For Johnbull Okpara, the way we frame and deliver feedback can define team dynamics and performance—as well as a larger firm culture.
Johnbull Okpara doesn’t dispense negative feedback, per se. As Global Head of Financial Planning & Analysis and Chief Financial Officer of Infrastructure, he positions it as “advice” when coaching team members, mentees, or clients.
“Before I arrived at Morgan Stanley, I learned this strategy from one of my mentors, and the change in terminology makes all the difference,” he says, allowing him to frame criticism as support. “It inspired me to focus on my own improvement and long-term development and, in a broader sense, made me think about how ‘soft skills’ are just as critical as the ‘hard skills’ that most corporations prioritize. Both are necessary and need to be honed throughout the course of a successful career,” he adds.
Okpara’s philosophy may come as a surprise from someone who has spent most of his career steeped in analytics, and whose resume includes such previous roles as Global Controller, Business Risk Services Director, and Managing Vice President of Finance. But these titles belie his expertise with and belief in the power of emotional intelligence.
"I definitely identify as a quant; that's my core skill set," Okpara says. "My team and I develop and run models and processes that paint a picture of the firm's environment and its capacity to generate revenue and earnings in normal scenarios as well as times of stress. But I firmly believe that how people interact, in both relaxed and tense situations, is an equally compelling barometer and sends a clear message about the firm's culture."
Indeed, as deeply rooted as Morgan Stanley's culture is, discussing it openly and often helps to seed it among more recent hires and the next generation of leaders. Okpara, who himself joined the firm in 2016, is delighted that Morgan Stanley's senior leaders appreciate the combination of EQ and IQ. "Or as Chairman and CEO James Gorman puts it, 'competence and collegiality,'" he says. "It's a familiar refrain in executive committee meetings, and it's that tone from the top that has permeated the firm's consciousness and set a clear standard about what we believe, and how we act."
Okpara himself is setting a high standard. A critical driver of the firm's infrastructure and expense management gears, he has expanded the group via internal and external hires and through a recent organization aimed at more integrated and streamlined hierarchy.
Change itself can feel like a kind of criticism, but it's also extremely constructive when managed just right. That means communicating what's motivating that change clearly, which can make all the difference on a team--and throughout the organization. "Words have such an impact because they set the tone in workplace relationships," says Okpara. "Not only between a manager and a subordinate, but also throughout an entire workforce."
Okpara is also in high demand as a speaker for firm recruitment events, frequently delivering keynote addresses on the importance of diversity and inclusion, as well as talent recognition and mobility. Despite a packed schedule, he makes a point to set aside time to mentor interns and analysts, with "competence and collegiality" integral to his guidance.
"I can think of no better philosophy to help set my colleagues up for success; the fact that it's Morgan Stanley's mandate as well as my own makes it all the more meaningful."