Why Develop Leaders: TIAA-CREF’s John Weger has the answers
TIAA-CREF is the largest private pension plan in the world — with over $410 billion under management. For over 90 years, this institution has been helping those in the academic, medical, cultural and research fields plan for and live in retirement.
TIAA-CREF has always been driven by strong values and a clear purpose — serving the retirement needs of those who serve the greater good. The organization recently implemented a program called LEAD (Leadership Effectiveness And Development), giving employees an opportunity to create a TIAA-CREF leadership model.
John Weger, VP, Sales Operations and Support
We caught up with John Weger, VP, Sales Operations and Support — one of the champions of the project — to discuss the program and how the company ties hard metrics to a leadership initiative.
Q. There are many initiatives that TIAA-CREF could be chasing. Why focus on Leadership?
JW: A focus on leadership is important for many reasons.
Because of the complexity of our work, the ramp-up time for new leaders is significant — the value of developing bench strength is to have people more mobile, more ready and ultimately ready to fulfill our clients’ needs.
Today, new leaders that we will attract need to learn the TIAA-CREF way — so when we hire, we focus more on the intrinsic leadership qualities of the candidates rather than on their past leadership experience. New leaders who come in have clear expectations [around leadership competencies and definitions]. We used to value ‘leadership memory’ — we were hiring people based on past experience. Getting up to speed on the job is what we were concerned about in the old world.
Q. Do you think the desired leadership behaviors in a financial services firm are generic across the industry or specific to a company’s culture?
JW: Our approach to leadership development is very specific to TIAA-CREF and different from what I have seen executed elsewhere.
Some firms are always looking externally for the answer. LEAD was built from the inside with input from TIAA-CREF leaders. We identified the competencies through a process of interviews and focus groups. The end result is a leadership model that is truly ours. It incorporates who we are and what we do — it’s an embodiment of our mission, vision and values.
TIAA-CREF has the behaviors that surround the competencies so we know what it looks like to be the number one provider of financial services to those who serve the greater good.
Q. Some senior execs are cynical of leadership development. It’s seen as soft. Did you experience that?
JW: Our CEO Roger Ferguson is committed to personal leadership development and that top-down tone was set and everybody embraced it.
The Executive Management Team (‘EMT’) really engaged early on the topic. They ran a six-month pilot and each executive had personal leadership development goals. We did some measurement work before and after to measure how their behavior shifted. To see executives want to learn and reflect on their own leadership so that they can be good role models is very unique.
Q. Beyond the EMT, how are you making sure the Standards are embedded?
JW: The first thing is a roadmap and a direct link to all of our HR systems and processes: performance reviews, employee development plans, etc. The LEAD standards will come alive as part of our hiring, training, coaching and evaluation. When we did our talent review evaluation sessions this spring we had to evaluate peoples’ contributions against these Standards.
The second thing is training — we are cascading the LEAD model to all of our leaders from the EMT down through workshops. When people go to a training session they get feedback from a 360 assessment that includes the views of peers, direct reports and their leader. We also use peer coaching so that different leadership strengths come together to solve business challenges.
Q. By adding some focused measurement tools you are making a concept that may seem esoteric very practical. How do leadership and Six-Sigma work hand in hand?
JW: I spent nine years as a naval officer; I attended programs at GE Crotonville. I have been very fortunate to have worked for companies that really understand what we do vs. how we do it.
A balance between soft and hard skills really matters. On some level, you’re constantly being evaluated on how you show up. Soft skills are what people see. You may get measured from a corporate perspective on your results, whether it’s process or sales or whatever the criteria might be. But your team and a lot of people around you are constantly evaluating you based on what they see.
The next key area is that you’ve got to spend 80% of your time solving culture and mindset issues that are getting in the way of progress. You might be implementing something that seems very analytic and mechanical but you have to be thinking about that change management process in conjunction with it.
Q. What kind of metrics would you think are practical and fair metrics to tie to leadership performance?
JW: Since the inception of LEAD we have focused more on leadership metrics. Although it has been challenging, we know it is an essential component of our strategy to ensure leadership accountability. We’re still defining the specifics but broadly we attempt to assess three areas:
- How leaders’ behaviors are observed by those around them, tying the Leadership Standards to an evaluative 360 tool.
- Perceptions that a leader’s reports have about the work within the company through our culture survey. We’ve also been investigating linkages between engagement and employees’ perceptions about their work group and about the company overall.
- Outright quantitative. We may use engagement [at a group level] down the road; ultimately we want to get it tailored to business-specific metrics.
The goal is to bring all three of these together next year in an annual leadership scorecard for all of our leaders.
Q. Are you hoping to develop the model where all of the leaders across TIAA-CREF get the same scorecard or will the scorecards, be specific for different departments or different divisions?
JW: On the behavioral side, we’re going to use the same 360 data so we’ll be able to do some comparative work across the organization. Same thing goes for culture survey, perceptions about work group and company. In some cases you can do comparisons across groups and within groups. So in certain parts of TIAA-CREF we’ll be able to look at how different leaders in the same area are performing versus their immediate peers.
Q. So you have internal benchmarking well underway. How important is external benchmarking?
JW: It’s very important. Our culture survey has external benchmarking that we use extensively. We have ‘best companies’ data, we have financial services data and we have some benchmarks for culture. That helps us see some important differences. In that one dimension at least, which is about how employees perceive their workgroup and the company overall; there’s definitely benefit in benchmarking against external datasets.
Q. You mentioned earlier that the TIAA-CREF leadership competencies are very specific to TIAA-CREF. Yet you’re still able to benchmark externally?
JW: Yes we are. We have some questions that have national norms. That’s the level of detail we’re trying to work with, at the individual-question level. If it fits against the LEAD model and if it gives us external benchmarking data, that’s what we’re trying to pull together right now. And we’ve made some great progress with rigorous correlation analysis.
Q. Are you seeing changes, even anecdotally, in the way people are operating today as a result of the LEAD initiative?
JW: There was a real key distinction that we noticed in early focus groups. There was a consistent voice that ‘we’ had leadership issues that ‘we’ needed to focus on, but not a single person said ‘I’ have leadership issues that ‘I’ need to work on. That one phrase more than anything summarizes where we were in 2006/2007. If you went out and asked that question today — now that people have been through workshops and understand the model — they would say “I have a couple of things I am working on as a leader” — that’s an important distinction.
One immediate example is our current initiative around growth. There’s a team at the executive level that reviews growth opportunities. One of the specific things they examine is culture. When you present to the growth group, you talk about market opportunity, talk about strengths, weaknesses, but you also talk about culture.
In my business area (Institutional Sales and Services), we have 2 other things that we’re using LEAD for to help change the conversation.
First we have the LEAD ‘placemat’ — a laminated version of the model with a series of key questions. So when we are looking at a problem, we might ask “Have we set the direction properly?”, “Have we clearly articulated the link between what we’re trying to accomplish and TIAA-CREF’s agility?” Under pressure everyone’s vision tends to narrow down, so we pull out this placemat and challenge ourselves to leverage leadership in solving specific problems.
Second, we do a very simple survey asking our internal partner how they perceive our demonstrated leadership to benchmark (within the Institutional Sales and Services team, Finance, HR, Risk, Compliance, Legal, etc.) and we compare our results. What this is doing is bringing a new dialogue structured around LEAD that might not have happened in the past.
Q. As you set your targets and as you drive your LEAD initiative, how will you know whether you’ve arrived? Is this a destination or an ongoing journey?
JW: Personally, I’ve never ‘arrived’ as a leader. I don’t think of it as a destination. It’s more of a practice. Leadership is something that you need to work at your whole professional career and practice and practice. One of the big shifts that happened for me was to understand in the last few years that leadership is my profession…it’s not about whatever I define as my skills-based profession. It’s something I have to commit myself to working on constantly.
At TIAA-CREF, we want to continue to attract and enable a well-prepared, fully engaged workforce to fulfill our company vision. I’d like to see TIAA-CREF recognized in the industry as the firm where great leaders come from. I think that’s pretty quantifiable.
John Weger is the VP, Sales Operations and Support at TIAA-CREF.