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Art of Leading

John Schlifske

You Need To Have A Strong Point Of View About The Company’s Direction

August 1, 2023

John Schlifske, CEO of Northwestern Mutual, shares his key leadership insights in this “Art of Leading” interview with Adam Bryant. 

Q. What’s the leadership playbook you’ve developed over the years?

A. First, leadership is an action, not a position. A leader has to have a strong point of view about where they want to take the company and they have to push for that. It doesn’t mean that you don’t get feedback from your teams and from your board, but ultimately you have to know where you want to go and you have to be firm about that.

There are always people who don’t want to change or take a risk, and you simply have to have a lot of conviction around your idea. I’ve never been big on sitting down with a lot of people and asking them what they want to do and building consensus. If you look at most successful leaders, they tend to have a firm point of view, and you’ve got to start with that.

To be an effective leader, you also have to demonstrate the ability to be a high performer. People don’t want to just hear words. They want to know you can walk the talk and do what you say you’re going to do. It’s not just about delegation, either. I’m not a micromanager, but you’ve got to be involved.

You also have to have a high degree of self-awareness, which is especially hard when you’re the CEO, because no one wants to tell you you’re wrong or that your tie is crooked. You need to make sure that you believe in your heart, and that your team believes in their hearts, that everything you’re doing is for the greater good of the entity. If you do all that, then you get followership.

Q. What have you found to be the biggest challenge in driving change?

A. When I took over as CEO thirteen years ago, my mantra to the board was that we’ve got to transform this company, and that the foundation of our relevance is going to be customer experience. I thought that a clear intellectual argument, communicated frequently, would be enough to get everyone in the company going. But it wasn’t enough.

There’s a lot of inertia in big organizations. It takes constantly talking about it and reassuring people that you’re not here to blow up what makes you great. You’re here to increase your company’s relevance. I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to convince people.

The worst part is that performance can decline for a while as you’re leaving the old model and going to the new one. So on top of it, you start to doubt yourself. Watching performance drop for a couple years really shakes you. Thankfully, we are a private company. I can’t imagine what it would be like in a publicly traded environment. We probably had about two years of a downward slope before we started taking off on the other side of that transformation.

Q. How do you keep reinventing and transforming yourself as a CEO, given that you’ve been in the role for a while?

A. I became CEO when I was 50, and we have a mandatory retirement age of 65. Every CEO who’s ever worked at this company has gone to the mandatory retirement age unless they had a health issue. That gave me a chance to think longer-term. I wasn’t stuck with making a mark in five years and then having to go.

You can’t just do the same thing. You’ve got to come up with something different, something new.

The second thing I did was to talk to a bunch of CEOs who had been in the job for longer periods, and they all said that you need a second act. So, seven years in, I started my second act. You can’t just do the same thing. You’ve got to come up with something different, something new. It energized me, I changed over my team, and it energized the team.

Q. What were important early influences for you that really shape how you lead today?

A. My dad owned a small trucking company — a family business with about 30 employees that my grandfather started. I started working there part-time when I was 13, doing dirty jobs like cleaning the truck cabs and the bathrooms. It was grungy work, and the drivers were tough as nails. It really taught me a lesson about what it’s like to serve somebody versus be served. I wanted to get a college degree to get out of that environment.

Q. Where does your drive come from?

A. I’m very competitive. I like to win at everything that I take seriously. I also found early on that being on a winning team is more important to me than winning individually. I played golf in high school, and I played football in high school and college. Being a winner on a football team is a lot more satisfying to me than winning a golf tournament. Business is this nice intersection of the ability to win in a different context combined with a team sport.

Q. What were some early speed bumps for you when you first started managing people?

A. I’ve had 360s. The biggest weakness I have is clearly displaying empathy. Even now, I tend to be more focused on what’s going on and less focused on how people are reacting. Someone told me when I was about 35 that every time I’m in a meeting, I should approach the meeting not as the decider or as a contributor to the outcome but as a sociologist who is trying to figure out why people are saying what they’re saying.

Otherwise, I would tend to argue with people. I like to think and process information out loud, so if you combine that verbal sparring with a lack of empathy, I was leading people to think that I didn’t like them or I didn’t value them. I’ve learned to get better at that.

Part of the problem of being a leader is that you’re going to make people unhappy, and you’re going to displace people. As one of my board members said, the reason there’s a draft in the NFL is because they’re constantly turning over talent. You have to balance the notion of empathy with the notion of the greater good and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Q. How do you hire?

A. First, I look for high performance. Fortunately, I’m at a point in my career where I understand most of the technical aspects of every part of our company, and so I’m able to discern whether someone is strong in their area of expertise.

I’m also looking for people who want to change things. If I have two leaders — one who can keep the trains running on time and one who can keep the trains running on time but also improve some aspect of the operation — I’ll pick the latter every time.

The last thing I look for is fit within our team. We have a team of about ten C-suite executives who report to me, and I want that to be a high-functioning team. For example, if I’m your peer, can I question what you’re doing in a constructive way without you taking it personally? Can I add value to what you’re doing without you feeling like I’m invading your territory, and vice versa?

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