Undergraduate Blog

Leading with Empathy and Purpose: Q&A with Penny Pennington (McIntire ’85), Managing Partner at Edward Jones

Having risen in the ranks of the firm she now leads, the banking powerhouse named to Fortune magazine’s list of the Most Powerful Women in Finance in 2022 can still trace the kernel of her sound and measured approach to her work back to Grounds.

Penny Pennington

2022 proved to be nothing short of a fortuitous year for Penny Pennington. Having been named the sixth Managing Partner in the history of venerable financial services firm Edward Jones three years earlier, she led the company through its centennial celebration that included a notable net income increase of 25%, reaching a $1.61 billion total.

Later that year, Pennington, the only woman heading a major U.S. brokerage—one supported by 50,000 associates across North America who manage $1.7 trillion in assets for its 8 million-plus clients—was also elected to the board of governors of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the brokerage industry’s self-regulatory organization.

Capping off those impressive accomplishments? She was also named to Fortune magazine’s list of the Most Powerful Women in Finance in 2022.

So as a woman at the helm of a well-respected, century-old company with more than 15,000 branch offices, Pennington rightfully has strong convictions about the potential for further equity and gender advancements in her sector.

“If you ask me, making progress in having more diversity in leadership all starts with culture—and it can’t be a culture that’s left to chance. It requires being very thoughtful and intentional about the culture an organization nurtures,” she says, explaining that Edward Jones has set clear expectations about the culture and behaviors they want to emulate in order to achieve their shared purpose. “It starts with three aspirations: to be purpose-driven, be human-centered, and lead with courage. We hold each other accountable in a responsibility-based way.”

Edward Jones has committed to representation benchmarks at their senior leadership level, for leadership in their home offices, and for their financial advisors by 2025. “One of our goals is to have 20% People of Color in leadership and 50% female leadership in our U.S. and Canada headquarters,” she says, pointing out that they are already quite close to realizing those aims.

Driven by a desire to allow colleagues and clients to see themselves within the firm’s leadership and teams, she says that as they help those they serve to pursue their financial dreams, it’s also about letting people know they belong. It’s an ongoing process that Pennington acknowledges takes time and effort.

“There’s a lot of hard work and everyday actions that go toward building true equity, and it’s work we’re willing to do. It’s all part of our efforts to build a truly equitable culture at Edward Jones. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see more of this progress throughout our industry, and I think we will,” she says.

For her part, Pennington has pursued a career highlighted by achievements tracing back to a dozen years as a Senior Vice President with Wachovia Bank of Georgia and a trio of years as Managing Director with Comerica Bank in Detroit, before joining Edward Jones in 2000. Having risen in the ranks of the firm she now leads—from her initial role as a financial advisor and a series of leadership positions as a Principal overseeing different areas of the company’s portfolio—the banking powerhouse who calls the St. Louis, MO, area home can still trace the kernel of her sound and measured approach to her work back to Grounds.

“The McIntire School gave me the foundation I needed to get my career in finance started,” she says. Having chosen to apply to UVA, “in part because of the quality and distinction of the Comm School,” Pennington recalls that she was petrified as a second-year that she wouldn’t be admitted. But that sense of unease was short lived and replaced by exuberance.

 “I felt like I’d won the lottery when I was accepted,” she says, insisting that the rigor and relationships she had at McIntire made for an exceptional education. “It was so challenging—and it was so worth it. I for sure didn’t know at the time what was in store for me in my career, but I always felt that all my professors were truly invested in preparing us students to make the most of our potential. My experience was fantastic.”

We spoke with Pennington about how she took that potential to excel in her work and in her industry, and to discover more about her recent accolade, as well as the many ways she’s made a positive impact at her firm and in the lives of others.

Congratulations on being named to Barron’s list of the 100 Most Influential Women in Finance! In what ways have you felt you’ve been best able to use your position to do the most good?

I think it’s tremendously important for companies to be involved—deeply involved—in the communities they serve. Business for good is good for business, and I’m proud of all the ways Edward Jones has supported these important stakeholders.

We’re unique in that we are hyperlocal in 3,000 communities across North America; there aren’t a lot of businesses that can say that. We get involved in our communities because the people we’re supporting are our neighbors, and our firm is naturally full of people who want to help—it’s why we’re drawn to this line of work in the first place.

One way we get involved is through our charitable contributions. In 2021, we contributed more than $26 million through corporate, Edward Jones Foundation, and associate philanthropic support to 259 organizations that aligned with our purpose and focus areas.

We also care about the issues that are important to our communities, and we focus our efforts in areas where we can make the most impact. For example, we have a long-standing alliance with the Alzheimer’s Association. Together, we enhance programming, provide educational materials, fund critical research, and impact early detection of the disease. Since becoming a National Presenting Sponsor for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, nearly 100,000 have walked under the Edward Jones banner, and the firm and our associates have raised more than $35 million for the fight to end Alzheimer’s disease.

Our desire to help people achieve what’s most important to them is central to who we are. Whether they’re our clients or not, most people want to build long-lasting financial strength, and financial knowledge is critically important. That’s why we created our Financial Fitness program, which provides guidance and tools to millions of families in North America to raise their confidence in their ability to achieve greater possibility in their lives. We launched this program in 2020, and since then, through our in-school programming, combined with a free digital education platform available on our website, we’ve reached more than 433,000 learners—nearly halfway toward our goal of reaching 1 million learners by the end of 2025.

These are just a few examples of the work we do to support our communities. Being able to have this kind of impact on people’s lives is so important, and it’s work we’ll continue to do day in and day out.

What do you consider the most exciting changes in the financial services industry? What are you looking forward to in the coming years?

This is a topic I could talk about all day, so I’ll try to hit just the highlights. So much is changing in our industry, and it’s changing very quickly.

Let’s start with our clients. What they’re looking for from a financial advisor today is a lot different than it was a generation ago. What they need and value, and what it will take to help them achieve financial health, is changing in unprecedented ways. What they’re asking of us looks a little less like financial advice and more about advice on their well-being.

Over the past few years, we’ve been conducting a large study of retirees and pre-retirees, and we found that people want advice that looks a lot more holistic than it used to. The study focused on four pillars that comprise retirement today: purpose, health, family, and finances. Each of these four pillars is deeply intertwined with the other, and all are important to living well in retirement.

We’re transforming many things about our firm in order to help our clients holistically, and in a way that’s very human-centered. When I think about what I’m most looking forward to, this transformation is what immediately comes to mind.

We serve 8 million clients today, but we view our opportunity as being able to impact the lives of as many as 42 million people and their families. We’re transforming so we can achieve our purpose, which is to partner for positive impact, to improve the lives of our clients and colleagues, and together, better our communities and society.

As we transform, we’ll be better positioned to help more clients have possibilities in their lives, to connect our colleagues even more deeply to their own purpose and how their talents help them achieve it, and to ensure that every community feels the impact that is generated by our making a difference for people. That is incredibly exciting to think about.

Regarding your own role, what has it taught you about successful leadership? What approaches have worked for you?

I’m a big believer in the importance of empathetic leadership. It’s how I’ve always tried to lead, and at Edward Jones, it’s a key tenet of our culture. Leading with empathy allows us to connect to our purpose, and it fuels the cultural renewal and strategic transformation we’ve embarked upon. It impacts what we do for and with our stakeholders, and it guides us to think like our clients and colleagues, not just about them.

We all hold each other accountable in a responsibility-based way, and we think about more than the what of our leadership—we also think about the how of it. Our leaders help others understand their role in our firm’s journey so that everyone knows they belong, they’re contributing, and they’re providing value. All of our associates are important to our future, and our leadership approach helps everyone recognize that.

Another important aspect of my leadership style is that I don’t pretend to know everything. With the speed everything moves at today, it’s simply not possible for a leader to say that they have all the answers. Instead, by letting others know I can’t solve every problem by myself, it invites others to engage and co-create with me. So much innovation and creativity come out of that approach. We get great thinking from a lot of really smart people, and the outcomes are far better that way.

In addition to your work at Edward Jones, you’re on the board of governors of FINRA, the brokerage industry’s self-regulatory organization. In your opinion, what are some of the greatest challenges the industry faces, and how do you envision creating solutions with FINRA?

Just as with everything we do, we view our work with FINRA through the lens of our purpose. Our goal is to advocate for regulations that help our clients be the most successful. It runs in parallel to the work we do through our Grassroots Task Force, a group of our financial advisors and branch office administrators that meets regularly with U.S. legislators to serve as a voice for individual investors. One of the topics our team regularly discusses is the use of financial education to build a stable financial future for more Americans.

Financial education is an important issue that the entire industry should support. Many more people than ever before are investing, but there are still many who are not. The World Economic Forum estimates that more than a third of U.S. adults aren’t investing. The more people understand the benefits of the capital markets, the more opportunity opens up for them. Investors need more of a general understanding of why and how they should invest, and financial literacy can help, especially when it’s taught from a young age. It’s a cause we are supporting through our Financial Fitness program and other initiatives.

What personal philosophy or vision drives you in your career? How has that changed (or not) over time and in what ways?

The best advice anyone ever gave me was very simple: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” It’s advice I remind myself of all the time, and it’s a philosophy I still adhere to every day. I don’t just say “yes” to things that are easy and familiar; I’ve spent much of my career saying “yes” to challenging things that are well outside of my comfort zone, and it’s always worked out well for me. As one very wise person phrased it, I either succeeded or I learned.

Granted, this wasn’t always the case. There were times in my career when someone asked me to take on a responsibility that I wasn’t 100% certain I was ready for. But I realized that if someone I respected thought I was capable of taking on that challenge, why should I say no? If someone else puts that level of trust in me, I should also be putting that same level of trust in myself. People don’t have to be 100% qualified for a role in order to excel in it and learn from it. In my case, I believed in my abilities, and once in the role, I asked a lot of questions, worked in a team-based way with my remarkable colleagues, and gained expertise and experience that prepared me to meet the next opportunity. And I always learned a lot along the way.

I have, at times in my career, found myself wondering if I should try to “be someone else” and to be less than my authentic self at work. Instead, I’ve found it to be more successful and rewarding when I was simply myself and I brought who I am to the picture. As Oscar Wilde famously advised us all, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” The things that make each of us unique are the things that are most valuable today.

I’ve learned to just be myself, and there’s a confidence to be found in that. That’s the confidence that comes from gaining experience. The more challenges I took on that made me uncomfortable at first, the more I grew. It helped me find my voice and recognize that it was me the firm needed in a given role, not a modified version of me.

Ultimately, what’s most important to you about your work?

Helping others has always been part of my personal purpose. That’s one of the many reasons I started my career as a financial advisor at Edward Jones in the first place. I believe we’re all a part of something larger than ourselves, and we can all truly make a difference through our individual actions.

If you think about it, you realize that our entire industry exists to help others. We help people and their families achieve what’s financially most important to them. We help them achieve things they never thought possible. Who wouldn’t be energized by that?

The wellspring of our energy and our joy as human beings comes from our personal purpose. We’re the most joyous and most successful when we know we’re living into it. That’s why I get so excited to talk about the future we’re building at Edward Jones for investors; for our clients; for our 50,000 colleagues throughout North America; and for the thousands of communities where we live, work, and serve.

At Edward Jones, we distilled that energy into three words: purpose, action, and impact. That’s how we think about the experiences, innovation, and value we’re trying to create for our stakeholders all the time. We translate our purpose into action that makes impact. When we have all three of those elements in play, we know we’re on the right track.

My personal purpose goes beyond work, too. I apply it in my community work, with my family, and in everything I do. We aren’t defined as people by our jobs or where we work; personal purpose should apply to one’s entire life.

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