The Wisconsin School of Business welcomed Roger W. Ferguson Jr., president and CEO of TIAA, as part of the M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series for a special event sponsored by the Wisconsin Full-Time, Evening, and Executive MBA programs, the WSB Office of Diversity, and the UW System. In a conversation moderated by Melissa Abney (MBA ’19), a brand and product management student and the president of the Graduate Business Association, Ferguson shared his career and life experiences with WSB students and took questions from the audience.
From his childhood growing up in segregated Washington, D.C. to his early passion for banking and the Federal Reserve, he is a believer in the lifelong impact of education and an advocate for financial literacy. As the head of the 100-year-old leading financial services provider with 16,500 employees, Ferguson offered thoughts on leadership from his perspective as a Fortune 100 CEO.
“Leaders who want to have a great impact also have to have empathy,” Ferguson said to those at the event. “The secret of leadership, in my mind, is that you inspire followers. And I don’t think you can inspire a follower if you don’t understand that they have human needs and you’re trying to bring them along on this journey.
In addition to participating in the Weikel Speaker Series while on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, Ferguson also met with small groups of WSB students and took the time to share his insights on the questions posed below.
WSB: You earned your B.A., J.D., and Ph.D. in economics, all from Harvard. What would you tell Wisconsin School of Business students about optimizing their education and positioning themselves for the career they want?
Ferguson: The first piece of advice I have to offer is to develop—or continue developing—what we economists like to call your “human capital.” It’s the key to your success. You’re making a great investment in your human capital by pursuing a degree at the Wisconsin School of Business. But even when you have that degree in hand, you must commit to being a lifelong learner.
To thrive in this time of rapid change, you must never stop learning and growing. That doesn’t mean you have to be in a classroom forever. Being a lifelong learner is more about the state of mind you bring to your work. In every job I’ve ever taken, I’ve looked for the opportunity to keep learning.
My second piece of advice is to give your financial life the same kind of focus you give your work life and your social life. Your goal should be to achieve financial well-being, because without it, you’ll have a tough time making any kind of impact on the world.
To be sure, today’s students face some unique financial challenges, including student debt levels of nearly $1.4 trillion. But you can face any challenge and thrive with careful planning. Make sure that when you enter the working world, you have long-term financial goals, even as you deal with short-term needs and desires like buying a car or taking a vacation. Most important, start saving when you’re young—because saving even a little bit on a regular basis can have a huge effect on your financial well-being.
WSB: What are some of the skills and qualities professionals need to develop in today’s business landscape in order to thrive in their careers?
Ferguson: First of all, to be successful in the current environment, you must embrace the reality of change. Change is a constant, and it’s likely to keep speeding up in the years ahead. That’s why a strong education is so important; it’s the foundation that will enable you to navigate whatever the 21st century may bring.
To prepare for success, professionals must also hone their critical thinking and communication skills and know how to work effectively in teams. Those are the skills that are becoming increasingly important in the business world.
I also advise people to approach their careers with an attitude of flexibility, ready to adapt to the changing workforce needs of the future. You should think of your career more like a climbing wall than the traditional career ladder. Many of us think that the ladder to success is a straight line towards the top, stepping on one rung at a time. In reality, you may need to move side to side—even down the wall—to progress in your career.
Think of your career as a journey. The purpose of the journey is figuring out what you like to do, as well as where and with whom you want to do it. Recognize that at different points in your life, you may answer those questions differently.
WSB: What was one of the hardest leadership lessons you had to learn?
Ferguson: Early in my career, when hiring for an open position, I looked for candidates who “wowed” me with their hard skills—the combination of technical prowess, experience, and education. Today, when I interview a job candidate, I ask different kinds of questions than I did when I was just starting out. I talk not just about the job requirements but also about a candidate’s soft skills, such as communication, personality, and empathy.
Cultural fit is an essential consideration in hiring. The best person for the job will be strong in both kinds of skills, but I’d choose cultural fit over credentials any day. Talented people can fill in any skills gap they may have, but it’s really tough to overcome a bad cultural fit.
At TIAA, being a cultural fit is particularly important as we are a mission—and values-driven firm that exists to help the people we serve achieve financial well-being. We put our clients’ interests first. We look to hire employees who are not just great at what they do, but who will live the values that define our culture: Put the customer first. Value our people. Act with integrity. Deliver excellence. Take personal accountability. Operate as one team.
WSB: What has been surprising or unexpected about serving as the CEO
of a Fortune 100 company?
Ferguson: I’ve been somewhat surprised at just how important the “brand ambassador” part of my job is. That’s true both inside of the company, with our employees, and externally, with our customers and other stakeholders. People want to know where the company is going and why. They want to understand our vision and our values. A key part of being a good leader is communicating about that, and it’s just as important as making the big business decisions.
WSB: You sit on a number of boards and commissions. How would you describe your service roles, and why are they important to you?
Ferguson: I try to put myself in many different conversations about the important issues of the day by being involved with a number of organizations across industries and sectors. I do it because it’s important to me on a personal level, but I also find it makes me better able to do my job. My involvement enables me to connect with all sorts of fascinating people—for example, demographers, educators, social scientists, healthcare leaders—who have invaluable insights about trends with important business implications. Those kinds of interactions make me a better, more informed human being—and a better CEO.