On the heels of her “Conversations with the Fed” session to educate community members about her role as Minneapolis Fed board member and chair, Dr. MayKao Hang graciously sat down with Niel Willardson and David Wargin for a more detailed interview. Here, she shared her perspectives on her leadership role with the Fed, how diversity can help organizations reach their goals, and her passion for helping low income and disadvantaged populations improve their lives.
Please tell us about your background and how you got where you are today, both at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, and as chair of the Board of Directors.
I have dedicated my career to the nonprofit and public sectors – to improving the lives of others; that’s what brought me to the Wilder Foundation where I am the President and CEO. I’ve been in this role for about five and a half years and am pleased to be working to create a more equitable and prosperous society and helping people who are in need.
I believe that our use of public policy tools and the thought leadership that we provide at the Wilder Foundation played a role in me being asked to join the board of directors at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. We have a large research arm and also direct, on-the-ground experience with people who are low income and in need of social supports and connections to financial systems, society, or key organizations such as churches.
How did you learn about the director position at the Fed and, given all the boards on which you’ve served, why did you decide to say yes to this one?
Well, the simple answer is that I was asked! I had known Mary Brainerd, former Fed board chair and member of the Nominating and Governance Committee, for quite some time. She knew my work and my commitment to the community.
I was happy to accept the invitation to work with the Fed because I wanted to use some of my economic policy knowledge to create public understanding about the Federal Reserve System. I knew about the Fed from my work in the community and because my husband is a former banker. In talking over the opportunity with him, he encouraged me to do it—I actually think he was a bit envious!
Narayana Kocherlakota was the president when I started and I thought I could contribute to his objective of doing more community engagement and outreach. Along with providing governance, being a good ambassador for the Federal Reserve System is also an important responsibility of a director. With my background, I thought I could provide insight about key issues in the community that could assist the Bank in its work.
You’ve been on the board now for four years, what are some of the most important aspects of being a director and chair?
Recently, one of our most important roles was hiring a new Bank president because the board helps to structure the process beyond what is required by law. For example, we help guide the B and C directors to prioritize the skills and knowledge that are required and desired and to come to agreement on a candidate. We also produced two educational videos to inform the public about the process. So, I feel like that is one of the most significant contributions I make as a volunteer board member.
Other important aspects of being a board member include being a good ambassador, bringing a connection to the community, helping to create public transparency, and ensuring that there are good financial controls and auditing practices in place. One other important thing for me, in particular, is to champion the Fed’s diversity efforts.
On that front, I believe strongly that diversity is a really good thing and that the more diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, the better off we are because that’s when you’re going to see the things that you may have missed. There’s a great benefit to including those multiple perspectives. So, I feel like one of the roles of a director is to bring a different perspective into the Federal Reserve System.
At the Minneapolis Fed, we are focused on making diversity and inclusion part of the fabric of the organization to help make us more effective as an organization. What do you do at Wilder in this respect?
I tend to think about it as an organizational transformation, and the factors that make that happen are a direct result of the organization’s leaders. At the Wilder Foundation, we talk often about how people can lead from any chair. To do that, we must acknowledge our differences and open up the culture to varying views and people. So, personal transformation and learning has to be a part of that change process. Often that’s not done through policy; rather, individuals learn on their own by disrupting their personal peace and getting to know someone different from themselves.
Like the Wilder Foundation, the Fed must stay true to its public service mission. Our organizations both have a responsibility to serve people of many backgrounds and those backgrounds should be represented inside of the organization, as well.
You mentioned that we need to disrupt our personal peace. What does that mean?
Essentially, it means that we should get to know people who are different from ourselves. By doing this, we can help limit incorrect assumptions and stereotyping. For example, at the Wilder Foundation, we have highly educated employees with MDs and PhDs, as well as employees who have not gone to college. These two socioeconomic statuses look very different, but we want these individuals to treat each other well and respect each other’s contributions. If they get to know one another as people, they may have a better awareness of each other’s capabilities and what drivers influence the decisions they make about policies and practices.
In addition to the socioeconomic differences in our employees, there are also racial and gender differences. We can’t take advantage of the benefits of these differences unless we are aware of any unconscious biases we may have toward people who look different from ourselves. Just because someone looks a certain way doesn’t mean that they are any better or worse at being a leader. As a woman, a person of color, and an individual whose first language is something other than English, this is something with which I have personal experience. I am a former refugee, and there is an inherent stereotype that refugees are unable to speak English well. I still get comments like “Oh, you’re so articulate.” By itself, this is a positive comment, but because the comments that quickly follow are usually about my race or ethnicity means that the compliment is based off a stereotype that places limits on a refugee’s ability, it has negative connotations to me. So, we need to check our biases.
What are the most, and least, interesting parts of being a director?
It’s all been very interesting to me, actually. Probably the most interesting is gaining a better understanding of the brilliance of the Federal Reserve System: the high quality of the staff, the independence of Fed, the fact that we are a centralized banking system that has a decentralized regional structure, etc. Because I’m inquisitive by nature, I have also enjoyed reframing things and asking deep questions that perhaps others haven’t yet thought about. Also interesting has been the trips the board has taken to North Dakota and Montana—it was fascinating to meet people from all walks of life.
For me, there isn’t anything that is uninteresting. However, it can be a bit humbling when some of the Fed’s economists present information and I understand less than half of what they have said! At that point, I usually ask questions to prompt them to say things in a way that non-economists can understand.
Is there anything that has surprised you during your time as a director?
Yes, one of the things that surprised me was the scope and reach of the Federal Reserve System, beyond its responsibility for the safety and soundness of the banking system. I have learned a lot about the Fed’s dual mandate, and that has been very interesting. Another thing I learned a great deal about is the governance and public interest aspects of the Fed. And, although I expected a really high caliber of people to work within the Federal Reserve System, I can honestly tell you that I’ve been blown away by both staff and volunteers, alike. That’s why the public service ethic really shines through.
We have a great mix of experience on our board of directors—from labor, business, and communities across the District. How does that add value?
Drawing directors from across of the Ninth District is really good because we’re getting information from North Dakota, from Montana, and from a small town in the Northwestern Wisconsin, among other parts of the district. In addition to the geographical representation, we also have individuals like Larry Simkins of the Washington Companies who provides a global view of commodities and transportation balanced with others, such as myself, with a micro view of households and communities. All of that is needed to understand what is happening in our economy and how industries and people are being impacted.
What qualities were you looking for in a candidate for Bank president?
The Class B and C directors listened intently to individuals from the Minneapolis Fed, the Board of Governors, and the community to learn what qualities and skills were needed in a president. Because there is a lot of disruptive change happening within the Federal Reserve System—changing technology, for example—we wanted someone who was good at managing change, who is an excellent communicator, and who could identify and work with change transformation processes. We also felt we needed someone who wasn’t going to be complacent, but rather an individual who would be willing to lead the organization in its evolution even though change can be uncomfortable. I think Neel is a collaborative leader and a thoughtful change agent who will build on the great foundation of the Minneapolis Fed.
Can you describe your leadership approach?
I think my staff would have a lot more to say about that than me! But, as you can tell, I’m really collaborative. I’m really good at managing conflict. I’m good at reconciling different views and making sure that people are heard. At the same time, I think my leadership style encourages people and organizations to do what they do best—to stay within the boundaries of their core competencies and to delegate other things. I’m very much an out-of-the-box thinker, but it’s also important to know what you’re good at and remain true to your overarching goals.
Finally, what are the things you did early in your career that set you up for success?
The most important thing I did was to keep going even when things were difficult. It’s important to remain committed to yourself, your goals, and your values. I am really tenacious and though there were times I wanted to give up, I chose to be resilient in the face of adversity. I was not afraid to try, and if I made mistakes, I learned from them.
Once you get to a leadership role, the growing and learning must continue. Leaders can be ineffective when they believe the know everything. I believe the best leaders are those who are humble and acknowledge when they need to call in others to help solve problems or to share different perspectives.
The other thing that has been essential to accelerating my career is building strong relationships. I honor the choices that people make and understand that it doesn’t have to be my way. I don’t have to be the winner. We’re a team and we’re stronger if we acknowledge each other’s strengths and work together to find the best solution.
Thank you, MayKao.
More About MayKao Hang
Perspectives from the Board Chair and Class C Director: MayKao Hang