Organizations talk about continuous improvement. Better processes. Improved customer interactions. Product innovations. More efficient workflows. Enhanced financial results. But few apply this process to the heart of all improvement: leadership. Leaders drive improvement at every level of an organization. So, wouldn’t it follow that leaders who are continually improving will drive improvement in the work they lead?
Mehran Assadi, the CEO of National Life Group, believes that the continuous improvement of his organization starts with him.
Every Sunday morning, Assadi brews a pot of coffee at home and reflects on his past week. He does this with deep intention: he seeks continuous improvement—in his personal and professional life. Assadi has done this weekly reflection consistently for the past twenty years. His focus on self-evaluation, serving others, daily learning, and what he calls the “seven Cs of leadership” have fueled his personal and organizational success for more than two decades.
As CEO of a 168-year-old Vermont-based company that insures millions of people, Assadi knows that the success of his business depends on his leadership. In order to deliver on his organization’s purpose of bringing peace of mind to its customers, he must be able to engage with those around him. In the insurance industry, there is nothing more important than ensuring that customers feel that their policies will be fulfilled when needed.
“I learned early in my career that leadership is a privilege and not an entitlement. Inspiring teammates to be their best and to reach their fullest potential is a priority for me,” Assadi says. To keep himself centered as a leader, he uses muscle memory—a method of consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. Basically, creating a muscle memory requires that you repeat the same behaviors over and over again until they become a natural extension of who you are. They are something you do but don’t have to think about deliberately.
Since his first leadership role in the 1990s, Assadi religiously practices weekly self-evaluation, a ritual taught to him by a mentor early in his career. His Sunday morning process is the same every week, and it takes place in the den of his home before his family is awake.
“I walk back over my week,” Assadi explains, “working through meetings and decisions, assessing how I showed up. Showing up for me means that being an active listener is more important than speaking; it means that I have to seize opportunities to provide positive feedback as well as constructive coaching advice; it means that I have to invite debate and intellectual wrestling; it means that I have to welcome different opinions and points of view.”
Assadi’s review of his week consistently leads him to the realization that there was something he could have done better, something that he could have tweaked or approached differently. “Some of my colleagues tell me that I’m too hard on myself or that I have overly tough standards. However, I feel that being focused as a leader is what my colleagues deserve,” Assadi affirms.
When a person moves from an individual contributor role or mindset to a people leader, they shift the focus of their work. They must serve others before themselves. This shift fosters growth and success for the leader and those they serve.
“I learned how to lead people from my mom and dad. When you’re watching your parents give so much to you and others, you learn how to show up in life,” Assadi suggests. While some people may not have been fortunate enough to have such a keen example of servant leadership in their childhood homes, most can think of someone in their lives who demonstrates the qualities well. This foundation is key to Assadi’s success as a leader.
According to Assadi, great leadership requires an element of IQ, plus emotional and social intelligence. “We are all born with certain gifts that are part of our DNA. If you have the IQ, can you teach people the emotional and social part? Maybe, but the key is finding satisfaction in serving others. You have to lead with a servant heart and show up in authentic ways,” Assadi insists.
Learning Every Day
Assadi attributes his dedication to lifelong learning to the childhood influences of his father. “I love learning,” Assadi declares. “When you learn, you are growing. I believe deeply that we can all improve ourselves daily. Self-improvement is a personal commitment.”
“Many people have a false belief that being a CEO means that you’ve gotten it all figured out. I feel the opposite. I work every day to be a better leader today than I was the day before,” Assadi explains.
Daily learning for Assadi may be as simple as watching how a teammate handles a sensitive situation or how she successfully influences others. His trick is to learn from those moments—he works to add the new skill to his muscle memory, and to make it part of his DNA.
Seven Cs Of Leadership
During his weekly ritual, Assadi focuses on areas he calls the “seven Cs of leadership.” This sequential framework provides a structure for assessing and measuring his effectiveness as a leader and for examining ways he can do better. By asking, “How well have I embraced these seven tenets during my week at work and in my personal life?” Assadi can identify the actions he needs to stop, start, or continue as a leader.
Assadi’s “seven C’s” of leadership are:
1. Comprehension—clarity of mind and thought. All leaders must be able to gather information by asking the right questions and listening intently to the responses. “This first C allows me to anticipate what is ahead and what changes in direction I will need to make to avoid danger and seize opportunities in my business and life,” Assadi explains. By being proactive in this way, a leader moves from firefighting to true strategic planning.
2. Competency—once a leader has a clear view of the road ahead, he must be able to navigate accordingly. “This requires that I be able to get the right people around me to help make the change happen,” Assadi says. He believes that clarity without competency has no value.
3. Confidence—having clarity and the skills to make needed directional changes reduces self-doubt. “Leaders who lack confidence struggle to make decisions and create a sense of uneasiness in those who follow them,” Assadi asserts. Conversely, a leader who exhibits confidence fosters confidence in those who follow him.
4. Courage—an element of personal risk is required of those who wish to succeed in life and business. However, Assadi warns that the risk must always be a calculated one. The right ideas are meaningless if you don’t have the ability to turn them into reality. “Dreams without execution are hallucinations,” Assadi insists.
No one can know all the possible outcomes of a decision. A clear understanding of the landscape, proper preparation for the journey, and faith that you will get where you want to go creates fearless leaders. Such well-equipped leaders take paths others avoid. As we have seen from history, these less-travelled roads often lead to undiscovered opportunities and riches.
5. Conviction—doing the right thing, not just making the right decision. “As a leader, you must always ask: What is the right thing to do? It is about respect. If you do the right thing, people will have respect for you whether they like you or the decision itself,” Assadi suggests.
6. Communication—not just the ability to speak, but to listen, too. “Strong communication is about inspiring your team to become part of the solution and take their own personal risks. You must use words that they understand, instead of speaking over them,” Assadi explains.
Assadi started his career as a software engineer in 1982. At the time, people considered engineers geeks because they spoke in code. “We took pride in speaking in acronyms that no one else understood. I now lead a sales force of fourteen thousand. I must be able to effectively and clearly communicate with them. I practice speaking and listening. Considering that English is my second language, the challenge has been even greater for me. My focus is always on breaking my message down, not dumbing it down. You must make sure the person sitting across from you has an appreciation for what you are saying,” Assadi says.
7. Character—as a leader, people look to you for guidance. They watch what you do. Your actions often dictate behaviors of others. “You have to be comfortable with living in a glass house,” Assadi says. People want to be led by leaders who have a solid and strong character. Good leaders engender a sense of trust and display a high level of ethics.
“My biggest commitment is to the people I serve,” Assadi says. “The decisions I make not only affect the life of those who follow me, but the lives of their families, too.” If you lead an organization of a thousand people and each has a spouse and two children, that is four thousand people. If you have one thousand customers, that is another four thousand people. Two thousand people turns into eight thousand. A leader must show those around him that he feels an obligation to his coworkers, customers, and their families to always do the right thing.
“Continuous improvement starts and ends with me. My weekly assessment ensures that I am giving my very best every day,” Assadi asserts. “I am not a finished product; I do make mistakes. The only difference is I am committed to learning from them. A leader must be at peace with the fact that he may be wrong from time to time,” Assadi adds.
Assadi first introduced the seven Cs at a National Life leadership conference a few years ago, where he presented awards to leaders who exhibited these traits. As the seven Cs support National Life’s values, mission, and vision—informing processes from recruiting to leadership development to performance management—they align with the organization’s leadership and people efforts, and convey a consistent message and expectation.
One Person, One Leader
Assadi takes his leadership very seriously and believes it defines him in all avenues of his life. “You can’t be two people as a leader. The leader you are in the office must be the leader you are at home and in your community,” Assadi insists. All the same rules and his seven Cs apply to every aspect of his life. Business values are life values, and leadership is about giving in all areas of life.
“I teach my three sons the same lessons I teach my leaders at National Life. If you are giving, good things in life are going to happen to you. For me, it’s about spreading positive energy rather than being cynical. You need to inspire yourself and others to do great things instead of just looking for a big paycheck. When you do the right thing, everything else is going to take care of itself.”
Above all, Assadi treasures his quiet moments of reflection. He knows that those Sunday mornings make him a better leader and ultimately make National Life stronger. His stellar results support his assertion. National Life Group’s insurance sales have doubled since 2011, its customer base has grown from 796,000 in 2014 to 843,000 in 2016, and the face value of its life insurance policies just exceeded an historic milestone of $100 billion—$20 billion of it added in the last two years. He is one of the top-rated Glassdoor CEOs, with a 98 percent employee approval rating.
WORD PROCESSOR PIONEER EVELYN BEREZIN DIES AGED 93
The woman who created and sold what many recognise as the world’s first word processor has died aged 93.
Evelyn Berezin called the device the Data Secretary when, in 1971, her company Redactron launched the product.
She grew Redactron from nine employees to close to 500 and was named one of the US’s top leaders by BusinessWeek magazine in the year she sold it, 1976.
She had earlier built one of the original computerised airline reservation systems.
The innovation – which matched customers and available seats – was tested by United Airlines in 1962.
According to the Computer History Museum, it had a one-second response time and worked for 11 years without any central system failures.
The technology vied with the rival Sabre system, developed by American Airlines, for being the first of its kind.
In addition, Ms Berezin helped pioneer other types of special-purpose computing including:
- an automated banking system
- a weapons-targeting calculator for the US Defense Department
- terminals for a horse-racing track that monitored how much money was being bet on each animal
In an interview in 2015, Ms Berezin explained that she had decided to set up her own business in the mid-60s after coming to the conclusion that her prospects were limited so long as she was employed by someone else.
She said that she had initially considered developing an electronic cash register but ultimately opted to create what would become known as a word processor instead.
She said: “6% of all the people in the United States who worked were secretaries.
“At the time we started, which was in 1968 to 1969, nobody really had any desk-type computers on which you could write a word-processing program that a secretary would use.
“I know that desktop computers seem obvious now but it wasn’t so then.”
At the time, the nearest equivalent was a machine by IBM called the MT/ST – a typewriter with magnetic tape recording and playback facilities.
IBM’s marketing referred to a “word processor”, but the machine relied on relay switches rather than computer chips, had been targeted at military equipment makers rather than the wider business market, and in Ms Berezin’s mind was “klutzy”.
“We were committed to building a computer to run our system and we knew that we had to use integrated circuits because it was the only way we could make it small enough and cheap enough and reliable enough to sell,” Ms Berezin said.
Her machine – which stood about 1m (3ft 3in) tall – featured a keyboard, cassette drives, control electronics and a printer.
It could record and play back what the user had typed, allowing it to be edited or reprinted.
The original model lacked a monitor, and soon faced competition from a rival, the Lexitron, which did.
But later versions of the Data Secretary did include a screen.
Sparks and water
The project nearly ended in disaster.
Ms Berezin had intended to buy the processors required from Intel, which had gone into business in 1968. But it said it was too busy dealing with orders for its memory chips.
The solution was that Redactron had to design some of the chips required itself and provide the schematics to two manufacturers.
There were further problems with a prototype when it was put on display in a New York hotel for reporters to see.
The issue was that in dry weather, it was prone to a build-up of static electricity, which caused sparks to fly between its circuits, preventing it from working.
“To our horror it was a dry day and the engineers were setting this non-working machine up for our big story,” Ms Berezin said.
“Ed Wolf [our head of engineering brought] a full pail of water and without a word to anyone throws the pail of water over the whole thick carpet in the room.
“The water sank into the carpet, which stayed damp for three or four hours, and the machine worked perfectly.”
The first production machine was delivered to a customer in September 1971. And over the following year, Redactron sold or rented more than 770 others, excluding demo units.
Over the following years, demand grew but the company’s finances came under strain, in part because of high interest rates and a recession that meant clients wanted to rent rather than buy its products.
“We were told by the bank to sell the company and they had somebody they knew who was interested,” said Ms Berezin.
“At the time, I was distraught about it.”
She went to work for the purchaser, the business equipment-maker Burroughs Corporation. But it proved to be an ill match.
“I was not one of them – I told them what I thought – a loud woman they did not know how to deal with,” she said.
“So, they disconnected and so did I.”
Ms Berezin left the company around 1980, after which she became involved in venture capital and sat on other companies’ boards before becoming involved with Stony Brook University.
The New York Times reported that a nephew had confirmed she had died on 8 December in Manhattan after turning down treatment for cancer.
One of the remaining Data Secretary word processors can be seen on display at the Computer History Museum in California.
TIM COOK WARNS OF ‘DATA-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX’ IN CALL FOR COMPREHENSIVE US PRIVACY LAWS
Apple CEO Tim Cook has called for new digital privacy laws in the United States, warning that the collection of huge amounts of personal data by companies is harming society.
Speaking at a privacy conference in Brussels, Cook gave an impassioned and forceful speech. He reiterated familiar talking points like Apple’s commitment to privacy (and, by implication, its rivals lack of commitment) while spelling out public concerns in recent years regarding data collection, surveillance, and manipulation.
Cook said that modern technology has led to the creation of a “data-industrial complex” in which private and everyday information is “weaponized against us with military efficiency.” He added that this mechanism doesn’t just affect individuals, but whole societies.
“Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies,” said Cook. “Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy.” You can watch the full speech below:
Cook did not mention triggers for this crisis, but his comments clearly reference recent events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the personal data of millions of Facebook users was harvested by a consulting firm with the aim of swaying users’ political views. Similarly, while Cook never mentioned by name tech companies like Facebook and Google, it’s clear that these were targets in his criticism of indiscriminate data collection.
Cook has long advocated for strong standards in data privacy, but is now calling for federal regulation too. Alastair MacTaggart, a US privacy campaigner who spearheaded a landmark data privacy law in California said this was a “180-degree turn” for tech companies. “A year ago, they were pushing for self-regulation. But now, they want federal rules, but ones that are as weak as possible,” MacTaggart told Politico.
In his speech in Brussels, attended by policy experts and European Union lawmakers, Cook praised the EU’s “successful implementation” of its new data privacy law, GDPR. This forces companies collecting user information to use the highest possible privacy safeguards by default. It also gives the EU the ability to fine companies up to 4 percent of their global revenue if they misuse user data.
Said Cook: “It is time for the rest of the world […] to follow your lead. We at Apple are in full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States.” He then went on to outline four key rights that should be enshrined in such legislation: the right to have personal data minimized; the right for users to know what data is collected on them; the right to access that data; and the right for that data to be kept securely.
He also preempted a common criticism in the US that such regulation is a barrier to innovation. “This notion isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive,” said the Apple chief. “Technology’s potential is and always must be rooted in the faith people have in it.”
JEFF BEZOS UNSEATS BILL GATES ON FORBES LIST OF RICHEST AMERICANS
For the first time in 24 years, Bill Gates is no longer the richest American on the Forbes 400 list.
Gates lost his standing this year to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is $160 billion, compared with Gates’ $97 billion. That makes the Microsoft founder the second richest American.
The shakeup isn’t an overnight surprise. In July 2017, Bezos became the richest person in the world, briefly, when his net worth hit just north of $90 billion. It happened again inwhen his net worth clocked in at $93.8 billion compared with Gates’ $88.7 billion. In July 2018, Bloomberg reported that Bezos overtook Gates on its , which pinned his net worth at $150 billion.
Bezos didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other tech figures on the list include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg coming in at No. 4, Oracle’s Larry Ellison at No. 5, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin at No. 6 and No. 9, respectively.