At the close of 2021, we wanted to take a moment to reflect and thank you all for your support. To our clients, managers, partners, and friends – we are grateful for the opportunity to serve the non-profit endowment & foundation community through another eventful year. It is a privilege to do the work of an OCIO, and we are thrilled that the markets and our strategy delivered a solid year in terms of growth for our clients’ assets. Our investment team remained focused on delivering an all-weather portfolio that seeks to Protect, Perform, and Provide for our clients. And while we have become pros at Zoom, we were also very happy to be in person with many of you this year.
We continued our work with Verger’s ESG Task Force and the Verger Women’s Leadership Initiative to promote equity, inclusion, and leadership at the firm and beyond. The Verger team spent time together this fall for an immersive event with the WFU School of Business Allegacy Center for Leadership and Character to strengthen our team and facilitate growth and leadership opportunities at all levels. This is a theme we carried through the year, and with that in mind, we asked our CEO and CIO, Jim Dunn, along with our COO, Vicki West, to share their reflections on leadership at Verger and their thoughts as we look forward to the new year ahead.
What does leadership mean at Verger?
Vicki: Leadership is discovering the talents of those around you, finding ways to leverage those strengths to the firm’s objectives, and delivering a superior experience for your clients, team, and constituents.
It’s striving for your own growth and supporting the growth of others through being authentic, acting with integrity, consistently communicating, and feeling ownership of not only your success, but the success of others.
With those core tenets in mind, Verger has sought ways to support the team through what has been another interesting, and at times, challenging year of the pandemic. Leadership has been a focus for many organizations this year as we come through the global shift in perspective of what work means. Through several initiatives, we really leaned into the belief that promoting leadership at all levels is crucial to our success.
Jim: Verger was intentionally designed as a flat organization to foster the entrepreneurial spirit of its staff. This structure allows greater decision-making, responsibility, and opportunity in every role. As we progress employee ownership of the firm, it makes “acting like owners” a reality. Seeing our team embrace and express our core values with one another, with clients, and within our communities has been deeply rewarding.
Verger’s focus on leadership is not new, but as Vicki described, we created several opportunities to further the team’s growth through personal and professional development. Our engagement with the Allegacy Center for Leadership and Character is just one example. It was enriching to share that experience with the full team, from our more tenured professionals to our most recent addition to Verger, who just started her career after college graduation.
Finally, leadership at Verger is about authenticity. It’s about the integration of our values, mission, and behaviors so they can serve our clients and their constituents to meet their lofty goals.
How do you describe your leadership style?
Vicki: Primarily collaborative. I am privileged to serve on a team of dynamic individuals who continuously strive for success. Leaning into the perspectives of others, creating opportunity for innovation, and cultivating the whole person are my aspirations as a leader.
The past two years have been a testament to the grit and resiliency of our team. We immediately felt the loss of social and creative capital so prevalent at Verger. Our focus became on supporting individuals’ well-being and adjusting the pace of business. What followed was every team member doing the same for our clients and for one another. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by such a strong group of leaders.
Jim: I’ve reflected on this question several times recently, and I can say that it has remained consistent. I always start with “Why” – the deeper reasons for showing up for yourself and others each day. I also strive to be the kind of leader and boss I’d like to have, and creating the culture at work I want to live in. I’ve taken the lessons learned from the successes and mistakes of leaders whom I admire, as well as those I did not, to guide my own growth and leadership. Over the years, I have grown more confident in trying new things and am humble enough to know there is always more to learn.
In 2020 you launched Verger’s first Employee Resource Group (ERG)– a women’s leadership initiative. What have you found most rewarding about the work they have done?
Vicki: The intent behind the Verger Women’s Leadership Initiative (VWLI) was to address leadership challenges unique to women, alongside the development of our entire team. One of Verger’s tenets has been to seek diversity of thought to drive innovation and engagement. This group leveraged its generational differences, varied backgrounds and experiences, and complementary strengths to deliver programming on allyship and gender equity, community engagement and cultivating leadership. This initiative is one way in which we seek to create a culture of inclusion.
Jim: I am so proud of the work the VWLI has done and continues to do, especially Vicki’s leadership and the extremely talented group of women we have at the firm. A core value for us at Verger is to promote equity, including gender equity, and this is something we’ve focused on over the years at a firm level and with external managers from an ESG perspective. Seeing the ways that members of the group used the opportunity to push themselves, grow, and give back to our community has been very rewarding, and I give all the credit to them.
How do your leadership styles differ?
Vicki: When I think about my leadership style compared to Jim’s, I think about how building a business is like building a house. Two critical, but different, roles are the architect and the contractor. Jim’s ability to create a vision for the firm and rally the team around the mission is what makes us Verger. My role is the contractor—gathering the team needed to make the vision a reality, ensuring quality control, and managing the day-to-day operations. It’s difficult to lead from the front and the back simultaneously, so a strong partnership with distinctive strengths is key.
Jim: It’s also helpful to have a talented contractor that can tell when the drawings don’t make any sense! But in all seriousness, I am grateful for the complementary strengths we bring to the leadership of Verger and am proud of what we have built over the past seven-plus years. One area where I have gained new appreciation is empathy – my style tends to be that I thrive in the red zone and when the pressure is high; that’s my preferred state. Understanding that not everyone thrives in the same environment has taught me the importance of creating opportunities for the team to recharge.
What are some of the biggest lessons you are taking into the new year?
Vicki: While we were not prepared for a global pandemic, we were positioned to react quickly to the disruption and ensure continuity of service to our clients. Maintaining a focus on continuity will continue to be part of Verger’s operations.
While not a new lesson, it affirmed that the most important part of leadership is hiring the best possible people, agreeing on a path, and then empowering them to go do it. Our people are our most valuable assets. Though we didn’t experience the ‘great resignation’, we are leaning into the ‘great evaluation’ to understand how to better serve our staff and our clients.
Jim: Surround yourself with the best people, stay humble, and always share your gratitude. These don’t change from year to year for me, but I find them to be true now more than ever.
We are proud of the outstanding work our team has done this past year and the enthusiasm they bring to work each day. It takes focus and dedication to meet our clients’ needs, grow our assets, and continue to evolve and meet the challenges of our time with innovation and forward momentum. We remain dedicated to our core values, focused on our mission, and buoyed by our strong culture. Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!