Fifteen years ago, Leo Tucker became the first African-American managing partner at Northwestern Mutual. After joining the company as a financial representative in 1991, Tucker quickly rose as a successful member of the South Florida office’s sales force. Now leading the company’s office in Washington D.C., he has become an integral leader in Northwestern Mutual’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts, a top priority for the company.
With managing partners like Tucker at the helm, Northwestern Mutual is embracing diversity as a pillar of company success, building a culture for individuals to feel highly valued and actively engaged. He and other leaders are encouraging an inclusive culture in which everyone can be their best selves in the workplace and realize their individual potential.
Propelled by leadership
Leadership, on many different levels, has played a key role in driving forward diversity and inclusion throughout the company. Once the D&I initiatives within Northwestern Mutual were truly championed by the leadership team, that’s when Tucker saw change begin to take place. “Our CEO John Schlifske identified diversity and inclusion as one of his key priorities. He also realized that, if these efforts weren’t led by managing partners, the company wouldn’t accomplish its goals,” Tucker shares. “And this meant further developing the managing partners, myself included.”
The company implemented a rigorous company-wide leadership program for managing partners and home office leaders. The experience includes a cultural assessment component, which challenges the assumptions, privilege, culture and differences of the attendees. Tucker believes the company’s D&I efforts have been significantly strengthened as a result.
On an individual leadership level, Tucker strives to progress D&I initiatives wherever and whenever he can, including mentoring emerging diverse leaders in the company. He also seeks to advocate where he can, and he relies on the office’s D&I Council to keep him aware of opportunities for improvement. “We have very specific strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion,” Tucker says. “In our office, we have a council that meets regularly and reports back to leadership with key insights. We also have specifically targeted talent acquisition strategies.”
Dialogue as a driving force
Conversation has also been key to achieving growth in this area of the company. As no one is immune to cultural biases, it’s essential for leaders to learn how to address these preconceptions and educate accordingly. One way to tackle that problem is to have regular conversations on diversity issues.
“Our team didn’t allow the dialogue to die,” Tucker says. “Similar to the home office’s cross-company strategy, we needed to make sure this was a cross-office strategy. Our D&I Council, sending leaders through training and identifying champions of this work, is what really catapulted our efforts.”
Tucker acknowledges that the difference between what you say, and what you do is especially applicable in this area of a company. For change to be enacted, the focus has to be on impact rather than on what’s being said.
Growth through challenge
As with any change, this pursuit has not been without challenges. Still, Tucker believes encountering these difficulties make both him and other leaders in the company stronger and more aptly able to anticipate and react to challenges in the future. He also credits the D&I Council within his office for its crucial role in sending leaders through training, which allows them to identify champions of the initiative.
Tucker says, “I also had to face my own biases. That’s where the real growth happens.” He believes fostering a more diverse, inclusive organization has impacted the company’s culture, quality of work and company successes. “There’s a lot more energy and more diverse clientele. Our leaders have been challenged to grow, and we’ve become a tighter community in response to these challenges,” he notes.
Northwestern Mutual refers to D&I as a journey, a sentiment Tucker echoes. “It truly is a journey, one with no destination – only a desire to get better. Respecting and valuing difference takes time to feel truly authentic.” He believes the company is closer than ever to achieving their D&I goals. “It’s important to be nimble and ready to adapt,” Tucker advises. “You’re always going to keep learning as time goes on, as long as you remember to listen to understand those who are different.”