Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, and about Brody Moments (from Jaws’ Police Chief Brody and his famous line “you’re going to need a bigger boat”) related to the coronavirus.
Today we talk with David Musto, president, and CEO of Ascensus, the largest independent retirement and college savings services provider in the U.S. With more than 30 years of experience in financial services, Musto previously served as president of Great-West Investments, executive vice president of Empower Retirement, and CEO of J.P. Morgan Retirement Plan Services.
David and David: Tell us a bit about yourself and your area of expertise.
David Musto: For 30 years, I have worked at the intersection of tech-enabled services and investment management. I’ve spent my entire career in an industry that I'm very passionate about, helping people save and invest for what matters most: their retirement, their education, and their health care.
David and David: Can you give us an example of a specific Brody Moment from your past?
David Musto: Some years ago, I took responsibility for a troubled business and quickly realized that people were spending an exorbitant amount of time attempting to rearrange the financials of the business, arguing about fixed costs and shared costs. The business wasn’t making money and wasn’t on a path to make money. The leadership team probably knew that, but they seemed more focused on trying to show profitability than actually creating it. That stark realization launched an intense effort to reconstruct the business’ overall economic and operating model.
David and David: What was your Brody Moment in terms of realizing how the pandemic would impact your work and your role as a leader?
David Musto: When the Governor of Pennsylvania issued one of the nation’s first orders closing schools and non-essential businesses in Montgomery County, home to our headquarters near Philadelphia, we quickly realized we were at the epicenter of one of the largest hotspots of COVID-19 cases in the northeast U.S. This was now our problem – and it was happening today! On top of our Business Continuity Plan, we jumped in three important areas: how to shift everyone to remote work; how to engage and communicate with thousands of associates, partners and clients; and finally, how to address the broad variety of risk factors, including heightened concern about data and cybersecurity.
Previous crises have certainly had a human toll, but this time is unique in that it has a profoundly personal effect on people, their health, their livelihoods, and their safety. This raises the bar for leadership. Great leadership is about setting a clear direction, being a purveyor of hope and optimism, sustaining trust, and getting results. High functioning leaders are able to do some combination of those things well. But in these kinds of Brody Moments, it’s even more important to focus on all of them at once.
It’s like sitting on an airplane. When there's no turbulence and the pilot makes an announcement, maybe you pick up every other word, if anything. But suddenly when there's turbulence, you're hanging on every word. The pilot is doing the same things in the cockpit as when the skies are clear, but passengers are much more attentive.
So, on the one hand, nothing really changes. On the other hand, you need to be all over your clients and your associates on this point of communication and engagement. You also must be decisive and agile in your decision-making. You don't have the luxury of task forces and committees figuring it out over the longer term; you need to make decisions every day, and then adapt if you're getting something wrong. And finally, you need to think about where the opportunity is. Leaders who do these things in challenging periods tend to lead and navigate their organizations to a better place.
David and David: Are there any impacts of this pandemic that you think your company is able to observe first-hand that are different from what, say, a hospital system is directly experiencing? What are you seeing clearly that others might not be?
David Musto: We serve a very large number of small business clients, all of which have been hit hard. That's put us on the front lines of how those organizations are being impacted, how they're thinking about sustaining and/or recovering, and what the implications are for their workers — particularly their ability to continue to save and protect the savings they've accumulated.
We are also seeing how consumer behaviors are changing. Are people unable to or unwilling to save more at this point in time? Do they need to access emergency funds? In the past, we’ve seen that difficult economic circumstances led to higher levels of savings as people realized they need to create more security to protect their families and their financial futures.
David and David: What Brody Moments are leaders experiencing today?
David Musto: I think there will be a series of Brody Moments around what coming back to the office looks like, now that people have acquired new habits and a new willingness to engage virtually. There will also be industry-specific challenges, and organizations must be prepared to serve their clients as they work through those moments. Finally, leadership must adapt to the virtual world and do all the things previously mentioned. That is probably going to be one of the biggest areas of skill-building for many leaders and organizations.
David and David: Any other barriers, human behaviors, or norms that may get in the way of productively getting back at it?
David Musto: I think we will see three kinds of failure. First, failure of vision. Teams will struggle to coalesce around a shared view of what happens next. Second, failure of execution. Even for those firms that have a clear sense of where they want to go, they will struggle to navigate the complexity and changes happening in their environment. Finally, the failure to lead through change. You can have the right strategy and execution plan, but it will be vital for teams to create common narratives and common purpose.
David and David: Any advice you want to offer, any parting words?
David Musto: When I was a young leader, my mentor used to say “act, or be acted upon.” That phrase perfectly captures our current environment, and it guides my thinking on a day-to-day basis. When I or someone on our team is struggling or questioning a decision, that's what pops into my head.
Original article posted on Forbes on June 18, 2020
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