Challenging Conversations

Lessons learned from a pandemic year Elizabeth Walsh

Photo: Shutterstock/Lebendigger

Jeanne Sun

On a sunny Sunday in midtown Manhattan, I met with Jeanne Sun. We had a lot more than usual on our minds. It had been roughly a year since COVID-19 had forced those fortunate enough to do so to work from home. We had a new U.S. president, companies were strengthening campaigns around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and that very afternoon there was a rally in support of and solidarity with Black and Asian Americans in Union Square.

For many leaders, the last year provided all too many opportunities to practice their skills in having challenging conversations—trying to provide answers in a constantly changing environment, being calm through unprecedented uncertainty and searching for hope in the face of despair. This article shares some lessons that helped Jeanne lead her team through 2020 and continue to serve her well in her new role as general manager of Inclusive Investing at J.P. Morgan Wealth Management, where she is working to close the wealth gap through greater access to and participation in investments.

Lesson 1: Start With Your Audience

“Whether I’m presenting to clients or my team, it’s my responsibility as the speaker to make sure I’m understood and they’re taking what I intend from the conversation,” Jeanne says. “With clients, it’s things like avoiding jargon if they’re not in the field themselves. With my team, it is remembering that my carefully crafted and nuanced words might not have the same meaning if they don’t have the same information as me or have not attended the same meetings I have.”

Jeanne also works closely with her firm’s communications team to make sure the words they use in articles and press releases are inclusive and written with diverse clients in mind.

Lesson 2: Share Why

Most managers are practiced at communicating the what—whether it’s assignments, projects or decisions. But Jeanne discovered that also articulating the why can make a big difference in the long term. “It can help with buy-in, get teams on the same page [and avoid redoing work], and lead to better outcomes by prompting dialogue and collaboration,” she shares.

Lesson 3: Be Authentic and Transparent

People know “company speak” when they hear it. “Our colleagues are adults, and they show up each day wanting to do the best job possible. Support them with the information they need to make the best decisions possible,” Jeanne advises.

The ultimate message doesn’t need to be different from the company’s directive, but how you deliver it—with your own perspective, being open to questions and honest when you don’t have an answer, and willing to hear and acknowledge feedback—can make a huge difference, particularly in times of uncertainty.

Lesson 4: Be Vulnerable When the Situation Calls for It

Depending on the situation, people often have different ways of presenting themselves. At work, most people present their “professional” selves. “This is often interpreted as neatly compartmentalized and limited in emotion—but last year wasn’t neat or emotionless,” Jeanne says.

“Particularly around the reigniting of Black Lives Matter, I wanted my team to know it was OK to bring their humanity to work and we would support each other. And as a leader, I couldn’t ask my team to be brave and share if I wasn’t willing to myself. So I shared, and yes, I was emotional at work,” Jeanne reveals. “I was emotional again in my new job when I shared my personal perspective as an Asian American woman after the Atlanta [shootings]. We are all people first, and leaders in particular need to remember that we are all on this journey together.”

Jeanne Sun is a managing director and the general manager of Inclusive Investing for J.P. Morgan Wealth Management. In her 20 years at J.P. Morgan, she has held various leadership roles, including head of Private Bank’s Advice Lab and head of Investment Strategy for J.P. Morgan’s GIO Group.
Elizabeth Walsh, FSA, MAAA, is an actuary and manager for Deloitte Consulting LLP. With 15 years of experience, she specializes in helping life insurers modernize their financial reporting, financial planning and analysis processes. Elizabeth is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.

The views and opinions expressed herein constitute the speaker’s judgment based on current market conditions and are subject to change without notice, and may differ from those expressed by other areas of J.P. Morgan.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries.

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