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CEO Insights: ‘Mistakes are growth in disguise’



Business Journal contributor Brad Scheller recently sat down in Westport for a conversation with J. Philip Bender, managing partner of The Bender Financial Group and a general agent of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., to hear his thoughts on hiring, building and aligning effective teams.

The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Scheller: How do you build an effective team?

Bender: “I see three main aspects. It starts with my responsibility to build the vision — which is to be the flagship of Northwestern Mutual. The team’s responsibility is to figure out what strategic priorities need to be accomplished to get there. The second part is making sure everyone is aligned with the mission of the organization, which helps bring clarity to day-to-day interactions and decisions. The third part of building a team revolves around the set of values that govern each of our decisions.

“In other words, where am I going to draw the line in how I operate my business? If someone is not congruent with those values than they put your organization at risk.”

What are your company’s values?

“Personal growth is number one. If you are in our organization you will be challenged to grow both personally and professionally. Success comes from facing and overcoming obstacles. To succeed we constantly have to be in a state of growth.

“Secondly are enduring relationships. It’s not enough to have a great product, and we are blessed there. It’s critical that we have a relationship that grows with the client over time.

“The last one is commitment to self and others. Our number one job is to help our clients get to their destinations. That can be funding education for children, making sure that if they die prematurely or become sick or hurt for an extended period of time that they’re going to be OK. And that they are able to retire with dignity. In essence the overlying phrase is financial security.”

Let’s talk about hiring. What are you looking for when you hire?

“Energy is the first. Second would be competitive experience or people who’ve had success in academics, sports, music where they really have to work at their craft to be great. Those are the types who seem to do best in our world.

“Work ethic is always a difficult one to test for because everyone interviews well. The work ethic is tested because the business model that we employ is simple to understand, but challenging to execute. So we are looking for those who have a blue-collar work ethic looking for a white-collar career.”

What advice would you have for young folks entering the job market today?

“There are two that I like to discuss with young folks coming out. The first is to take your risks early. Don’t be afraid to be unique and pursue your vision early. Because as time goes by you have responsibilities and lifestyles that make it more challenging to take risks — not that you can’t take them later, it’s just more challenging later. The second is to not be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are growth in disguise. So many of the grads and interns I interview are so desperately afraid to make a bad decision instead of making a decision and learning from it.”

What questions would you most like to ask other CEOs about how they manage and lead?

“How do you pursue your vision? What type of check points do you have in place? Who do you delegate authority to and how often do you manage that delegation? What systems do you have in place to know that you are on the right track for growth? How do you manage conflict? When is the right time to let go of someone who no longer is congruent? Those are the questions all leaders have to address.”

How do you stay current?

“The latest thing is I’ve joined a peer board of advisors. I think is very valuable to be in a diverse forum where you have someone who is a non competitor give you direct experience in leadership and management matters. As I put together our vision for 2015, I was interested in working with this group of outside business leaders who have accomplished goals and likewise are in pursuit of their vision and can challenge my thinking and hold me accountable for my progress. It’s very exciting and intriguing to me.”

Brad Scheller, founder of Pivot Point Consulting Group in Wilton, is a CEO coach, management consultant and facilitator of local Renaissance CEO Advisory Boards and can be reached at bscheller@pivotpointgroup.net.

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