As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need to Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Aditi Javeri Gokhale, Chief Commercial Officer and President, Investment Products and Services, Northwestern Mutual.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My background and personal story has shaped much of my career path and continues to influence how I make decisions as a leader. I grew up in a progressive, middle class family in India where my parents encouraged my sister and me to reach for opportunities, including a focus on education. At the age of 17, I accepted a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sight-unseen. With just $150 in my pocket (crowdsourced from family and friends), I got on my first international flight and moved halfway around the world to Boston. I finished my undergraduate degree and earned my MBA from MIT shortly after. Since then, my career has been all about taking calculated risks to grow.
My career path has included multiple industries and roles — and I am particularly proud to be part of Northwestern Mutual given our focus and the impact we have in the lives of our clients. In 2019, I was named Chief Commercial Officer and President of Investment Products and Services at our company, and I previously was the company’s first ever Chief Marketing Officer. Before joining Northwestern Mutual, I held senior leadership roles at companies including American Express, Shutterstock, Travelocity, and Nutrisystem.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
My first role was in consulting — and we worked on extremely tight deadlines. In fact, we were often still printing and assembling the materials for clients at the very last minute — sometimes even as a client presentation was already underway. At one point, we were furiously printing documents just moments before we needed to present them to our client — but the pages were extremely hot because they had just come out of the printer. So, we put the binders of handouts in the freezer for a moment to cool down before rushing them into the conference room!
It’s funny to think about it now — but the ultimate lesson I learned is that I want to be more prepared in advance (I don’t want anyone on my team putting documents in a freezer at the very last minute!). While working under a tight deadline is often required in a fast-paced environment, we can and should be more proactive than that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am very fortunate to have learned from and grown with some of the brightest minds in the industry — and throughout my career journey, I’ve had several leaders at Northwestern Mutual and other companies who have continuously provided me with advice and guidance. Additionally, I am grateful for the strong network of personal friends that I have leaned on to help think through situations related to my role, career, my son’s education, etc. I have a tight-knit group of women that have been there for me in my life and I have been there for them as well.
To this day, there are also several former leaders that I still call upon for guidance — and, it feels as if it was just yesterday that we worked together. Time goes by quickly, but knowing there are people in your life that are willing to give you the time (no matter how much time has passed) is something that I am thankful for and make sure that I do for others.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When you look at Northwestern Mutual, we’re unique in our industry — and we are highly focused on living our purpose. That starts with the very reason we were founded in 1859 — to serve our clients and help them become more financially secure. As a mutual company, our policyowners actually own the company. Every dollar of profit we generate is for their benefit — to ultimately make them more financially secure. Being a purpose driven company guides business strategy, creates differentiation, and — in our case — fuels long term growth and relevance.
This purpose threads through the decisions we make, the way we invest for the long-term, and the way we build the business for generations to come. Plus, we know that staying focused on our purpose drives business growth too — from very humble beginnings, we have grown to nearly $30B in revenue, we’re the largest U.S. provider of life insurance and in the top 10 independent broker dealers in the country. We have the highest financial ratings in our industry and are the industry leader in total dividend payout ($6.2B next year), and those dollars go directly to our clients to help them build financial security. In other words, we don’t just talk about our purpose — we live it through the way we operate our company
Personally, this purpose means a lot to me. Working for a company that helps people build wealth and financial security is completely aligned with my upbringing — knowing that our work is actually benefitting people and their families. Plus, I was a client of Northwestern Mutual before I started working here — I have long appreciated the impact of our work.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
While there have been several economic downturns, including the terrorist attacks of 9/11, weather-related crises, and other major business disruptions throughout my career, none have been as significant, devastating, or personal as the COVID-19 pandemic. In the remote world, the lines between work and home-life have become increasingly blurred. Perhaps now more than ever, it’s so important to lead with compassion as we have all been affected in some way by the pandemic.
Like many others around the world, I have been balancing work, home, homeschooling for my son, caregiving, connecting with loved ones back home in India, and more over the past year, which is something I’ve been transparent with my teams about. It’s important to be open and honest about both work and home to your colleagues so that transparency becomes infused in your team culture. When teams feel valued and that they can be honest, they’ll produce better outcomes for the business overall.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There was a moment in my first semester at MIT where I was ready to give it all up. I was homesick, I had never been through a snowy winter, I was in a highly rigorous academic program, and all of my close personal connections were thousands of miles away. I was unsettled and felt like I was totally out of my element.
I distinctly remember calling my parents back in India to tell them I was ready to come home. Back then, making an international call was very expensive — and we only talked for a few minutes. In that conversation, my dad told me to just wait it out a bit longer. Take it day by day, week by week. He reassured me that I always had a place at home — but encouraged me to stick with it and not give up. I followed his guidance — and that is probably the best advice I’ve ever received.
When times get tough, I think back to that moment and my dad’s guidance. Take things one step at a time, stay committed to the goals you set, and don’t ever give up on your dreams. That advice still inspires me today.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
When I think about what’s most important as a leader, particularly during a challenging time, there are three things that come to mind.
First, it’s about being real, authentic, and focused on supporting their team to help them solve big problems during tough times. As part of this, establishing this culture of communication and discussion in advance of a challenging period or crisis will pay dividends when tough times do come about. Long before the pandemic hit, I made it a priority to use radical candor with my teams — openly sharing with them and asking them to do the same. This involved more than just telling them they should feel comfortable, it also involved leading by example, being vulnerable, and sharing my own experiences.
Next, throughout my career, I have learned to embrace failure. What I tell my team is to take calculated risks, and if they don’t work out, fail fast, move on. We run experiments at work all the time, and many of them don’t work. But, that’s okay because we are learning and refining and that is just as important. We don’t to know all the answers — but we have to learn very quickly and keep moving.
Lastly, taking accountability is so critical as a leader. To me, being accountable means you are willing to make commitments and be responsible for your own actions. When I say I am going to do something I will come through. This also promotes trust between me and my leaders because they know they can count on me when they need me most.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think it comes down to increasing the frequency of communication and encouraging an environment of openness and authenticity. As we’ve all worked to adjust to the new normal, I’ve increased the amount of skip level meetings I am doing to connect with other team members to hear what’s on their mind. In addition, I started to hold employee listening forums called “Ask Aditi” as informal touchpoints for my teams to ask for advice and guidance about a range of topics, from managing their personal and professional lives during COVID-19 to the impact of racism on our communities. These touchpoints have proven to be invaluable in supporting my team in and outside of the workplace. Showing that we’re all in this tough situation together and creating a forum where colleagues can share practical tips, can be a great way to engage virtually.
To inspire and motivate, especially when times are tough, it’s important to remind colleagues of our mission: helping improve people’s financial lives. It’s how we can keep the spotlight on our purpose and impact. One way we have done this over the last year has been to share stories of clients we’ve supported, like business owner Melvin Gonzalez, who worked with his Northwestern Mutual advisor to navigate the financial challenges that came with COVID-19. Putting names and faces to the real problems we are all working hard to solve gets me excited about the work I’m doing, and I can say the same for my team.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Lead with humanity. No matter what industry you work in, your colleagues, clients, and communities need to feel that their leaders are looking out for them and their specific situations. Listening to and understanding their priorities, goals, and challenges is imperative to not only identifying solutions but building the trust that you can help them and guide a company through turbulent times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
It’s not uncommon to make mistakes during times of serious volatility, but so long as leaders keep their vision and strategy at the forefront, and prioritize company culture, many of these issues can be avoided. The three most common mistakes to avoid include:
- Failing to understand the situation: When leaders underestimate or overestimate crises, they often fail to respond appropriately. By surrounding oneself with experts with diverse perspectives and paying close attention to updates and timely intel, leaders can mitigate the risks of not responding appropriately and evolve their response plans.
- Losing track of the big picture strategy: It’s critical that companies both respond to the immediate needs of the business while also continuing to maintain a long-term focus that is grounded in the business strategy. Leaders have to swiftly address the near-term issues, but you have to do it in a way that continues to strategically move the organization forward with a long-term view.
- Under communicating: Under communicating to stakeholders, or waiting too long to reach out to them, can be a serious issue. As with all sensitive situations, clients and employees need to hear from leaders early and often as situations develop so they have a clear sense of a company’s vision and direction for navigating uncertainty.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
To continue the momentum and gain traction during times of crisis, leaders can’t stop developing solutions to meet client needs. From the beginning of the pandemic, we have emphasized that we are strong, prepared, and ready and that we are here to help clients through these challenging times. We stayed true to our strategy and have also continued to invest in the future of our business, which has included investments in our advisor and client capabilities, such as our new proprietary planning platform. In a year like no other, we could have completely hunkered down, but we knew that was not the right thing to do for our company nor our clients.
We are lucky to have a strong foundation — and unique business model — that helped prepare us for the volatility that accompanied COVID-19 and continue to remain focused on the long-term. For example, we swiftly introduced a package of items to help our clients and financial advisors early in 2020 — and we pivoted our marketing efforts to help prospective clients understand how we could help them both now and in the future.
Even throughout the pandemic, Northwestern Mutual has seen record growth in several categories, including the largest field force of financial professionals in the company’s history, adding thousands of new advisors; a record number of new clients; record net cash flows to the retail investment business; record growth in high-net-worth households, and selling a record amount of life insurance as clients take action on their financial plans.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Develop a bold vision: Leadership starts with setting a bold vision that is both aspirational and rooted in the true impact of the work. The vision becomes the rallying point to build a high-performing team where people are passionate about driving results and empowered to act. At the start of the pandemic, our advisors jumped in and rallied their teams and peers virtually, to proactively check-in with clients individually by phone. This underscores our advisors’ drive to support and serve clients.
- Unlock the power of your team: To unlock the true potential of a team, inclusiveness and transparency are essential so that people are empowered to take action and move quickly. As part of this, I want people on my team to be themselves at work, which includes being open in sharing both ideas and feedback — and ultimately accelerates progress. During turbulent times, the importance of this cultural mindset multiplies. As I mentioned, the “Ask Aditi” sessions have been invaluable in maintaining culture, especially in a remote work environment. When our colleagues become more like family who can speak openly, we can be our most productive and effective selves together.
- Remain authentic: Beyond the day-to-day, as a working mom, it is important for me to be authentic so that other leaders and employees know that they don’t have to hide their own personal lives. While it can be tempting to compartmentalize life and work as completely separate, over time I’ve become convinced that being open and authentic about both work and home is a key to setting a team culture. My team knows that being a working mom is just a part of who I am and that carving out time for my family is crucial.
- Seek data and leverage it: when times are uncertain, it can be tempting to follow anecdotes or one-off examples as a place to focus. Leaders and teams have to seek out data to show what is actually happening and then use it to draw insight-based conclusions about what is needed. You have to fully know the facts so that you can take the right actions.
- Overcommunicate: Just as our financial advisors have overcommunicated to clients during the pandemic by listening to them, providing resources, and helping them find the right options to navigate this current environment, we should do so internally. Leaders have to continually engage and communicate any changes in strategy, provide solutions, and offer an ear to listen and respond to any feedback.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many life lessons I’ve learned over the years, including “work harder and smarter than everyone else and build relationships across all levels,” which I shared with you in 2019. Another one that stands out to me was something my father always said to my sister and I growing up, “eye on the sky, feet to the ground.” To me, this means stay humble, but always aim high. While this approach has guided me through my education and career, I’ve also seen this mantra play out in business. As leaders, we should be encouraging our teams to set strong and lofty goals, but also help them take realistic steps to reach them.