Penny Pennington ’12 is managing partner of the Fortune 500 financial services firm Edward Jones, just the sixth person to serve in that role in the company’s 100-year history. Pennington was also recently named to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business list, her third appearance. Below is an edited excerpt of her recent conversation with Dean Francesca Cornelli, in which they discussed the need for empathy and flexibility in the post-pandemic business world.
Cornelli: What lessons about leadership have you learned through your career?
Pennington: So often, I see us putting artificial lids on ourselves. The lid can be, “I don’t have that experience,” or “I don’t have that technical knowledge.”
I have done this myself. One example comes to mind in particular: A leadership opportunity suddenly became available, and I was part of the team that was going to reassign someone to that opportunity. At that table, I said, “Here’s the point of view that I believe this person should have, but I’m not qualified because I haven’t done this thing this person is going to lead.” I thought it was a very smart business decision. I went home and said that very smart thing to my husband, who had heard me talk so often about what I thought the future of our firm and our clients could be.
He nearly came unglued. He said, “Do you realize what you’ve just done? You have disqualified yourself from something when you probably have what it takes to do that thing. You’d better go fix it.” So I did. I went back to that table and talked about my perspective. And ultimately I was given the chance to take that leadership opportunity myself. That’s what I mean by stop disqualifying ourselves.
Cornelli: How did your experience at Kellogg influence your career?
Pennington: Before I went to Kellogg, I asked for advice from one of my predecessors at Edward Jones, John Bachmann ’62. He said, “Listen, you’re going to go to Kellogg, and there are really smart people there. I want you to draw a line down the middle of your notebook paper and keep a list of what you think and how it applies to Edward Jones. Because as soon as the professors and your classmates start talking, it’s going to get overwhelming with all the smart stuff that’s happening. Write down what you believe and how you think it intersects with the strategy, the purpose, the values and the future of Edward Jones.” I still do that today.
Cornelli: If you could give other women one piece of advice for success in finance, what would it be?
Pennington: I believe the field is putting a greater focus on EQ, the emotional quotient — things like empathy, an ability to understand clients’ psychographics and a grasp of what they understand about the investment world. I am not here to say that those qualities that I just described are uniquely female. I believe those attributes are human.
There was so much research done last year that found leaders were considered much more trustworthy when they were authentic, vulnerable and open — when their brands or their companies were seen doing good things in the community and for their colleagues and clients. I’m going to ask women, men and people who have not traditionally been part of the financial services industry to think about our humanity and what we can accomplish together.
Cornelli: You’ve talked about the importance of having human-centered conversations at work. How has the meaning of that changed over the past year or two?
Pennington: As leaders, we’ve got to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. I had this experience recently. I was talking to a Black financial adviser amid the social crisis that was reignited last year. I felt so unequipped to do anything. I said, “Please tell me what I can do.” He said, “Penny, just listen to my experience. It’s completely different from yours. Let it sink in. Think about how these effects have landed on not just me but also other people; how these effects intersect with our clients’ lives.”Fundamentally, it’s going to take all of us being better human beings — knowing that unconscious biases are part of our thought processes and confronting them, reflecting on them, talking to one another about them and then considering the structural and policy changes that can have an impact on them for the greater good.
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