A Moment of Clarity

This issue of Creative Nonfiction began in New York in the summer of 1995. Chemical Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank had agreed to merge. Walter V. Shipley, then CEO of Chemical Bank, was to be the CEO of the new company.

Shipley is imposing—6 feet 8 inches tall—and as John J. Farrell, vice president of human resources at Chase, discovered, he could also be very determined. In addition to the challenges inherent in bringing together a combined workforce of 75,000 employees in 50 countries, Shipley decided that diversity would be a major priority. “Wouldn’t it be great to leave the baggage from the two companies at the door and start fresh?” Shipley asked Farrell at one of their first meetings.

With lots of help from Farrell, Shipley outlined plans for a diversity initiative he wanted to launch, beginning with the formation of a council made up of employees from various levels and walks of life, including the highest executive officers. At their next meeting, Farrell produced a list of executives who might serve on the council and a recommendation of one to chair it. Shipley approved the names but then surprised Farrell a second time. “John, my name isn’t on this list, and I want to be its chairman.”

Diversity initiatives were not uncommon in 1995, and CEOs do participate from time to time. But rarely do they put themselves in the trenches on a regular basis. Even if interested, they don’t have time— especially in the throes of a merger. But Shipley intended a dramatic gesture. “There is only one person who can lead the changes in attitude needed here,” Shipley told Farrell—and that was Shipley himself.

The Diversity Council first met in February 1996—an event Doug Anderson will never forget. Anderson, an African-American who joined heritage Chase in 1971, was skeptical about the process and the people who would participate, especially Walter Shipley. “There were people in management, both at Chase and Chemical, who had never had any experience with people of color in their entire lives— high school, college or graduate school. They had never interfaced with an African-American in senior management as a peer.”

Throughout most of his life, Anderson had always felt like an outsider. He had been adopted at 8 years old, attended a large urban high school, and graduated from an all-black college. He had always been comfortable with himself, but he had never felt as if he were an integrated part of the larger group. Chase had initiated diversity councils before, as had Chemical Bank, but neither had been particularly effective. This time Anderson refused to allow himself to become hopeful, only to be subsequently disappointed.

“I thought to myself, ‘I have to find out if Shipley means what he says.”’ There were 25 other people in the room—and Shipley was seated beside Anderson. “I looked him right in the eye, and I told him, ‘If this is going to be a conversation around nonsense, I don’t want to have anything to do with this, because it’s a waste of time.’”

Shipley’s response changed Anderson’s life at Chase Manhattan— and set the tone to change the shape of the entire company. He turned and locked eyes with Anderson. “We’re going to learn together about how to get along and work together, and we’re going to become a real team,” Shipley said.

But Anderson was still not satisfied. The other 25 members of the council were carefully watching this scene. Many shared Anderson’s skepticism. Some of the gay members were coming out for the first time, risking their positions and reputations. There was a lot to lose if this man, Walter Shipley, did not mean what he said. “I’ve been through this before,” Anderson told Shipley. “Why is this different?”

Shipley paused and looked around the room. It was a tense moment but crucial for both men. To gain Anderson’s trust and cooperation, Shipley had to prove that his intentions were honorable and that his diversity initiative was not a public-relations smoke screen. He turned back to Anderson. “You don’t know me. But I am going to tell you something right now. I have made a promise to myself and this company, and I am going to deliver.”

By “deliver,” Shipley meant, first and foremost, that he intended to set the tone for the entire group by confessing his own prejudices and vulnerabilities—no matter how difficult and revealing. “This,” said Anderson, “made a huge difference. That was a moment of clarity for me.”

Over the next few months, Shipley’s story unfolded. Even though Shipley had gone to a public high school with an ethnically and racially mixed student body, some of his family members held on to the oldest and most demeaning prejudices. “I remember as a kid in high school, playing basketball, and my parents and grandparents cringing when the sweaty towel was passed to me from a black player during a timeout.” He came face to face with his own inadequacies at Williams College when he flunked out his junior year. He “screwed up,” he said, and felt like a second-class citizen. Later he earned his degree at NYU and was accepted into the training program at the New York Trust Company, and he had nightmares about his failures.

To that point, he blamed himself for his perceived inadequacies; he didn’t recognize how entire groups could be alienated and ostracized for no logical reason—until 1959, when New York Trust merged with Chemical Bank. It was really an acquisition, not a merger, and within a year, most of his role models at the bank had either resigned or been dismissed.

The experience became a lesson he would never forget. “I went through the feelings that many minorities must have—that I wasn’t quite equal to those who came out of Chemical Bank. And I realized how energy-sapping and value-destroying exclusion could be, as opposed to creating an environment in which everyone feels they have an equal opportunity and there is a positive rather than negative energy force.”

This was Walter Shipley’s moment of clarity—a moment relived 35 years later in 1995 when Chemical Bank and Chase Manhattan came together and he became the leader of the new corporation. Clarity was reinforced by four daughters, who were confronting the male-oriented culture of the corporate world. His daughters were sometimes denied opportunities and privileges that came more easily to their male peers. “I was embarrassed about not knowing how hard it was for women in business,” says Shipley

Not long after the merger, he ran into a female executive based in New York who told him she was being transferred to Europe. “My reaction—I didn’t say it—was, ‘I wonder how her husband is coping.’ Later I realized that if she had been a male executive, I would have never wondered how his wife was coping with the transfer.”

The long process of awakening came to a head in 1995. From that point on, Shipley approached diversity with passion, says Farrell. “He was a half-dozen years away from retirement, but it seemed as if he wanted to have some legacy to hang on to, to showcase his career, other than the consolidation of the banks, for which he is known around the world.”

Joy Bunson, senior vice president of organizational development at Chase, also was a witness to Anderson’s confrontation with Shipley. “Walter insisted that each senior officer formulate similar diversity councils in their own business areas. By getting the senior officers to own the diversity effort, he made it clear to everyone in the organization that the diversity initiative was for real. The senior management team—which was where diversity had to start—got it quick.”

Under Shipley’s tenure, according to Anderson, the number of minorities in high-level management grew rapidly—from three managing directors in 1995 to 40 in the year 2000. Fred Hill, a former Pennsylvania state trooper who worked his way through law school at the University of Pittsburgh, was recruited from the MacDonald Douglas Corporation as executive vice president of marketing.

“What was interesting to me when I got here, two years after Walters initiative started, was that there were far more African-Americans and women in senior positions than any other place I have ever worked.” Hill became the first African-American appointed to the senior policymaking group for the bank—the policy council. “My appointment was a commitment to diversity on the highest levels of management. My experience, credibility and track record showed that I was qualified for the position, but they were clearly taking a chance on somebody that didn’t look like them.”

It was Hill whom I first approached with the idea of a special issue of Creative Nonfiction—at a precipitous time, as it turned out. Walter Shipley had recently retired, and Hill, along with William Harrison, the new chairman of the board and chief executive officer, were seeking ways to highlight and honor Shipley’s contributions. I met with Hill and Stephen Young, senior vice president of global diversity, yet another appointment resulting from Shipley’s efforts. Young coordinates nearly 50 diversity councils involving nearly 1,000 employees at any one time.

The story of how a true appreciation and understanding of diversity evolved at Chase Manhattan Bank is rooted in Walter Shipley’s basic decency as a human being, Hill and Young told me, but Shipley and Harrison are also astute businessmen. The mix of races, cultures, ages, religions and orientations that Shipley recognized in the Chase workforce also defined the bank’s customers. His decision to make diversity his highest priority was not only the right thing to do, but also good business.

Chase’s diversity programs have been cited as a model for other financial institutions, and Farrell, Hill, Young and Harrison are regularly consulted for insight and guidance. Last year Business Ethics Magazine ranked JPMorgan Chase as one of the best 100 corporate citizens, primarily on diversity evaluations, and one of the top 20 gay-friendly public companies in America. In 2001 Catalyst, a nonprofit organization working to advance women in business, gave JPMorgan Chase its Catalyst Award for demonstrating diverse approaches to changing corporate culture.

But establishing an atmosphere reflecting true diversity is an ongoing challenge, especially within an organization that continues to evolve. Recently Chase acquired three companies and merged with J.P. Morgan. Doug Anderson is now optimistic.

“When minorities walk in the door today, their first day on the job, I can look at them in the face and say, ‘One day one of you might be our chairman.’ When I walked in the door and started my career here 30 years ago, that fantasy never even crossed my mind. Our horizons as minorities are entirely different now from what they were 30 years ago, 10 years ago, and even five years. It began with one man. Walter Shipley made a hell of a difference.”

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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