Leadership Lens: Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske on performing, transforming and building trust

Last updated on February 2nd, 2023 at 03:29 pm

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When John Schlifske took over as chief executive officer of Northwestern Mutual, it was clear to him the company had to do two things at the same time.

The company needed to transform to keep up with rapidly evolving technology, but it also needed to perform, to meet the expectations of its policy holders who receive billions in dividends every year.

It was a big undertaking, but a decade later the company has seen record years each of the past three years.

“It wasn’t always fun, change management isn’t but we feel like we’re getting proof points now that it’s working and that’s where the fun comes in in this leadership position,” Schlifske said on the latest episode of Leadership Lens, a monthly BizTimes Milwaukee podcast that features conversations with Marquette University president Michael Lovell and area business leaders.

Schlifske touched on a number of topics, including efforts to bolster Milwaukee as a tech city, the decision to build a new downtown office tower, CEO involvement on diversity and inclusion, and lessons learned from watching his dad run a business.

On Milwaukee as a tech city

Schlifske said he didn’t fully appreciate how much Northwestern Mutual is a technology company until he became CEO. As he became involved in recruiting some of the company’s tech talent, he noticed the challenges in attracting people to Milwaukee seemed to stem from a lack of awareness about tech opportunities in the city.

“We weren’t just recruiting to our company anymore,” he said. “Increasingly in the tech world, people don’t just care about the company but they care about the tech community they’re a part of.”

NML has been at the center of a number of efforts to bolter the city’s tech community, including the launch of the MKE Tech Hub.

“I would tell you now it’s never been easier to recruit tech talent to Milwaukee,” Schlifske said. “I’m not saying it’s easy to recruit tech talent, because we’re in a war for talent, but Milwaukee is not the hindrance, it’s not the road block, it’s not the speed bump that it used to be, so somethings going right there.”

Adding to Milwaukee’s skyline and community

Northwestern Mutual’s decision to build a new headquarters building, including a glass office tower, was a major boost to downtown Milwaukee over the past decade. While he says the tower is beautiful, Schlifske said the commons building, which runs an entire block and connects the tower with NML’s older building, is what he is “most gratified about.”

Schlifske said the commons space helps bring people together and helps create energy and a sense of purpose.

“There’s still something about being on this campus,” he said, adding that he’s noticed an uptick in activity and traffic in the downtown area in recent weeks as the recovery from the pandemic continues.

“I think Milwaukee is the heart of the state and we need to have a vibrant urban area to really make Wisconsin the kind of state that we want and if we played some small role in it, I’m thrilled that Northwestern Mutual can do it,” Schlifske said.

He said increasingly people area viewing Milwaukee as a cool place to live, which he acknowledged would have been hard to believe if he heard it in the early 1990s.

“I think Milwaukee’s future is as bright as it’s been since maybe 1958 or ’59 when we were a completely different kind of environment,” Schlifske said.

The value of looking externally

Asked how he goes about making decisions, Schlifske started by highlighting the importance of removing yourself from the question. He pointed to the decision to move away from a pension, which cost high-earners at the company, like himself, money, but was the best thing for policy holders.

Then he said he turns to evaluating what a choice will mean in the short, medium and long term, ultimately doing what is best in the long term for the company.

Finally, Schlifske said he looks outside the company at what others are doing.

“If we’re not doing what they’re doing, why?” he said. “That doesn’t mean we should follow them, I take pride in being a leader, but trying to wrap your decisions around why are you not doing something and what are other people doing and why, I think that creates a much deeper level of thinking.”

He also said any decision will ultimately anger some stakeholders and many leaders ultimately end up regretting not making tough or hard decisions sooner.

“I think that’s human nature,” Schifske said. “You don’t want to make tough decisions, you don’t want to hurt people, you don’t want to be seen to be less than empathetic, but the sooner you make those hard decisions, the better it is, no doubt about it.”

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.