Editor’s note: This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.
What are some of the personal attributes that contributed to your success?
I think the most important personal attribute was a curiosity and a focus on continuing to learn. As for my background, I did formal education until l was almost 30, but I think the important thing is that every job I took, I looked at as a great opportunity to keep learning. […] I’m a big believer in [building human capital]. Even to this day, I try to contemplate: “Gee, what thing did I learn today?” Sometimes what I learn is negative—things I don’t do so well. Sometimes it’s a new fact, or new information. But it’s all about continuing to learn.
What things should we be starting now as college students to improve our habits to become more successful?
I think there’re two or three things. One is being very curious. Second, continuing to maintain a large circle of friends and, in particular, having friends and acquaintances who are very different from you. I describe that as being in lots of different conversations. The reason to do this is you don’t know how someone is going to evolve over time—someone that you meet today might be helpful. But, more importantly, the habit of talking to people who don’t agree with you, I think, is really an important way to keep eyes open and broaden your horizons. The third thing is to not be too linear. One of the things I’ve observed in students—perhaps because they are coming through the end of the financial crisis—is I think [they] are very focused on what’s the next job. If I take this internship, will I get the job offer? And then, if I get the job offer, how long will it take to promotion? Be a little more open and flexible about your career. You’ve heard me use the phrase “climbing wall,” as opposed to career ladder. [Ferguson is referring to his April 19 lecture in which he mentioned that, when moving through a career, one may move sideways, or even downwards, as one progresses.] I think that absolutely applies to today’s undergraduates, who I think are […] overly focused on the job, as opposed to what are they going to learn. How they are going to continue to build their own human capital?
What would you consider to be your personal leadership style?
You can’t be a good leader unless you inspire followers. If you look over your shoulder and no one’s behind you, you’re not a leader, you are sort of out there by yourself. So I hope my leadership style is one of inspiring followers. Making people want to sort of follow me. In order to do that, you need to have four traits. You need to have some expertise, others don’t’ want to follow a complete amateur. I think you have to have a certain amount of empathy, recognizing that people are coming from different places and have different things going on in their lives. You’ve got to be able to somehow articulate where you want people to go—sort-of the vision thing. The fourth is that you’ve got to have a certain amount of fortitude. Followers know that the path is not always easy. You don’t want to follow a leader who immediately crumbles under pressure.
What sort of pitfalls did you face and how did you overcome them to develop that style?
I think a pitfall that everyone faces the first time they are a leader is their view of the leader being the know-it-all—the one who is in front because she or he has every answer to every question. So learning how to relax that a little bit and recognize that really good leadership is getting the best out of everyone else, not necessarily being the smartest one in the room—and you know, I’m sure you look around and see folks at the national stage who always have to be the smartest one in the room. They’re not necessarily great leaders and their careers peak out at high level, but, ultimately, they have things they don’t get. I think the biggest pitfall is recognizing that being the leader doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have every answer. It means you have to help the team craft the best answer. In that sense, it’s a much more inclusive view of leadership.
You were the third African American to ever serve as a Federal Reserve Board Governor and the first to serve as the Vice Chairman [of the Federal Reserve]. For minority students on campus who are just starting their careers and looking to go into fields like finance: Do you have any suggestions or advice for them on the unique challenges they will face?
Well, the way I’ve talked about being an African American fellow in these roles is […] it’s certainly part of who I am, but it doesn’t define who I am. And so, for minority students in particular, I think you have to balance whatever the differences may be versus what is not different. A phrase that comes to my mind is “Yeah, I’m different, just like you.” Everyone’s got something that’s different about them. So I would say respect it, recognize that in ways you are different, but don’t become overly fixated on the differences.
The second point I make, particularly in the area of finance, is it’s really all about—at least in the beginning—technical capability. I could never have been a successful Fed governor if I didn’t have a technical understanding of what the Fed has to do. And color, whatever it may be, is not a substitute for that. It’s not an excuse for not having it. And it doesn’t sort-of, in any sense, allow you to be successful without it.
Talking about the Fed in general: Some people on this campus, and on other campuses, seem to be nervous or even suspicious of the Federal Reserve. (Support for bills like Audit the Fed being a good example.) What do you have to say to students who are unsure of the Fed’s role?
It’s unfortunate, frankly. The Federal Reserve is, in my experience sitting around Washington, the least politicized group. It is a group that has to balance long-term and short-term interest for the entire country, not particular areas. I’ve never seen a group of more dedicated public servants. And frankly, although maybe controversial, I don’t think young people perhaps give the Fed enough credit for the things they did to save us from going into a deep recession. It’s impossible to prove what would have happened had the Fed not taken action. But it’s quite clear that what did happen is we managed to avoid a very big recession. And, admittedly, we have slow growth, but that’s not inherently the Fed’s fault. So I would encourage young people to, frankly, for lack of a better word, be a little more trusting and recognize that that Fed is there to take care of the long-term interest of America overall. And I think, frankly, they’ve done a pretty good job doing that.
If you could give any other advice to college students who might read this and who are about to go out into the career world, what would you say?
I think the biggest advice is to be excited and enthusiastic about it. You only get once chance to start and, for all the challenges that exist and starting in this place right now [with] this labor force, you’ve got a phenomenal future ahead of you (which, I think, all people who are 60 years old say to all people who are 20 years old). But that actually happens to be true, and the world that you are going to enter is going to be filled with so many things that are totally unimaginable today. I really hope that you go out there with a gusto, an enthusiasm, and an optimism—even against the backdrop of a relatively slow-growing economy—because you will get the advantages of technology […], a very diverse workforce (totally different from the one I entered), and, hopefully, greater gender equality. So, it’s a great world and I hope people who are in their 20s, about to go out into the real world, appreciate the greatness of the world, and make sure they contribute appropriately to it.