Roger Blissett, Head of Government Affairs at MUFG Bank: “Effective leadership requires looking beyond yourself “

While Roger Blissett had always followed politics as a hobby, when the 2008 financial crisis hit, suddenly, his passion intersected with his professional life. Because policy decisions on banking regulation came into focus, he was suddenly inspired to dig deeper into the fine print and get involved in a more meaningful way.

“Government affairs appealed to me as the very function that enables an organization to become involved in matters of public interest and truly integrate itself, in multiple ways, into the country and communities in which it operates,” he shares with The Ladders.

Today, he’s the Head of Government Affairs at MUFG Bank, where he oversees three groups: the Regulatory Legal Group (RLG), the Regulatory Affairs Office (RAO), and the Government Affairs Office (GAO). As he explained, GAO is responsible for managing MUFG’s relationships with senior policymakers within the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. federal government. 

In addition to this significant role, he also prioritizes giving back. He works with various non-profit organizations, including being a board member of the Vera Institute of Justice, ExpandED Schools, and the NYC Young Men’s Initiative. He took time to explain better his profession, as well as offer insights into future trends:

Your job sounds interesting! Tell us more about why you love it

I represent MUFG—a large global bank with Japanese roots that operates in the United States as one of its major markets. But, as any sizable bank knows, you can’t just be in the business of lending money without fostering relations with policymakers in the executive and legislative branches of government, or without committing yourself to corporate social responsibility. You need to be involved in some of the policy debates that pertain to your role as a financial institution and engage with governing bodies on related matters. Sitting on the sidelines is no longer a viable option for any sizable bank or its diverse array of stakeholders.

What are the trends you see within your industry currently?

I’d single out two significant trends in the areas of technology and regulation. 

The banking sector has always served an indispensable role in financing commerce. Still, new technologies are making it possible for banks to improve efficiency, fortify their operational infrastructure, open new avenues of engagement with clients, and enhance the way they serve those clients.

Separately, financial regulation is continually evolving with the changing nature of risk and economic circumstances—and banks need to respond accordingly.

How would you describe your company culture?

MUFG’s culture is crystallized through a set of fundamental principles by which we strive to abide. First and foremost, we are a client-centric organization in which colleagues assess how each of their actions affects the individuals and institutions they serve. 

We’re also ‘people-focused,’ meaning that we place a premium on nurturing talent, working collaboratively, and treating each other with respect. We encourage colleagues to be attentive and serve as one another’s sounding board, speak up without feeling intimidated, propose innovative ideas or solutions even if they’re unpopular, and simplify anything that doesn’t need to be complex.

Finally, we’re an organization that motivates its people to assume ownership of—and responsibility for— their actions, to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit of initiative, and to perform with excellence.

What can a job applicant do to catch your attention? What stands out the most to you?

Candidates who exhibit equally dominant left- and right-brain skills stand out the most to me. A job in government affairs requires substantial subject-matter expertise—but it also demands relationship-building abilities, sharp intuition and imagination. It’s rare to find candidates who possess exceptional faculties in both domains.

Valuable candidates are teachable, who have the genuine capacity to draw on past experiences to learn, adapt and refine.     

What’s the most challenging part of being a leader/manager? What’s the best part?

True, effective leadership requires looking beyond yourself and balancing your organization’s needs and the people you manage. It requires understanding the mandate of your function and having a vision for the execution of that function. The challenge is in maintaining that balance and clarity of vision amid the hustle and bustle of daily assignments. Working alongside talented team members when confronting complicated and difficult issues is invigorating to me and gives me a renewed sense of reward and purpose.

What’s your advice for tackling big projects at a company-wide level?

Set clear objectives and establish agreement on lines of responsibility. Management should assume ultimate responsibility for the project’s outcome. 

At the beginning of every such project, define the process, map out the dependency links between its elements and address potential instances of disagreement or non-alignment. Maintain open lines of communication and transparency among and across teams throughout.

How do you keep your staff motivated? How do you motivate yourself?

Fortunately, I am blessed with an experienced and talented team of self-motivated professionals—yet I find that honesty, communication and transparency are key motivating factors. 

As for me: I try not to take myself too seriously and to remind myself of the things I can control while accepting the things I cannot and finding peace in that dialectic. I enjoy solving problems and looking at them from different angles. That’s what keeps me motivated. 

How do you find a balance between work and life demands?

The textbook rule is to leave your work for the office and keep your home time as family time. Easier said than done—especially in the wake of COVID-19 when home has become the new office. 

Holding a senior job with significant responsibilities is an even greater challenge, but I still think it’s important to make an effort to disconnect from work when you can.

What are some of the challenges you have faced as a POC in this industry?

First and foremost, I think of myself as a capable, experienced professional in the financial services industry with a 30-year track record of success—regardless of my ethnic background. I often remind myself of this truth. 

I cannot control other people’s presuppositions or prejudices. The only things I can control are my attitude of thoughtfulness, my preparedness to meet life’s challenges, my energy level, and my approach to each situation or encounter.

Admittedly, there were instances in my professional life when I was judged or underestimated solely based on my skin color. Earlier in my career, I was overlooked for key assignments and had to contend with delayed promotions and financial remuneration well behind some of my peers.  

Yet I find that the arc of the moral universe ultimately does bend toward fairness and due recognition, even if not always along the horizon I would have preferred. I’ve also learned that it’s okay to help that arc bend along by speaking up for yourself.

How do you feel about the current climate in America right now in regards to race? Is it changing your work culture?

Having witnessed countless protests against racial injustice over the past 50 years, I didn’t expect much to result from the early days of this latest round of demonstrations. It’s as if I unconsciously fell into a protective cocoon to insulate myself against heartbreaking disappointment. But when I saw such genuine displays of solidarity on a national scale among minorities and non-minorities alike, I realized this time might be different. 

The American ideal of democracy, liberty, and fairness is truly exceptional in human history. While efforts to live up to this ideal have often fallen short since the founding of this country, each generation of citizens bears the burden of perfecting the American ideal in its time. This is our moment, and the success or failure to remedy societal injustices during our leg of this relay will rest on us.

I applaud the boldness of MUFG’s leadership in acknowledging the magnitude of the issues that spawned these protests, creating forums for candid conversations about race in a corporate setting, and addressing some of the long-term solutions to redress inequities. We are still in the early days of these difficult discussions, but I remain hopeful. I’ve also received supportive e-mails from a diverse array of colleagues across the bank. 

As a Black professional in my late 50s, I aspire to leave behind any contribution that would outlive my tenure at MUFG—whether in helping to set diversity targets among the firm’s leadership; in advancing recruitment practices that result in a more heterogeneous pool of candidates; in promoting compensation incentives that are aligned with diversity objectives; and through other initiatives.  

My message to younger generations of future leaders is this: We’ll occasionally succeed and periodically fail—but, for the long term, we must be thoughtful, strategic and relentlessly focused on how we pave the road toward progress.