A Culture of Long-term Decisions

Dec. 9, 2016
woman lost in thought

We were in Milwaukee recently visiting our friends at Northwestern Mutual and I had a good reminder of the importance of building long-term thinking into a culture. At a time when many organizations are feeling great pressure to respond to short-term interests of shareholders, the conflict between short-terms gains versus long-term sustainability has never been greater. At the heart of most ethics scandals is a desire for short-term gains.

How can organizations counteract this pressure? A strong ethical culture is embedded in an organization’s DNA and must be as ever-present as a heartbeat. Culture comes from place, people, and policies. It is embedded in the symbols and stories that are shared and recited.

As we walked through the massive granite columns of the Northwestern Mutual original corporate headquarters built 100 years ago, I was reminded of the importance of space in building culture. The ornate lobby with marble and brass spoke of history and tradition. To the policyholders and employees alike, this building suggests permanence, sustainability, endurance. No short-term thinking here.

On the top floor there is a long hallway running the width of the building with a painted portrait of every president/CEO. We started at the current CEO and walked our way back in time, hearing stories about the accomplishments of each leader. When we got to the end of the hallway, there on the end wall was the founder. I turned around and looked down the hall to the other end and saw the current CEO. The founder was facing the current CEO, looking him in the eyes, providing a constant reminder of history. What a powerful reminder of the importance of doing what is best for the long term.

As a mutual company, Northwestern’s leaders are accountable to the policy holders rather than shareholders. By their nature, policy holders have a long-term perspective. They want the company to be strong and their policies to be solid for their lifetimes, and their children’s.

Place, people, policies all create a culture of long-term thinking and doing the right thing. It took a trip to the Midwest to remind me that an ethical culture is something that must be fostered and developed over time.

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