Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.
We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined with Terry Rasmussen, President and Chief Executive Officer of Thrivent, a membership-owned fraternal organization, and Fortune 300 financial services organization. Prior to taking the helm two years ago, Terry had positions as President and senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary.
Thrivent is dedicated in its purpose, to serve society and provide financial advice, investments, insurance, banking and generosity programs. With a belief that humanity thrives when people make the most of all that they’ve been given, Thrivent is there to help people achieve financial clarity, and have lives full of meaning and gratitude. As Terry says “When you have financial clarity – it affects your decisions around all of those things.” With “living generously” at its core, Thrivent’s determination to build awareness, is making headlines in this recent article “How Thrivent is gently raising its distinctive profile in a moment of change.”
Episode 21: “Thrive with Purpose – Financial Advice from the Heart”
Thrivent is not your typical financial services company. Thrivent remains interested in helping people live life with greater purpose and continues to rank as one of the world’s most ethical companies for 9 consecutive years in a row! An organization with the longstanding credo to “act ethically and with integrity,” Terry imparts vital advice on how “doing the right thing” is a core value of their organization, and how she fosters decision making in a less traditional “cloud leadership” type of environment, encouraging teams to “own the decisions together, the issues together and come together” in a highly collaborative way.
“We are not going to be the ‘What’s your number?’ company. We are going to be the ‘What’s important to you?’ company”
It is with great privilege we present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined “Thrive with Purpose – Financial Advice from the Heart,” with Terry Rasmussen.
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Show Notes: Terry Rasmussen
Terry Rasmussen on Thrivent’s goals and values
Thrivent is a Fortune 300 diversified financial services company. And when I think about how Thrivent is truly different, it’s that we believe money is a tool, not a goal. We work to understand our clients’ goals and values so we can provide financial guidance to them, guidance that’s really personal to their situation and their hopes and dreams.
I think we have some of the most accomplished and most caring financial advisors in the country and they really do take the time to get to know our clients. Because we think that if we can help them achieve financial clarity, that they can lead lives full of meaning and gratitude. And oftentimes that enables them to make a difference in their local communities. It seems to me with this economic downturn, especially now, people are really looking for financial advice to help them through this pandemic crisis. There’s also a lot of anxiety about losing expected retirement income, so people really need financial advisors they can trust. So luckily, they have Thrivent to go to. We are known for holding hands during these turbulent times. Many of our clients do have plans in place, so while they need some reassurance, they know they’re going to be okay. And so what we’re finding now is that they’re looking to take advantage of some of the market turmoil, and they’re also wanting to make sure that they can continue to support the organizations that are important to them, because those organizations are going through some economic difficulty as well.
Terry Rasmussen on rebranding during the pandemic
I have to say we did wrestle with the timing of the brand launch, but ultimately decided that a purpose-driven financial services company like ours is needed more now than ever. We know people are feeling uncertainty about their finances. They’re worried about their future, and they really need help and advice from a strong and stable financial services company. So we asked ourselves, what better time for us to launch our new brand? We also looked at some of the companies that are leaders now and recognized that the growth they experienced during times of economic downturn set them on a trajectory for exponential growth in the future. And we anticipated that because of the pandemic, other companies would be pulling back on their advertising, which is exactly what we found. We’re fortunate to have the financial strength and stability to be able to make business investments now, like launching our new brand, so we can grow significantly in the future.
You asked about obstacles, and what I’d say there is that as an organization, Thrivent has always been a part of the community, and we felt like we needed to acknowledge everything going on in our community. So we did dial back how we launched the new brand in order to be respectful of this time of uncertainty. The other interesting thing was that due to COVID, there were no actors for commercials, so we had to get creative about how we created commercials. Someone suggested doing an animated commercial, which, honestly, I wasn’t too sure about. But once we saw it, we loved it. And when we tested it with focus groups, they loved it, too. So, in a way, having to think outside the box ended up being a gift that pushed us in a new creative direction.
And as far as the responses to the campaign, the employees are so excited. They’ve been asking us to do this for decades, and they’re so proud of it and excited that people are finally going to know who we are and what we do and what we’re about. And customers are excited about seeing us show up proudly and prepare to serve the next generations. So it’s been a really fun and exciting time to be at Thrivent.
We’ve actually been in the process of building a new corporate center in downtown Minneapolis, and our move-in date was scheduled for June of 2020. So COVID certainly threw a monkey wrench into those plans. But we were able to move our investments division into their new location in April. And in June, we moved our employees’ belongings, shall we say, into our new building, all while keeping everyone’s safety top of mind. So in the midst of this, Thrivent is also in the midst of a transformation. So we realized that by making some strategic decisions now, we could get even better at serving our current clients while also ensuring we’re well prepared to serve future generations. What we’ve been trying to do is essentially move from being a life insurance company that’s known for charity to an organization known for helping you lead a full life by delivering values-based financial advice, and a second-to-none client experience. So as a part of our transformation, we launched our new brand internally this spring, and we began preparing for our external launch in a national ad campaign to tell people across the U.S. who we are and what we offer. So when we stepped back to evaluate our decisions to proceed, particularly the brand launch, we had a few observations. First, during times of change, there are winners and losers in any industry. And second, there are new disruptors that continue to emerge and challenge incumbents. And the winners are the ones who adapt quickly. And then finally, we observed the digital trends and the fact that technology was opening up new doors of possibility. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we were able to do all of these things because of our financial strength and stability. Unlike many industries and organizations who’ve had to lay off, furlough, scale back, we’ve found ourselves in a position of financial strength. So we’re hiring and investing in the business so we can grow. And we’ve been doing all of this while continuing to fulfill the promises we’ve made to our clients.
Terry Rasmussen on Thrivent’s new marketing campaign
What is unique about our campaign is really, again, the fact that we’re advertising for the first time and the fact that as we looked at the needs that we felt like through the Pandemic, the economic uncertainty and even the tragic killing of George Floyd, that people needed us more now than ever. And so we decided that the time was right for us to share with the world this great organization, Thrivent, and tell people we are here to serve and help you through these uncertain times.
I would say we’ve had a long history of being there for our clients through economic uncertainty. If you look back at 2008, 2009, there was a lot of handholding and telling people “you’re going to be okay” and “just stay the course.” What’s been interesting this time is that now we have, in addition to economic uncertainty, the pandemic. So people are worried about their finances, but also about their health. But because our advisors did such an incredible job of helping people through the last economic crisis, we found that our clients now instead of being concerned and thinking about getting out of the market, they saw this uncertainty as a market opportunity. We also had clients that were calling saying, “how can I give more to the communities that are really hurting during this period of time?” And to me that really does summarize the impact that we have when we help our clients achieve financial clarity. They are truly leading these lives of meaning and gratitude where they can feel that they can give back to the communities and the people that they love.
Terry Rasmussen on DEI at Thrivent
At Thrivent, we’re committed to seeking, identifying, and hiring diverse talent that clearly reflects the communities in which we operate and serve, because fostering diversity and inclusion is a direct path to better knowing your clients. The current environment has really reinforced our understanding of how black, indigenous, and people of color receive disproportionately less mentorship, growth opportunities, and advancement in the American workplace. And we will hold our leaders accountable to this mission. The reason we focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, is twofold. First, we know it’s the right thing to do. Everyone deserves an opportunity to use their talents and flourish. And second, studies have shown over and over and over again that diverse teams are more productive, get better results, and are more innovative and creative.
There’s this whole notion of hub and spoke leadership, where you’ve got the hub, and it’s typically the CEO or the senior leader, and that individual is making all of the decisions, and it’s a little autocratic. And then you have this idea of cloud leadership, where the team owns the decisions together, the issues together, and we come together and create that environment that values diversity and inclusion and allows you to attract better talent and teams that are more engaged with the results. And you can gain a competitive advantage if you value that diversity in your team. It’s important when you’re addressing this to not hire to numbers, but to recruit and have a diverse slate of candidates to choose from. This, again, is what I was taught many years ago at American Express: make sure that you’re assembling this incredible, diverse slate of candidates and pick the best candidate. And Janice, your firm has helped us do that at Thrivent. I’m so proud of the team that we have assembled and the board members that we have that help and guide us on this journey.
Another thing that we’re doing at Thrivent right now, which I do believe is on the cutting edge, is as a company, we’ve been working on making sure that our environments are inclusive, and yet we still find that we have infrastructure and systemic racism embedded in our companies. And so at Thrivent, we formed a task force that will be advising me directly so that we can start to get after some of these systemic issues to make sure that we truly have an inviting workplace for all.
We’re asking people to tell us what isn’t working, what about the environment? How can we improve our environment? And so that you can bring your true self to work each and every day.
Terry Rasmussen on what she looks for when hiring an executive
One of our values at Thriven is doing the right thing, so we look for leaders with integrity. At Thrivent, we’ve been named one of the world’s most ethical companies for the last nine years in a row. And that’s something that we’re really proud of, so acting ethically and with integrity is something we expect from our leaders and our entire workforce.
So in addition to that, which is a big thing, we also look for people who have an established record of getting results and who do their work with excellence. We want people who not only do the “what” well, but also do the “how” well. We want to make sure that people are treating everyone with respect, so we are looking for people that work well together. Collaboration is a big part of our organization, as are courage and commitment. We also look for people who have a passion about our purpose and who are excited about transforming ourselves into an organization that’s growing.
Terry Rasmussen on skills she admires in other CEOs
Someone who embodies many of the qualities that I admire is Ken Chenault. He was an incredible CEO at American Express. Compassionate. He cared about us as the workforce. He’s a visionary who really got us to see the future and get excited about the future. And when he asked us to do things, we gladly did them. And so I look to those as some of the things that I really value. But looking back on my own career, I would say that my career path is made up of interesting opportunities. When I said yes to running the core business here, I left a job that I loved, but was taking the risk to try something new. And once I say “yes,” I always make sure to do the best that I can. This is something that my dad instilled in me at a very young age: whatever you do, do it really well. And even with regard to my current role, I would say it’s not something that I aspired to do. It was not on my list. But I got here, I think, because I said “yes” at all these different points in my career. I tried things and said, “what’s the worst that can happen?” I learned something. And so I would encourage people to say “yes.”
There are some other things that propelled me on this path. I’ve always been intellectually curious. When I talk about this notion of feedback as a gift, I mean that I aspire to get better every day. I’m a much better CEO today than I was a year ago, because I want to make sure that I’m getting better each and every day. I look for ways to solve difficult problems and deliver results. And I’m not afraid to fail. And I think this notion of not being afraid to fail goes back to the confidence that was instilled in me early in life.
Terry Rasmussen’s parting advice
I’d love to close with a story about my first job out of law school, because I think it really did shape me and free me up to try things. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the U.S. Attorney General’s Honors Program out of law school, which meant that I was in Washington, DC at the Justice Department’s Tax Division. I pushed paper out of Washington, DC, but I tried cases in Colorado and Wyoming. And my section chief, who was a crotchety old tax litigation lawyer, pulled me into his office one day and sat me down, and he said, “you know, Terry, there’s only two ways you can get fired from this joint: miss a statute of limitations, or screw up requests for admissions.” He said, “everything else is fixable.” To me, that really enabled me to try things, knowing that not everything I did, not every motion that I argued, not every brief that I wrote would be successful, but that was okay. It gave me the courage to try things.
The other thing that I learned there is that when you go to law school and you graduate, you know how to think, but you don’t really know much else. So I would arrive at court early and I would find someone – typically, it might be a clerk for a judge or it might be a magistrate or somebody. But I would tell them, “I’ve never done this before. Can you tell me what’s going to happen?” And that asking for help went a long way, because they would say, “sit next to me here, I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen.” And so my parting words are: first, really ask yourself, “what’s the worst that can happen?” Make sure that you’re trying things. And the second is that it’s amazing how a little humility goes a long way. I really believe that people want to help others succeed. I’ve been the beneficiary of that when I’ve asked for help, and I’m so grateful for those who’ve given me support and guidance along the way.