Mark Steffe, the CEO of First Command Financial, leads with love and believes that success comes from putting your mission first. He also talks about his leadership principles and the company's commitment to military families. They guide military families to financial security and measure their success by what they give back. In 2022, they provided 30,000 financial plans and donated 7% of profits to military charities. First Command encourages team members to lead by example and donate time and resources to help military families.
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The Story Of First Command Financial With CEO Mark Steffe
How He Succeed In Transitioning Into The CEO Roll And The Support He Got From His CEO And Team
My guest is Mark Steffe. He is the President and Chief Executive Officer at First Command Financial Services. Mark, how are you?
I'm doing great. Thanks for having me.
I'm excited to chat with you. You've had such a cool journey inside this organization. Tell our audience a little bit about the organization, a little bit about you and your background, and then we'll get into some questions.
First Command Financial Services was founded back in 1958 by retired Lieutenant Colonel Carroll Payne of the Air Force. He had two distinct events that his son, Chip, who's still on our board of directors today tells you about Carroll Payne's life. One included a time he spent in Guam during World War II. In his first 3 months over there, 24 of his 44 B-29 crewmates were killed in action. His job was to wrap up the affairs of the deceased airmen to the family back home
Since we had come out of The Great Depression, he realized that those families didn't have savings, investments, or insurance to fall back on. This personal loss was compounded by a major financial devastation as well then. As you fast forward to his life after World War II, he was down at Eglin Airfield and Chip will tell the story of his father watching retired officers come into the officer's club all month, but towards the end of the month, they started putting their meals on credit because in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, inflation had spiked to levels even higher than what we're dealing with today. They were running out of money to pay for those meals.
They were putting those meals on credit. Carroll Payne vowed that when he got out of the military, he was going to start a firm that didn't let either of those two things happen. He wasn't going to let the financial devastation compound and the personal devastation of losing someone in the military, the primary breadwinner. He was going to make sure that military members and their families who had sacrificed so much for our country were going to be set up for a long successful retirement. The minute he retired from the Air Force, he retired from what was Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. That's why we were founded in Fort Worth because he stepped off the base and founded First Command.
Did you know the story fourteen years ago when you started? What attracted you to the organization in the first place?
I knew the story but I don't think I fully appreciated it. I didn't serve myself. I'd spent the first eighteen years of my career dealing with high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients. What I tell folks here at First Command is that it was a lot of fun helping rich people get richer. I appreciated the mission and the vision of First Command when I got here. Having not served, I don't think I fully felt and understood it.
Now that I've been here and I've learned a lot more about the military, the sacrifices that our military families make, and the impact our company and our financial advisors have on the financial lives of military service members and their families, it's a whole lot more rewarding work to help people get to a place financially and economically that most probably never thought they would get to and certainly, most would've never gotten there on their own. It’s easily the most rewarding work I've done in my 32 years in the business.
It's interesting to work with a lot of businesses as a strategy consultant. We see a lot of things. In the news, there's so much talk about banks. Back in the day, not so long ago when you had all those big bank collapses, I don't know if you guys would consider it a run on the banks, but community banks were getting their asses kicked. It's easy to forget that the reason a bank existed in the first place was to support the community.
These regional and community banks that are truly mission-focused organizations are hurting because of the system. First Command was around to provide that mission and support. My first question as CEO, which you've been there and I'll talk a little bit about your journey, is what was it like trying to communicate that and rally the troops, no pun intended, around “We need to be especially mission-focused as we need to drive the business objective forward in this challenging time?”
You're talking about the times of the bank turmoil and the bank collapse. We'll focus on the most recent one. I'll be honest. We're a little bit spoiled when it comes to issues like that. The reason we are is virtually every bank client we have has come through as a referral from our financial advisors. Most of our new clients come in through referrals. As we sit down with those referrals and their families, spouses, or significant others, the typical process is we help them build and implement the financial plan.
The implementation comes with three recommendations. Something on the investment side that harkens back to the Eglin Airfield and making sure people have a long successful retirement. There's an insurance component to it, which goes back to the Guam experience and making sure that people don't get devastated financially in case there is a tragic loss.
The third component is a banking recommendation. Most of our banking clients have a financial plan and they are coached by our financial advisors. Those financial advisors do an excellent job of it's easier to think about the ups and downs of the stock market. Our clients are very disciplined and patient. They understand that when the markets go down, it's not a time to bail out. It's a time to invest more money because things are on sale.
When the markets go down, it's not a time to bail out but a time to invest more money.
Our advisors do a wonderful job of coaching that into our clients. On the banking side, it works very much the same way. There was banking turmoil all over the place, and we didn't have to do this a lot, but we communicated to our clients. We're not like those other banks. We don't have the types of business they do. We don't have the volatile consolidation that they had. A large percentage of their clients were concentrated in a small type of client that carries a lot more volatility than the military. Most days, the military are going to get their paychecks.
You have these pending government shutdowns, which makes everybody a little bit nervous, but we know those paychecks are going to come in. The other thing is some of those banks that failed had 95% or more of their deposit base above the FDIC limit. Only about 3% or 4% of our clients are above the FDIC limit. Fortunately, because of the types of clients we serve, we were in a much different place than those banks that failed. Because of the coaching our advisors provided, clients knew they were fine and our bank was fine. We added some additional communication to calm those fears and ensure them that everything was okay. Because of the type of client we serve and the coaching that we provide, we didn't have a lot of the struggles that a lot of other banks faced.
It speaks to the fact that because you're mission-focused versus potentially others that are like, “We need to turn a profit and everything is driven by that top and bottom line,” where you're supporting your people, that resilience because it's built to last probably. I want to highlight the importance of good financial acumen. Not all employers communicate that and they take it for granted. Some people understand how the money system works. Those extremely wealthy people use it as a tool. I think it's great that your organization is providing that understanding so that you can build resilience for all of those people where naturally the system wouldn't necessarily exist out there if you're a military person.
I can't overstate the importance of being well educated, not just basic financial literacy, but understanding what financial tools are out there to keep you successful. Let's switch gears a little bit because I don't want to talk just about finances. Why don't we talk about your career? Fourteen years in First Command, at least from what the internet tells me, you’re the SVP chief of staff moved into executive vice president after some years, president COO for three years, and then into president and CEO.
Walk us through those big stages. What was the difference of focus for you as a leader in those key jumps, chief of staff, EVP, COO, CEO, and then what were some of the learnings you had on the way? For our audience, let's say they want to say, “How can I evolve from a chief of staff role into COO or CEO?” What are some of the things that they should consider or what are some of the things you learned potentially the hard way?
I was recruited here. I started in March of 2010. I came in as the first chief of staff for advisor operations. What that means is the head of advisor operations is the head of our sales force. I was supporting the right-hand guy to the person who was leading our sales force at that time. They wanted someone who could handle a lot of the in-house functionality of running the field force so that the person running the field force could get out and spend more time amongst the troops and understand what was working and where we needed to make some improvements. There were a lot of communication efforts involved with the chief of staff role, getting information from the field, communicating things back out to the field, and then the things that we were building and preparing to deliver to the field.
It required a lot of home office collaboration and coordination to make sure all the right people were at the table. All the different perspectives were taken into account and then whatever we were going to roll out was as as effective as it possibly could be. I did that for about a year and a half. In 2012, I went out to lead one of our five divisions. Like many companies, we have five geographical divisions. I ran what we call the Midwest Division at the time, overseeing the field force. That included recruiting, training, production, and all those sorts of things that you're expecting from your field force.
I had the opportunity to do that until 2014. At that point, the prior leader of the field force was leaving the company. he was retiring from the company and there was an opportunity for many of us to interview and to try to get that position. Fortunately, I was named as the national director to be able to lead the field force. I'd had eighteen years of financial services experience before I got to First Command. About half of that time was spent in the field and half the time was in the home office.
I felt like I had a good understanding, appreciation, and rapport with the field. I was excited for the opportunity to get that role. In 2014, I had the opportunity to do that. In 2017, our prior CEO Scott Spiker declared that in January 2020, he was planning to retire from First Command. We needed to have a succession plan in place for him. Under Scott as our CEO, he had both the CEO and the President title because we're not an extremely large company. He didn't feel we needed both the president and the CEO.
We needed to have a succession plan in place.
In 2017, we pulled the president title out from under Scott. I moved into the president role. We backfilled my role and brought in someone else from the field to run the field force. We spent three years working with Scott on a transition and a succession plan to get me ready to take over as the CEO in January 2020. It worked great. Scott did a lot of positive things for First Command. One of the many things he did was make it okay for anyone, especially executives, to say, “I'm going to retire in 2, 3, or 4 years out,” so we can build this smooth succession plan and put that in place. It is so that when we're transferring from one leader to the next, it goes as easily and smoothly as it possibly can.
For a lot of companies, that's not the way it's done. People are more hesitant to say, “I'm going to be out of here in two years,” for fear of what that might do to their career. Scott took that fear away. It's become an expectation here. In January 2020, as we planned, we had this smooth transition from Scott to me as the CEO. We pulled that president title back under me. That's why I'm the President and CEO because we don't need both here.
In a sense, the field leader has retired and we brought someone else in from the field to run the field for us. It's been this steady stream of progression development. What we're big on here is succession planning, which I already described, and big into talent development. This didn't come without a lot of development feedback and growth. I’m happy for it because when COVID hit in March 2020, nowhere in my training was there in case of a global pandemic do this. Because we had this long succession plan, I felt comfortable stepping into the role of CEO so that when the global pandemic or COVID hit in March 2020, I felt good about how to lead the company so we could focus a lot of our attention on how do we lead a company through a global pandemic.
I understand the importance of succession planning. You talked about the importance of that training. What are some 2 or 3 leadership lessons that you could share with our audience that you learned during that time? Whether that was leading up to you being into the president role or from president to CEO? What are 2 or 3 specific takeaways?
Some things felt like I was already aware of and thought I was doing a decent job. The two things that stand out for me that I've refined over time are the need for frequent repetitive communication. No matter where you're trying to lead the organization, as the CEO, most likely you're going to be out in front of that change. My job isn't to affect all the change. My job is to bring people along with that change.
Sometimes I feel like maybe I'm boring folks because I say many of the same things over and over again, but then I realize, “I may have said it 1,000 times, the person I'm talking to may have only heard it once, maybe twice. We have to ingrain into our folks where we’re going, why we are going there, and what it is going to take to get there.
That's such an interesting point because when we see CEOs or presidents, they said they get tired of the communication. That's how I heard it. As you said, “I'm tired of doing this,” but maybe my audience or my people aren't. How do you overcome that? How do you deal with that self-talk? How do you remind yourself that you need to do that repetition and be aware that maybe they didn't hear it as intended? Do you say, “I got to do this again?” What did you do?
It goes right back to what you said earlier. It's the mission. It's understanding that it's not about me or how I feel about the communication, but we're far from done with what we can do to serve more military families and to serve them even better than we already are. We have that thought in mind, “How can we reach more military families? How can we do an even better job of serving military families?” If you know that's what you're trying to accomplish, then getting yourself inspired to tell that same story one more time is easy because you know exactly why you're telling it. It's not just words. These words are going to have an impact on the lives of military families. Finding the motivation becomes pretty easy.
In addition to that frequent repetitive communication, one of the things I focus a lot on as a CEO is transparency. We share a lot at First Command. We share a lot with our executive team, field force, and home office employees. Our belief is if we want to go from point A to point B, it's going to be a whole lot easier getting there if people know where we're going, how we intend to get there, and most importantly, why we are making these changes or why we are on this path, to begin with.
If our entire field force understands where we're going and why, and our employees have the same understanding, now you have everybody rowing in the same direction, and then they can contribute to that journey as opposed to just being dragged along in that journey. We think we have an inspiring and compelling vision for the First Command of the future. We want people to know about it. We want them to be excited about it and give that discretionary effort to help us get there.
It's not a pain, but it's a lot of fun because you see the light bulbs go off. When people understand the why and are bought into it, then they're contributing on their own. We're going to get there a whole lot faster and better if everybody is on board. Communication and transparency are big. As a CEO, I’m trying to be as approachable as I possibly can. I saw some good examples of that as I've grown in this industry.
Like all of us, I've seen some not-great examples of that. A CEO or anybody's time, there's only so much of it. You have to be guarded or protective of your time, but you can't get too busy for your people. If you stop interacting or listening to them, you're going to lose touch. People pick up on that pretty quickly. Try to be approachable. I keep my finger on the pulse at a higher level of what's going on in the field and the home office so that we can continue to grow and develop as a company.
As we begin to wrap up, I'm curious, I heard that you had a smooth transition and you were able to structurally dislodge the president so that you could step into it and have a safe space there. You talked about the importance of getting that alignment, sharing the vision, and getting people bought in. I'm curious about your contrasting experience from a COO whose job is to make sure that all of the pieces connect and operationally, you're driving everything forward distinct from what I would consider more of a visionary CEO.
It sounds like you were able to put your foot into that pool. How would you compare and contrast the priorities of a COO who then has to step into A CEO? We see it all the time, but I don't think it was ever talked about enough about the key differences. There are key differences, at least in my opinion. What do you say to that?
You picked up on a key point. Especially earlier on in my career and even up through the COO role, I probably had a solid reputation as someone who was in the details, a high examine guy, also a high execute guy, but I’m in the weeds, the details, and making sure the I's are dotted, T's are crossed, ticking and tying everything.
As part of my own progression in this succession planning, part of the discussion is you have to get out of the weeds and the details and get to the bigger picture. After 27 years of being in the weeds and the details, I was more than ready to get out of them. Prior to the president or CEO job, that was the job. Those things had to get done. Even as the chief of staff, that was a big part of the job. Certainly, as a chief operating officer, that's part of the job.
If I had to pigeonhole the pre-president focus versus the post president and COO focus, historically, if you had to choose between projects and people, I was probably more project-focused than people-focused. People were always important and always have been. More of my time was spent probably on the projects and down in the details. The mental shift and the leadership shift I had to make was making sure as I moved into the president or CEO role, the big picture was the focus. I have to stay at the strategic and higher level. I have to have a team around me that will get into the weeds and execute and do all those sorts of things. I have to trust them to do those things and not get too deep into their business.
The other thing is the balance between people and projects has to be heavy on the people side. That's where I try to hold myself accountable, looking at my own calendar and making sure I look at where I'm spending my time. Am I spending it on high-level strategic visionary things, communicating those things, and then ultimately spending the right amount of time with the people and spending it with the people I should be spending it with?
Spend your time on high-level strategic visionary things, communicate those things, and spend the right amount of time with the people.
It was almost, in a sense, a mutually exclusive skillset. What made me successful in roles prior to the president role were not the things that were going to make me a successful president or CEO role. It was nice to have that time as the president working with Scott because it's hard to flip the switch. One day you're person A and the next day you're person B. To have some time to get acclimated to that and build up a skillset or deepen a skillset on things that were going to make me hopefully successful as the president and CEO worked great. COVID three or two and a half months into my tenure as CEO. I still think Scott knew that and that's why he wanted to transition out in January, but it helped get me prepared to lead through some pretty tough times.
That’s super important. First of all, there is that distinction. It’s relatively simple to be project-focused versus people-focused. It's easy to sum it up in four minutes or less, but recognizing that Mark has to struggle through that for 1,400 days or so. It's a long time, like day to day. It sucks having to go through that and then highlighting it. It's not like a transition. It's person A to person B.
What I see young leaders and young managers sometimes struggle with is they move from someone who is super technically skilled. They get promoted into a position that requires them to be more leader-focused and people-focused, and it is not the same. Just because you're good here does not mean you're going to be good over there. I’m not suggesting that you weren't, but it's such a significant transition that needs to be given appropriate time for training and development, to look at that and recognize that it does happen over time, making sure that you give a bit of grace.
It sounds like your previous mentor and support did the structural change to support that transition. One of my last questions is, I imagine that while you said, “I'm happy to get out of the weeds,” you as a doer, probably held onto some stuff. I see this because we have a lot of presidents that move into CEO roles or what have you. How did you manage to get out of the weeds when you probably wanted to get done and move stuff forward? Did you put a structure in place? Did you hire people behind you? Did you make sure that you distributed ownership? Did you lock yourself in a room so you couldn't bother people? What did you do?
We did something that is probably unique. It was the suggestion of our head of HR at the time. We did a CEO acclimation meeting. We went offsite with myself and my executive leadership team. We had an outside executive coach come in. It is a third-party person. I spent half an hour to an hour getting acclimated to the day, what the expectations were, and what we were going to do. I left the room. What he led them through was like, “What do you want from your CEO as we move forward and where do you think Mark, based on what you've seen from him in the past, might struggle? Where might you be able to give him some good feedback?”
We hung the butcher block paper on a wall in this conference room. It’s completely anonymous. That's why he led it so that we didn't know who said what. It took some of that anxiety out. To do this, you have to be vulnerable and allow people to give you feedback. The great thing about the process that Scott put in place is that everybody in that room knew for 3 or 4 years that I was going to be the CEO.
Everybody therefore was vested in my success because if I'm successful, they have a greater chance of being successful. This is a team effort. They brought me back into the room after a couple of hours. There's butcher block paper full of thoughts on what would make a good CEO, what they wanted from me, what they didn't, and where they thought I could have a little bit of focus and improve. It was incredibly productive.
If you're willing to take the input and the feedback, one of the best things about it is that all the cards are now on the table. I then got a chance to respond to it. We walked from one sheet of paper to the next and talked through everything that was on there. Now that all the cards are on the table, I know exactly where they as a group were coming from. They saw and heard my responses to that. We came out of there with an agreement on this is how we're going to move forward.
I think alignment and trust went up because of it. CEOs are always giving feedback. Are they willing to listen to feedback? We were able to demonstrate that from the very first meeting that we did this. Between the succession planning and this transition meeting that we held, it couldn't have set the stage better for a smooth and trusting transition from the prior CEO to the new CEO. I don't know that I learned anything new.
Because of all the succession planning we've done, I don't think there were any blind spots that had already been uncovered by that point. It put a finger point on it. I saw places where they thought I had to improve and a couple of places where they thought I probably needed to go a little bit further with that. It was all fair, constructive, and meant to help. We have a team around that's willing to give you that feedback so good things can happen.
That's incredible. I think that's cool with the time and investment that you put in. I see teams that are like, “Two days, off-site or whatever to go through that.” I'm like, “You're talking four years. You're talking the rest of everybody's career.” The juice is worth the squeeze on that one. In my experience, leading these types of meetings, I never let one explicitly like that. The difference is it's assumed or implied. One of the things that I've seen is making it explicit like, “You've heard me. I've heard you. We're 100% on the same page. You know that this is what I need.” It’s not just those two days or the butcher block paper as you called it. It's every single conversation after is built on the foundation of explicit clarity.
“I know that you can come into a meeting and call me out on my stuff because we have that agreement and it's both ways.” It creates a whole new level of capacity within a team. It's incredibly smart for your team to go through that, for your coach to have led you through that, and for you to say, “This is what's important,” and for you to make yourself vulnerable enough to hear your people so that you could be successful. At the end of the day, you were there to help your people and to contribute to the mission. I love that. As we finish up, I could ask you more questions about your transition, but I want to be respectful of your time. Where can people connect with you and learn about First Command?
Thank you. I appreciate your time. It's been super fun. Thanks for doing what you do and impacting the lives of literally tens of thousands of people across the country.
Thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.
Folks, two things I takeaway from today, 1) As you move and transition to your career, not every stage is the same. It is not linear. Often it's transformational. As you move into a new role, you may need to become a new person with a new set of foci. Make sure that your roles, and responsibilities are clear. 2) Anytime you're building a new team, especially a big transition into a new CEO, setting those rules, expectations, and understanding is going to make everybody more successful. It takes time. It's another meeting, but those are the things that make a big difference for your organization and every other person in there. If you're ever hesitating to take those two days because you're too busy, you're going to slow yourself down for the next while.
Follow Mark's lead. Follow the team at First Command. Connect with them if you want to learn more about what they offer. I appreciate you subscribing and sharing. I encourage you and invite you to share this with somebody who might be going through a leadership transition. This might make a big difference for them. Thanks for being here. I'll see you next time.
About Mark Steffe
CEO of First Command, which has a core mission to coach military families in their pursuit of financial security. Steffe’s focus on community and culture and leading a mission-driven organization has helped him lead the company to some of its most successful years, despite the tumult of an uncertain environment.
He is a respected business leader and speaker on leadership issues who can provide perspective on leading during turbulent times, as well as how First Command emerged as a stronger organization as a result of the chaos, stress and challenges it faced over the past three years. Interestingly, he took over just a few
Drawing on his firm belief in following a clear mission that inspires people to want to contribute, and allowing opportunities for every voice to be heard, Steffe is helping First Command serve more than 290,000 military families through a network of almost 175 offices around the world.