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President/CEO Of First Command Financial Services Mark Steffe Says “Throw A Strike!”

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 23, 2021

Mark Steffe believes that business leadership is like coaching a youth baseball team. Sometimes you just have to confront the obvious.

Steffe recalled that once while coaching a youth team, he tired of watching how comments from the stands were impacting his star pitcher. If the pitcher was struggling, there was always that parent who would yell “Throw a strike” — making it even more challenging for the pitcher to do just that. So Steffe approached the pitcher with a dare: the next time a parent yelled about throwing strikes, Steffe offered the pitcher $100 to tuck his glove under his arm and look at the parent and say “No kidding!”

The pitcher, who happened to be Steffe’s son Jack, never collected the $100, but as Steffe shared in Corporate Competitor Podcast, “throw strikes” has grown into something of a sporting metaphor at First Command Financial Services, which maintains more than $35 billion in managed accounts and mutual funds and has more than $62 billion in life insurance coverage in force for some 280,000 military families.

The point of the story, Steffe insists, is that coaching in sports and business is very similar. “If Jack’s not throwing strikes, it’s not because he doesn’t care to throw them, or he doesn’t want to throw them. Something’s wrong with his mechanics,” Steffe explained. “What Jack doesn’t need is a coach or a parent shouting ‘throw strikes.’ He needs his coach to get out of the dugout, call timeout, walk out to the mound and help him adjust his mechanics.” 

The same thing is true in business organizations, Steffe says. When an employee isn’t performing up to snuff, Steffe wants his supervisors to avoid telling them to sell more, deliver more, get better results, work harder and the like. Instead, he wants the leaders to “roll up their sleeves, get their hands a little bit dirty and help people get to a better place—not just tell them to get to a better place.” 

While eighty-four percent of First Command advisors are veterans or military spouses, Steffe is not. But in leading the company successfully through the COVID-19 pandemic, he has adapted values both from sports and the military into his leadership approach at the company. 

These include:

  • Be agile/learn new skill: If leading through a pandemic taught Steffe anything, it was that agility—the ability to learn new skills and pivot quickly—is important for individuals and teams, alike. “As we develop our digital capabilities, we are aware our customers don’t just compare their user experiences with us to other financial firms but also to Uber and Amazon,” reasoned Steffe. “If other industries offer the best client experiences on their apps, we want to learn how to incorporate those into our business plans.”
  • Find a way to add value: Early in his basketball-playing days, Steffe realized he was never going to be a top-gun, so he dedicated himself to playing good D and rebounding and getting his points as they came. “I think this way of thinking about contributing to a team effort still guides me today,” Steffe said. “The more complete you are as a professional, the more you have to offer, even if other lanes get more attention.” 
  • Avoid a fair fight: Steffe paraphrases Colonel David Hackworth to the effect that if you find yourself in a fair fight, you haven’t planned your mission properly. “I’m embarrassed to tell you how much film I watch to prepare for coaching my son’s sixth-grade football games,” confessed Coach Steffe. “But after all, this is Texas football!” Steffe says that just as the training should be harder than the fighting, preparation for a meeting or presentation should also be intense enough to allow you to be nimble during the real thing.  
  • Lead with your mission: The drive for more money and status will only motivate people so far and does not foster strong teams, avers Steffe. Instead, have a clear and compelling mission that people can get behind. “The days of leadership being about how many people are under me on the org chart are a thing of the past,” he said. “Today, it’s about standing for something. Profitability should be the outcome of all you do and not the driving force. When you lack a passion for your purpose, your customers know it. It’s a turn-off.” 
  • Make love a core value: First Command’s core values are courage, love and effectiveness. “When you look at the love the brothers and sisters in the military have for each other, you’re talking about looking out for each other,” Steffe explained. “We define love as putting the other’s good ahead of your own.” In practice, this makes the difficult conversations more productive when somebody on the receiving end of constructive criticism knows you’re coming at it “from a place of caring rather than just dumping anger on them.” 

Today, if you walk the halls of First Command, you’ll occasionally hear somebody say, “Throw strikes.”

 “It’s pleasing to hear it because it means they get that communicating isn’t just about delivering your message,” Steffe said. “It’s about somebody receiving it.”


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