Penn Professional Staff Assembly talks with Wharton Dean Erika James

In a candid conversation, James opened up about her career, the pandemic, and workplace diversity.

portrait of Dean Erika James
Wharton School Dean, Erika James (Image: Wharton School)

The Penn Professional Staff Assembly (PPSA) held its annual meeting in May and featured a conversation with Erika James, dean of the Wharton School.
PPSA serves University staff members by helping them realize their full potential at Penn. Its mission is to connect the Penn staff community to each other.

The 35-minute virtual discussion was with elected members of PPSA and questions were received via chat from attendees.
Kris Forrest, PPSA chair and director of finance at the Penn Museum, moderated the conversation.

“We were honored to welcome Dean James for an enlightening conversation about her career and journey to Penn, how she led Wharton through the COVID-19 pandemic, and how institutional leaders can promote and prepare women and minorities for leadership positions,” says Forrest.

James became dean of Wharton on July 1, 2020. She studied at Pomona College before receiving her Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan, and is a leading expert on crisis leadership, workplace diversity, and management strategy.

She is the first woman and first person of color to be appointed dean in Wharton’s 139-year history.

Before joining Wharton, she was dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and a professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

The following interview includes a portion of the questions Forrest posed to James during the event.

Dean James, we would love to hear more about your journey to Penn. You have an amazing bio, but we wonder if you could share with us something about your career experience that’s not necessarily in your bio.

I think the most unusual thing about my journey to Penn is that it was not planned. Nothing in my resume was a part of a master plan, and, in fact, I refer to myself as the accidental academic. I think the thing that has been consistent throughout the various roles that I’ve had is a focus on psychology. My stepfather was a clinical psychologist, and I thought it was interesting what he did by learning from and talking with people about challenges that we’re facing and using words and communication to help navigate through some of those challenges. So, in college I studied psychology as a major.

I finished my degree. I took some time off in the midst of my Ph.D. program to actually have a ‘real job,’ and I use that with air quotes. I worked for American Express in New York City for a period of time, and what I learned from that experience is that that was not for me. I did not want to have a corporate career. I found engagement of the academy much more fulfilling. So, I ended up, at the request of my dissertation chair, pursuing my first academic appointment. Things just sort of progressed from there, but this was never a master plan. I certainly had no expectation, or even interest, in becoming a dean, much less the dean of the world’s largest business school.

You are one of the trailblazers for women in leadership, higher education, and in corporate America. What can institutional leaders do to recruit, retain, promote, and nurture women, and especially women of color, in leadership positions?

They have to be purposeful. They have to have a leader’s commitment to learn about their own organization, where they see barriers or impediments that prevent women from entering the organization or from advancing and succeeding in the organization. I think there’s both the leadership, commitment, and then there’s basically an audit of learning what’s working and what’s not working for women, and in those environments.

Your historic leadership of the Wharton School began in the middle of a global pandemic. As an expert in crisis leadership, what new insights did you gain through your experience this past year?

I think we all learned quite a bit this year. We all had to learn to adapt, and we had to learn to be flexible and agile. I had to learn to become comfortable with ambiguity as someone who came into a new role and into a new work environment, a new job. I think, as someone who was assuming any kind of leadership responsibility, what this pandemic, what this experience has really reinforced for me is how important it is to use all one’s skills and be really creative in trying to build relationships within your organization. As you’re going through a crisis, as we’re all facing things that we have never faced before, it takes everyone’s creativity and knowledge and expertise to know how to execute on the work that your organization or your department is responsible for.

Over the course of the last year, what were some of your biggest challenges, or notable highlights?

The biggest challenge was relocating to a new environment that was not open in ways that one normally expects when you’re relocating from one city to another. It made it very difficult to meet people, to build relationships, to learn the community that I was joining, whether that’s the Philadelphia community or the University of Pennsylvania. The fact that there was so little access to people and places made it difficult to just understand what the environment was that I was coming into.

Quite frankly, the highlight happened for me last Monday [May 18th], when Penn had its graduation for undergraduates. It was the first time I saw, in real life, what people have said about the energy on Locust Walk and what it’s like to have so many people there and to see smiling faces, and to see families together in celebration of their graduate was really a heartwarming experience for me.

How is the Wharton curriculum being reshaped to address the increased focus on environmental, social, and governance concerns, as well as diversity and inclusion?

This year really brought to the forefront these kinds of issues, and what I have observed at the Wharton School is there’s so much focus by many of our faculty already on these matters connected to diversity and inclusion. And that’s been very heartening to see and coupled with the faculty interest in this work. We’re also seeing tremendous demand and enthusiasm from our students who are wanting more access to this kind of content in the curriculum.

How did you go about learning Wharton’s culture from a distance, and what advice would you have to academic professionals who are hoping to grow their careers but are feeling a little limited by the pandemic’s obstacles?

For me, learning Wharton’s culture was really about finding as many avenues as possible to engage with as many people as possible. Whether that was one-on-one meetings, whether that was small-group meetings, whether it was large-group meetings, whether it was town hall sessions—any chance that I could meet members of the Wharton community.

There have been obstacles we’ve all had to learn to navigate. Our lives are very different, leveraging technology in ways that we never had to before, and then the drain of technology, both physically and emotionally. It’s hard for all of us. Using platforms like Zoom, you have to be even more intentional about finding other ways to connect.

What are a few beginning steps offices can do to help their employees feel they can bring their entire selves to work?

There are people who really like to compartmentalize. Work is one thing, and family life is another thing, and personal life is another thing. I think we have to build space for people who prefer to compartmentalize. Many people, and I include myself in this group, do not want to bring their whole selves to work. And the interesting thing about this pandemic is that most of us have been forced to do that in many respects, when we’re peering into each other’s homes, and you can sort of see what’s going on in the background of people’s lives, and children running in the background, or dogs or cats hopping up on your lap in the middle of all this. In those ways, many of us have willingly or not brought more of ourselves to work than we might have expected. I think as leaders, we have to be prepared to navigate the differences that exist in people, and how comfortable they are with respect to how much or how little they want to share at work. So, that’s ultimately a leader’s responsibility.

We focused a lot this past year across campus how the pandemic is affecting business, but what about self-care? What have you done to remain focused and calm, not only at Wharton but in your personal life?

For me, I noticed after a period of time that I was spending, especially once I moved to Philadelphia, a lot of time ordering food to be delivered. And it was very convenient for the first couple months. It was delicious, and I loved experimenting and getting names of restaurants from colleagues about what I must try. But then I also noticed that I was eating a lot of really wonderful food, but not always healthy food. One night I had a craving for lobster bisque. I wanted to try and make it. I googled different recipes. I went out grocery shopping, bought everything I needed. It was a really challenging but enjoyable experience, and the most enjoyable part was it actually tasted like the restaurants. That one experience caused me to pick another recipe and try it out. It’s now become a part of my life that I find I enjoy much more so than earlier in my life.