At our seventh Senior Multicultural Leaders Conference, executives shared lessons on how to succeed in today’s challenging—and ever-changing—business environment.
What are the hallmarks of effective leadership during periods of social. geopolitical and economic uncertainty? The question—and a broad set of insights—were top of mind at this year’s Senior Multicultural Leaders Conference, hosted by Morgan Stanley, Target and Deloitte in partnership with the Execturive Leadership Council, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, and the Hispanic Association on Corparate Responsibility and Catlayst. The two-day virtual event, titled Against the Odds: Leading through Difficult Times, gathered top executives, investors, entrepreneurs and policy makers to reflect on and share their experience.
“Over the past few years, we have witnessed immense tragedy, chaos, and loss," said Carla Harris, Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley, in her welcome remarks. “Yet, in the midst of these difficult times, we, as well as our communities and our leaders, have demonstrated remarkable resilience, and we’ve continued to empower one another and work toward meaningful and long-lasting change.”
People are also expecting more from companies, something many participants at the conference noted. Consumers, employees and investors all are holding organizations and their leaders more accountable to live their values, especially those relating to diversity and inclusion. As Susan Jin Davis, Social Impact Officer at Al Roker Entertainment put it, “There is now an intolerance for intolerance.”
For Selma Bueno, Morgan Stanley Head of Multicultural Client Strategy, the current economic landscape is a glass half full for multicultural entrepreneurs: “In times like today, businesses really need a wide set of perspectives, they need to understand from a variety of points of view, what are the opportunities?” Diverse voices, she noted, helps businesses gain that broader understanding
Morgan Stanley President and CEO James Gorman offered his own advice as he reflected on leading in both good and challenging economic times. “To lead is a privilege,” he said, “and to lead specifically during a time of crisis is a gift.” After the 2008 financial crisis and through the last few uncertain years, he noted that leaders, “need to be very resilient and very intentional about the path that they’re on in order to give people a sense of calm.” In addition, they mustn’t panic in the face of market volatility, but instead leverage the upside. Lead with caution, he says, but not with fear.
Other key lessons from the conference included:
- Act with foresight. The role of a leader is not just damage control in the wake of a disaster but implementing prevention and mitigation tactics that safeguard an organization well ahead of time, said Erika James, a Morgan Stanley board member and Dean of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. James said that she advocates for “understanding organizational vulnerabilities to specific threats” before crisis hits and “doing the work of preparing the organization for potential threats even in seemingly good times.”
- Be self-aware. As someone who has moved through the corporate ranks from an administrative assistant to the CEO of Wellington Management, Jean M. Hynes offered this advice: “The most important thing is to be self-aware. It’s really crucial as the leader of a firm to figure out, Who am I?” And one might argue that such advice is even more critical when difficult circumstances may cause you to question your decisions. Instead, says Hynes, now is the time for leaders to summon their confidence: “Lean into your strengths.”
- Focus on people first. Oscar Munoz, the former Chairman and CEO of United Airlines, says that as the leader of a company that was at the “tip of the spear” during the pandemic, when business started plummeting even before the lockdown and revenue eventually bottomed out 93%, he came to understand how crucial it is to treat employees with empathy. “You can’t afford to lose their trust and their engagement, particularly during a crisis. More than ever, my motto during the pandemic was listen, learn and then lead. Don’t assume because you’re in charge you have all the answers.”