Chicago Booth Magazine A Year Like No Other
Rodney Jones-Tyson, ’98, Baird’s chief risk officer and head of its COVID-19 response, shared his perspective on innovation, preparation, and giving back.
- By January 25, 2021
- Career Impact
Rodney Jones-Tyson, ’98, is chief risk officer and a managing director at Baird, a privately held, employee-owned, global financial services firm based in Milwaukee, where he has been employed for 22 years. Risk management, he says, is seeking to mitigate against those high-impact things that could go wrong behind the scenes—from liquidity to trading and settlement risks to cyberattacks to a pandemic-induced business disruption. At the helm of the firm’s COVID-19 response, Jones-Tyson led the team that orchestrated a four-day worldwide transition of 4,400 employees from the firm’s more than 200 offices to their homes. Jones-Tyson is the first gay person as well as the first African American to serve on Baird’s executive committee.
The “Booth Way” is my every day. It’s not about having the answer. At the start you can have intuition, a hunch. We establish a hypothesis and then allow the data to prove whether what we thought was the case is or is not true. What I learned at Booth gave me the freedom to be intellectually curious. At Baird we try to ask better questions so we can provide better solutions to our clients and stakeholders. I try to let data drive our decision-making as much as possible: for our response to the pandemic, we follow CDC and WHO guidelines and import Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center data into our models to analyze trends at the local level so we can determine which of our 200 offices around the world can be open at higher or lower capacity.
At the start of the pandemic, we asked ourselves, “How do we keep people safe and stay connected?” In early March, our CEO and executive team agreed we needed to get as many associates as possible to work from home. That included our equity and bond traders; private wealth management financial advisers; equity research analysts; asset management, private equity, and investment banking teams; and our operations and corporate staff. We were trying to do something we had not done on this scale before, all while continuing to trade and settle billions of dollars a day. In about four days we moved 4,400 of 4,600 employees to at-home work. We saw the problem and—I’m riffing here on Apollo 13—we just kept working the problem. At times things were moving so fast that it was a struggle. Our IT teams did an incredible job of making it happen. This experience has been a highlight of my career. I learned a ton. I never want to do it again.
“We’re human. We make connections in the workplace…. Most importantly, we learn when we are around others.”
Now that we can work from home, I value the workplace even more. While working from home every day has allowed me to exercise more consistently and have dinner at a more convenient hour, there are definite benefits to being in the workplace. We’re human. We make connections in the workplace, we collaborate and create in the workplace, and, most importantly, we learn when we are around others, whether they be colleagues or clients.
I started my post-MBA career as an investment banker at Baird. Investment banking is an apprenticeship. Chicago Booth gave me the foundation to do the technical aspects of the job, valuing companies and deciphering business strategies, but there is an art to dealmaking, whether you’re the buyer or the seller. If young bankers are working from home, they’re not being pulled into a senior banker’s office to hear a conversation with a buyer or CEO. In the early stages of your career, you’ve got to see and hear what others do. I do not believe that you can build a corporate career through video conferences alone. You need to meet with clients and “walk the floor” with them—you need to randomly bump into colleagues and strike up a conversation about something professional or personal.
Leaders must know how to coach, mentor, and develop their team, remotely and in person. So I am looking forward to leaving my pleasant COVID-19 home bubble and spending more time with peers, staff, and clients.
With the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing demonstrations, we’re in a whole new world. I’ve had a hand in Baird’s inclusion and diversity initiatives since 2005. I&D work is very prominently supported at Baird. However, this summer represented a significant change in our dialogue. We are having more intentional conversations at the executive level about what it means to be a Black American, what it means to be privileged, what a commitment to increase the recruitment and retention of minorities to our firm requires, what support we want to provide to communities of color in our key markets, and, maybe most importantly, what it takes to really have an inclusive environment for all.
Diversity hiring initiatives are how I got into finance. As a high-school senior in suburban Baltimore in the mid-1980s, I applied to a program called INROADS, whose mission is to develop and place talented minority youth in business and industry and prepare them for corporate and community leadership. I attended “how to succeed” training classes on Saturday mornings during the summer. I continued with the program while I was at the University of Maryland, where I studied finance.
I was a summer intern at Citibank for three years and then joined their management associate development program upon graduation. From there I went to New York, where I joined Chase Manhattan Bank [now JPMorgan Chase] and became a credit analyst. I came to the University of Chicago with five years of work experience, and while at Chicago Booth, I was awarded a fellowship by the Robert A. Toigo Foundation, which paid a good portion of my graduate school tuition, exposed me to investment banking, and provided me with a mentor in the industry. INROADS and the Toigo Foundation were game changers for me.
“The lesson I learned? When you’re in trouble, set your ego aside and ask for help.”
I came to Booth to shift my career into investment banking. But the course that rocked my world was Organizational Behavior. Those concepts, of how people and teams are organized, of what drives an organization to make and embrace change, have made for a whole bunch of aha moments in my career. Study groups with a mix of people in finance, marketing, and engineering enabled me to understand the value of having a diversity of experiences on a team. While my finance and accounting courses helped me start my investment banking career, my organizational behavior, strategy, negotiations, and leadership classes propelled me forward.
Multiple mentors championed me. I found them, or they found me. At Chase Manhattan Bank, a department head helped me think about other paths and wrote my business school recommendation. Another, former Baird chairman and CEO Paul Purcell, ’71, took an interest in my career. I was a second-year associate, and it just so happened that his office was next to mine—yes, the CEO’s office—and we’d chat. Paul had a tremendous impact on me, both personally and professionally. He advocated for me, mentored me—scolded me when I may have argued with or unintentionally upset others. He believed I would succeed if given the chance.
Paul died suddenly in February, and it was a great loss for me and others who knew him. I think about and use the many valuable lessons he taught me. You do not get anywhere without the help of others, and I try to pay that forward. I spend many a late night taking calls to give advice or direction.
I learned a valuable lesson from a failure that occurred when I was working for Baird in London. I was handling the day-to-day execution of a large M&A deal. At the signing I could not figure out a complicated shareholder table to allocate the deal’s value. I shut down and didn’t ask anyone to help me. I was afraid to be seen as the Black person who couldn’t figure it out. My stomach still turns at how simple it could have been to ask for help and how stupid I was for not asking. The lesson I learned? When you’re in trouble, set your ego aside and ask for help.
Charitable board work in Chicago, where I live, opened my eyes and my heart. I am the board chair for the Foundation for Homan Square, and I am a board member and former board chair of IFF. Both of these nonprofits are constantly educating me. We help charter schools, childcare, and federally qualified health-care operators build or improve their facilities. We conduct policy research. We partner with community organizations to develop affordable housing. It’s just a great honor to learn from and lend my experience to what these nonprofits do incredibly well, which is to positively impact communities and human lives.
My husband, Maurice, is the better part of me. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. We’ve been together 30 years and married in 2014. We had a courthouse wedding, no guests. When colleagues found out, boy, did I hear about it. I realized that my colleagues wanted to be in my life in a way I had not appreciated. We tend to build walls to protect ourselves. I’ve found that the more authentic I’ve been, the more success I’ve had.