CEO Talent Champion:Dan Houston, Principal Financial Group

An interview on building a talent strategy with a mission

This video and the following Q&A do not depict the entire interview.

To manage talent, executive leaders must balance needs in the customer journey with needs in the employee experience, while weighing rapidly evolving business goals. Principal Financial Group CEO Dan Houston shares how the organizational mission serves as equilibrium for his talent strategy.

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Q&A With Dan Houston

Dan Houston is chairman, president and CEO of Principal Financial Group. Houston joined the organization in 1984. He has held several management positions, including senior vice president in 2000, executive vice president in 2006 and president of retirement and income solutions in 2008. He was named president and chief operating officer in 2014 before assuming his current role in 2015.

I think what you try to do is anchor all your decisions in the customer and how to ensure that the customer experience is not in any way compromised because of the realities of, for example, a global pandemic. I mean, who would have ever thought — a global pandemic — we would find ourselves where we’re at today? 


But you’ve got to give it to so many hard-working individuals around the world that have stepped up and made it work. One of our tools right from the beginning was to remain flexible, and we never set artificial dates. 


And so we have remained intentionally flexible, not vague. We were trying to be very specific — to simply be transparent to say we don’t know until there is more clarity. We are going to keep this open, and we are going to adjust and adapt as we go through the process. And, I think, that’s frankly our new reality. 


And as long as we can maintain the kinds of customer service scores that we’re obtaining today, we’ll want to have that sort of flexibility. 


I think when even bad news is communicated in a transparent way — why you made the decision that you did, what were the inputs to your point — I think people could say, “It negatively impacts maybe me personally, and I don’t like it, but I understand the rationale now.” 

Now, your rationale better make sense, right? That’s like showing your homework back in grade school. You have got to be able to rationalize the decisions that you make, and there’s a lot of different constituencies.

Probably, buckle up. You know, when I think about it in today’s context, the only certainty in life is uncertainty. That’s our new reality, and I think you have to be flexible. I think you have to be open-minded. I think this is where you can actually be damaged or harmed or misguided by historical facts that have occurred in the past because we’re dealing with a whole set of new challenges. 


This is probably a place in time where technology has aided us in so many different ways, both positively and negatively. It’s challenged every single traditional business model. It’s challenged every single cohort of the workforce.


Customers’ expectations around the leveraging of technology have changed that for that period of time. So, although in the last 100 years there has been a regular dosing out of change, I do think that this is significant in terms of what the go forward impact will be on workers and on customers and shareholders.

I use what I describe as a bullseye graphic. I developed it many, many years ago. In the center of that red zone, if you will, is the customer, and around the customer, you surround that with things like technology and distribution. What is your brand, and what are your capabilities? You take those four elements and surround them with what I would describe as the customer experience. 


The outer band is all our 18,000 employees that make the cohesiveness of all those things work together. You know, when you’re talking to investors, you have to anchor against your ability to attract and retain clients, and that’s the core of what we do. To do that, to facilitate that, we know we need to have the very best talent. 


So, attracting and retaining talent is, I’ll say, a cycle of making sure you have the right mix of employees: an external perspective, an internal perspective, one of views of varying backgrounds. All of those are the elixir that make up our employment base that allows us to deliver on the promises to our customers.

Choosing the Principal Financial Group to be the company that I would make a career at had everything to do with the people. 

I was interviewing with an individual with the company who was senior at the time, and it was clear they were, at that point, recruiting me. I had two other job offers: one was in the tire business, and one was in the paper goods and lumber business. The other one’s the Bankers Life Company, which is the Principal Financial Group today.


He said, “If you come to the Bankers Life Insurance company in Des Moines, Iowa, then you’ll change lives for the rest of your life.”


And I share the story only because that was the passion that existed 38 years ago when I started with the company. It wasn’t a job. It was, ‘if you come here, you’re going to change lives.’ We’re in the financial services industry. We have insurance products and life insurance and disability and retirement products. Those are what will matter in a material way to society. You want to be part of this, and that’s still the DNA of the company.

The best and richest data you’ll get about your employees is to have them in your office in a comfortable environment, talking very candidly about their experiences. That’s what informs good policymaking, and frankly, the newest employees are the ones who are very comfortable stating their views and opinions. And so, it is more valuable than any research that you could possibly do because like a lot of research, averages of averages always sort of favor everything’s okay.


I still see our employees at our town hall meetings. We have social hours. We have food trucks that will close down the street in front of the building. I’ll go out there and spend time with employees, not for any other reason other than the fact, I really love my employees. 


I want them to know that I’m approachable, and we can have these conversations. But I literally know thousands of employees by their first name, from having been here a very long time. And at the end of the day, if you don’t have a healthy workforce that has trust and belief in the mission and an “in” within the senior management, you’re out of business. It just won’t work.

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