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Engineering a Diverse Workplace: Edward Jones’ CRO Is Determined to ‘Be the Difference’

Christopher Van Buren transitioned from engineering into finance and risk management, inspired to “build something that lasts”

Friday, May 6, 2022

By L.A. Winokur

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Edward Jones chief risk officer Christopher Van Buren recently revealed that his biggest career lesson to date is that he “can be the difference.” It is something he said he didn’t have the confidence to do earlier on.

The veteran risk executive made these remarks in February while participating in a GARP New York Chapter panel discussion on diversity and inclusion.

Only a couple of years ago, such a comment would hardly have been common CRO-speak. A lot has changed as talk of diversity has taken center stage in C-suites and boardrooms.

Van Buren emphasized that dealing with diversity is indeed good risk management.

Chris Van BurenChristopher Van Buren

It may also be his inner engineer coming out, the problem-solver seeing that the more representation in the room – diversity of backgrounds, experiences and thought – the more beneficial for everyone and the bottom line.

With a Princeton University BSE degree in engineering and computer science and a Master’s in electrical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, Van Buren started out as a software engineer in the 1980s, then switched to financial services. He has held high-profile positions in risk and asset management at Goldman Sachs & Co. (1991-2005), Lehman Brothers (2005-2009), the Rockefeller Foundation (2009-2010) and UBS (2010-2014). At TIAA (2014-2021), he rose to executive vice president and CRO, financial risk and capital management, before becoming Edward Jones principal and CRO in April 2021.

The executive believes that a company’s culture is a “key enabler” of diversity and risk management. In a recent interview, he called it “the glue that brings people together” and asserted that it “has to resonate with all of us.”

In the interview, Van Buren went into more detail about his career path and the importance of diversity in the workplace, particularly for risk management.

How would you characterize your career to date?

This desire to design, build and improve things that last. That’s something I’ve brought from my engineering days. I’ve tried to be a continuous learner.

For me, what used to be computer systems are now asset managers, wealth managers, banking businesses and insurance businesses – not only what I’ll call the what, but the how: How to be a good teammate and how to listen and find a role that I need to play to move the team toward the goals.

Did you have mentors?

I found informal mentors, people I could ask for advice when I wasn’t sure what my next step was.

Were there aha moments along the way that helped you build confidence?

I was a shy kid growing up. I wasn’t the one who raised his hand or had much to say unless I knew the answer. When I came into the financial industry – even engineering – there were very few people of color that I knew who could help me find a voice.

I would say the ahas were incremental: a teacher who told me they really did want to hear what I had to say, and that I should have raised my hand. Or an adviser who told me I was capable of earning a doctorate in electrical engineering. I ended up not doing that, but I hadn’t really thought about it. Another was when I stood up years ago on a stage and made my first big presentation to risk colleagues as a CRO. I still can’t figure out how I did it. You take the moment and grab it. Then you look back and say, “Hmm. I did that.”

All of these little ahas provide you with a view of what could be and broaden your horizons.

Is that why you want to “be the difference” for others?

Yes. When you get other people to give you diverse points of view, you can start seeing the impact you can have. Those things are confidence-building.

Was your lack of confidence also linked to often being the only person of color in the room?

I think that was part of it. Also, many of us benefit from being able to visualize what it is you want to become. Call it being a visual learner. You really need to see your goal to achieve it, and I had never really seen this clearly.

I also felt like I needed to be perfect in my understanding of something before I could speak up.

What changed?

I trust myself more. I trust my experience more than I might have when I was younger. I also know how to ask for help now.

The importance of having a good team, having great colleagues, I don’t think it can be overstated.

Why is diversity a priority for risk management?

Risk management is a way of working that people value because it supports intentional decision-making. Getting diverse experiences and viewpoints to the table to make better outcomes in the future is a risk management best practice.

Many of my risk colleagues have backgrounds in engineering, marketing, consumer business, economics, political science. I’ve learned a lot from those colleagues.

As risk management has matured, gathering all of this expertise, all of these diverse experiences, has yielded and will yield significant value.

What do you look for when recruiting a risk team?

Leadership experience and technical skills. I want people who have experience influencing decisions through collaboration and creating constructive challenge.

To also have the technical skills, but then be able to translate [them], makes it accessible to the larger organization [and] is absolutely key in embedding risk management as a way or working, not just a set of activities that are performed.

I want to bring those two [leadership and technical skills] together because I want to represent the risk management framework and governance in terms that business leaders connect with and then value.

I don’t want to turn business leaders into risk managers, but I want them to be managers of risk.

Do risk managers need thick skin?

We all want to be challenged with positive intent, but you have to be prepared for the other kind of challenge as well. That means you have to stay on point with what your goals are and what you’re there to do.

Does the risk management role include mentoring?

Absolutely. That’s not just a risk management imperative, but one every manager should be focused on, working to create that kind of inclusive and supportive environment for their team.

Given the Great Resignation and workers’ desire for more work-life balance, what risks and opportunities are on your radar screen?

Talent risks have got to be on every risk manager’s mind these days.

Challenges in retention and recruiting are different. Firms are able to throw a wider net to get diverse talent. Conversely, other firms can throw a wider net over you.

You want to be responsive and forward-thinking in how you navigate the new workforce, the new workplace. The firms that meet people where they are will be the ones that will keep and then grow talent going forward.

Edward Jones began welcoming its U.S. home office colleagues back to the office in April and is transitioning to a flexible work model. The model is leader-led and empowers leaders and associates to determine the right flexible work arrangement that balances the needs of business, team and individual.

During the GARP panel discussion, you said you prefer to call yourself “chief influence officer” rather than CRO. Please elaborate.

It goes back to my desire to build something that lasts.

When I left engineering and moved to finance, for many years I lamented the fact I didn’t build anything anymore. As an engineer, I could see the things I worked on. They were tangible and really cool.

Now that I’ve moved to risk management, I think this way of working is an integral part of the success of every organization.

I want to ensure I’m carrying that message and being influential around demonstrating the value of that way of working within the organization. If I can do that, then I really do think I’m part of building something that lasts.

 

L.A. Winokur is a veteran business journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.




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