Interviewer: As president and CEO of a Fortune 100 retirement services company, what advice can you offer to University of Denver students about saving and planning ahead for retirement?
Roger Ferguson: University of Denver is known for its forward-thinking approach to solving the global challenges of tomorrow. My advice to the DU community is to apply a similar mindset when it comes to saving for retirement. Students are in a stage of life when they are typically taking on a range of financial responsibilities for the first time. It’s the perfect time to build, or add to, your financial education. The sooner you start thinking ahead and planning for lifelong financial well-being, the better off you’ll be.
Despite the fact that markets will have their ups and downs, the good news is that the U.S. economy continues to grow. I believe that building one’s financial education and getting sound financial advice from credible sources are the keys to navigating life’s financial curveballs and creating a solid foundation for lifelong financial well-being. One excellent source of information is our website, TIAA.org, which offers an extensive education section, as well as tools and content geared to help people at all life stages meet the financial challenges they face. It includes inspiring stories from customers of all ages and all walks of life about how they are meeting their financial goals.
Q: What other advice do you have for students and recent graduates as they prepare to enter the workforce?
A: It’s important to see your career more like a climbing wall than the traditional career ladder. Many people think that the route to success is like climbing a ladder, stepping on one rung at a time until you reach the top. But the climbing wall is a better analogy, because in reality, many of us move side-to-side – and even sometimes take a step down – as we progress in our careers.
It’s important to be flexible, and to take advantage of career opportunities that will enable you to learn and grow – even if they don’t always look like a traditional “step up.” That mentality has served me well in my career. I started out practicing law, then joined the consulting world, overseeing a team responsible for research and information systems. I next entered public service, and in 2006 I rejoined the private sector. I have led TIAA since 2008. I love my job, but serving as CEO of a financial services organization was not part of a “master plan” I was following. If I had been dead-set on a specific path, I might have lived my life differently, and I might have missed out on some of the career experiences that made me who I am today.
My advice to students is to think of your careers as a journey. The purpose of the journey is figuring out what you like to do, and where/with whom you want to do it. Recognize that at different points in your life, you may answer those questions differently. The key is to always keep growing and learning.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important characteristic to becoming a successful leader?
A: I’ve found that there are four qualities that all good leaders share. These qualities are the conditions for what I call “followership” – the ability to inspire others to follow you. You simply can’t have strong leadership without followership – they go hand in hand. First, good leaders have deep expertise about their organizations. If they don’t have it going into their roles, they develop it by adopting the mindset of the perpetual learner – someone who asks a lot of questions and is committed to truly understanding how their organizations operate and what makes them tick.
Second, good leaders are the kinds of people others want to follow because they are able to make the big decisions, think both tactically and strategically, see the big picture, and effectively communicate their vision.
Third, the best leaders are empathetic, understanding that the people they lead have roles and responsibilities beyond those in the workplace.
And fourth, good leaders have fortitude. They are their organization’s shock absorbers, in both good times and bad. Leaders with fortitude also know how to take criticism with a grain of salt. They won’t let it keep them from taking what they believe is the right course.
It’s not easy, but leaders who can develop these four characteristics will find people lining up behind them, ready to follow them anywhere.