What Did the Navajo Nation Teach Wells Fargo About Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence is about more than embracing differences. Jon Campbell, executive vice president for Wells Fargo Bank's social-responsibility group, discovers that genuine curiosity, mentoring and respect also play a vital role.

Wells Fargo's Jon Campbell, social-responsibility group executive vice president, never would have guessed that he'd develop a close working relationship with the Navajo Nation, one where they'd accept him as one of their own. This is the story he shared with attendees at DiversityInc's event in Washington, D.C. Wells Fargo is No. 33 in The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.


Growing up as a third-generation Scandinavian in the Midwest meant Campbell had little experience with diversity before he moved to Arizona for his career, where he became the president of Norwest Bank Arizona.

In his position, Campbell was challenged with mitigating acquisition protests from Navajo leaders. The bank had been involved in an acquisition with Citibank and several of the acquired branches were located in the Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian reservation in the United States. The Navajo decided to use this opportunity to get their needs and wants heard.

Read: American Indian Heritage Month Facts & Figures

"I had no experience with Native American culture," said Campbell. His first duty: to meet with the tribe leaders on location. "Here's this white guy from the Midwest in a suit showing up at tribal offices. It was not a good start."

He worked hard to develop a relationship but the Navajo leaders still filed their complaint. However, Campbell said that their relationship grew over the next several years through his willingness to learn the culture. And the Navajo eventually came to accept him.

"My story of fear turned to a story of joy, and I had great pride in the relationship we had come to develop," Campbell said. It's a story that provides diversity leaders with four keys for cultural competence.

Read: Ask the White Guy: Can a White Man Speak With Authority on Diversity?

      1. Mentors are critical. Campbell said that initially he and Wells Fargo employees spent months trying to acquire leases to build new stores on Navajo land. However, Campbell eventually became friends with a non-Native, Eddie Basha, the CEO of Bashas', a privately owned grocery company with stores on the reservation. Bash became his mentor and vouched for him with Navajo leaders.Basha taught Campbell that his success was the result of hiring Navajo employees to run the stores and selling products that were made by and are desirable to its American Indian patrons.  Read Mentoring Roundtable: How Mentoring Improves Retention, Engagement & Promotions.
      2. Be curious. According to Campbell, his interest in the American Indian culture needed to be sincere. "It's important to have a genuine curiosity to learn something you don't know about. I had a chance few people ever do: to get close to the leadership of the Navajo community." Campbell asked questions more freely as he became more familiar with the culture and the natives, which translated well with Navajo leaders.
      3. Embrace differences. Through asking questions about the Navajo and their traditions, Campbell learned how to be comfortable in the culture and "not expect to do things my way." He noted that jeans and boots, rather than a corporate America–style suit and tie, are the way to go to the Navajo nation so you can "hop in back of a pickup truck" at the airport.Campbell also detailed how Navajo time runs at a much different pace, without set meeting times. "You get home when you get home," he said. "You have to do business with local vendors and use Navajo contractors." Additionally, a medicine man comes to every store opening to bless the building and business. "It's a blending of culture and technology," Campbell said.
      4. Show up. The Navajo show a great deal of respect for each other and expect the same from their visitors, according to Campbell. "When an invitation comes, you show up," he said. "Many times, it's really about being present. When someone inside the culture you don't know takes a risk and asks you in, it's disrespectful not to accept."

Campbell recalled when he was finally accepted into the culture by Navajo leaders. "I was invited to the Sweat Lodge, a traditional purification ceremony performed by many Native American tribes." For him, this was the cap to his efforts and a source of personal reward.

"I was able to see how powerful it can be when a company understands diverse cultures, and I was able to see how to build business on their terms," Campbell said, noting that Wells Fargo makes more than $1 million a year in revenue from a relationship that "started on the basis of a protest 10 years earlier."

Watch an exclusive video interview with Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf for more on Wells Fargo's leadership, corporate citizenship, sustainable business and accountability.

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