleagues from entry level to executive. People don’t want to sound or be thought of as uninformed.
But let me flip the script on that one for you. Those who don’t ask questions are the ones who are uninformed. Save yourself some time and anxiety and ask a question you don’t know in your next meeting.
Show Your Respect
Just like we teach children to get in the habit of saying please and thank you as much as possible, I try to teach my teams and colleagues to show their respect to each other as much as possible.
I’ve worked in all kinds of cultures. Some very hierarchical where it’s accepted to only show respect to superiors, and those cultures usually collapse on themselves with key employees eventually moving on.
Conversely at my company now, RPM Mortgage, I had the privilege of constructing our core values with my fellow executive team last year, and one of our core values is “Approachable,” which we define as being supportive, patient, welcoming so that our openness shines through in everything we do and is critical to the success of our business.
This was a critical moment in my career where I got to participate in codifying respect into our culture, and since we did it a year ago, it’s taken an already collaborative culture and made it a place where everyone genuinely feels respected.
Deal Making Is Art AND Science
As noted above, let the outcomes of your work do the talking for you. If you think this way, it forces you to understand where both you and the organization are really trying to go. And you can’t do this without documenting both qualitative and quantitative goals.
If you approach your career in this manner, negotiating becomes simpler too. The art of the deal is about chemistry and salesmanship, which definitely matters in any negotiation. But the science of the deal is where it’s made or lost. If you don’t know your facts and figures—whether it’s about your own compensation or a deal you’re negotiating for your firm—you will be compromised as you seek your interest.
And note that I said, “your interest” not “your position.” One of the great books still used in most MBA schools is called Getting To Yes, and it contains a simple lesson that everyone should remember: focus on interests, not positions. If you’re too consumed by your own position, then you don’t have everyone’s collective interest in mind, and it’ll be much harder to get that “yes” you’re seeking when you negotiate.
Lorraine Sumulong is the executive Vice President and Chief Legal & Compliance Officer at RPM Mortgage, the nation’s 17th largest retail mortgage lender. Based in Alamo, Calif., RPM specializes in providing smart advice, an easy process and super speed to all clients’ home financing needs.