Souheil Badran is EVP and Chief Operating Officer at Northwestern Mutual.
Starting a business is challenging. But sustaining a business is even more difficult. Between 1994 and 2019, it was estimated that less than half of businesses in America survived at least five years, and only 1 in 4 made it to a 15-year anniversary.
How can an organization ensure lasting success, and what can leaders do to enable it? While working as chief operating officer at Northwestern Mutual, a 165-year-old financial security company that’s celebrating its best-ever year of business results, I’ve had a front-row seat to what works and why. To better serve clients and employees in a dynamic economic, technological and financial landscape, these are the steps I urge individual leaders to take to help future-proof their organizations.
Start With A Long-Term View
Most leaders and organizations set short-term goals to measure impact. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with tracking initiative-based and quarterly success metrics, it’s an incomplete way to think strategically.
Leaders must believe in something bigger—and adjust their approaches to planning accordingly. That means thinking longer-term about the outcomes a team should seek to deliver in the future. When the scope of decision-making expands beyond quarters or even years to eras and generations, organizations can act more intentionally to drive longer-term success.
Years ago, the leaders at my company created something the team calls the intergenerational compact. It’s a shared belief that it is the collective duty to strengthen the organization for the people in the generations to come, so they know leaders like myself will be here when they need it. The team and I have our eye on fulfilling our promises to both clients today and tomorrow. Some might call it “paying it forward,” or leaving things better than you found them. But this notion of a compact is so pervasive as a cultural norm that it’s transformed from a mindset to a feeling the whole team understands: a total rejection of short-term gimmicks and shortcuts in favor of a vision that builds long-term trust and confidence. It’s a powerful tool that’s key to sustaining success.
Build Sustainability, Not A Kingdom
In my experience, the teams and companies that don’t survive the test of time are often comprised of people who care too much about the trappings and the optics of their offices: the number of people reporting to them, the perceived power they wield, the meetings they’re invited to attend, etc. They are leaders who spend their time trying to build massive divisions solely in pursuit of ego and professional status, which create dysfunction.
On the other hand, companies that thrive over decades are filled with leaders and contributors who care about the right things: the mission, vision, strategy and tactics of the organization and the divisions they direct. They always do what’s in the best long-term interests of the customers and their organizations—and today for individual leaders, that often means collaborating more and taking over less organizational chart turf. In fact, in my experience at Northwestern Mutual, it’s the cross-functional, matrixed teams with multiple dotted-line relationships that collaborate who create significant efficiencies in time, budget, effort and alignment for the company.
Help Teams See The Big Picture
No one likes to be micromanaged or feel spread too thin. As a leader, it’s your job to provide strategic direction, define the goals and milestones that teams should hit, check in regularly, and then get out of their way. That’s why it’s so critical for senior leaders to keep their teams focused on the biggest, high-value, long-term priorities—and ensure they’re not stuck in the minutia of time-consuming, low-value work.
In my organization, the team is very clear about the essential work that’s needed to deliver the company’s strategy. That work is rightfully put on the pedestal, resourced appropriately and protected by leadership from distractions and misadventures to the best of our ability. Moreover, the team as a whole is very intentional about pausing work that is not business critical and in direct alignment with the overall strategy. This is essential work of individual leaders—and when it’s done well, their teams and entities are well positioned to thrive.
Embrace Diverse Perspectives
As an immigrant from Lebanon, I believe in creating opportunities for everyone, just as I was given the opportunity to succeed. It’s important to celebrate different experiences and see the value of varied contributions at work and in life. Embracing different perspectives and cultures and reflecting on the communities and individuals served enables us to better help our clients achieve financial security. I will always create work opportunities for anyone who has the vision and drive to succeed in their jobs.
I’ve worked at startups that fight to live day to day, and I’ve worked at legacy organizations that have survived world wars, depressions, pandemics and more. What’s clear to me is that people who work for companies that thrive for generations think and act differently than others. Every day, they’re weighing the downstream impacts of their actions—and prioritizing the projects that will ensure the organization’s long-term success, not their short-term sense of self in the work world. Leaders who follow these steps will put themselves, and their companies, in a strong position to endure whatever professional environment is coming.