Women need to stop waiting to be tapped on the shoulder to be offered a promotion or raise, according to Kristin Lemkau, CEO of wealth management at JP Morgan Chase. In fact, Lemkau’s career has been guided by a piece of advice she received many years ago: “If you want a bigger job, make your own job bigger.”
“Many women sort of wait until they're anointed, and sometimes you are better off being the person [who bosses] already think have the job, because you've created such influence in the role that you have, that it's much more of a natural segue,” Lemkau recently told Mika Brzezinski for Know Your Value’s “Women In Charge” series.
Lemkau continued, “It's not often the person who did a good job, who gets an A [gets that bigger job]. It's not the college. It's the person who's hustled and built the best network and created influence … And people often don't realize how empowered they are to create that themselves.
In her current role, Lemkau, 53, oversees about $680 billion in assets and nearly 5,000 advisors in 3,500 branches in over 20 offices in the country.
She chatted with Brzezinski about her transition from CMO to CEO, leading during a pandemic, navigating her career in her 50s and more.
Below is their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Mika Brzezinski: You’ve called yourself ambitious and have said you no longer consider it a bad thing. Tell me about your previous views about ambition.
Kristin Lemkau: Earlier on in my career, and I don't know if this is unique to me, but ambition seemed to have more of a negative connotation to it. It seemed to connote self-interest, not a team player… Some of it was probably association with the word with women and maybe it was my own baggage. When I use that word describing people now, I say “she's ambitious” in the best sense of the word.
Brzezinski: Tell us about a big risk you took in your career.
Lemkau: Well, I don't know that it was a risk, because I think I was very capable and experienced for the job, but it could certainly have been perceived as a risk.
When I had been chief marketing officer of the company for six years, I had been at the company for 20 years. I loved my job. I was on the cover of Ad Week, and I was top-10 on this list. And I was friends with [comedian and actor] Kevin Hart because he was our Freedom spokesperson. I loved the job, and I loved the impact the job had and I loved the industry. And then they offered me this job, which is CEO of wealth management, which people often say, "wow, that's an interesting leap." And I said, "no, because marketing is about growing the business, and this is a business that needed growth."
So, it was actually a pretty natural transition, but it was leaving a job that I loved and was highly successful at to try something brand new that certainly had a higher chance of failure… [This happened] three months before the pandemic started.
Brzezinski: How was it navigating all of that during the pandemic?
Lemkau: Like everything, it was intense and terrifying. But it had its moments of great humanity. I had to send my entire workforce home, including my entire salesforce that had never worked from home before. Five thousand advisors were to work from home … What we learned is that the clients actually really want to see them in the branch, even in the middle of a pandemic. And we had to find a way to sort of safely get them back into the office, even pre-vaccine.
Brzezinski: Did you feel nervous? Or were you just like, ‘OK, here we go.’ I think this is where women shine. Most women I met during the pandemic who are in leadership roles were like, "this is what I do."
Lemkau: … I wasn't terrified of decision-making, because we all get good at that over time. …What was unique about this one is in corporate life, you don't often make life or death decisions ever. And that's what it felt like. How… do I keep my salesforce safe and alive? Because that's a big risk for the business too.
Brzezinski: What did you learn about yourself and your leadership style during the pandemic? What was the biggest challenge?
Lemkau: I'm very good at leading a large organization and trying to build purpose and culture around what we were doing. It was a scary time …but it was a tremendous opportunity to grow. And so, I started writing a note to all my employees every Friday, and I think I kind of started doing it as therapy. Honestly, I was an English major and it just felt like some type of creative outlet and it really resonated with people.
I wrote it myself. I talked about personal stuff. I talked about things my family and I were struggling with. I'm sort of a natural over sharer, and that resonated with people because everybody sort of felt lonely. And I think everybody also realized that their work life and their home life literally [ran] into each other, like there was no boundary anymore. And you had to see people as human beings first…
Brzezinski: I'm curious about your company’s commitment to hire at least 300 additional Black or Latino wealth advisors by 2025. I think corporate diversity is a challenge for companies. How do you all plan to take on that challenge and win?
Lemkau: Here's the great thing about this business. Many of our advisors, particularly our community-based advisors, come from our bankers, the personal bankers inside the Chase branch. They get to work, they get to partner with the advisor, they learn a bit about the business. Then they get their Series 7 [which allows employees to perform their job as a general securities representative].
Then, they sort of start off as apprentices and they grow, and they are naturally a very diverse talent pool. So it's the reason why our advisors, particularly the branches know where we need to be, but better than the industry. And then we're doing the things we need to do … We have a more formal training program. We have an advisor growth program for our experienced advisors to make sure that they get the certifications and the training they need so they can be more successful. Because historically, advisors of color have had higher attrition rates just because it's for reasons that are a bit complex, and it's a commission-based business. So we want to make sure that we keep the advisors that we have and nurture them as well as hire the next generation.
This industry has under-representation with both women and people of color in its advisors and in its clients, and both are problems. They're related, but they're not exclusively related, but I also think it's maybe the single biggest business opportunity that I have …
Brzezinski: I recently came out with a 50 Over 50 list with Know Your Value and Forbes, which celebrates women over the age of 50 who have achieved significant success later in life, often by overcoming formidable odds or barriers.
We've discovered so many women in finance who are really reaching great success in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond. When I talk about the long runway women have, a lot of women’s eyes were popping out. This is the first time they've heard that. I think it's important that women understand they can pace themselves and plan to stay. I don't think they planned to stay.
There's such value of being over 50 as a woman, like physiologically, we don't give a damn. We don't. And we're so much better at what we do. We're so much more confident.
I'm wondering, because I've asked every woman that I've interviewed for this platform, as well as for 50 Over 50, when you were in your 20s and 30s, did you ever imagine your career over 50?
Lemkau: No. And as I said to you, I think I'm ambitious in all of the right ways. I wouldn't have anticipated this job ever …And then [imagining] my 50s, yeah I would think that's “retirement age.” Instead, I'm like, “I'm going to go as long as they'll have me because I'm good at this…”