In Conversation with Board Member James Bell
JPMorgan Chase board member James A. Bell was recently named to Black Enterprise magazine’s 2017 Registry of African American Corporate Board Directors. This list includes all African Americans serving on the boards of directors of companies in the S&P 500.
James A. Bell has served on the board of JPMorgan Chase since 2011. The forty-year finance veteran also holds board positions with Dow Chemical, Apple and the CDW Corporation. Bell was EVP, Corporate President and CFO of Boeing, an aerospace company and manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft, from 2003 until his retirement in April 2012.
After Black Enterprise hit the newsstands, with a dapper looking Mr. Bell gracing the cover, we spoke with the executive about his career, diversity in the workplace and mentoring a new generation of black leaders.
Looking back on your career—did you have a clear picture of what you wanted to do? Did a love of model airplanes inspire a finance career in the aerospace industry?
It wasn’t planned at all. It’s not like I sat around the table every night, talking about becoming a controller or CFO. I had no idea what that was. What I did know was that in college, I wanted to major in something that would prepare me for a job. So I majored in accounting and that led me into the field of finance. Every year that I moved in my career, I learned something new; I thought that the more I could learn, absorb and gain experience would prepare me for what I wanted to do, even though I really did not know what that was.
I never thought for a day that I would be at Boeing for forty years. It’s not like I didn’t look at other jobs—I did. I just never found anything that was better than the opportunity that I had in front of me.
Did a mentor help get you from A to B? Was there anyone helping guide your career as a black employee?
When I started out there weren’t very many people of color in leadership positions. Early on, I caught the attention of people that were senior in the organization. Along the line, there were people that showed an interest in my development and helped me along. Now, formal mentorship is more common—there is a lot more going on in the way of people finding one another early in their career and helping them develop.
What advice would give someone joining the workforce?
First, get an education—that’s critical. Second—try to find work that you love, or in an area that you enjoy. Third, be flexible. Don’t be wedded to what you do early in your career because things are going to change. Being 22 and trying to map out your career usually doesn’t work.
And for more established employees, any tips for advancing?
Two things. First, you really have to do well in the job you are in and you have to differentiate yourself through your work. Secondly, having candid discussions on your performance is key—having a clear understanding of your performance and what you need to do to improve is critical to your development. Be inquisitive, be objective with your leader, establish a baseline and what you need to do to prepare yourself for the next level.
You were with Rockwell for forty years. What’s the secret to building a long-lasting relationship with a company like that?
Continually expand what I call your “professional knowledge base” by learning about what people senior to you in the organization do. People are normally very focused inward—when their next promotion or pay raise is. Look outward - be inquisitive about what is out there, and what opportunities are available. In doing so, you’ll be much more likely to build a meaningful career path.
As a voice on the JPMorgan Chase board, what steps have you seen the firm take to make improvements on recruiting and advancing black talent?
I don’t think it’s an issue of attracting black talent. We can attract the best and brightest. The real issue is one of development what happens when they come into the development process. This goes back to having an objective, candid performance assessment and having development discussions on a regular basis. Employees need to have a real clear idea of what they need to do to prepare for the next level assignment. That’s where the board and the Advancing Black Leaders initiative are focused.
You mentioned earlier that JPMorgan Chase has done well with the advancement of women.
Management concentrated on it, and took the bias out of the development process. And you can see the benefits of it at work.
When you see women like Marianne, Mary, Stacey—and now Lori and Robin on the Operating Committee, and Thasunda leading the Consumer Bank, they’re not window dressing; they are critical members of the team. That’s a huge plus for the company.
Each company has their own struggles with diversity; Silicon Valley has been criticized in particular. Where do you see room for improvement?
There’s a lot of room for improvement. Until you see company boards reflect the rest of America, we won’t be there. When we’re there, you’ll know it because it won’t be something that takes you back when you see a black person at the table.
The world looks a lot different than the senior management of our companies. We have seen significant improvements in the level of diversity awareness, and the acknowledgement of having diversity as part of a company’s strategic and global values. We need to better leverage diversity and to convert it to a strategic and competitive advantage.
Give an example of that—how does diversity bring a competitive advantage?
The emerging countries that are driving global economic growth today are all countries where there is diverse talent. Companies like Boeing, Apple and JPMorgan Chase are doing well in those markets, and there is a reason for that. It’s not only because we have the most competitive products, that’s part of it. It’s also about making sure that people that invest in having these businesses and products that come into their country get a fair share of the economic growth that results from the sale of those products. It’s about working within the culture of those countries and ensuring that the value of the product we sell is not taken out, but put back in to stimulate economic growth and jobs. I believe championing diversity and embracing inclusion is critical to achieving this end state.
You’re retired, but essentially working full time. When you do find a moment to yourself, what do you like to do?
I enjoy family time and playing golf. Recently, my family and I visited Washington D.C. and during our stay went to the African American museum. It’s clear our history as African Americans is the history of America—a fact that is not well taught in school. I also like to mentor young black people because it’s important to have role models and know that someone that looks like you was and is successful in corporate America
Last question—if you could appoint a board of advisors to help you make life’s biggest decisions, who would be on it?
At this stage in life, it’s a small board consisting of my wife Mary.