Northwestern Mutual’s John Schlifske on why CEO involvement is important for DEI efforts


Diversity, equity and inclusion experts are often quick to highlight the importance of having buy-in from top executives, whether its for a new initiative or a DEI push overall.

Northwestern Mutual chairman and CEO John Schlifske absolutely sees the value of his involvement as he chairs the company’s Sustained Action for Racial Equity Task Force.

“I think having the CEO, it’s a bully pulpit, right?” Schlifske said on a recent episode of Leadership Lens on the BizTimes MKE Podcast. “There’s definitely some notion of putting your finger on the scale as a CEO. If you’re personally involved, you’re going to get the resources you want, you’re going to get the attention you want.”

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Launched in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota and the racial reckoning that followed, the SARE task force works on issues related to cultural belonging at Northwestern Mutual and the neighborhoods it operates in, building financial inclusion and ensuring marketplace relevance with underserved groups.

Schlifske said as public attention on racial inequality increased in 2020 some of the company’s constituencies urged him “to just give a lot of money to Black-oriented philanthropic efforts.”

“The problem with that is, one, that sounded too easy to me,” Schlifske said, adding he also was hearing a different message from African American leaders within the company.

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“If I had to sort of summarize what they told me, it’s that we’ve made a lot of progress as a company in the notion of racial equity, but we’re nowhere near where we wanted to be and the interest was in increasing the pace of change. It’s not that we weren’t doing the right thing, it wasn’t that we were late to the game, it’s that the pace of progress wasn’t as fast as people wanted to see,” Schlifske said.

He said people also wanted to see the organization do something over a long period of time, not just launch a program with a beginning and an end.

“The sustained part is I think the backbone of this whole thing, so we’re not just trying to do one thing here, one thing there and declare victory and move on, but we are trying to put in place a set of actions that are comprehensive, lasting and meaningful, all at the same time, and that’s a lot of work, and that’s why I’m involved. I didn’t feel if it was delegated it would get the attention it needed,” Schlifske said.

The task force’s work has led to the launch of a $100 million impact investing fund, which invested $5 million in two Milwaukee organizations, the Northwest Side Community Development Corp. and the Legacy Redevelopment Corp. Those two organizations are working on raising a $15 million fund to support Black-owned businesses in Milwaukee.

Schlifske said Northwestern Mutual has set out goals, objectives and budgets for the areas the task force is working on.

“We’ve got concrete action plans, we’re writing this just like any other corporate program, we have balanced scorecards, we have goals, we have objectives, we measure budgets, we hold ourselves accountable for delivering those goals … these are things that we expect to be investing in for decades,” he said.

He also noted that the company has shifted in its hiring from talking about ideas like diversity, inclusion or privilege to having business objectives and requiring that slates with outside candidates include minority candidates.

“We have hiring goals that we share with our board and we hold ourselves accountable to that and we have to make progress every year in terms of not just the culture at this company, but the actual numbers in terms of diversity,” Schlifske said. “So I do think the CEO has to be very involved. You can’t make this kind of measurable progress if it’s not a board vision, the board has vision into these goals and they hold me and our leadership team accountable for it.”

Listen to Schlifske’s entire appearance on the podcast here. His discussion on DEI efforts starts around the 24 minute mark.

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