Don’t let fear stop you from forging ahead: An interview with Erika James

As dean of the Wharton School, James is eager to expand the narrative about the school and all it has to offer. And as a self-described “insecure risk-taker,” she offers advice on how to turn discomfort into action.

Erika H. James is the first woman and the first person of color to be the Wharton School’s dean since the institution was founded in 1881. With a background in organizational psychology, she is an expert on crisis leadership, workplace diversity, and management strategy.

That expertise came in handy when she started at Wharton in July 2020, steering the school through uncharted waters during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her book, The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before, written with Lynn Perry Wooten, is out this month.

In her conversation with McKinsey partner Monne Williams, James talks about the nuances of mentorship, the gains and setbacks she sees in the pursuit of diversity, and how confidence builds a record of success. An edited transcript of their conversation at a recent Black Leadership Academy session follows.

Monne Williams: You have said your journey to becoming dean of the Wharton School was purposeful, but not intentional. What did you mean by that?

Erika James: I meant that I wasn’t a young kid growing up saying, “I want to be dean of the Wharton School one day.” When I was young, I didn’t know what a dean was, and I had never heard of Wharton.

So this wasn’t a role to which I aspired. But I do think that the fact that I’m here now and in this role was on purpose. What I mean is that I was purposeful in identifying opportunities that would allow me to grow, that I found inherently interesting, that were aligned with my values, and that allowed me to have meaning in my life.

The more I tried to align myself with roles, jobs, and opportunities to enact that part of myself, the more purposeful it became. So I say I became the dean of the Wharton School on purpose, but not intentionally, or not by design.

Monne Williams: What other paths did you consider before academia?

Erika James: When I graduated with my PhD from the University of Michigan, I expected to get some kind of corporate or consulting role. I was in final interviews with a few companies (full disclosure: I looked at McKinsey), and at the last minute my dissertation adviser asked if I would consider pursuing an academic job for at least a year.

My adviser told me if I didn’t like it I could always go back into the corporate sector, but that it’s harder to start out in corporate work and go into academia. I had such respect for my adviser that I said, “Yes, I’ll try it for a year.” One year led to two, led to five, led to ten, and I have never regretted being in higher education.

Monne Williams: What was your mindset then, that made you try academia for that one year?

Erika James: I was insecure about thinking about myself as an academic, as someone creating new knowledge with research, communicating that research, and developing future leaders through education in the classroom. I wasn’t confident that I would be successful, but I recognized that other people saw that capability in me. And I thought, if they believe I can do it, why shouldn’t I put myself out there?

My husband has pointed out a pattern in my life: he refers to me as an insecure risk-taker. That may seem like an oxymoron, but I often lack the confidence that whatever I’m about to pursue is actually going to work out. At the same time, I’ve never let that lack of confidence impede my willingness to try.

I am someone who has been motivated by a fear of failure. I need to prove something. That’s why I was willing to take risks throughout my career. My decision to choose higher education is a good example of how worry never impeded me from taking a risk. Over the years, I’ve learned to build a support network to help me overcome that lack of confidence.

Mentorships are ‘a two-way street’

Monne Williams: Speaking of support networks, how have you approached the idea of mentorships?

Erika James: I never explicitly sought mentorship. That’s probably mistake number one as a young professional because the counsel is to always find people who can serve as your mentor. Fortunately, many people stepped into that role even without my recognizing it. In my first faculty job, an older faculty member helped me navigate what it meant to earn tenure in a business school. Over time, as more people offered help and counsel, these relationships became quite natural.

I’ve thought a lot about why people were willing to invest in me when I wasn’t seeking their support. It’s important for all of us to keep in mind that a relationship of any sort is a two-way street. The best, most profitable relationships are ones in which both parties, the mentee and the mentor, feel they’re gaining something from the experience.

Mentor relationships can come across as very transactional. Many organizations create programs so when a new hire comes in, they are automatically assigned a mentor. Those are important, and they can certainly be helpful. But if the relationship never evolves beyond just a transaction, then I don’t know whether the true value from the investment will actually materialize. The goal is to identify people with whom you have an authentic, meaningful connection. Then you have to let that relationship evolve in a way that it can be supportive, where the mentor is investing in the mentee, and the mentee is providing value to the mentor in some form or fashion.

Monne Williams: How have you thought about your balance of Black mentorship and sponsorship versus having non-Black mentors and sponsors? And how has that evolved for you over time?

Erika James: I’ve been in environments where there weren’t a lot of senior Black leaders to serve in mentor roles. When I joined the faculty at my first university, or at least the first business school, I was the first and only Black faculty member there. The option of a Black mentor in my organization just wasn’t feasible. The relationships that were developed were relationships across difference.

They were relationships with people who in many respects didn’t reflect my demographic. But if we let that limit what we think can be gained from those relationships, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. In fact, the research will tell you that creating access to people who have different experiences and life journeys, who have different racial, ethnic, and gender profiles, is often the way you will grow the most. It’s how you’re most likely to get new and different information. That’s not to say that same race or same gender relationships aren’t valuable. They are, because they often provide a very supportive, nurturing aspect to the relationship. We really need to pursue both.

Creating access to people who have different experiences and life journeys, who have different racial, ethnic, and gender profiles, is often the way you will grow the most.

Monne Williams: How does the need for sponsorship shift as you become more senior?

Erika James: As you advance in your career, there are fewer people who are in a position to sponsor you or to mentor you. What actually shifts is where you go for the kinds of support you need. You might find yourself depending on people who you would never have anticipated could help you. I’ll give you an example.

When I assumed my first significant leadership role, I had to let someone in my organization go for cause. I had never had that experience and I was very anxious about it. But those things are confidential and you can’t talk to a lot of people in the organization about it.

I remember going home and my kids were probably eight and ten at the time. I explained to them what I had to do the next day and the conversation that I needed to have. And I said, “You know what? Let’s role play. You’re going to be the person that I’m firing. I want you to give me feedback on how I did in the conversation.”

Who would have thought young children would have anything meaningful to contribute in that regard? But their feedback was among the most poignant and truthful I think I’ve ever received. It was a reminder that good ideas and support can come from a variety of sources. And in my case, it came from my children, who see things so purely. That means something.

More practically in an organizational setting, we talk about reverse mentoring, because as you advance in your career you may lose touch with what’s happening at lower levels in the organization or with people who are working most immediately with your customers or clients. Touching base and learning from others at lower levels in the organization can be as valuable as what comes from people who are more senior.

Expanding the narrative about Wharton

Monne Williams: What has been most surprising about your time at Wharton?

Erika James: I went through an extensive search process for this job, as you can imagine, and I met with a variety of stakeholders. Obviously, Wharton has a very strong reputation. It also had a very strong reputation of sending, largely speaking, affluent White men interested in investment banking to Wall Street. I entered Wharton with that foundation, or at least that understanding.

I was floored to learn about the depth and breadth of activity there outside the field of finance—including a significant scholarly focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI]. I was stunned because that’s not the image of the Wharton school. I began to understand that Wharton is so much broader than what it gets credit for. One of my great joys and opportunities as dean is to help expand the narrative about Wharton and all that it has to offer.

For example, 15 percent of our faculty members, not just our Black faculty, are doing work connected to DEI. There’s also a lot of work on climate change and environmental, social, and governance principles. These topics matter not just to the faculty but also to students coming into the school.

We’re seeing this wonderful perfect storm, if you will, of having a generation of faculty with a much broader perspective than before. And we have an influx of students who are looking for something out of their business school experience beyond finance. This allows us to create a new narrative about the school, which is really exciting. Of course, this is not to de-emphasize our expertise in finance but to supplement that expertise by so many other areas of focus.

Monne Williams: In terms of corporate commitment to diversity, we saw a lot of momentum after George Floyd’s killing in the summer of 2020. But we have also witnessed backtracking since then. Do you see any sustained changes at Wharton regarding how you are actualizing your DEI plans?

Erika James: After the summer of 2020 and all the attention on diversity and organizations’ responsibility in that work, I think we were all hopeful that now would be the time when this would actually stick. But in the back of our minds, I think we were all wondering, How long is this going to last? The thing that’s been different this time around is that at the very least, many organizations are putting their money where their mouth is.

Many have gone on the record promising financial support for initiatives connected to DEI, whether it’s in their own organization, or by supporting other efforts in the country. We’re seeing more people assume leadership positions within organizations, to hold them accountable for following through. There’s a level of visibility about the commitments that organizations are making that I don’t think has been true in the past.

In Wharton’s case, the school has partnered with three alternative-finance companies to help them build a pipeline of underrepresented minority kids pursuing careers in the alternative space, private equity, etcetera. We’re also providing the educational component to HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] that don’t have business schools, so that they can develop a pipeline of students.

These kinds of activities make the work that’s happening now sticky. We’re starting to see companies engage with other organizations to help make these kinds of proclamations much more long-standing. I’m optimistic that we’re going to see more advancement in this work than we’ve seen in the past.

Monne Williams: How has your previous research on crisis management and organizational behavior shaped your response to the challenges of COVID-19?

Erika James: When I had my first opportunity to serve as a leader in higher education, I had a real administrative job, not just a faculty job. And I said, “Here’s a moment where I can test whether the things I study and the things we teach our MBA students about leadership actually work or not.”

It was not easy to lead in the way I have taught my students to lead. Part of why we see ineffective leadership is because it’s easier to be ineffective. Having difficult conversations and making difficult decisions is hard work, and not everyone has the stomach for that.

Having difficult conversations and making difficult decisions is hard work, and not everyone has the stomach for that.

Starting broadly, I’ve always tried to follow what the research says about how to be an effective leader, including building trust—which is a two-way street—and gathering input from a broad array of sources. When it came to my work on crisis leadership, I fell back on clear directives we had observed in the research over the years. That meant identifying and being candid about the organization’s vulnerabilities, as well as preparing people to handle things that don’t go according to plan. At the same time, you also have to manage the business, which is crucial to recovery after the crisis and to preparing for the next one that comes along.

Thank goodness I had that understanding coming into the Wharton School because I was announced in February 2020 when COVID-19 was still something that was happening in another country. Two weeks after my announcement, the US shut down. I started the job in July.

I knew it was going to be a very different environment from what I had anticipated. There were a few key issues on my mind in those early days. One was I didn’t have any goodwill established at Wharton. Nobody knew me coming in—all they knew about me was the bio they read when the announcement was made. Plus, I was coming in at a moment when we had to make really difficult decisions, so I had to think about how I would establish my credibility.

In my previous job, I had years of credibility and long-standing relationships. Here, I didn’t have any of that. I realized what I needed to do was just listen. I needed to spend a lot of time learning from the people who had been at Wharton far longer than I had to gain their perspective. What was going to be in the best interests of the school? How were we going to come together?

What I observed is we didn’t necessarily have the right infrastructure to give people the information they needed to make decisions. I spent time on building that infrastructure so that person A is connected with person B, who has to make a decision that’s going to affect person C. That was the value I could bring to make it easier for us to come together in a really difficult period with very little time to make decisions. Part of that was giving the team that knew Wharton much better than I did considerable input into that process.

What you deliver is what matters

Monne Williams: How do you deal with those peers who may believe that you are in your role because your organization needed to have different representation at the table?

Erika James: I’m a firm believer that actions speak louder than words. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about how good you are, how competent you are, how deserving you are of this role. But at the end of the day it’s what you deliver that’s ultimately going to matter. That will be indisputable. But it takes months or even a few years to establish yourself and have those proof points. All the other stuff is just noise. I have had to tell myself not to be distracted by other people’s noise and to focus on the work I came there to do. It’s important to spend more time with the people who are affirming you rather than paying attention to distracters.

Monne Williams: Do you consider yourself lucky or good?

Erika James: Well, I’m definitely good—I can say that now with confidence. But I’m also lucky. And I think that matters a lot. This job at the Wharton School opened up at a moment when I had six years of experience as a dean under my belt and when my family situation was such that I could take a job in Philadelphia.

So there are circumstances that made this moment possible, but they would not have been possible if I also hadn’t demonstrated a track record of being successful in the work I do. You’ve got to have something to show for the work you’ve done in order to be put in a position for the luck to actually manifest itself.

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