Uncategorized Leadership Spotlight

July 9, 2021by Tim Finnegan0

The role for today’s business leader has never been more complex – or more consequential. Leaders today are faced with constant change, digital disruption, a multi-generational workforce and leading with a global mindset. Aisling Executive Coaching will be interviewing business leaders in an effort to understand where they’re coming from and how they deal with the challenges they face. We want you to join the conversation. Let us know whom we should interview, and what questions you want answered.

As we considered whom to interview first, Craig Pfeiffer was at the top of our list. Craig has built an exceptional career and offers some insights he’s learned along the way. Craig is the President & CEO of the Money Management Institute, the voice for the global financial organizations that provide advice and professionally-managed investment solutions. Craig is a longtime financial services industry executive and is the Chairman of Advisors Ahead LLC. pursuing a passion to elevate the professionalism of the investment advice industry. Additionally, Craig serves as a board director and advisor to several organizations.

This interview, condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York City in April 2019.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Dayton, Ohio which, at that time, was a really good, old factory town in the Midwest and very centered on family and community values.
What was your childhood like there?
Well, I thought it was a great childhood. I was the oldest of four children. I grew up in a very disciplined household with German and Swedish heritage. As I like to say, we had rules, we didn’t have any guidelines and we had very disciplined daily routines. Every day we were reminded that grades mattered, that manners mattered, and perfection was the expectation.
Tell me about your parents.
Both of my parents worked. I mean that in the sense that my dad had a job but so did my mom. She was a full-time mother and she raised the children. She ran the household as if it was her profession. She was a Catholic school teacher before having children and she strongly considered going into the convent before marrying my dad. My dad ran a local sporting goods store. He was the business guy paired with a famous local athlete and they had an itch to start their own business in their early 30s. They both left their separate jobs from different sporting goods companies to start their own sporting goods store.
You went to Indiana University. What was your major in college?
It’s also a reflection today around how things change.  I graduated from Indiana University, but I first went to the University of Cincinnati for one year. Remember, I was growing up in Dayton, Ohio. It was a big deal to go away to school, and so I went an hour away to Cincinnati. In high school, I had a real interest in math and in science.  I took a drafting class. It was a drafting and architecture class, but it really was primarily a drafting class. I was fascinated with the math and the precision of it.  I wanted to become an architect because we did a project where we were supposed to use our imagination and draw it in a drafting way.
The University of Cincinnati was a good architecture school. As soon as I got there I found out the two required courses were Colors and Textures and the other was Compositions of Materials. That’s not what a hockey player who’s interested in math and science and precision was looking for. It was the other side of architecture.
Disenchanted with architecture I decided then I wanted to go into business. In the middle of my freshman year, I decided to transfer to Indiana University which was now another big jump. It was out of state, it was three hours away, and it had a really good business school.
During your senior year at Indiana University what were your thoughts at that point?
That is an interesting lesson that I carried the rest of my life. I mentioned earlier that I was the oldest child of four, always kind of reaching faster for milestones than everyone else just for the race of it. In the summer before my senior year, I had 26 hours to go to graduation which would be a normal two semesters of 13 hours each. Somehow I got the idea that it would be really cool if I graduated early in December and take all 26 hours in my fall semester. I was able to take 20 hours in-classroom and 6 additional hours in correspondence courses so that I could graduate in December. I did that and I killed myself. I really had to grind it out. I was so very proud that I finished with college in three and a half years.  However, the big lifetime lesson was everybody I knew graduated in May; they had a ton of fun.  While I had a milestone and I had a distinct marker, it was completely eliminated with the level playing field six months later.
Let’s shift to your post-college or early career. What was your first job after college?
My first job after college was with the General Electric Company. I was accepted to a management training program at General Electric’s headquarters, at that time, in Schenectady, New York. It was marketed by GE at the time as an internal MBA.  It was a mix of weekly classes. My recollection is they were Monday afternoons and Friday mornings. They were true corporate academics and combined with job rotations. Every three to six months, you would rotate to a different financial operation.
Was that difficult in making those transitions through each of those roles?
I’d say it was a lot of growing-up moments. First was moving from Dayton, Ohio to Schenectady, New York and being far away. Going from having worked at my dad’s sporting goods store and other part-time jobs in college, this was truly a corporate job. It was a headquarters job.  It was also frustrating to see the bureaucracy; how many people were involved in little things and how slow it took to get things done. I would say it was difficult, but it also was certainly very enlightening.
Where did you go after General Electric?
The General Electric program was a two-year program that you had to decide to opt for the second year. As I just shared, it was far away from family and friends, and frankly, very far away from a very serious girlfriend who, by the way, is still my wife 39 years later. I chose to go back to Ohio and to Cincinnati to join Price Waterhouse and to pursue my CPA.
How was Price Waterhouse different from General Electric or was it the same in some regards?
 It was different and appealing in that I was more of an independent contributor. Maybe it was because I was one year out of college and had different responsibilities and engagement.  It was different because I had specific work to do and my work stood on its own. I was an auditor; part of an audit team and I was doing my part of the audit. You knew you were getting graded on doing your part of the team’s work in a very examined way.  I stayed for three years and very much enjoyed the experience.
I now look back and it taught me something about myself.  It was back to being the first born.  Back to always trying to dig in and do more. I found myself very frustrated with the professional service firm concept of “chargeable hours.” There are only seven days in a week and only 24 hours in a day. There was no way to scale it. There was no way to leverage it.  We were working on financial transactions and I quickly figured out that the other parties to the transaction were getting, not chargeable hours, but a percentage of the deal. In larger deals there were greater outcomes just because it was the same percentage of the deal. That really took my fancy to financial firms and I ended up leaving Price Waterhouse to go into the more open field of financial services.
Were you with the same firm in financial services or did you change firms over the 30 years?
I was with the same firm but the firm changed dramatically.  I joined a small firm. At the time, it was Shearson Loeb Rhodes and just a brokerage firm that had recently become part of American Express. For the next 30 years we went through 10 transformative acquisitions. About every two years, we completed significant brand name transactions. The company changed each time. There was a distinct culture between us and the company that we merged or acquired with. With that came a whole lifetime of lessons but I never changed firms. I didn’t need to change firms because the firm kept changing and, with that, all of the dynamics kept me working hard and learning and growing.
How did you find that change?
It was great lessons in life about people, cultures, and it forced flexibility and adaptability. The lessons were pretty quick in coming.  Firms who used to be competitors were now your partners. The path of either organization was important to respect but you had to be careful not to get handcuffed to the past culture. I also learned that 1 + 1 can equal 3 or 1 +1 can equal 5 in a well-done transaction, but also, 1 + 1 can end up being 0.9. You actually have less than you had before. I think the real key to navigating the cultures and the business challenges was understanding the importance of the people.  It informed a lot of my subsequent leadership behaviors around understanding people and treating them like people and making sure you always tell them where you’re headed and why.  Hard decisions are going to have to be made. It’s a lot better if you have the human element involved besides the math and all the other legal, functional and strategic elements of the decision.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I think it’s easier to describe it retroactively; where it ended up is being vision-driven and target-driven. My leadership style evolved to being more focused on the end and then the means. I think that’s also part of the separation between leadership and management and where they intersect. But it was vision-driven. It was target-driven. It was about building a team. It was about not only defining the strategy but then learning that my leadership style was about focusing and guiding the team to do the execution. I think my leadership would be characterized in moving the team forward more so than any single-point personal performance.
We talked about your parents, but was there also a professor or mentor along the way or a whole gallery of leaders that you took different attributes from?
The gallery reference helps to crystalize it for me. But I did have a few uncles along the way and also I had some predecessors and grown-ups that were caring and looked out for me.  It definitely was a gallery. I share this with others frequently when they’re trying to define their style. I did not try to mimic or replicate someone else’s style.  I talk about this often. If you look at 10 leaders, they have six to eight common traits but each one has one or two differentiators.  I would constantly be observing for those one or two differentiators and then you had to decide. Did they match up with you? Did they align with you? Could you embrace them?  Some of them you admired and some of them you totally disrespected.  I spent a lot of time trying to understand those one or two differentiators of other leaders and the ones I thought fit my way, if you will, within my comfort, I then tried to adapt. I ended up with a collage of leadership traits from that gallery.
Was the notion of humility among any of those traits?
Boy, it sure was. I have several examples about humility; one I really look forward to sharing with you. Humility is critical. In another important way I view this, in business and in life, you don’t see people who are not humble sustain that for very long. Humility is, in fact, related to my earlier comment around the human connection. People don’t like to be overshadowed. They don’t like to be suppressed. They don’t want your lack of humility to get in their way. The other piece of all that stayed with me was an experience I had at General Electric.
 I had decided to leave GE and return to Ohio to join Price Waterhouse at the end of the year, December 31st.  On November 1st, I was trying to be thoughtful, compassionate, be nice as my mother had taught me. I went to see my manager and said I was giving 60 days’ notice. Now remember, I had only been there for 10 months; one year out of college. I was going to give 60 days’ notice. My manager said to me really quickly, “Oh, that’s okay. You can leave next week”.  First of all, that wasn’t my plan and now it was his plan. So that was a learning moment.  I countered him, and while it was 40 years ago I remember that day like it was yesterday.  I reminded him that we had that important report to do at the middle of the month. We had that important monthly report and there were a number of exhibits to it. Then we have the quarterly report due soon because of the timing. I have got to stay and I want to help you with those reports.  He immediately and very directly said to me, “Craig, put your hand in a bucket of water. Then take it out and look at the hole you leave. The General Electric Company will be okay.” I was obviously humbled and I never forgot that, and I share that with others whenever discussing the importance of humility.
What other pieces of advice have you received back when you were starting that have stayed with you, guided you through to today?
 There were early lessons. When I first became a manager, the first time I had a manager role– you go through the interview process. You get the job. You’re really excited. You’re going to be the manager.  I was told I would really do well as a manager, but that I was starting with no idea what I was doing. That stayed with me and was the catalyst to, what I would call, a lifetime in learning.
The other lesson relates back to my childhood. I was the oldest of four. That family role comes with expectations and responsibilities. In business, I’m not a parent.  I am a leader. Managing was always going to be about executing my leadership, not about managing them. And the other lesson, it was my job to make the decisions.  I made much better decisions however, if I had input and if I listened and if I engaged people around the decision I was going to have to make. I was going to have a lot of people with me in my head when I made a decision with their input. I adopted the phrase, “make people part of the solution, not victims”.
You often hear the phrase it’s lonely at the top. Do you find it, at all, lonely at the top and how do you mitigate that?
I found myself lonely, but I quickly did something about it because I wasn’t going to go anywhere continuing to feel lonely, and that was to get back around other people. It could be lonely at the top if you’re not a good listener, if you’re not constantly seeking input, engaging people in your efforts. In the end, you have to make the decision.  You can pretty quickly get to a place around those lonely moments if you have a lot of input and that input is guiding you to a place that any other reasonable person in your shoes would make the same decision you’re about to make.
Tell me a little bit about what experience or qualities or characteristics are you looking for, let’s say, in that college graduate or 20-something that’s out there today?
This is from a lifetime of hiring mistakes and a lifetime of hiring successes, but today it’s about looking for fresh eyes and fresh energy. I don’t emphasize subject matter expertise or people that have direct experience. Through my career because of those merger and acquisition transactions I spoke of earlier, rarely were we hiring people that were doing the same job somewhere else. We already had the needed talent pools.  I would say if you’re looking for fresh eyes and not subject matter expertise, probably the strongest trait I look for is willingness and commitment. Those are two really important traits.
Willingness to learn.  Are they truly interested in learning? You hire somebody you believe will do well; you believe they’ll make an impact. But you won’t know that, and frankly, they don’t know that. They’re going to have to learn. So that willingness to learn is critical.  The willingness piece is really a testing of their energy. Do they know what they’re getting into? You really have to work hard to make sure they understand because a significant part of turnover is people say, “I’m not doing what I thought I would be doing.” So, if you can front-end that they know what they’re doing and they are committed to it, and they have a willingness to learn, you’ve a high probability of somebody you can make sure is rewarded but also will be a successful hire for you.
Inside the domains of willingness and commitment, what are some of your favorite go-to questions when you’re interviewing a candidate?
You usually get to it in a couple of different ways, but it’s about a time when you were in a difficult spot, a really difficult spot. You were facing either a challenge, whether it was at work or in your personal life, you were disagreeing with a decision or you were not respecting somebody else’s conduct and you didn’t want to be associated with it. What you’re looking for, it’s going to happen again and so you want to know, how they’re going to handle a difficult situation. People share very interesting stories where they had difficult situations and how they handle them.  I think that’s the first one – tell me when you were in a difficult situation. You really have to press through, but you’ll get a really honest, sincere, authentic answer.
The second one that I love asking just because I get surprised every time when I ask the question, tell me about the biggest surprise moment in your life.  You will find a turn in their life somewhere, it could be within their family, it could be within their community, that they were surprised. They didn’t think this would happen or certainly that it would happen to them.  You know that if you’re hiring this person, they’re going to have to handle the unexpected. You also get a sense of what they think is a big deal. You get a sense of their perspective of magnitude on what was really not a big deal but they were surprised, or how they handled something as violent as a tornado, parent’s death, some other circumstance that came about. Asking them when they were surprised is a key question.
After 40 years and multiple organizations, what advice would you give the 22-year-old Craig today?

The 22-year-old Craig today is going to be different than when I was 22. I just read a blog recently discussing the differences between the baby boomers and millennials and now the oncoming of the generation Z. But I actually think it’s probably similar advice. The first one is if you’re asked to do something, do it and do it well. So, my advice to that 22 year old is you’re being asked because it is needed to be done. You’re being asked because it is believed you can do it. If you do it well, it will be noted and you’ll be asked to do more and this will continue over and over the rest of your life. It could be a task. You could be taking over a strategic initiative or you could be taking over a large business unit. But if you’re asked to do something, do it and do it well.

The second one that I draw upon regularly is pay attention to your communication skills. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re in, age 22 or at age 62, pay attention to your communication skills in two ways. Write to the reader and speak to the listener. That’s how I think about that phrase. When I’m writing, help the reader read and get it. When speaking, help the listener listen and get it. Too often, the writer is communicating what they want to say, not necessarily the way the reader’s going to grasp it. When you’re speaking, help the listener to understand. So many people who are authoritative around what they’re writing and speaking about are subject matter experts but rarely is the listener or the reader.
The third thing to take away and I think it resonates with the 22 year old today, is help other people succeed. Share and contribute without self-interest. If you help other people succeed, one, they’ll remember that you helped them and, two, you’ll really be gratified that you helped them. I grew up in a much more self-achiever world. And in today’s world, it’s about sharing and contributing largely and you’ll be rewarded in many ways.

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