That headline was one of the last things Brad Hewitt, President and CEO of Thrivent Financial, said to me when we sat down together for a conversation. It came after a fast hour of “Brad-isms” as he dubbed them, and I have to say, this was one fun conversation. Not quite what I expected – which is always the best, right? Bold leaders surprise, and the conversations are always rich with ideas.
Growing up in “Lutheran” country, I’ve known of Thrivent and the predecessor organizations my whole life. Watching the process to move the organization from a Lutheran focused membership base to all Christians is what prompted me to want a conversation with Brad. On the surface that may seem like a simple change. However, anyone who has ever attempted a move into adjacent markets knows that succeeding at that strategy is no small task.
For Thrivent, as Brad described, “We’re a slow growth company. This is a 50-year strategy, not 5-year strategy. I have to keep reminding my board and others that we are building for the long term.”
So my first question for you: How many of you are working on business growth strategies with a 50-year lens? That is some bold thinking.
Brad and I also talked about how organizations pigeon-hole folks and often miss the capabilities people can bring to leadership opportunities. In his case, he started his career on “the business side.” When he joined Thrivent, his first role was on the “church” side of the house. Because he was a church guy, the internal sentiment was, “What could he possibly contribute to business decisions?” And so he was most often left out of important business meetings. When the CEO succession process began, his full background came into view and though he wasn’t on the initial slate of candidates, someone (other bold leaders I am guessing) brought him into the process. He’s now been CEO since 2010, really starting this path when named COO in 2008.
So a second question for you: What bold leaders might you be missing, just because of the position they are currently in?
Brad says he took on the CEO role to “do something, rather than be something.” He credits an old George Will column for the original idea. His point is very important though. After about 17 or 18 of these bold leader interviews, the people I meet all have this same orientation, whether they express it exactly that way or not. In Thrivent’s case, “doing something” is clearly emerging in their new brand strategy. It’s not enough as a common bond organization to simply make money. Driving your economic engine is not enough. The soul of the organization has to be clear and differentiating. For Thrivent this is now being expressed as “connecting faith and finances for good.”
A third question: Can you clearly state the “soul” of your organization?
Character was another big part of our conversation. Having worked in both for and not-for-profit organizations, Brad claimed a luxury: more freedom to focus on purpose and character over profits in the nonprofit and family or privately owned business world. I’ve talked with bold leaders in public, private and non-profit organizations. All see this American drive for financial success dwarfing or pushing other purposes to secondary positions.
This bold leader conversation is a good reminder that, hard or not, every organization needs to be about more than money, or the world doesn’t need them for very long. Another Thrivent leader told me in a conversation some time ago, “Our promises have to last 100 years. If we insure a child born today, chances are we will be with them throughout life, and that easily could be 100 years.”
Question four: What would you do differently if you were thinking about your customer promises with a century versus a quarterly perspective?
I’ll close with two final Brad-isms: “Stress is good. Comfort is what gets you in trouble!” And “If you’re a bold leader, you’re not afraid to get fired.” That last point was one of the first things Brad said to me, so I will end this post at the beginning. Almost always when I sit down with someone for one of these exchanges, they ask me, “Why do you think I’m a bold leader?” Then they start to talk and the bold ideas pour out. They understand stress, positive and negative, and how to use it to propel an organization in constructive ways. Brad is a wonderful example.
So here’s a final question for you: Are you confident enough in the things you need to do that getting fired is not your concern? If so, you are likely a bold leader, too!
I posed a number of questions in this blog. If you care to respond to any or all, I’d love to hear from you. And, I invite you, if you have better questions, to please send them my way.