Great Leaders Follow First with Brad Hewitt
Ray visits with Brad Hewitt as he shares his unique views on leadership, followership, and how to use authority in a Godly way.
Brad Hewitt recently retired as Chief Executive Officer of Thrivent Financial, the country’s largest fraternal benefit society. A Fortune 300 organization, Thrivent leads a nationwide movement of Christians to be wise with money and live generously. Thrivent has more than 2 million members and manages nearly $150 billion in assets.
Brad is the co-author of the book Your New Money Mindset and is a frequent speaker on the topics of money, generosity, and Biblical stewardship.
In November 2019 Brad will become chair of the board for Habitat for Humanity International. He also serves as chair of The Itasca Project, an employer‐led, cross sector collaborative group that works to improve the quality of life for all in the Twin Cities. Brad also serves as a Life Advocate for Upworks that helps men coming out of addiction or prison.
“Love sometimes looks like mercy, and sometimes looks like justice.”
“If my attitude becomes one of gratefulness and joy…that next step becomes obvious.”
1. Leadership is pouring yourself into other people and helping them succeed.
2. Is leadership even Biblical?
3. How to know if you’re a good leader.
4. Being a good follower is the best way to produce good followers.
5. Don’t be satisfied with just the data alone.
Ray: Hello everyone, this is Ray Hilbert. I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith, and if you’re a regular listener, welcome back to another edition of the program where we love to bridge the intersection of faith, leadership, and business in the marketplace. I get the incredible privilege of traveling the country and interviewing the most amazing Christ followers who are influencing the marketplace, business owners, CEOs, high capacity, high profile leaders. We learn their stories. We learn what they’ve been through, their victories, their failures, but most importantly how their faith in Jesus shapes their life and leadership.
I am in the beautiful twin cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul in the great state of Minnesota and I have the amazing privilege, today, to interview Brad Hewitt. We’re going to learn all about Brad, but I don’t like to introduce people by what they’ve been known for so I’m just going to have to say this, but then we’re going to get onto what he’s doing now, but until recently, Brad was the CEO of Thrivent Financial here in the Twin Cities area and he is soon to be the chair of Habitat for Humanity International. We’re going to learn more about that ministry. We’re going to learn more about other things that he’s involved with here in the Minneapolis area and we are going to hear an amazing man of God. Brad, welcome to Bottom Line Faith.
Brad: Thank you. It’s an honor to be with you and looking forward to a fun conversation.
Ray: We’re going to have a good time. And Brad, we had a chance to meet a few months ago. You spoke at our annual Truth At Work conference and you have a real passion about sharing on financial generosity and stewardship. And I’d love to talk more about that, but give our audience just a little bit of your background, kind of your career history. We’ll talk about your faith in a few moments, but help us understand your business background.
Brad: Sure. Well first of all, I grew up right here in the Twin Cities in what would be, I would describe it as kind of the stereotypic 1950s ’60s family. My dad got back from world war II, mom was working, then she stayed at home and a regular church goer. And that, was just a wonderful environment. And, I feel very blessed to have had that kind of time growing up and active in my church home from the beginning. And as I grew up, I always thought, maybe, I should go into the ministry, but I concluded, at about when I was in high school, that you’d actually need the gift of mercy to be a pastor. And I wasn’t sure I had that gift.
So I decided to go into business, which seemed like a better choice at that point. And, I’ve been working on that mercy gift ever since. But, that was the path in life, as I was thinking about what I was going to do. And went to college, got a degree in math and economics and was recruited to be an actuary out of college. And, I took the personality profile test and basically there’s flashing lights, it’s like “Don’t be an actuary, don’t be a-“. But that’s what I started off because that’s what I had done. And, got into the business world with a little technical background. And I really, think of my career path as being one of the most eclectic. So I’ve been in big old businesses, I’ve been in startup companies, I went to work as in the ministry as an, I would call it, an administrator in the church body. And then as you said, ended up at Thrivent Financial, which was this wonderful blend of ministry and business. And just recently, retired as the CEO there. So I feel very blessed to have had lots of different experiences over my career.
Ray: Yeah. And I want to touch base just on the most recent career stop there at Thrivent. So Thrivent Financial is the country’s largest fraternal organization, fortune 300 company and financial advisory services and products, right?
Brad: That’s correct.
Ray: Just in terms of number employees or team members, whatever the right, what’s the size and scope of Thrivent? Because, I want to come-
Brad: I mean we had, and some of it is independent contractors through financial advisors and everything. But if you looked at the corporate offices, the financial advisors and their staff, it was between five and six thousand people across the US. And as a fraternal benefits society, we were only in the US. So we had affiliate organizations in other countries, but each country really was separate in that stage.
Ray: Yeah. One of the things that I personally love about this program here at Bottom Line Faith is I get to ask questions. Not everybody gets the chance to sit down one-on-one with the CEO of a fortune 300 firm. And maybe they would see them on television or in the news or something like that. But why don’t you help us understand what is daily life like for someone in that role?
Brad: Well, I get to ask that question a lot when people do want it because they’re kind of curious, what is it like to be the CEO? And my honest answer is, once you become the CEO, you really don’t have a job anymore because your job is, really, to make sure that other people are doing their job. And it’s really, pouring yourself into other people and helping them succeed. And I see that a little bit in every role that you have. Whenever you’re in a role where you have people working for you, that’s partly your role. But usually then you’re responsible for something too. You’re the accountant or you’re the salesperson or you’re… once you become CEO you’re, accountable for everything. And so I think, that’s part of it.
And I then, we were talking a little bit before, I really do think, the role of the CEO, and this, this may sound funny, I would spend at least an hour a day, where I would put no meetings on my calendar, just to try to make sure I was spending enough time thinking about what the next likely things would be. It’s really trying to discern, and I would literally take that time as a Sabbath time during my day to pray, to think about how in the world are we going to navigate this big company.
Because I always felt, the responsibility of all six thousand people were, my responsibility to make the wise next step. And God tells us that he’s a lamp to our feet. He doesn’t give you the whole thing. You just have to see that lamp is that, what’s that next step? And sometime you have to wait for God to show you what that next step is. And then, being able to think about if that next step is easy or hard, what is it going to take culturally or people-wise to take that next step. So it sounds like a funny answer, but I thought that was, in some ways, my most important time.
Ray: That’s, fantastic. And so, when you would have a major decision, walk us through how you make major decision, in that leadership, that kind of capacity with that kind of stewardship, that kind of, not authority per se, but responsibility. What was that like?
Brad: Yeah. Well for first of all, I had a saying in my desk before I became CEO, it said “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.” I really do think you start with what are the facts and including the brutal facts, and Jim Collins uses that. You have to really work at the brutal facts. One of the things you quickly figure out as a CEO is no one’s going to share the brutal facts with you unless you really dig and ask for it. In fact, there is a, I don’t want to call it a conspiracy, but there’s a human nature to hide the brutal facts. So part of making a hard decision is really spending times understanding context. So that’s the data and the context and really where are we?
Then the second piece that I would always go to, what’s our purpose and mission? And that sounds really funny because you think, “My gosh, well everybody knows what the mission is.” But almost always, what I found when we were going to make a big decision, the mission, if you didn’t bring up what our purpose and mission and whole piece was, that we would almost always take a step that may be close but not aligned with that. And so, you know, the Andy Stanley, mission leaks? It does. And he’s right on. And so, get the brutal facts, what’s the mission?
And then, honestly, what we would do is we would have meetings where we would debate options. And I would almost always, in those meetings with my trusted staff, have to remind them that this isn’t a democracy. We’re not taking a vote. This isn’t a system where we’re going to debate and then take a vote. If we could all get to agreement. And it seemed like the next step was obvious. We just do it. If it wasn’t, usually it was pretty well divided, 50 50 and sometimes we would go back and keep trying to figure out, “Is there something we’re missing?” If not, at some point we would just say, “Okay, we have to pick one option or another.” And when you’re in that role of authority, that is your job, is that somebody, at some point the buck stops with the person who has to make the decision. And I think, sometimes when people want to have this vote, it’s to share the blame, instead of just saying, “You know what? I’m going to make this decision. It’s my decision. If it fails, it’s me. It’s not anybody else. We had plenty of debate.”
Ray: Yeah. Thank you. That’s very helpful, I think, just to let people peek inside what life is like for the CEO of a large corporation. And so, as you look back and think back over the course of your career, whether it’s at Thrivent Financial or somewhere else, what was, maybe, the most difficult decision that you had to make and how did your faith help you get through that? Does anything come to mind?
Brad: Yeah. Usually it’s people issues. And this one didn’t happen to be a people issue. It was a business acquisition situation. So I was working, we’d been at a startup and it had boomed, had grown like mad. It had spun off a whole bunch of other startups and I’d become the CEO of one of the other startup organizations. And in that same strategy piece, it was getting clearer and clearer that we needed to separate that business, because most of our customers were in competition with our parent company. And so I went to the CEO of the parent company and said, “Here’s the strategy. I think we need to sell this business. I think we could get this dollar amount for it.” And he’s like, “No way are you ever going to get that much money.” And so, we ended up getting actually twice as much as we both thought. But what was really interesting in that process is, it was really clear to me that I was going to be moving from the parent company to the other company. And at what point, did my responsibility to the parent company or the buying company change?
Ray: Almost a conflict of interest.
Brad: It was, and because of the data and, how do you do this? And the new company was buying it for a very high multiple. And I knew I was going to be responsible for delivering value at that. But, on the other hand, my job was to get the maximum value for the parent company of where I was working. And that sounds like a simple thing, but it was a very complex… And so my faith, one is, I prayed about it a lot, but I concluded that my job was to make sure that everybody made the wisest decision they could. And the best way to do that was to provide extreme transparency to everyone. So it was, “We’re not going to try to, manipulate, we’re going to really use transparency and an open book policy as much as possible.” And it turned out great. I mean it ended up being really hard to deliver on the value afterwards. But we did it and it turned out to be really good for the parent company.
Ray: I love that. That’s a great example. I have a friend of mine who used to be a circuit judge and I asked him one time, I said, how do you know if you were a great judge in a case? And he says “When both parties walked away unhappy with me, then I knew I was fair.” And so as I was listening to your story, you had equal concerns for both parties to not to make them unhappy, but to make them happy and to bring value. So your faith guided you through that. So from that point forward, how did that lesson impact your future decision making? Talk about transparency maybe.
Brad: What I concluded was that, in circumstances where you have these competing parties, one of the things-
Ray: Which is not all unusual.
Brad: Which is pretty common. Again, back to the decision processes, putting all the facts on the table and letting everybody see what the facts were. So I’ve found that to be just an incredibly valuable thing to do in almost all circumstances.
And in a lot of ways, I think the faith, I’m going to say something that you will probably find surprising, I, actually, don’t think we’re actually called to be leaders. I actually don’t think, even leadership is an, interestingly enough, a biblical idea. What Jesus called us to be, is followers. And what I discovered through that process is, you’re always a follower. Jesus was a follower of the father.
Ray: Yeah, great point.
Brad: The disciples were followers of Jesus. There’s a followership belief and system in scripture. And what I have found in that, that I think has served me well in every role I’ve been in, is my job is to be an awesome follower. When I look for people, when I find people who are awesome followers, they’re often the best leaders too. And I find that people who want to be leaders usually aren’t very good followers and they turn out to be not very good leaders. So, it’s-
Ray: I love that. It’s one of those paradoxes, isn’t it?
Brad: Exactly, it is absolutely a paradox. And the reality is being a good follower isn’t always just doing what your boss says. Sometimes it’s telling your boss, “No, you’re not right.” Because, you’re trying to be a good follower. So it’s not, what people think of followership is this, just be doing-
Ray: It’s not blind loyalty.
Brad: Not at all.
Ray: It’s transparency. It’s authenticity. Yeah.
Brad: It’s challenging when you need to. It’s, following through when you, sometimes you don’t agree, but they’re the boss and they’ve made their decision. And so you’ve, you get onboard and you’re positive. I think, I was trying to be a good follower in both cases. And I’d say that served me better than almost anything else I can think of.
Ray: That’s fantastic. Our mutual friend Russ Crosson and talks a lot about this, from Ronald Blue Trust. A lot about followership, I love that. And I think, that in today’s world we have so much about leadership and we talk about that here of course. But it is followership that makes the difference.
Brad: Well, And the reality is, I’ve actually, changed my language because I obviously you need good leaders. Leadership’s really important. It isn’t the point, that leadership isn’t important. But what I observe is, that, I think, we use leadership to mean a whole bunch of different things.
So I’ve been using, “How do I use authority in a godly way?” Because oftentimes that’s what we’re actually talking about when we talk about authority. Or how do I use economics in a godly way. As I think about paying. A lot of times if you’re the boss, you’re the one who’s in charge of the economics. And talking about data and logic and all of that, a lot of times the leader is the person who’s trying to create the logic system or the framework of things. And I think, all of those ethical systems are really important, but at the end of the day, I don’t think any of those are transformational as much as this idea of, what Jesus talked about being poured out, the sacrifice, this followership, this generosity that has to flow from the person who’s in charge.
Ray: Yeah. Actually, as I’m listening, it triggers a question for me, Brad. A lot of our audience here at Bottom Line Faith, these are Christ followers of course, but they’re business owners. They’re running businesses, leading departments and organizations. What tips or advice could you give or counsel could you give, to train them or help them on how to help their folks be good followers?
Brad: Right. It’s interesting how little support systems there are for that. I mean we try to gravitate people-
Ray: Well we equate followership to negative, like you’re weak and you just can’t do it.
Brad: Right. So my answer is, one is read the New Testament because it’s Jesus and the followers, all but every story about the disciples, and they weren’t exactly the best employees.
Ray: That’s a great start, yeah New Testament. Let’s bring up the Bible here at Bottom Line Faith, okay.
Brad: But the other thing, quite honestly, like most things in life, modeling good followership is the best way to create good followers. And I think the second thing is just calling out when somebody isn’t being a good follower, when somebody is just a yes person. If you’re not helping me find the brutal facts, you’re not being a good follower. Because what you’re doing, is you’re creating a system where I could make a bad decision and I can’t afford to make many bad decisions in my business before bad things start to happen. So I really do think looking at Christ example, who was training people to be disciples, which is his followers, I think it’s modeling that same behavior and then calling it out.
And I’d probably say last if I was to be perfectly honest, is rewarding people who were the good followers, not necessarily… Because I think a lot of our reward systems are for people who, kind of, take initiative and self aggrandize and all of that. Those are usually not the best followers. And so that would be examine reward systems. And I don’t mean money rewards as much as I mean acknowledgement.
Ray: Acknowledgment and praise.
Ray: So the three things to be a great follower, bring the real facts. I mean let’s peel them back, bring them, you need them. Speak reality, call things out, be transparent and authentic in your communication and then allow for the reward system and acknowledgements. Did I catch those?
Brad: That’s right. Yeah, those are great.
Ray: That’s great. That’s really good. I’m not sure in all the conversations I’ve had here, at Bottom Line Faith, we’ve talked much about that. So that’s a great unique twist or a unique focus on that. I appreciate that. So, we’ve talked about your career, we’ve talked about some of the lessons learned and things over the past and your role as a CEO. Let’s talk about what’s got you excited now. What’s life look like for Brad now?
Brad: Sure. Well, I don’t really believe in the idea of retirement. I knew when I took the role as CEO at Thrivent we had kind of a seven to ten year timeline because they want to promote from within. And the reality is the CEO is the biggest roadblock in any company, if you want to promote from within. So I knew that intellectually. Emotionally, it’s, it’s a little harder when you get to that. But I do a lot of, volunteer work. So what I decided to do after I retired as CEO is, I decided to volunteer with one-on-one counseling with guys coming out of prison or drug treatment. Because, at some level as a CEO you’re dealing with big systems. And I just wanted to do something that was one-on-one with people, and that’s been just a real joy. In fact, one of the guys, he was 38 years old and just got re-got his driver’s license after two felonies and everything and has turned his life around after he came to know the Lord.
So I’ve been doing that. But I’ve also stayed on the Habitat for Humanity board. And as you said, I just got elected chair. That will start at our next meeting. And, I’ve been chair of something called the Itasca project in the twin cities, which has gotten a lot of press as being the place where you can bring a whole community together to have honest conversation about how to make your region more competitive, better and frankly thriving for all. And that’s been a real joy.
I think on the side of stewardship, because I spend a lot of time investing in stewardship and personal stewardship, I have a really good business idea that I’m tempted to start a business around. And so I met with a guy yesterday, and we started to kind of throw that idea out. But the other thing is just what’s the holy discontent right now for me? And quite honestly, it’s the business world, especially the Christian business world, as I was getting more and more engaged with that at Thrivent, has something that’s bothering me and it’s this somewhat idea is, “We can do whatever we want and make as much money as we want, as long as we tithe.”
And this whole idea of the economic system in the Old Testament being gleaning and tithing and Jubilee and all the systems there. It seems to me that the business people are the ones who are going to have to keep capitalism healthy. And part of that is by making sure you pay people a fair wage.
And I think, the Christian community could lead that in a way that others can’t, for reasons that are biblical principles. But it’s just one of those pieces where… So at Thrivent we decided we would glean and the way we would glean is, even though we could pay people minimum wage, we would pay them a living wage because that was just like, not plowing at the edge of your field. And it gave people dignity in work and everything. And of course what you find out is if you pay people well they don’t turn over. They’re really happy, they feel really honored to work for you, blah blah blah. You know, all the good things started to happen. So, that’s just one of those holy discontents. I haven’t really done a lot about that right now, but that’s kind of rummaging around somewhere in play.
Ray: I’d like to go back because I don’t want to gloss over the Itasca project that you spoke of. And so we’re obviously living in, here in the United States, very contentious times. Political parties drawing their hard lines left hard line right. And it just seems like nothing’s getting done. At least things that could be getting done other than pointing fingers and yelling and screaming at each other. But the Itasca project is something different. And I think there’s some great lessons that we can take from this. So tell us a little bit more about that. What kinds of things it does here in the community and what lessons can we learn from that approach?
Brad: Sure. So Itasca is the Lake that’s the headwaters of the Mississippi. And so the idea, it was kind of a twofold reason for naming it is a lot of the business community in the twin cities would go up there and they would decide what things needed to be improved in the cities. And they would come back and use corporate resources to make the twin cities a better place. And that was the place where the original pledge of giving, 5 or 10% of profits back to the community came from. There’s a whole series of things that have come out of it. It’s been around for 20ish plus years. More than that. It’s actually probably, been around for, at least the spirit of Itasca, has been around for much longer than that. But the Itasca project is really creating, I would describe it as a round table. It’s business led, fact-based, but we deal with the problems of society that usually have longterm complex solutions that almost always require the government, business and the not-for-profit social service sector to solve.
So whether it’s transportation or housing or park systems or living wages or retirement savings, which was one of the things that we worked on, and it tackles the bigger issues in a way that allows the business people, in essence with fact base, to set the table but invite everybody to the table. And because it has no political sides, it doesn’t get politicized. We also don’t lobby. It’s interesting, we always get asked to lobby and what we’ve said is, “We’re going to provide the people and the resources to businesses, government, whoever, if they want the facts, but we’re not going to try to lobby positions.” And so, by staying out of the lobbying business and really staying in the, what are the solutions that work. And then we were joking about before it. The interesting thing is it has no bylaws, it has no rules. It’s a, if somebody doesn’t volunteer to do it, it doesn’t get done. That’s how it stays prioritized and how things get done.
Ray: Yeah. If only we could run the nation that way. Right? Maybe even a company.
Brad: Yeah, but I’m actually helping, there’s a number of other cities now that have started, so Orange County’s starting one. There’s one in Western Michigan, there’s a number of other cities and states that are trying to do something similar. And it really is a great way for, I would say, the community to rally and take personal responsibility for their own issues and not wait for somebody else to do it.
Ray: Yeah. That’s fantastic. As I’m sitting here Brad, and we’re having this conversation, I want to just throw out a perception. You tell me if I hit the bullseye or if I’m off. You said very early on you were head down a career in actuary, right? And then you took these tests and you’ve got these flashing red lights said no, but actuary, it’s all about data. Right? But so many things that I’ve heard from you today is you’re a fact based leader, and so you took the essence of that, but you’ve applied it to problem solving.
Brad: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think the reason it said don’t be an actuary is because, I’m never satisfied with the data. The data is there to do something with, to accomplish something, to make something’s life better. There are people who love the research and just just do the research. And for me the research is really important, but necessary but insufficient.
Ray: It’s a tool for something to be solved.
Brad: To serve our communities, serve our customers, serve somebody else in a better and better way. And I think that’s probably why it flashed don’t just be the researcher. Do something else-
Ray: Do something with it. That’s fantastic. Well Brad, we’re getting to the last section. Our regular listeners know that I like to end the conversations in… I just call it, this advice and insights category, or column if you will. So a couple of questions that I’d like to ask. If you had a chance to sit down with the 20 year Brad Hewitt, how would you advise him?
Brad: I honestly, I can’t say that I’ve planned anything in my career. Honestly, what I would say is, keep just following when the Lord leads you to do something different. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing. Because that’s been, kind of, my model and I didn’t have grand plans. I had no plan to be a CEO, and I’ve now been one three times. So, I’m not sure I would do anything different, I think the advice I would, probably, give early on is what I said before, is learn, how to be a better follower.
Ray: Yeah. Fantastic. And so, if someone’s listening right now and they just really enjoyed this conversation, but yet maybe they’re struggling, they’re discouraged right now and maybe they don’t see… You talked about that light unto our feet or lantern, that next step, they just are blinded right now or they just can’t see the next step. What word of encouragement would you have for that leader right now who’s just like, “I don’t know what to do next?”
Brad: Well, one is pray. And oftentimes, the Lord will reveal that next step. I mean I think, that whole idea of the lamp to your feet is such a wonderful, for me, it’s been a wonderful reminder. And usually, when I get into that circumstance, it’s I want the light to the next five years, not the next step. Part of it for me has always been when I get discouraged, when things don’t go right, I keep going back to “How big of a deal is this?” And can I just love and be in service to what I’m doing now and create that attitude of gratitude that seems to transform circumstances and situations. So almost always, if my attitude becomes one of gratefulness and joy, pretty soon those problems and those issues change and that next step becomes obvious. But that’s hard.
Ray: It is hard. I love that, just to have that attitude of gratitude. And so it’s going to transition then into my last question. Our regular listeners, they probably get tired of hearing Ray talk about the 4:23 question. But the last question that I ask every conversation Brad, is based out of Proverbs 4:23 where Solomon writes these words, he says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for from it flows all of life” So, what would be the one above all else piece of advice that you’d like to end our conversation on today?
Brad: One of the ways I guard my heart is, and a verse that I’ve had that’s been special to me my whole life. It’s the great requirement, which is in Micah 6:8 it’s “Love, mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God. And that’s what the Lord requires.” And what’s fascinating to me about that verse, is that love, as you think of the heart and love. Love sometimes looks like mercy and sometimes, looks like justice. And it takes real discernment. And we know this with my kids or with any of my employees, anybody trying to guard my heart to say what’s the most loving thing that I could do for this person? Sometimes it’s going to be just to let them off the hook and sometimes it’s going to be to hold the law. And to remember as you’re making those decisions, just be humble before God because you can’t see into their heart. You can’t see into their mind, and choose as wisely as you can. And to me that’s the way I think about, how do you then do the great commandment of loving one another.
Ray: That’s fantastic. It reminds me of, Paul talks about the church in Corinth. He says, “Shall I come at you with a love or with a whip?” We’re going to deal with it, but do I do it soft or do I do it hard?
Brad: It’s hard.
Ray: That’s the discernment part. Brad, thanks for this conversation today.
Brad: Oh, it’s been my pleasure. I really enjoyed it.
Ray: I hope you’ll allow me to come back and we talk more.
Brad: I would love to. Thanks.
Ray: Well folks, another, just amazing fast conversation here at Bottom Line Faith. So we’ve heard today from Brad Hewitt, a man that has faithfully followed God, had his ups, had his downs. But has really tried to make a difference in the world by gathering facts, by being a great follower, and encouraging others to do the same. That’s what we’re about here at Bottom Line Faith, to encourage you as a Christ follower in leadership, to be all that God has called you to be each day in the marketplace. So until next time, that is my encouragement to you. I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith, Ray Hilbert saying so long, and we’ll see you next time.