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Insuring career success

WS talks to top CEO James D. Ericson

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Jim Ericson, 63, runs one of the best life insurance companies in the United States: Northwestern Mutual. The Milwaukee-based giant is the country’s largest provider of life insurance. Its 2.8 million policyholders own more than 5 million policies. Readers of both Fortune and Worth magazines have selected Northwestern Mutual as their favorite insurance company.

Ericson joined the company in 1965 as an attorney. In 1972, he became assistant to the president, and this accelerated his rise up the ladder. We spoke with Ericson about his climb and the lessons he’s learned about managing people.

WS: Your career took off after you began working with the company president. What was that like? Were you nervous at first?

Ericson: He was a very dominating individual. My first meeting with him was at 7:30 at night when he discussed a project he had in mind for me. After explaining what he wanted me to do, he looked me in the eye and said, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” This was a career-defining moment for me. I said, “Yes, I do.” Then he spent an hour convincing me it was a good idea.

WS: So he respected your honesty?

Yes, and he really wanted to know what I thought. When we worked together, he would usually listen to my advice, if not always agree with me. But that didn’t stop him from telling me off sometimes!

WS: You were able to work directly with the president early in your career. What advice would you give managers who want to get ahead but don’t enjoy the exposure you had?

Look for problem areas in your organization and try to implement solutions. Just doing your job well is not enough. Take risks that have a big payoff. WS: You’ve joined dozens of boards. Do you think rising executives should get involved in these types of outside activities?

I may be on too many boards! But I do think it’s a valuable way to make a contribution and meet people, as long as you’re sure you have an interest in the group’s activities. Don’t go on a board if they just want to use your name.

WS: Your company has 3,500 employees. When you meet one of them, can you get a good sense of their abilities in a five-minute chat? What might they do to impress you in the limited time they have your attention?

If you’re talking with people and they’re enthusiastic and logical, that’s a good sign. When I’m talking with employees, it’s usually about a particular problem we’re facing. So I’m looking to see how they’re solving it— what steps they’re taking. That gives me a snapshot. It’s not inclusive, but it sure does help you evaluate them. I want to be able to go back to that person’s superior and say, “Here’s what I learned.”

WS: What’s the No. 1 mistake managers make that hurts their careers?

The worst thing is to try to fake knowledge. Some people feel they have to know everything, even if we may be discussing an area that’s totally outside their area of expertise. The sharp person says, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” I have a lot more respect for someone who says that.

WS: But sometimes it’s hard to admit that you don’t know something in front of the CEO. Don’t you agree?

A few weeks ago, I testified before the Senate on a financial services bill. I used the answer “I don’t know but we’ll be happy to get the information and get back to you” three times. That was probably the high point of my testimony! I gained more credibility from that than from anything else I could have said.

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