Leadership + People: Episode 38 - Nathan Anderson - Part 2 of 2
Nathan Anderson, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of Mountain America Credit Union talks about the importance of being willing to prioritize people — both your customers and your employees in how a company leads and mentors their own. Anderson says although it may be difficult at times, open and honest discussions with your team shows them that you care about their success and personal development.
- Building willing leaders who buy in on a company culture of mentorship & growth [01:51]
- As a leader of an organization, you’re either in or you’re out, and that really pertains to all aspects of your role [03:40]
- Care in communication [05:21]
- If you don’t sit down and share with them the concerns or opportunities they may have, they’re never going to get better [06:23]
- It’s not about having to “be mean” in difficult conversations; it’s not nice to sit back and not share feedback when it’s needed [07:11]
- Jess Larsen shares an experience with difficult conversations [07:18]
- Prioritizing mentorship, coaching in career [10:14]
- Enjoy what you do or be willing to leave what you do [13:07]
- Advice from Nathan Anderson: Be a Sponge and soak it all up; always be learning [18:49]
This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: June 12th, 2018
Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, senior executives and entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies, and what advice they wish they knew if they could do it all again.
HOST – JESS LARSEN: This is part two of our interview with Nathan Anderson.
GUEST – NATHAN ANDERSON: If you really don’t enjoy what you do, you’re probably not producing to the levels that you could, you’re not adding a value that you could, and you’re spending time doing things you don’t want to, and I think at that point in time, it’s time to find something else. I mean, take a look around. Our unemployment across the country is really at historical low levels. There are plenty of opportunities to gain different education and to look for different opportunities.
00:55 JL: If you missed part one, it had some really good stuff that you should be listening to, and we’re actually just going to pick right up from there. You know, we talked a lot about this idea of consistency and that daily reminder — kind of following the Ritz Carlton model and adapting it for the finance industry. But something else you brought up a few times, I want to ask about this idea of having the rest of your senior leaders bought into this so they can set the example for it. You talked quite a bit about coaching and mentoring. When you do find that there is a leader that, it’s — you know, you’re coming to the conclusion they haven’t quite bought in. They’re going through the motions, but you probably aren’t feeling it in the bones. Right? Can you talk to us about what you’ve done or what your advice is for you know, what does that one on one coaching and mentoring look like in helping them open that aperture and really… Because just telling them to buy in, I’m guessing, isn’t enough.
Building Willing Leaders & “Buying In” On Company Culture
NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah, so for me, I think it’s — whether it’s culture — something you’re trying to move there, or something related to another aspect of the business. I don’t know that it’s any different, right? For me, I think it’s key first and foremost to have a frank conversation. You know, to really just sit down and say, “Hey, you know, I’ve noticed from your behavior that whatever it is you’re speaking about, that you’re not really bought in to. Let’s talk about that. Let’s discuss, you know, your reservation or your hesitancy, or what’s going on here.” I think it’s extremely important to give people that opportunity. If your culture is such that everybody’s sharing their opinions all the time, that’s great. I haven’t found a culture like that yet, [laughs] so I think it’s important to provide an avenue for people to share that type of an input and ask those frank questions. And you know, at that point, you have a number of different options, right? Based upon their response. For me, it’s great to have the discussion, but the outcome of the discussion’s what’s most important. So, really being able to — from that, take steps as a team — the two of you — to where you need to go is key. And those steps could be a number of different things.
03:06 JL: Yeah. What would be an example? So if they say, “Oh, Nathan, I know I should and it’s great, but I gotta get real work done.”
NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah. So on that, in that scenario, for me it’d be really simple to say, “Well, you know I’m sorry to hear that. I agree. I think everybody here has a lot of ‘real work to do.'” But I think it would be again — going back to helping them understand the why — in this case, maybe sharing with them some of the results of what’s happened in the areas that have done that. And then also lastly, helping them understand that this is an expectation of the organization. As a leader of the organization, you’re either in or you’re out and that really pertains to all aspects of your role. Not only the “work” that you’re talking about within your specific organization, but also the leadership role you have within the company, and supporting the expectations we have as an organization.
You know, I’ve learned throughout my career that you do need to have support. It doesn’t mean everybody’s going to have the same thought. Right? That’s okay. That’s actually — in my opinion, that’s preferred. You bring people from different backgrounds together on a team, and everybody’s bringing their own experiences, and I would hope that they’re going to have a difference of thought. But, once a decision is made as a leadership team, it’s then important and incumbent upon everybody there to support it and help it move forward. And that to me is part of their role as a leader and if they don’t want that role, then it’s time to find somebody else that does.
04:35 JL: So, in today’s culture, with a lot of emphasis on being nice and everybody gets a turn… You know there’s kind of this pervading — wanting leadership to move away from being drill sergeant dictators that maybe have sometimes the tug-of-war has gone too far the other direction. Any thoughts for folks who are saying, “Well, I don’t want him to feel bad,” or you know, “Maybe we can work with him over time. I don’t know if I need to be that direct.” Can you talk about the value in being clear and in the organization having standards that is not just up for personal opinion?
Care in Communication: Seeing Value in Frank, Sometimes Difficult Conversation
NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah, that’s a great point, and you know, again — by no means as a company are we perfect at that. I think people struggle with that all the time. So, what I would say is this: you used a word there a minute ago. You said, “value.” And, I think at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. If I have the opportunity to work with you, and I see an opportunity for improvement, or growth, or development, then I’m going to sit down with you and have that conversation because I care about you as an individual. And if I’m “nice” and I don’t have that conversation, then do I really care? Am I really adding value to you, as an employee? I would argue that no, you’re not. Life’s too short for all of us to be doing something that we’re not doing well. And I think it’s really important for leaders to lead, and the way they lead is to provide that feedback, to set an expectation and to allow people to surpass that expectation. If it’s never been set, they never know. If we don’t sit down and share with them the concerns we have, or opportunities they may have, they’re never going to get better.
And so I think, on the other side of the coin if you look at it, if you really do care about the individual, your goal should be to help them succeed and grow and develop. And if that’s not occurring, then you’re not doing your job as a leader. In most cases — this is one of the things I’ve shared with leaders in our company — that’s their number one job, is to help develop, lead, and mentor their teams. Those individuals will most likely be here long beyond they will, and they have an opportunity to go ahead and impact the organization in a much bigger way if they’re helping those people develop. You can’t do that unless you’re willing to have the tough conversations sometimes. And, you used the word, “nice.” I don’t think you have to be mean. I would say that it’s not nice to sit back and not share feedback when it’s needed.
07:18 JL: Yeah. It makes me think about one of my early feelings. You know, before running this company, I used to be in finance and I was a young CEO and we had hired this guy — kind of a — it was a huge salary to us; $300,000/year coming out of a national bank. Right? And, I ended up giving the guy so much rope he hung himself with it. You know? And, I kept just saying, “Well, he’ll get around to it,” and I think maybe my shying away from conflict or whatever, you know, just it was not very many months down the road — it was just so obvious it wasn’t going to work out. Right? A) There was a lesson of hire slowly, fire quickly, which I messed up. But the other one of not having real conversations with him about, “Hey, so this is the role you’ve been hired for, and it’s not happening.” Instead of… I just kept letting him, oh I’m sure he’ll get… We’d have these conversations and he’d be like, “No, I’m going to get to it,” whatever. But, I never had the direct, “Yeah, but you didn’t do it. So, we probably need a different plan than what’s happened last month because it didn’t happen.” Right? I don’t know if it was again, just because I was trying to avoid conflict, or what these other things were, but, it ended up not being nice to him to give him a pass because he ended up losing his job over it.
NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah. I think that, you know, there’s caring about the outcome and there’s caring about the individual and oftentimes we care way too much about one and not enough about the other. When in essence, if you care about the individual, you’re most likely going to get the desired outcome. So, again going back to the terminology that was used, if you value them and want to demonstrate that value, you’ll have those conversations. You’ll put a plan in place. You’ll help them understand what the expectation is, and then it’s great! It’s a great opportunity to recognize, to reward — when they’re able to meet those expectations. But it’s really, I think, an expectation of the leader to make sure that that employee has that opportunity.
09:26 JL: Yeah. I think the other one for me in that scenario, too, was probably some self-focus. I wanted the Boy Scout badge of being the “nice boss,” and I knew if I had the conversation as direct as I probably needed to, then maybe he wouldn’t be giving me the “nice boss badge” anymore. Right? And so, being more worried about my image than his result and the organization’s results, wasted a bunch of our fund’s money, and his time and our time, and all sorts of awesomeness. [laughs]
NATHAN ANDERSON: Got a great lesson out of it though, right?
10:02 JL: Right! Yeah. Now I’ve got content for a podcast! So, let’s go back to this coaching and mentoring thing. It sounds like this is not a once a year thing for you. This is a practice you believe in.
Prioritizing Continuous Leadership & Mentorship
NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah, it really is. It’s ongoing. I mean, and again, it should be happening throughout an entire organization. I could take the opportunity, personally, to meet with our CEO and have those conversations for myself, as well. I think coaching and mentoring is a two-way street. I think the individual has to take the ownership on themselves to reach out to their boss or whoever it is they’re choosing as a mentor, to let them know, “Hey, I’d like your assistance. Here’s the things I’d like help with.” And then of course, if you’re a leader in an organization and have direct reports, it’s your responsibility, in my opinion as well, to make sure that you’re leading them appropriately. Not everybody — not every leader — is going to be mentor. But, they need to lead. And I think that you know, again, that’s not a one-time thing. It’s not an annual thing. It’s an ongoing thing. It has to occur regularly, otherwise it isn’t genuine. It’s rehearsed, it’s not you know, that value or that desire that they have to help individuals around them grow and develop.
11:20 JL: You know, everybody hears it in the business media that this should work and that great organizations do this and whatever, right? What would your response be if somebody came back to you and they said, you know, “But Nathan, you don’t understand how much work I have to do. The company does the annual reviews and I talk to them. It’s not like I don’t talk to them. But, you don’t understand how much work I have to do. I just don’t have time for that kind of — to do it that regular.”
NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah. I think just like anything else, it has to be important enough to be on your calendar. If you don’t schedule time to do one-on-ones, you don’t schedule time to meet together to talk about development, it won’t happen. I guarantee people schedule meetings to talk about financials. They schedule meetings to talk about product development or whatever, right. We schedule those types of things all the time. It’s the human element — the human resource side of things — that we, for whatever reason, choose not to schedule and make a priority.
So, I think at the end of the day, we all have the same amount of time in a day. It comes back to what we prioritize, and our actions will show what we prioritize. If it is, in your mind, important to you, then you have to look at your calendar, you have to send out a meeting invite, and you have to schedule it. Once you do that, those excuses tend to go away.
12:43 JL: It’s funny what a simple answer that is, and yet, how many of us don’t do it, right? Well, whether it’s about this subject or another subject, what’s another one of the just leadership principles that you feel like has had you you know, come to the level you’ve got to in your career and maybe helped the organization get to the size it’s got?
Loving or Being Willing to Leave What You Do
NATHAN ANDERSON: You know, I would say this and it might sound tried or cliche, but, I think you have to be really bought in to doing what and enjoying what you do. So for me, again, at the role that I have here, at working at Mountain America Credit Union, I love what we do. I love that we’re member-owned. I love that our focus is on the member, and our goals are to help them, and our vision really to help them achieve their financial dreams. Because I love that, I can put more of myself into my job. And I think that we all need to be able to look at what we do that way. You know, no job’s perfect. There are a lot of things we all would like to change in our jobs, whether it’s the role itself, or the company, or whatever else. But, I think if we can look at and really look at the heart of what it is that we do and enjoy it, then for me, that makes a significant difference.
14:02 JL: So, let’s play with this for a minute. I’m a senior leader at a government organization — in a whatever industry I’m in — and, it pays well, and I don’t have time to go back to school, and maybe I’m realizing that I don’t love it the way Nathan sounds like he loves it. [laughs] Right? Any tips for finding what I can love about it? Of maybe developing a little bit of that in me so I can kind of bring that passion back, now that I’m leading the organization?
NATHAN ANDERSON: Right. So, I would go back and look at what it is you’re doing or what it is you think you’re doing. I say that because those are two different things. So, if I looked at my role and said, “Well, I’m over operations, so I’m a process guy. I’m going to focus on processes.” I think what you find is you have to really take a step back and understand what does that mean. For me, my background was sales and marketing, and now I am over operations. You look at those two and you say, “Wow, those are very different.” And I would look at it and say, “Well, no, they’re really not. It’s actually working with people to make a difference.” So, I think you have to step back and say, “Well, what is it you don’t enjoy about your job? What is it that you’re doing? And, are you focusing on the wrong things?” Because if you, for instance, if you like process and you like efficiency, and you don’t like people, well then maybe you should look for a different role — whether it’s that company or a different company.
I would say in most roles that we have, we should be people-focused. We should have the desire to work with and work through people. And, I think regardless of the industry, you can find ways to make it meaningful and to enjoy it. If you don’t, I don’t care if you have progressed to a certain point, you should still look for something different. Like I said, my feeling is that life’s too short. We all work for a number of reasons. One, of course, is to provide an income or a living, and that’s important. But, I still feel that if you really don’t enjoy what you do, you’re probably not producing to the levels that you could, you’re not adding a value that you could, and you’re spending time doing things you don’t want to. And I think at that point in time, it’s time to find something else. I mean, take a look around. Our unemployment across the country is really at historical low levels. There are plenty of opportunities to gain different education and to look for different opportunities to go ahead and grow a career. So, I personally think that you know, again, because life’s too short, if that’s the case that you find yourself in, you should look for something different.
16:43 JL: It’s funny the short-term pain, long-term gain from doing something like that, right? Because it’s inconvenient, it can be scary, whatever, right? You know, you talk about operations and people. I’ve been learning lately a lot of folks in the finance world are taking kind of the operational excellence, continual improvement methodologies and bringing them to the finance world. When you think about making things better in operations — whether you’re doing that formal CI programs or not — any thoughts about getting the people to A) are you doing stuff like that? B) How do you get people to want to do stuff like that?
NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah, so, there are three things that I’ve focused on this year and have in the past, as well. But, the first for us is providing a great experience. So that’s customer service, member service, however you want to look at it. And that is number one here and will always be number one.
The second thing is a little bit of what you’re talking about, but we phrase it differently. We don’t say “process improvement.” We say, “we want to make it easier for our members to do business with us.” And, when you look at it again, from the lens of the member or the customer, it’s not “process improvement.” It’s making it so that your consumer — your member — can accomplish whatever it is they’re trying to do, easier. So, the steps to do that, it may make it easier for your employees, as well, right? But it’s really, I think, looking at it from a different lens and when you do that, it changes the perspective of the employees that are trying to make it happen.
18:14 JL: I love that idea of building the framing right into the title, right? How much less work is it to get buy-in when you’ve framed the whole thing, like you said, it’s perspective that staff are naturally going to care about, right?
NATHAN ANDERSON: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s much easier that way.
18:32 JL: Yeah. Well, we appreciate how much time you’ve spent with us. It’s been great! Maybe to close, what would be a piece of advice that you’d go back and give a younger yourself? You know, when it comes to leadership and all this people stuff. What’s something that maybe you wish you would have learned earlier or something?
Seek Continuous Learning & Career Development
NATHAN ANDERSON: Probably this: work or career, however you want to — short-term, long-term, however you want to look at it — I don’t think it ever should be something that you’re getting through. I would say this: with every role I’ve had, there’s been many things I could learn, and I would just say that it’s important in every role to just be a sponge. Soak it up. Learn as much as you can; not only about your current role, but about the way that things are working around you. I’ve been fortunate and privileged to have a lot of different roles in my career, and I think that I would tell myself to spend even more time learning along the way because I think, with that education, you develop and become better.
19:33 JL: Love it. Okay, well this has been great. Thanks.
NATHAN ANDERSON: Thank you.
19:37 Music Begins.
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