Dean’s Blog

Outreach CEO Recounts How Company Had to Pivot

Posted by Joseph Phillips on February 21, 2020 at 12:02 PM PST


On the day he appeared on the cover of Forbes Magazine, Manny Medina, CEO of Outreach, visited the Albers Executive Speaker Series to talk about, “Navigating a Business Pivot: My Most Important Moment of Leadership.”  Outreach is a software that allows users to automate and streamline communication with sales prospects.  The company is in the midst of an incredible journey right now, including achieving “Unicorn” status.  That story is better told in the February 20th Forbes article.  Here, we will stick to the three key lessons Medina shared with our students.

To begin, it is important to know that Outreach started off as GroupTalent, trying to help employers find employees.  That concept did not work, and so the pivot was from GroupTalent to Outreach, and a completely different business focusing on helping sales teams.  That leads to Lesson One – the importance of what Medina calls, “Founder Market Fit.”  GroupTalent was able to build good product, but it could not monetize its product – the demand was not there for it.

What they did find was that the software they were using for their own sales efforts seemed to be working well, so the pivot had to be from recruiters as customers to sales people as customers.  This leads to Lesson Two, which is to “Make Customers Your True North,” and listen to what their needs are to find out what they are willing to pay for.

As Outreach began to gain traction, it still behaved as a start-up with scarce resources, and was still in bootstrap mode, not wanting to hire new people and instead asking the existing employees to work harder and harder.  Medina said it is an aversion to risk that will not allow you to keep up with growth.  This leads to Lesson Three – “Overcome Self-Limiting Beliefs.”  You have to set aside past behaviors and start thinking ahead and planning for growth.  You have to move from day to day resource scarcity thinking to “Need to hire now for next year!” thinking!  You must shift to being proactive and anticipate needs.  If you don’t, you will not be able scale the organization.

In the question and answer that followed, Medina was asked to weigh in on how technology is impacting the workplace.  He definitely does not believe we will all be replaced by robots, machine learning, and artificial intelligence!  Rather, these forces are taking on the repetitive, less interesting aspects of work today, and they will allow for more creative work in the future.  He gave the example of chess, where artificial intelligence has seemingly surpassed the human competitor, but if you move on to “Free Style Chess,” where people are competing with each other and using computers as tools, we have opened up a new arena that was not there previously.  It’s man/woman/machine versus woman/man/machine and teams are allowed!  This is also true in his domain of sales.  Machines will do some of the less interesting work, allowing sales people to do more creative and interesting work!

When he was asked about advice for students, he said don’t feel like you have to drill down and focus on going deep with something.  Rather, be open to trying all kinds of things and take advantage of opportunities to do that.  Also, don’t be afraid to change plans.  Just because your original plan was to go to medical school and that is what you told your parents, don’t be afraid to become an economics professor (not his example, mine!).

He was also asked that, since he was once an immigrant student, what advice would he give immigrant students today.  Medina said to avoid self-limiting thinking.  Don’t believe that because you speak with an accent, because you lack contacts and networks, etc… that you cannot be successful.  The key is come up with an idea that solves a problem, and that will get you the help you need.  In fact, he encouraged such students to present themselves as “up and comers” and turn your immigrant status into an asset.

Manny Medina’s visit to our campus was a great opportunity to learn from a leader at a fast-rising organization!  There is a reason he and Outreach were featured in Forbes!  It was a privilege to him come and inspire our students!




Accolade CEO Says Wanted: Contrarians, Disruptors, and Do-gooders

Posted by Joseph Phillips on February 11, 2020 at 3:02 PM PST


“Wanted: Contrarians, Disruptors, and Do-gooders” – now that is a provocative title, and the one Accolade CEO, Rajeev Singh, used in his visit to the Albers Executive Speaker Series in January!  The three descriptors coincide with three principles Singh urged students to abide by.

The first is, “Know the Why?”  You have to find out why you want to do what you do.  What is motivating you?  It is imperative to know.  Singh told his own “Why?” story.  He started out as an engineer, did not like it, and was poised to go to law school when he joined with his brother, Steve, and Mike Hinton on their start-up that became Concur.  After a few months in the Silicon Valley surrounded by a lot of other young entrepreneurs, his Why became, “I want to change the world.”  Everyone else in the Valley believed they were out to change everything and it was infectious.

The second is, “Who are you?”  What are your values and principles?  You will never be satisfied unless what you do is aligned with your values.  He said that in this era, great capitalists build businesses based on their principles and doing good.  His personal story on this was that in 1998 they became a public company and were fully into the dot-com bubble and then the bubble burst in 2001.  He’s convinced that only getting back to their core values saved the company, and that meant finding the right people and retaining them with a strong culture of shared values.  When you stay with your core values, major decisions are a lot easier to make.

Finally, those who link principles to action will ask different questions and they will continually ask those questions.  What conventional wisdoms does everyone seem to buy into that you question?  He’s trying to do that with health care.  Our health care system is broken, and the sector is built around cost control.  But if we were to frame it as getting people healthy, how would it look?  Similarly, the industry is organized by health condition, but health conditions are linked, so don’t we need a more integrated approach to health care to end up with healthy people.  Accolade is out to disrupt the industry starting with these hard questions!

Here are a few other insights from his visit:

  • Most businesses are built around the customer and meeting customer needs. That’s not the case in health care and that was a key insight that he could bring from his time at Concur and incorporate into Accolade.
  • He was challenged as to whether Accolade is truly disrupting healthcare. His response was that you have to start somewhere.  It is a huge industry and you cannot come in from the outside and think you can fix it all at once.  Accolade has to prove itself and expand from there.
  • He does not buy the conventional wisdom that Millennials don’t stay long with the same organization and are hard to retain in a business. If you build a culture that appeals to their values, they will stay.


In a subsequent post alluding to his visit, Singh said: A reframing of capitalism that marries shareholder returns with positive returns for humanity as a whole is essential. Entrepreneurs cannot wait for public policy makers to mandate that which we already know. We can do both - build businesses that attract shareholders and do good for the world. 

Now that is a powerful and important message for our students!  It was such a great opportunity for them to hear from this inspirational leader who knows business is a force for good!


Joseph Phillips has served as Dean of the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University since 2001. The school serves approximately 1000 undergraduate and 500 graduate students. Albers is distinguished by its focus on student success, commitment to ethics and social responsibility, pursuit of academic excellence, strong ties with the Seattle business community, and emphasis on preparing values-driven leaders committed to contributing to the Common Good.



Smartsheet CEO Visits Speaker Series

Posted by Joseph M. Phillips on November 26, 2019 at 5:11 PM PST


On November 19th, we welcomed Mark Mader, President and CEO of Smartsheet, to the Albers Executive Speaker Series.  Smartsheet, which is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company offering collaboration and work management tools located in Bellevue, WA, was recently named one of Deloitte’s 500 Fastest Growing firms in the US.

With over 20 years executive leadership experience in SaaS companies, Mader has served as Smartsheet CEO since 2006. He has been named EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in Technology for the Pacific Northwest, and GeekWire’s CEO of the Year. On his watch, Smartsheet was named Washington’s Best Workplace by the Puget Sound Business Journal, and Seattle’s Next Tech Titan by GeekWire.

Mader started the evening addressing the theme of his remarks, “The Future of Work is Human.”  While the headlines might make one conclude that machines are taking over, Mader said there is too much unstructured work that robots cannot do.  Too many situations are too complicated for software to handle.

Several times in the evening Mader noted that for an organization to be sustainable, you have to be discovering what is the “next big thing.”  There is only so much in revenue associated with any particular product, so you have to figure out what the next product or service is if the business is going to continue to thrive.  Those insights will usually come from listening to customers about their unmet needs.

Mader also talked about the contradictions one can face.  He described himself as highly impatient, competitive (used to play football in college), and does not want to accept sub-par quality, yet at the same time he has to realize that no one is perfect and mistakes will be made.  Another is A-B testing – true, it’s a test, but you should go in thinking you have a winner.

He is also optimistic about where society is headed, which might not be the conventional wisdom these days.  Why is he optimistic?  Because the trend is toward greater empowerment for more and more people and this will result in them having a positive impact broadly across society.

When asked what advice he would provide to students, he said it is surprising how people have become more open to learning from the younger generation in the workplace, so see that as an opportunity.  In terms of career management, you should let people know you are interested in doing (they won’t read your mind) and take advantage of opportunities to show what you are good at.

On being a leader, he said he never saw himself as a CEO.  He thinks it was a result of developing a passion to serve others, so he must see himself as a servant-leader.  Mader said what he has noticed about the best CEOs is they are good at making each employee comfortable and willing to speak up.

He was asked to explain a past failure and what he learned from it.  Mader said spends little time looking backwards, but he recalled once “accepting a reality he shouldn’t have.”  The issue was about going up against Amazon to recruit tech workers in Seattle.  The conventional wisdom was you could not compete.  Instead, the attitude should have been let’s build a super-high-performance recruiting team!  When they made that commitment, they were able to overcome their recruiting problem, but he estimates they lost a year thinking they could not compete.

Another question was around what it is like to be the CEO of a public company (Smartsheet has been publicly traded since April, 2018).  He responded that a change like that should not cause you to change your values and belief system.  He also commented on the increase in accountability that comes with being a public firm.  There are lots of owners, large and small, and delivering for them is a powerful driver.  Mader also talked about the importance of being able to “tell the story on the street.”  Working with the CFO, he to be a story teller for the company in front of the investment community.  What is the story behind the numbers for Smartsheet?

Because the format was heavy on Q&A, our students had the opportunity to learn from a highly regarded CEO across a broad range of topics!  And it’s not so common to be the CEO for 13 years at a company that is just coming off an Initial Public Offering, so Mark Mader has seen a lot and had a lot to share!




New Albers Endowed Chairs and Professors Installed

Posted by Joseph M. Phillips on November 25, 2019 at 10:11 AM PST


On November 22nd, we installed three faculty members as new endowed chairs and professors.  In recognizing these faculty members, we are, by extension, also recognizing the good work of all our faculty members.

Endowed chairs and professorships are an important resource for a business school to have.  They are a valuable tool for attracting and retaining outstanding faculty.   If Seattle University and the Albers School are to attain our aspirations for academic excellence, we can only do so with a strong portfolio of endowed chairs and professorships.

We have the good fortune to have five endowed Chairs:

The Lawrence K. Johnson Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship.

The Frank Shrontz Endowed Chair in Professional Ethics, currently held by Jeffrey Smith.

The Robert D. O’Brien Endowed Chair in Business, currently held by Claus Portner.

As well as the two being filled today, the Dr. Khalil Dibee Endowed Chair in Finance and the Thomas F. Gleed Endowed Chair in Business Administration.

We have five professorships.  They include the Robert Bosanko Endowed Professorship in International Economics and Finance and the David E. Tinius Professorship in Accounting, held by Tina Zamora.

We also have three Albers Professorships in Business Administration, the Eva Albers Professorship to be recognized today, and the other two: Professor Jot Yau (George Albers) and Matt Isaac (Genevieve Albers).

The Albers family was a generous supporter of Seattle University, and to honor that support our school was named the Albers School in the early 1970’s.  In 2001, we received a generous endowment from the estate of Genevieve Albers which among other things created the Albers Professorships. It was George Albers who founded a successful food processing business that was sold to Carnation, and then bought by Nestle.  The Albers brand was sold by Nestle to Continental Mills which uses the brand today for corn meal and grits.

Professor Meena Rishi is the sixth holder of the Eva Albers Professorship.  Meena is a Professor of Economics and has been a member of our faculty since 2004. She teaches International Political Economy, Asian Economic Development, and Macroeconomics. Her scholarly work focuses on capital flight, institutional approaches to development, International finance, and pedagogy.

Her publications include articles in such journals as the Journal of Development Studies, the International Review of Financial Analysis, the Journal of Developing Areas, and Energy Economics. Meena has served as a Fulbright Specialist and is the Executive Director of the Association of Indian Economic and Financial Studies.  She has been a strong advocate for student-faculty research, having served as the University’s Coordinator for Undergraduate Research. Meena has also served as the director of the International Development Internship Program.

Werner DeBondt is now the 12th holder of the Thomas F. Gleed Endowed Chair in Business Administration.  Werner is one of the originators of behavioral finance, which studies the psychology of investors and financial markets. He joins us from DePaul University in Chicago, where he was Professor of Finance and the Founding Director of the Richard H. Driehaus Center for Behavioral Finance   Prior to that, he was the Frank Graner Professor of Investment Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Over the years, he has also taught at universities in Belgium, The Netherlands and Switzerland. Werner’s academic publications have appeared in such top journals as the Journal of Finance, the European Economic Review and the American Economic Review. He is a much in demand speaker on behavioral finance to academics and investment professionals around the globe.

Professor Cathy Cao was installed as the 4th holder of the Dr. Khalil Dibee Endowed Chair of Finance.  Cathy is Associate Professor of Finance and joined Seattle University in 2011. Prior to entering academia, she worked for CITIC Securities Co. as an asset manager. She teaches courses in investments, options, and derivatives.  Her research interests include empirical asset pricing, the intersection of investment and corporate finance, and institutional investment.

Her publications have appeared in such influential journals as the Journal of Corporate Finance, the Journal of Investing, and the Review of Quantitative Finance and Accounting.  She has served on the SU Socially Responsible Investment Taskforce, the SU Retirement Plan Investment Committee, and as faculty advisor for the Redhawk Fund, where she has deployed her expertise in investments!

Congratulations to Cathy, Werner, and Meena.  It was a pleasure to recognize their professional accomplishments at the installation ceremony!   They all are making important contributions to Albers and Seattle U!


Business Roundtable Says it is Not all About Profits

Posted by Joseph M. Phillips on September 12, 2019 at 4:09 PM PDT

Recently the Business Roundtable introduced a revised statement on the purpose of corporations.  The Roundtable consists of nearly 200 CEOs from many of the major corporations in the US, including local companies such as Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft.  The statement marks a significant shift in thinking, since it says that corporations are not just about maximizing profits for shareholders, but should also factor in the interests of customers, employees, business partners, and the community.

The 1997 version of this statement first introduced the concept that business organizations should be all about maximizing returns for shareholders.  This is a view popularized by Milton Friedman beginning in 1960’s.  It’s a simple and thus alluring concept, made attractive by its measurability (profits).  The best interests of customers, employees, partners, and the community are harder to measure and sometimes “messy.”  It’s important to remember the focus on shareholder returns has not been around all that long, and while it became a conventional wisdom for many, it’s not necessarily a compelling view.

The Albers School has long advocated that a business should consider its multiple stakeholders and not single-mindedly pursue profit maximization.  The ultimate purpose of business is to meet human needs.  It does that in two ways.  First, to provide goods and services to customers and, second, to provide employment and opportunity to those involved in the enterprise.  Giving primacy to shareholders does not align with that.

It’s inspiring to see the Business Roundtable reverse its thinking and adopt a view that is more in keeping with common good.  Let’s see how these business leaders and their organizations go about making this new statement a reality.  In doing so, they will allow the business sector to play a more vital role in helping to solve the many challenges facing our society.

Return to Sansepolcro Celebrates 25 Years of Study Tours

Posted by Joseph M Phillips on September 12, 2019 at 9:09 AM PDT

The Albers School celebrated the 25th anniversary of Albers study tours with a return trip to the destination of the very first tour – the town of Sansepolcro, in the Tuscany region of Italy.  It was 1994, when a group of Albers faculty were promoting the 500th anniversary of the publication of the Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita, by Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli, the first instance of anything being written down about double entry bookkeeping, that the first study tour was organized by Albers faculty members.  The anniversary celebration was leveraged to take a group of students along and the rest is history, as they say!

As part of the 500th anniversary celebration, a statue of Pacioli was commissioned and installed in the Sansepolcro town square:


The 500th Anniversary celebration is another story in itself, which I am not qualified to recount.  Suffice it to say that a group of Albers professors created an event where there would not have been one and helped put Sansepolcro on the map.  They also helped the town understand more about its historical importance and native-son, Luca Pacioli. They also firmly established Pacioli as the founder of the accounting discipline.  That story does need to be retold, but by someone more knowledgeable than me!

Alumni group visiting a winery:


Among the faculty first organizing a study tour were Professor Bill Weis and retired Professor Dave Tinius.  They both were spotlighted in the 25th anniversary celebration and provided many historical insights to the group of over 30 who participated in this trip back to Tuscany.  The event took place over a five-day period – September 4-8.  It included tours of historical venues in the town of Sansepolcro, a visit to the town of Anghiari to visit the Busatti textile factory, inspections of local wineries, and Renaissance feasts and festivities.  All of this was expertly organized by Albers alumna and adjunct professor, Hartley McGrath.

Professor Bill Weis delivering one of his lectures during the 25th anniversary celebration:


I’ve heard about Sansepolcro for a long time, since the study tour to Sansepolcro took place on an annual basis from 1994 to 2010.  Some pundits described it as a “boondoggle” given the venue and accompanying food and wine, but what would they know?  It was interesting to go there myself and get to the bottom of it, and to be able to testify that everything is on the up and up when it comes to Sansepolcro.  The town would love for the Albers study tours to return.

Renaissance parade in the streets of Sansepolcro:


Professor Weis was struck by a few key changes since he last visited.  On the plus side, the city hall building has been reopened after being damaged by an earthquake.  It was an important location for the events celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Summa, and Professor Weis had feared it would never be repaired.  The Capuchin monastery where study tour students stayed had been closed down, but has now been reopened as a convent for five Benedictine nuns.  The Sansepolcro train station has been shuttered, the result of flood damage to the train line that was deemed too expensive to repair.  Instead, a bus service that parallels the train line has been developed.

Sansepolcro train station:


One of the highlights of the trip for everyone was the installation of the dean, along with adjunct faculty member and alum, Dr. Glenn Lux, into the highly secretive Luca Pacioli Society.  This took place in a rare public event, since the membership of the society is a closely guarded secret.  All we know about the society is that it was instrumental in pulling off the 500th anniversary celebration in 1994.  What is a mystery is what it has been up to since then.

Study tours continue today in the Albers School.  For example, this year study tours were offered to China, Guatemala, and the European Union (defined as Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany).  And we have not abandoned Italy completely, as Professor Weis leads a group to the Dolomites each year to deliver his popular courses in Emotional Intelligence.

View down toward Sansepolcro from the Montecasale Hermitage:


Study tours have proven to be a valuable educational experience for many Albers students over the years.  It’s important to pause and celebrate the role they plan in an Albers education!

25th IAJBS World Forum

Posted by Joseph Phillips on July 31, 2019 at 5:07 PM PDT

I recently attended the 25th Annual World Forum of the International Association of Jesuit Business Schools (IAJBS) hosted by Xavier University Bhubaneswar in Bhubaneswar, India.  Business schools from 15 different nations were represented at the meeting, which took place July 21 to 24.  Seattle U hosted this same meeting, the 24th, last summer. It is an important event for bringing together Jesuit business school faculty members and administrators from around the world to network and explore best practices and opportunities for collaboration.

The meeting began for me on July 21st with the IAJBS board meeting.  This conference marked the end of my term as President of IAJBS, after serving for two years.  I now move to Past President for – you guessed it – a two-year term!  In the last two years we have been able to move forward in a number of important ways – improved transparency around governance, navigating the transition of executive directors, and developing a new strategic plan are examples.

In the conference, I participated in a panel discussion on, “How to Make Business Schools Thrive,” which is not something I would claim any expertise in!  Who knows why they asked me! :}

Two of our faculty members, Ajay Abraham and Marinilka Kimbro, presented research papers on themes consistent with the conference theme, which was “Innovate and Flourish.”  I am happy they were there to represent Albers!

At the conference we introduced the New Paradigm for Jesuit Business Education initiative, which is being led by Fr. Michael Garanzini, SJ, Secretary of Higher Education for the Jesuits.  Inspired by the six priorities that were developed at the International Association of Jesuit Universities inaugural meeting one year ago, he has created a task force with members coming from around the globe, including myself, that will be working on this for the next year or two.  We broke conference participants into groups and asked for their feedback on five questions. The material we gathered will be used to develop the key elements of the new paradigm.  It’s not clear exactly what the new paradigm will look like, but its likely to include more emphasis on issues related to global warming, poverty, and economic inequality, consistent with recent pronouncements coming from the Vatican and the Jesuits themselves.

In addition to attending the conference, I also squeezed in a few touristy activities.  These included visiting the famous temples of Bhubaneswar, a trip to Taj Mahal (I was last there in 1997), and a visit to the lower house of the lndian Parliament, the Lok Sabha.  At the latter, we were treated to a lively debate on wetlands policy, and at one point the leaders of the ruling party walked out – but that did not stop the discussion!

Here is a picture of one of the temples:


Susan Weihrich Retires after Thirty Years

Posted by Joseph Phillips on June 15, 2019 at 1:06 PM PDT

After thirty years on the Albers faculty, Dr. Susan Weihrich is retiring.  Susan will be best known for what she most liked to do – teach her tax accounting courses.  Her students loved her and consistently reported that she somehow made tax fun and interesting.  She’ll also be known for how supportive she was of her students – very generous with her advice, time, and attention!

Susan was also a very supportive colleague, as many of our faculty and staff will attest.  And she liked to find a way to make things fun, which everyone always appreciates. 

Susan was a tremendous supporter of the Seattle U mission.  Much of this was done out of the Albers School, but she even served as President of the SU Faculty Senate at one point.  Within Albers, her most impactful service was first as Chair of the Department of Accounting and then as Associate Dean from 2008 to 2016. 

It was during this time that we worked most closely together, and Susan was very involved and very influential in just about anything that happened in Albers during that time.  She was an extremely hard worker and always interested in improving the way things worked in our school.  The downside for her was she had to put up with the dean at that time.  But she provided great advice to the dean, which prompted her to recently present him with this important reminder:




Which I would respond to by saying, “Gone, but not forgotten!”  Susan has left her mark on Albers and created an impressive legacy with all our alumni she has taught, mentored, and advised during the last three decades!


F5 CEO Says Be a Giving Leader

Posted by Joseph Phillips on June 15, 2019 at 12:06 PM PDT


François Locoh-Donou is President and Chief Executive Officer of F5 Networks, a Seattle based company which specializes in application services and delivery. He joined F5 in April 2017, bringing to the office nearly two decades of enterprise technology experience building a wide range of products, teams, and operations around the world.

Locoh-Donou participated in the Albers Executive Speaker Series on June 3rd, pursing the theme of, “Giving as a Leader.” He shared that the most successful and impactful leaders are “givers.” What does it mean to be “giving?” It means you are accessible, you give feedback, you listen, you answer questions, you help people identify their strengths, you help people gain confidence in themselves. It is a generosity that is people focused and takes your leadership to another level.

Early in one’s career, Locoh-Donou said, one is more in a “proving” stage, proving that you can get the job done, solve the issue at hand. The key is to move from “proving” to “giving,” and while this shift will accelerate your leadership and have high impact, it is not something we are normally trained to do.

Locoh-Donou noted that early in his career when he was working at Ciena, a network strategy and technology firm, he experienced self-doubt and thought that he was in over his head and not qualified for his new role. But he persisted and was gradually able to gain confidence based on the support of others. He stressed the importance of “getting people on your team,” by reaching out to others in the organization and winning them over with your sincerity and authenticity. He also noted that both successes and failures can build confidence, as achievements let you know you can get the work done, and failures can be learned from, including learning that you can survive a failure!

One theme he addressed was the flaws of “Management by Force,” which can occur within an organization or even throughout an entire nation, as might happen in a long-standing dictatorship. Management by Force does not work in the Knowledge Economy, Locoh-Donou observed. In the Knowledge Economy you need employees to show passion and commitment, and a top–down, authoritarian culture will not achieve that. Leaders need to lead with giving in order to create an environment that builds commitment. Locoh-Donou observed that he views F5 employees as volunteers. They have many employment options and he needs to create a culture where they choose F5!

He told an interesting story of how he became a cashew farmer in Togo, where he grew up. As a boy, he always wanted to be a chicken farmer. He did not end up pursuing that, but after college he reconnected with a childhood friend who had studied agriculture and poultry farming. They decided to start a large chicken farm in Togo, and were successful in doing that, but the farm only employed 30 people and they wanted to create something that would be more employment intensive and have more impact on the community. So they searched for an alternative, and found that cashew farms were being created in the nearby country of Benin. They decided to pursue cashew farming in Togo, and now they are employing 600 people in an enterprise that exports 400 tons of cashew kernels to the US and Europe annually. 

He shared a story to illustrate how they are having the economic impact they hoped for – the cashew factory workers work on Saturdays, and in the local region Saturday was the day reserved for wedding ceremonies. Initially, this was not an issue, for the women preferred to be working (80% of employees are women). As time went on, however, the women were experiencing an improved standard of living, and able to afford more stylish clothing, clothing that they wanted to wear at celebrations such as weddings. The result was the women successfully lobbied to move the wedding day to Sundays, when they did not have to work and could attend the ceremonies!

As you might expect, Locoh-Donou was asked about the lack of diversity and inclusion in the technology industry that he works in. He replied that a major reason is that the sector has not put emphasis on diversity and inclusion. There was not much attention paid to creating access or fostering an inclusive environment. So, one thing they are doing is to support organizations creating access to STEM, increasing the pipeline as it were. A second is to create an inclusive culture, which they have been working to achieve at F5. He said you have to be clear about what is acceptable behavior in the work place and what is not, and you can make progress very quickly once that is clear. It may require making some hard decisions when expected norms are not followed, but such moves will accelerate the culture change you are hoping for. He said a key for creating inclusion is to have a desire to learn about the experience of people who are not like you. Understanding the adversity experienced by others will allow you to support others, and you will never be a giving leader if you do not gain that understanding.

François Locoh-Donou was a hit with our audience! Students were inspired by his personal journey and by his outline of the Giving Leader. It was a privilege to host him on our campus!


Joseph Phillips has served as Dean of the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University since 2001. The school serves approximately 1000 undergraduate and 600 graduate students. Albers is distinguished by its focus on student success, commitment to ethics and social responsibility, pursuit of academic excellence, strong ties with the Seattle business community, and emphasis on preparing values-driven leaders committed to contributing to the Common Good.

Symetra CEO Addresses Change Management and Female Leadership

Posted by Joseph M. Phillips on April 11, 2019 at 8:04 AM PDT


Symetra president and CEO Margaret Meister recently participated in the Albers Executive Speaker Series, sharing her wisdom on change management and being a female business leader.  Meister leads a company with nearly $50 billion in assets, two million customers and 1,700 employees.

Meister joined Symetra as an actuarial student in 1988, rising through the organization to become chief actuary in 2004, chief financial officer in 2006, and president and CEO in 2018.   As CFO, she played a principal role in Symetra’s initial public offering in 2010, as well as its successful acquisition by Sumitomo Life in 2016. In 2015, she received the Puget Sound Business Journal’s CFO of the Year Leadership Award. Most recently, the Journal recognized her as one of the 2018 Women of Influence.

One of the first questions she responded to was were their important moments in her career that prepared her for the CEO role, or got her thinking in that direction, since being a numbers person does not always open up that path.  She responded that to do accounting or actuarial work really well, it cannot be just about the numbers, but one must also understand what the numbers mean in the business.  She always made sure she understood that, making sure to get out and learn the business by talking with others.  That orientation opened up opportunities and her career trajectory.  Meister also talked about the need to be ambitious, to let people know that you wanted new opportunities, that you were willing to take risks, and that you were not afraid to “get out over your skis.”

The conventional wisdom is that millennials don’t commit to an employer, and move from one to the next.  Would they be better off if they invested in an organization and stayed with one employer, as she had done?  That depends, Meister said.  It depends on whether you find the work intellectually interesting, if you like the people you work with, and you like the culture of the organization.  If not, you need to be moving on to something that is a better match.

Meister described her leadership style as someone willing to get down in the dirt and do whatever it takes to get things done.  She wants to make sure that she understands everyone’s role in a successful outcome so she can show appropriate appreciation for their work.  She’s out to inspire people, but also give people plenty of room to chart the path.  She does not want to micromanage, and she noted several times the need to, “council in private, support in public,” when it came time for identifying opportunities for improvement. :}

Whether it is technology or insurance, there are plenty of male-dominated industries in our economy.  This leads to challenges for women leaders in those sectors, Meister noted, starting with having enough other women to share notes with.  Additionally, women leaders are always going to be compared to male leaders, yet women are likely to lead differently.  She also mentioned that women are more likely to be given a leadership opportunity in a tough situation, and less likely to inherit a role in a healthy organization.   Women should also be themselves, and not pretend to be something else.  And she mentioned a frustration noted by many other women, namely that in a meeting they will throw out an idea, it won’t go anywhere, a male will throw out the same idea later in the meeting, and it will be anointed as a breakthrough strategy.  Don’t let that happen without calling it out, she advised, maybe publicly or later in private depending on the situation.

Meister noted that convenience was becoming a more compelling product characteristic for consumers (just think about Amazon if you don’t believe that), yet insurance company products are cumbersome, partly due to regulatory issues.  So, one of the things she is thinking about a lot these days is how can they bring convenience to their insurance products.  She’s not so much worried about Amazon encroaching on their market, since their asset management function is very difficult and serves as a barrier to entry, but it does look like a situation at risk of disruption by someone at some point!

Since Symetra is now owned by Sumitomo Life, a Japanese life insurance company, she was asked how that is different.  Meister said that what was not different was the core values and competencies of Symetra and its parent firm.  She also noted that the Japanese are very detail-oriented and precise.  They want to see smaller margins for error.

We all know there are not enough women leading major business organizations in our economy, but Margaret Meister is one of them, and her visit to our campus was a great opportunity for our students, especially our female students! 


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