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Jul 10 2014
I joined J.P. Morgan directly out of Columbia Business School into a leadership program designed to train the future leaders and functional heads within the firm’s finance, strategy, and planning function. The rotational component of the program offered its members a unique opportunity to obtain both a 35,000-foot and ground-level perspective into how complex investment banking, asset management, and internal treasury businesses are run, planned for, and organized for long-term success. After graduating from the program and accepting a full-time role, the last of which was to serve as the Global Financial Controller of the J.P. Morgan Corporate Bank, I took inventory of the lessons in leadership that I learned and found most beneficial to my career and expect to carry with me wherever I land next, the top five of which I share below.
1. A no-blame culture of accountability starts from the top. If you are in a position of leadership and want to create an organization free of fear where individuals are not intimidated to say something if they see something, it must start with you. Saying that you have a no-blame culture is vastly different from living it—you must embody what it means by both showing it to your direct reports (e.g. solving problems at the root cause) and verbally affirming your belief in establishing a safe and risk-neutral environment repeatedly over time to them.
2. The Golden Rule applies to your employees. Win the hearts and minds of your teams by treating everyone with respect and dignity—from the global head of your department all the way down to the first-year administrative assistant. Great leaders recognize value in even the most simple of roles, and ensure that all contributions large and small are acknowledged privately if not formally recognized publicly at some point during the year.
3. Respect meetings with your junior staff. As a senior executive, it is easy to continuously re-schedule “catch-up” meetings with your junior direct reports. If you want to engender loyalty among your people—people who will ultimately make your job easier in the long-run and facilitate your own personal success—take the necessary steps you need to fulfill scheduling obligations you have with them. Consider their time in the same way you would your own superiors or stakeholders. Send the signal to your juniors that their time can be just as valuable as yours and you will find that your people will be more likely to go above and beyond for you when the next crisis hits.
4. Encourage questioning and debate. As a leader it is your responsibility to make decisions. The best decision-making practitioners I experienced highly encouraged, if not openly demanded, periods of questioning and debate before figuring out the optimal course of action and then executing. Constantly question and play devil’s advocate with your assumptions—this is a practice that enables concerns to be anticipated and answered well ahead of any “live-bullet” situation.
5. Recognize that perfection is impossible. Leaders with the most self-awareness understand that expecting perfection of others is the quickest way to failure and counter-productivity. Exceptional leaders I knew at J.P. Morgan rejected the notion of perfection and instead embraced continuous material and process improvement. The essence of leadership lies in the idea that situations, deliverables, and work product can always be improved, and no ending or result, in an environment of constant change, is ever absolute.
Indeed, the greatest lesson in leadership that I learned from my five-year tenure at J.P. Morgan is that the most effective people tend to be the most curious, the most humble, and the most self-aware. In financial services, where the pressure to perform perfectly can be overbearingly intense for many of the people who work for you, I found that the most influential managers and executives tended to demonstrate an acute sense of self-understanding while leading their teams and valuing others in a fundamentally real and genuine way. If you wish to become an executive “on-the-rise” in your industry or organization, the path to a C-suite role you must start with your own self-improvement, understanding your weaknesses and then surrounding yourself with complementary talent that will enable your greater group overall to shine.