Purchasing a home can be a stressful endeavor, especially for first-time buyers. Fortunately, Bank of America’s AJ Barkley has successfully helped clients navigate through their homeownership journeys for more than 20 years.
A native of Temple Hills, Maryland, AJ is a graduate of Morgan State University and currently resides in Texas. As the Senior Vice President of Neighborhood Lending, she is tasked with identifying opportunities for low- to moderate-income, underserved, multicultural and first-time borrowers to become successful homeowners.
Her Agenda spoke with the financial executive about her passionate work style, the first steps to take when deciding to purchase a home, and why her definition of success has nothing to do with a corner office.
Her Agenda: So, tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get to where you are now?
AJ Barkley: When I was in college, I did an internship at General Motors. My degree was in marketing and afterward, I got a job there as a materials shipping supervisor. I was excited at 20, 21 years old about getting a job right out of school. But then I quickly realized that what I really wanted to accomplish, I wasn’t going to be able to do at the company. I wanted something that would be sustainable, that would trigger my inquisitive nature and challenge me, in addition to using my marketing degree. A year later, I left to work at Citibank and what I liked most was having a customer-facing role that gave me an opportunity to take some of the things I learned working at General Motors and work with people, solving problems on a daily basis.
Years later I learned about this new bank, Nations, that was on the rise. The CEO had written a book about how the bank and the brand were formed. I eventually had an opportunity to go work with that bank, which is now Bank of America. In the time that I’ve been with Bank of America – 22 years – I think I’ve had about 11 roles and what has been so powerful in terms of my career… is that I’ve had an opportunity to push myself intentionally and unintentionally in ways that I never thought I would be pushed and grow more than I ever thought I would.
I think I've had about 11 roles and what has been so powerful in terms of my career… is that I've had an opportunity to push myself intentionally and unintentionally in ways that I never thought I would be pushed and grow more than I ever thought I would.
Her Agenda: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job as the Neighborhood Lending Executive?
AJ Barkley: Being the Neighborhood Lending Executive is a dream job because I get to get up every morning and think about how I can help clients on behalf of Bank of America. I help underserved clients in low- to moderate-income brackets, multicultural and first-time homebuyers realize and obtain the wonderful, rewarding opportunity that is homeownership.
Her Agenda: So, if a first-time homeowner is gearing up to purchase, what are some of the first things they should do?
AJ Barkley: First, go into a bank or a financial center and sit down with the relationship manager or lending officer and get a financial review. It’ll help you understand your assets to liabilities and to figure out what you’re currently doing. How have you been saving? What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? What is the timeframe in which you’re thinking about purchasing the home? Do you have credit established? How are you using your credit? What I would suggest for homebuyers is to ask about everything. There are no stupid questions in terms of homeownership. We can give you a better idea of what you can afford and that way you’re prepared when the time comes. The worst thing for first-time homebuyers to do is to immediately start looking at homes without knowing what they can and can’t afford.
Listen, learn and apply.
Her Agenda: What’s one common misconception about homeownership?
AJ Barkley: People don’t realize that they actually can get a home. They may have convinced themselves that they don’t qualify for homeownership, or they may be afraid of what homeownership means for them in terms of responsibility. There’s a fear and, quite frankly, somewhat of an embarrassment in some cases for people to feel like they need to sit down and talk to someone about their personal financial situation or debt. I really encourage people not to let a lack of knowledge and confidence in their ability to purchase a home stop them from going to speak with a professional who’s going to keep everything confidential and have that conversation even if you’re not ready to purchase a home right then. If you’re thinking about purchasing a home in, say 12 to 18 months, now’s the time to understand what that means. Asking yourself: What do I need to do? What can I afford? What programs will work for me? Because a lot of people need to start saving now and may need to adjust their lifestyle.
Her Agenda: What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
AJ Barkley: I wish I had challenged myself more and that I had spent more time doing training and learning about things that were outside of my specific job function. I wish I had been more intellectually curious because that would have accelerated my impact on the jobs I had.
Her Agenda: How would you describe your work style?
AJ Barkley: I am a very passionate leader. I have learned over the years to pause and keep very bright people around me to tell me when I’m way in left field or way in right field and respect that engagement with them. My style is to coach and to provide feedback in the moment, because a lot of times we give feedback to people and it’s like three weeks later, four weeks later, and they don’t get the benefit of what actually transpired. And that’s positive feedback and critical feedback. I’m also pretty transparent with people because I appreciate that myself.
Her Agenda: From the outside looking in, you’re incredibly accomplished. But what is your personal definition of success?
AJ Barkley: I don’t think I’m that accomplished. It’s always interesting to me when people say that. Never believe your own hype ever, ever. That is a recipe for failure. What success is for me is being able to pay it forward. It’s being vulnerable and sharing the good and the bad in terms of my work experiences and life experiences, so people can benefit from them. I have never been an ‘I need to have a corner office’ person. That’s not who I am. For me, it’s been about doing what’s going to have the most impact on teammates and clients, and to help deliver on what our company’s mission is.
Her Agenda: As an executive, how do you prioritize self-care?
AJ Barkley: What I like to do is, when I’m at home, disengage if at all possible. Also, it has become more and more important for me to do things like go to the doctor when I need to go to the doctor. I know that probably sounds silly, but go to the dentist when you need to go to the dentist. Make time for things like that because you’re not bringing the best of you to the party when you don’t make appropriate time for self-care.
Her Agenda: Is there a motto, or mantra you live by?
AJ Barkley: Listen, learn and apply. It has been my mantra for 15 years. You will get coached, you will get feedback. You need to get better. People are going to help you get better. You must listen, you must learn from that, but you also have to apply it. You can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again because it will have an impact on your career. It’ll have an impact on relationships. It’s like one of those universal things that I learned a long time ago from a very dear friend and it stays with me.
[Editor’s note: This feature is sponsored by Bank of America, part of Property and Power: Her Agenda’s series to empower and inform first time home buyers.]