Gina Luna, managing director for JPMorgan Chase in the Houston region and immediate past chair of the Greater Houston Partnership, spoke with William F. McKeon, executive vice president and chief strategy and operating officer of the Texas Medical Center, about leadership styles, work-life balance, and the benefits of living and working in Houston.
Q | Take us back to the very beginning. Where were you born and raised?
A | I was born in Hereford, Texas. Let me start by saying it’s a very glamorous place, in the Texas panhandle, near Amarillo. There’s maybe 15,000 people on a really good day, and it’s named after the Hereford white-faced cow. It’s feedlots, the beef capital of the world. My mom’s family business was farming and ranching, so my grandparents had lots of farm and ranch land. My dad was a banker, so we lived in the “city.” I did spend time on the farm and in the country. We knew almost everybody in the town. What’s so fun is I often meet people who know somebody from Hereford, because if you say, ‘Hereford,’ of course they remember and say, ‘Oh, you must know so-and-so,’ and invariably I do know the name. I have a brother, two years older than me, and a sister who’s four years younger.
Q | Did either of your siblings also follow in your father’s footsteps and pursue a career in banking?
A | My sister worked for Chase, in the investment bank, as an analyst after undergrad, and then when it was time for her to go back to graduate school, instead of going to business school she went to culinary school. She and my brother are actually both trained chefs. Neither is a professional in that field now, but it’s a little intimidating if you’re in the kitchen together. My mom is basically Martha Stewart and the two of them are trained chefs and I’m not, but I can follow a recipe.
Q | Tell me about your parents.
A | My father was in local banking at Hereford State Bank, what we would call consumer and small business banking—the friendliest man in town who knows everybody. It was perfect for him and he did it until he retired. Now his favorite thing to do is go to Hereford State Bank on Fridays and serve popcorn to the customers that come in the lobby. I always say he’s the public relations arm of the bank. My mom is an amazing role model for me. She is among the smartest people I know, and she is definitely the most resourceful. There is nothing she can’t do. My parents raised us to have a strong work ethic and to be responsible and resilient.
Q | When did you leave Hereford? Was it university that took you out of your hometown?
A | I went to Texas A&M because I loved the Aggie traditions and values and I thought I would get a good education. During my junior year at A&M, I was in business school and I thought I wanted to do an internship in banking and finance, so I went to a professor and said, “Where do you think would be a good internship?” He said, “There’s one internship for an Aggie at Texas Commerce Bank in Houston, and you need to get that internship because that’s the best one and you’ll get the best experience.” I did, and I came here as a summer intern between my junior and senior year. I had a great experience. I loved the work, I loved the people. My now-husband was a few years ahead of me; he was working at the bank already, and he was the person they assigned to be my mentor for the summer. I met him on my second day of work.
I ended up getting an offer at the end of the summer to be an analyst after I graduated, which I didn’t accept because I thought, ‘Who would accept the first job they’ve ever been offered?’ It didn’t seem like the right thing to do. I said, ‘Thank you very much but I would like to think about it.’ I went back to school and interviewed with everybody and got lots of job offers and then thought, gosh, I think I really liked what I had. I ultimately accepted the offer, so this is literally the only place I’ve ever worked.
Q | What’s the best part of banking?
A | To me, the fun part is doing the things that are not what people expect. In this company of 235,000 smart people all over the world, we have somebody who knows a lot about almost everything. When I’m able
to find the right person or some valuable information and make connections that help people, that’s exciting. We do this inside the firm, but it’s also really fun to do that in the community because we’re in a position to know a lot of people and know about their businesses.
Q | How would a colleague describe your style?
A | They would say I have a lot of energy. I’m very collaborative. I don’t take no for an answer very easily. I always think there’s a way to get something done.
I often see people referring to optimism as a trade-off, as if you cannot be both an optimist and a pragmatist. I don’t buy that at all. It ties very much into my belief that there’s always a way. Short of being in two places at once, which is what I always want the most, I really believe I can almost always find a way to make something work. It also comes from being very grateful for the big things and the small things every day, and having the perspective that things happen for a reason.
Q | Has your leadership style remained constant or has it evolved over the years?
A | I do think you learn from people all along the way. People who you work for, people who you work with. I think my style is consistent, but I hope people would say I’ve refined and learned skills. I do think you have to, at some point, make a conscious decision to step up and lead in a certain way. I would say five years ago my leadership was much more around doing my job well, if you will, and then the last five years I’ve had more opportunity to lead more broadly and through community impact, like with the Greater Houston Partnership. In our company, there’s a strong culture and so you learn to be successful within that culture. Then when you lead more broadly, you realize, “You know what? Not everybody grew up in the JPMorgan Chase culture.” The way we all hold each other accountable and the standards that we have don’t necessarily apply to everybody else. You learn a different way of driving at the same pace. I think we move fast in this organization. Patience is probably not my strongest attribute. People at the Partnership would say, ‘Gina, Rome was not built in a day,’ and I’d say, ‘If it could be, we should go ahead and do that.’ It’s always a matter of prioritizing, right?
With that said, there have been several points in my career where I’ve had to rely on borrowed confidence, where I have been asked to take on a responsibility, a role, whatever, that quite honestly, in my heart of hearts, I was thinking, ‘I wonder if anybody knows that I don’t have a clue how to do this.’ But then there is someone who thinks I can do it, so I think I must be able to do it. You fake it until you make it.
Q | What is your perspective of the Texas Medical Center?
A | I think the medical center is an absolute jewel. It is one of the most valuable assets we have. Of course, I mean that from an economic impact perspective, but to me it’s on a very personal level, too. When someone from outside Houston just gets a cancer diagnosis and they’re calling me saying, “I have to go to MD Anderson and I don’t know how,” because it’s Houston, I say, “I’ll be thrilled to help you.”
In the bigger picture, when I sit and listen to the plans for TMC3 [an ambitious new innovation campus still in the planning stages], and TMCx [an accelerator program, launched in 2015, that offers startup companies shared workspace and guidance from health care leaders], I get so excited because I think about what that will mean for Houston in terms of our next generation. The things that will come out of that, that will change people’s lives, save people’s lives, improve people’s lives—we can’t even imagine what that’ll be. It’s exciting to me. It’s so big, it’s so impactful, it’s so innovative, that we will attract the best talent in the world to be a part of it.
Q | How do you balance your personal life with the work demands that come with leadership?
A | I follow this rule when I’m trying to determine where I should be, particularly when it’s work or community-related versus family, because those things overlap all the time. My rule is to think about who’s going to miss me. If I’m not at a cocktail reception, is anybody even going to go, “Gina Luna is not here.” Probably not. If I miss an important ball game or school event, though, my child’s going to know I wasn’t there. That’s a good barometer for me. Then I also do the five-year rule—in five years if I look back, am I going to be really regretful that I missed this or I missed that? That’s how I make decisions.
On the other hand, I’ve never wanted my kids to have the notion that the world revolves around them. I like them to see that their parents have responsibilities, and we do lots of things in the world, not just doting on them. That’s reality.
Q | What advice have you received from mentors?
A | I have as many mentors for personal life as I do for professional life. When my boys were very little, one of my mentors said, “One of the things I did with my kids was just sit them down and tell them very overtly, you are the most important thing in the world to me, so if you ever need me, I will drop everything else and be there for you.” I thought actually saying it seemed like a good idea. My older son was like, “I know, Mom.” A few years later it was time for the third-grade musical and I had to be in Chicago. It was a meeting I couldn’t change and I couldn’t miss. I was really feeling bad about it. We had a talk about it and he just looked at me and goes, “Mom, this is not one of those things. It’s not that big a deal.” So there will always be challenges and choices, but I think that honesty and just being open really helps.
Q | What advice do you have for young executives who aspire to be leaders and still have a great home life and raise a family?
A | I always say that early in your career, you need to be really good at what you do. Don’t spend so much time thinking about your ascent to CEO-hood. You miss the table stakes along the way, which is being capable and credible and reliable. I think the key is to be the person that people can call on to do what needs to be done. If there’s a problem, call me. If there’s an opportunity, call me. You deliver on that. I’ve taken on some pretty unattractive assignments because I could see that it needed to be done, and I thought, “I can do that.” Looking back, some of those things were the opportunities that got me exposure and credibility that it would have taken ten extra years to get if I would have said no thank you. Don’t think small, think big about what’s possible, because what’s possible is amazing. TMC3 is an example of that. Why would we ever assume we couldn’t do that? Of course we can.
Then you have to have sponsors, people who help you along the way. I don’t know of people who have
a great, successful career who do it on their own. The relationships you develop are critical to moving you along that path. I also think that’s what makes it fun. When I reflect back on my career, someday, I think it will be the relationships and what people did to help me and what I did to help other people that will be the most meaningful.
Q | I remember someone once told me that you should never worry about your first job, but rather focus on your first boss, as you want to find someone who is confident enough in themselves to be your advocate.
A | I couldn’t agree with you more. I think the best leaders are the ones who are always looking to make somebody else look good. The person who works for me, I want to make them look good. The person I work for, I want to make them look good.
Q | Tell me your thoughts about Houston.
A | I love Houston. I really do love this city. I think this is a city of people who help each other. People are accessible, and they’re open; they’re non-judgmental and they’re accepting and they’re more than willing to help or to have a conversation. I love the diversity of our city. I think that is a huge strength for us. Houston, to me, is optimistic. We are a can-do city. Whatever the problem we’re facing, whether it’s municipal finance, or it’s flooding, or it’s the workforce gap, I have confidence we’ll figure it out. We always do.
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