- TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson is set to retire at the end of April after 13 years as a corporate chief.
- Insider spoke with Ferguson about what he’s learned about leadership.
- He explained why empathy is the most important skill for leaders to develop and show today.
- This article is part of a series called “Secrets of Success,” which examines specific leadership tips from prominent business leaders.
Roger Ferguson knows a thing or two about leadership.
As the vice chair of the Federal Reserve from 1997 to 2006, he steered the country’s economy through the massive financial aftershock of September 11. After serving as an executive and then chair of reinsurance company Swiss Re for two years, he took the helm as CEO of TIAA in April 2008 – leading a financial-services company that manages over $1 trillion in retirement funds.
And in the past year, he’s overseen 17,000 employees through a shift to remote work during a pandemic and the racial reckoning following George Floyd’s death.
“I’m really proud of the fact that during those periods, we kept our values,” Ferguson told Insider. “We have come through these series of crises as a financially strong and stable company with ample capital.”
Ferguson is set to retire at the end of April, handing the company over to Thasunda Brown Duckett, former CEO of consumer banking at JP Morgan. As his tenure as the company’s chief winds down, he’s had more time to reflect on his career. He told Insider that there are four specific traits that define a good leader: expertise, vision, perseverance, and empathy.
Empathy, he said, has been the most helpful in his career as a leader – especially during difficult or uncertain times. Having this trait, regardless of your industry, will make you a better manager or executive, he said.
Empathy, as Ferguson defines it, is the ability to create an environment in which team members can bring all of themselves to work.
“Individuals don’t want to follow someone who’s going to treat the follower as just a cog in some grand plan, a small piece of wood in the large machine – that does not make anyone feel very good,” the CEO said.
Effective leaders take time to embrace diversity, the unique skill sets individuals bring to the table. They care about how their employees feel and cultivate an environment where all people can feel comfortable.
Workplace experts agree that empathy, and emotional intelligence in general, are key to leading productive and engaged teams.
Empathy can take many forms. It can be a leader making work more flexible for employees juggling caregiving responsibilities or expanding child care benefits, as many parents struggle to work and raise their children during a pandemic. Ferguson took both of these steps to support employees recently.
“In a crisis moment, showing some empathy gets people to follow you,” he said.
There’s a clear payoff. People are generally happier when they’re shown empathy. And multiple studies, including one conducted in 2019 by the University of Oxford, have found that happier employees are more productive.
“At the end of the day, the leader probably makes a small number of decisions, but many other people make daily decisions and they must be done in a way that’s consistent with the larger goal,” Ferguson said. “I think that’s best done by people who are really most engaged and are really committed to and bought into the vision.”