Leadership Leader

National_LifeMehran Assadi, CEO of National Life Group

Mehran Assadi is an island in shark-infested waters.

Assadi leads National Life Group, the fastest growing life insurance company in the country over the last decade with, according to Scott Mautz’s article in Inc., employee engagement levels and agent retention four times the industry average.

Read that again… Retention four times the industry average. How much is that worth? Damn.

How does he do it? Simple. He says “people first.”

“Wait,” you say. “That’s nothing new, Kevin.” Yeah, well, what is new is that he means it. He lives it. And he leads from that singular position.

Assadi steadfastly insists that their culture is bigger than individuals, and bigger than him; it is tangible and shows up at the top line, bottom line, and every measure in between. He claims their culture is the secret sauce to their success. It’s not perfection—it’s learning as they go, and they are getting better every day.

Now, keep in mind that this guy is working with a 150+ year-old company here. This isn’t some upstart start-up trying to make it big. It’s an established organization in an industry not exactly known for brilliant innovation or trend-setting in the culture department.

assadiHe’s a big believer in servant leadership, insisting that leadership is a privilege, not a right or entitlement. There’s some cutting-edge thinking, Lou, and uncommon insight for a financial services CEO. Further, he insists people care for–and know—themselves.

To quote Assadi, “When you find your ‘why,’ you find your way.”

Six years ago, he started a once-a-year process of collecting feedback for their top 200 leaders, from at least 20 people each, on how they were faring as a servant leader. Not coincidentally, the same year they started doing this, sales began increasing every year–by double digits.

Go figure.If all that’s not enough, he shows the LOVE. In fact, L.O.V.E. at National Life Group has come to mean “Live Our Values Everyday”.

Nice touch, Mehran, and a big reason you are July’s Leadership Leader.

Leadership Milquetoast

PepsiCo Inc.’s longtime honcho Indra Nooyi is sort of shooting herself in the foot.

NooyiNow, before anyone leaps prematurely, I’ve been a fan of hers for some time. She’s been solid, a progressive and people-centric CEO, and kicked serious butt in financial performance. There are precious few women in that Fortune 100 role (7, at last count), and she’s had the chair long enough to damn sure prove her mettle. In corporate performance, at least. In succession planning? Not so much…

You know, the better you perform, the more that is expected. And it’s logical for expectations for Nooyi to be high. And her recent announcement/non-announcement of a promotion was clearly not her best work.

Congratulations go out to Ramon Laguarta, currently grand poobah at PepsiCo’s Europe and sub-Saharan Africa business, as he transitions to the company’s President role. The gig includes global operations, corporate strategy, public policy and government affairs, not a small swath of responsibilities.

Then, she simply dropped the ball, announcing that Mr. Laguarta shouldn’t be presumed her successor. “There is no heir apparent,” she said. “When the time comes for succession, whenever it is, I think the wonderful thing is our board is going to have so many people to choose from.”

Yeah, well, I’m calling bullshit. This is a lousy way to plan for succession, and she should know it; she already lost a couple of key CEO-contenders. During Nooyi’s 11-year ride, two viable successors have been promoted into that No. 2 role, and subsequently left the company.

Look, Nooyi’s only 62, so there’s no dramatic rush for succession. But you can’t promote the best, tell them to sit still, and tell the world “this means nothing, long-term,” and expect them to stick around quietly with their thumbs up their derriere waiting for your eventual career plans to be revealed. Talent management—succession planning—simply doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to promise them the job, but to take special effort to say “he’s not the guy” is a bit much, and counterproductive.

PepsicoThat President job has been vacant since the 2014 departure of Zein Abdalla, someone clearly identified as “shortlisted to become chief executive.” He kept the role for two years before his abrupt, unscheduled retirement, which occurred shortly after Nooyi lost Brian Cornell to Target (another identified successor). Before Abdalla, John Compton stayed as Pepsico President for less than a year, before assuming the CEO of Flying J Oil Corp.

Houston, we have a problem. Nooyi has to develop a process for developing and promoting within a non-guaranteed succession plan, that motivates potential successors to stick around, not bolt for the door.Saying, “he ain’t the guy,” is likely not the way to do that. You’re better than that, Indra Nooyi, and this strange non-succession succession plan makes you this month’s Leadership Milquetoast. 

Leadership Laggard

EllsSteve Ells, Chipotle’s CEO is in hot water—again—for contaminated food. This time, 135 or so sick customers, with at least two contracting the norovirus. This marks the 7th – SEVENTH – incidence of norovirus disease contracted at Chipotle since October 2015.


That’s not even counting their other woes, like poor financial performance (apparently caused by guacamole. Seriously), and their massive data breach just a few months ago.

HiResCrap like this, folks, does not occur in a vacuum. Generally, when leadership is poor, it shows in multiple areas, not just operational performance. I believe we can safely say that Chipotle leadership is poor.

This piece is short; we covered much of this when Steve was our Milquetoast in January, but thanks to 135 more sick people, he’s “done graduated” to our Leadership Laggard for July… Congrats, Steve.

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