CEO on leadership: Stay cheerful even when faced with challenges

The key to success is an even and relentlessly optimistic demeanor

By Liz Skinner

Sep 14, 2015 @ 12:01 am EST

Mark Casady, CEO of LPL Financial

Mark Casady still remembers the pit he felt in his stomach 14 years ago when his then-employer landed on the cover of Barron's in a less than flattering story headlined “Foundering.”

The story questioned strategic decisions Mr. Casady had helped craft, and it hurt to read it. But even back then Mr. Casady, the chief executive officer of LPL Financial for the past decade, was able to maintain his cheery demeanor under pressure. The Indiana native rolled up the newspaper so his young son wouldn't see and continued with their Saturday morning breakfast outing.

Today Mr. Casady, 54, considers himself LPL Financial's head cheerleader and seeks to be a better CEO on Thursday than he was on Wednesday.

He works to continually improve his own talents in leading the Boston broker-dealer's nearly 3,400 employees, and fosters a culture that puts LPL Financial's 14,000 adviser clients at the forefront.

Mr. Casady has learned some patience over the years, but slowing down is still a personal challenge.

Liz Skinner: Tell me about your leadership style.

Mark Casady: I am someone who is very direct in the way that I communicate and hold people accountable to what we've agreed we're trying to achieve. I try to be very supportive of people's development. My greatest moment as a leader is when I watch someone do something that they couldn't imagine they could accomplish. It might be that they are very nervous about public speaking and we get them up on stage at our national conference and thousands of people are there, and they do a great job.

LS: What is the role of a leader in an organization?

MC: You have to be the organization's biggest advocate, its biggest cheerleader. Ultimately you are trying to get a group of people toward a goal. It could be a small group, your first assignment with four or five people to manage, or a large group of thousands of employees, but you have to help them be excited by what they are trying to undertake, even if it's a challenge. Part of what a leader does in the C suite is to help define the world. Understand what it is you are trying to do with your particular company, in other words, what markets are you going to be in and what you are not going to be in, and understand what's meaningful to you in that context. That way, you get the organization excited about its future and clear about where it's trying to head.

LS: Where do you fall short as a leader?

MC (laughing): Every day I fall short. One of my favorite quotes is by Mario Andretti that says something like, if you don't hit the wall every now and then, you're not going fast enough. That is one of my greatest strengths and one of my greatest weaknesses. I like to go really fast and you do need to slow down sometimes.

LS: Too fast in discussions or decisions?

MC: It can be all that. It's about looking at something like a goal or project you set for the company, and it might be the speed in terms of the decisions to get there or the speed at which you make it happen. But you find out there were some steps you missed along the way or something that you would have come to after a little bit more discussion but you didn't. You don't want to let speed overtake good discussion, good interaction, good feedback. That can really be a shortfall for me as a leader in that desire for speed.

LS: Tell me about someone who influenced your life.

MC: I have known my wife since I was 15 and she was 15, and she has been an incredible partner in our lives together. The first time I met her I knew I was going to marry her, as strange as that sounds at 15. We've been married for 34 years. The thing about Julia is that she's very curious, she really tries to understand things and is curious about a lot of different areas. She also has a lot of courage in terms of strength of her convictions and the way she thinks about doing things in the world, and that to me is a big influence. I also was influenced by my mom and dad; they were both nonprofit folks. My dad was a minister and my mother raised money for the mental health association in Indiana. They were always asking and being told no, but they never gave up. That demonstration of resiliency was a big one for me.

LS: What kind of culture are you trying to foster at LPL?

MC: We are very much client-centric. We are all about the advisers and the investors that they serve. We have something called the commitment creed that was written by our founder in 1989 when Linsco and Private Ledger merged to form LPL. That commitment creed is a document in every single office and conference room here. It defines that client-centric culture for us. It's a wonderful thing we teach new employees when they join us. I've had employees say they refer to it when they are interacting with advisers on an issue.

Secondly, it's about continuous improvement. I say I need to be a better CEO here on Thursday than I was on Wednesday. That focus on improvement is true throughout the organization. And that continuous improvement also lives with the board. We also want to be open. We describe that to employees as bringing your whole self to work. I once worked in an organization prior to LPL where your family life and your work life were completely separate, and it was sort of frowned upon if they were mixed up. I found that very confusing. I want to bring my whole self to work. I like the transparency we've achieved as a company.

LS What's something LPL does to foster the culture?

MC: We have a cool thing called Volunteer Days Off, which for me in my generation would have never entered my thinking. But VDO is massively popular with our 20-something and 30-something employees, especially. It lets you take a few days off, in addition to your normal PTO, to give back.

LS: You mentioned continuous improvement. How do you try to accomplish this?

MC: I reflect once a year on what went well, what didn't go well in terms of learning and improvement, and then look at what I have on deck for learning the next year. Every year I try to pick out one area; it can be skills-based, more than likely it's about learning something new that I think might inform and make me a better CEO here. Also, week by week I try to evaluate the way that week went. In the morning I have a block of time set aside to prepare for the day, and at the end of the day I have another block of time to review the day. It's not always there but I do like that reflection time — what have I learned and what am I going to do about it. That's an important process for me.

LS: What are some of the professional and personal improvements you've worked on?

MC: Last year was about innovation. I focused my efforts on learning more, primarily at universities in Silicon Valley and in Cambridge [Mass.]. This year it is about efficiency. I am spending time with consultants and other experts, as well as reading about best practices. On a personal level, I spent last year working out regularly with a trainer, and this year it's boxing!

LS: What qualities do you look for in potential hires?

MC: I'm likely to hire people who are very self-aware, understanding where they are in the development cycle and having principles under which they operate that are very clear to them and they show evidence of adhering to. I look at whether they will fit into this culture, whether they are people who like continuous improvement, who are client-centric, and I look for entrepreneurial spirit. We are an entrepreneurial company and we have been since we were founded by Todd Robinson. We want the next generation of the people we employ to have an element of that as well.

LS: How do you encourage employees to deal with conflict?

MC: It's critical that there be open dialogue, that it is not emotional. It's not about something that's gone wrong and I'm going to make you wrong for it or you're going to make me wrong for it. It's about what are the facts of the situation, and that we can understand it without emotion in the room. And if we can't, we should get up, walk around and come back. We need to come to a place that works to advance the firm, whether it's with relation to an adviser or a project we're working on.

LS: Tell me about a time you've faced adversity in your career.

MC (laughing again): Plenty of choices. One of my favorites now, it wasn't at the time, was when I worked at a company called Scudder Kemper Investments, which doesn't exist anymore — it was bought by Deutsche Bank. I can remember taking my son to a barbershop appointment on a Saturday morning; it was a ritual for us to go get a haircut and go to a caf� down the street. I stopped to get Barron's and on the cover was all about Scudder. We had made a series of decisions about merging the Scudder direct mutual fund business with the Kemper adviser-led business. This was at a time when the world thought discount brokers were taking over the world and that the direct investor was going to rule the day and advisers were dinosaurs. It's not unlike the discussions today about robo-advisers. We had looked at the market and said there's tremendous wealth creation in this country and wealth creation creates complexity and complexity has to be managed and most people don't like to manage that complexity in their financial life. They'd like someone else to do it for them, so therefore advisers will be critical. We made the decision, which was very tough, to focus the entire company on the adviser-led channel. The Barron's article was basically about what a poor decision that was. It turns out it was a great decision and the rest of the industry did the same thing. But it was that moment where you think, how could this be that important to be on a Barron's cover? I felt sure about the strategy, but certainly it was hard to read. But I learned a lot, life still went on. My son and I sat and had breakfast and had a perfectly fine conversation like we always did. I rolled it up so he didn't see it was the company that I worked for and I dealt with it later. That little boy is 19 now.

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