In this interview with Johnny Maurelus, Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo, we will continue Leadx3m's Creactive Leadership Series, discussing the state of leadership under continuously transforming market conditions.
In our recent discussion, Johnny Maurelus emphasizes himself as a purpose-driven leader who approaches each opportunity with creative problem-solving, a flair for innovation, and measured risk-taking to drive consistent top and bottom-line improvements for all stakeholders. As the SVP, Strategy & Development Leader at Wells Fargo, he is responsible for the Small Business Development segment strategy, execution, and growth in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Texas Regions serving customers in the $1-10M space. Before joining Wells Fargo, Johnny was the Market Executive for Greater DC at Capital One. He led a team of Senior Managers and Directors focused on the lower end of the Middle Market ($5-50M) to resolve change banking for good by solving one client problem at a time. Johnny holds a Bachelor's Degree in Global Studies and a Master's Degree in Strategic Management from Harvard University.
Henrik Totterman (Henrik): My first question is, how would you define your leadership style?
Johnny Maurelus (Johnny): My leadership style is collaborative. I try to bring as many people to the table as possible to make a decision. And the reason for this, I was introduced to a concept probably about three or four years back. It speaks to the idea meritocracy. It's the Ray Dalio concept, and he says when running his company Bridgewater Associates, he doesn't necessarily believe his ideas are the best. Instead, he brings as many thoughts into the room as possible, and the best idea eventually wins.
Regardless of where you sit on the org chart, if your idea is the best, we are all running with your idea because we are in this thing for the sake of the value. When I consider my leadership style, there's an element where I bring as many people to the table as possible. I have ideas of things that I want to do, but I leave room to change my mind. So we usually proceed with the best idea in the room, not necessarily with what I brought to the table or what the person with the loudest voice brought. The best idea will help us solve whatever situation we face, which I have implemented in my leadership over the last three or four years. I've always been collaborative, but I think this insight made me that much more collaborative and understanding. I am looking for mission-critical ideas that help us solve the problems instead of ego and having my idea be the number one thing that makes sense. Therefore, that makes me more collaborative.
Henrik: Thank you. Very insightful, and it sounds like it would be great to work on your team.
Johnny: We have had a great run with my current leadership team, and still, we have a lot more room to build collaboration because we have been together, for now, six months. The last team that I led with great success for about two and a half years during the pandemic resulted from sheer collaboration, and everyone had a voice and felt that their voices were heard. Frankly, we had some of the better years that I've had in my career during the pandemic. And that's not a result of how great I am, but it's a result of how great we were together.
Henrik: Impressive. My second question is, Why do you see an increasing need for a creative leadership style? And I play with the word creactive, saying that we need more creativity and activities to execute and put things into place.
Johnny: To your point, when I think of creactivity, I think of a strategy. I think of a leader who can understand the current landscape, understand the context in terms of where we came from, understand the vision and what success looks like, and where the organization or team is trying to go—and then being able to construct a strategy again with the collaboration of others and input from others.
I'm not just talking about, you know, folks that are on the team, but partners. Stakeholders interested in what you're trying to do, get their input, and then construct a strategy that again captures what the vision of success is. And then the most critical part, though, to me, is the execution of the process. It's one thing to have a well-thought-out strategy. It's another thing to execute it. And usually, the reason that we don't perform well is because most B-schools, as you know, teach strategy, but very few spend time on execution. Therefore, you have leaders who exit B-schools into positions of power and leadership, and they should know how to execute. However, they see many things theoretically but cannot perform at the organization's level to be successful. So we need to put creativity or strategy right together with the ability to get things done.
I think that's where you and your term creactive leadership come in. I think it's very critical that you have both components in balance. And some leaders are more execution-oriented than they are strategic. As a leader, you need to know that, in that case, you have more members on your team who are more strategic. Because, if you execute well, but you don't have the strategy as well as someone else, then bring in others that can help. The inverse is also true. If you are prone to strategy, you need people on your team who are better than you at execution. That way, you can deliver on the set mission because, again, the most critical thing I think for creactive leaders is not what they want; it's what the customer needs.
Henrik: Wow. Very impressive. I love how you broke it into the fact that people have a particular specialty area of competence. Let's continue with Innovation and Strategy. My next question is: How can we in a primarily disrupted world maintain a positive outlook, direction and keep a winning concept current?
Johnny: Our world is constantly evolving; one of my favorite quotes is "the only constant is change." When you think of my world, financial services, there was a time when you won the heart of a customer by being available to them, by being able to connect face-to-face to build a relationship. That wasn't that long ago, five, six, seven years ago. If you knew who your banker was, you felt that your money was safe. Today, the physical branch is diminishing in our digital space, and your phone is your bank. You can apply for things like mortgages, credit cards, and other types of loans right from your phone using an application. So having a face to the bank is no longer the most critical thing; speed to market is vital.
Not only is this landscape shifting in banking and financial services, but across industries. Speed to market is the name of the game, and if organizations like ours or others within other industries don't adapt to customer demand, this is customer-driven change; you lose out. Once you lose market share, once you lose your preeminence in the marketplace, it's hard to regain it. So every organization must make innovation a thing; it's not just a buzzword anymore. It's not "well, we have a wing somewhere in San Francisco, right in Silicon Valley that specializes in innovation needs to be widespread throughout your entire organization."
There must be connectivity from the top of the house, the C-suite, to the front line. Because the more connectivity that exists between the front line and the C-suite, the quicker you can adapt to the customer demands. Which will require you to evolve as a business as their demands and needs change. This ensures you are changing pace with the market and sometimes even being in a position where you're outpacing the market because you can anticipate the things coming.
So innovation is critical, and I think again, everyone in the organization plays a role in creation, not just the company builders or those with the innovator titles, but everyone involved in the organization needs to understand to look for long-term sustainability. We must think about how to anticipate our customer's needs and change when their needs change.
Henrik: Any advice, especially on data collection and analysis, especially for companies?
Johnny: If I've learned anything over the last decade or so around data collection, don't discriminate the source of the data. Think about it objectively. Whatever the start, you can put it to good use in your business if you understand the data and its source. I think Google's thought is correct. They use the information you and I input into their search engine to create data that someone else may need. If they were discriminating where the data was coming from, it wouldn't be part of their assets. It would be missing from the universe of data they have, so someone else could use it for their gain. So if I can share any piece of advice, don't be discriminatory around where we collect data; just put our hands around all the data that we can and try to glean information from the said data.
Henrik: The next question relates to creactive leadership and overall performance. What Key Performance Indicators do you favor?
Johnny: Now, when you say KPIs. Which angle are you coming from?
Henrik: So, for instance, looking at leaders in the organization and thinking about their input on the creative side of things, and also the operational side of performance and efficiency.
Johnny: I'm a big believer in that. You need to have a few data points that will help you determine your business's success at any given moment. So when I think about KPI's, I'm going to answer them this way. I wouldn't necessarily say, "Hey, focus on X as a KPI." I would say focus on the KPIs that will ensure that the organization's goal will be achievable because they are leading indicators of success. I'll put it in these terms; often, folks don't pay attention to a football match or a soccer match until the end of the game when the score is final. But is it true in an organization or a team?
Suppose you're focusing on the lagging indicator alone, which is the final score in the analogy that I've just presented. By the time that you realize what the score is, it's too late to change. It's too late for you to pivot for you to be able to attain some of the goals that you have. So for me, the KPIs that matter most are those that are leading indicators. If I focus on X, it'll teach me why. and why it is the leading indicator I'm seeking. So speaking broadly, my advice would be to focus on any piece of your business that is indicative of you being successful down the road, whatever success down the road looks like.
Henrik: Let's move forward into the next section, which is about compliance and intrapreneurship, and more broadly, talent is a word we could use as well. My first question is: Can you provide some examples of employee engagement in corporate innovation activities? And the follow-up question is: How does this impact the overall well-being and retention of the people?
Johnny: Engagement is one of the more critical items when it comes to leading people. I think it was Gallup who said that only about 15 percent of employees globally are engaged; we're a little bit better in the U.S. I believe we are at 52-53 percent engagement. For the most part, the best companies when you think of engagement are usually around 80 to 85 percent engagement in an organization. A couple of the questions that sometimes provide insight into the meeting are "Do you have a best friend at work?" When you think about a best friend at work, it's someone that you can do stuff with. In the environment that we are in today, which is digital right now, it makes it challenging for us to build that level of engagement.
Take me, for example; I was brought in to lead an organization that has 100 plus people. And I've only met about 41 physically. So it's kind of tough for me to build a best friend at work right now. To the point, vast engagement is critical to the company's success, not just today. Still, overall, it impacts revenue, productivity, how people manage their time off, and frankly, it affects the customer. So when I consider teams that I've led that we're highly engaged, I see a couple of things as similar themes. One, the mission and vision were clear. Everyone was on the same page. Everyone had the same goal in mind. Two, everyone was clear as it pertains to how they help or hurt that vision. Everyone was clear on their task. Three, at any given point, everyone knew whether they were winning or losing. And lastly, because individually, everyone knew their role, everyone knew whether or not they were losing or winning as a collective team.
We kept score on, what we said earlier, those leading indicators that made sure that we would be successful with the lagging indicators, which are the results. So if you have those four components, I think you'll find that your teams are engaged. But it all starts with the mission and vision being clear and accepted by all parties. It begins with understanding what my role is and whether or not the team is winning or losing, which allows us to keep a compelling scoreboard that says, look, here are the things that we're doing, here are the areas where we need to pivot because we're not winning here. And you're in the areas where we're winning, so we can continue going down that path. I'm not sure if I directly answered the question, but hopefully, somehow, I tied back into it.
Henrik: Thanks. Let's move forward and talk about Cooperation and Impact. And the first question in that section is: How are you your employer engaging with the surrounding society and specific industry? And here, for example, we could talk about your social contribution around entrepreneurs and so forth.
Johnny: In the last couple of years, we've made a big decision to impact entrepreneurship, and more specifically, diverse entrepreneurship and small businesses as a whole. Frankly, because of the pandemic, the more diverse ones were more impacted. When you consider the most up-to-date data that we have from 2019 to 2020, the state of Maryland, where I live, has diverse entrepreneurs who went from about one hundred sixty-nine thousand to about one hundred nineteen thousand. In one year, the data is that much more stark for Virginia, a neighboring state. It's a drastic change in shift. So the pandemic has impacted those diverse entrepreneurs because, many times, what's lacking is capital. A lack of how to access money and education is lacking, and the actual worth is lacking. So, we made a concerted effort to, number one, educate diverse businesses, and number two, hopefully, the education that we're allowing them will allow us to be able to present capital to them. If it's not us, another institution can provide the state capital because they know how to get it.
We started a couple of initiatives around the different tools and resources available to women of diverse founders. Additionally, we decided that we're not going to keep the revenue that we're going to earn from the Recovery Act, so it's $420 million that we're giving back to small businesses. We understand that the more we can help them, the better off they will be, the better off our communities will be, which is very important to us. We must get to our customers and help them as we want them to help the communities they belong to. Because each small business, as you know Henrik, is headed up by someone who's part of a family of some kind.
So if that small business is strong, that means that the family is substantial. If you have a ton of solid families, you have a strong community. That's how we've continued to make sure that we're tapped into our communities by providing education on getting capital to diverse founders and entrepreneurs and making capital available to them. When we're not doing those two things, we're saying "Hey, how can we grant them funds" via different nonprofits, different agencies that we can work with to ensure that they're benefiting from the growth that we see as a country by putting our money where our mouth is and granting them funds.
Henrik: Let's move over to the next category, which is delivery and transformation. And my first question is: how do you prepare and make decisions? Describe a typical process from strategy to implementation.
Johnny: We typically have several ideas about solving the said problem or issue that we're facing. For us, the organization that I'm a part of is three to four thousand people in total. When you think about shifting gears for three or four thousand people who touch thousands of customers regularly, if you were to pivot, it could be problematic not just to your workforce but also to the customers. So, we're big on piloting things. We bring all of our company builders into a room to strategize. In this particular instance, not in a room, but in Zoom and Skype, we strategize around the different ideas. So really crowdsourcing of ideas. The right idea, the one that we feel will help us solve the issue, will be piloted with a subset of the population, the three to four thousand people that are part of the organization.
Depending on how that pilot goes, we know exactly how to pivot and shift. When I think about that, it allows us to move with a subset and be more agile as a result. We open it for the masses when we can scale, and the pilot is precisely the solution to the problem. But realistically, even then, you know, even when we have a good pilot, there are things that we learn from the said pilot that allows us to reiterate. You'll find that there are many different iterations of the pilot before we have our final taste in how we will go to the market to the masses.
Sometimes, depending on the project, it can take anywhere from three to six months, and in some instances, it could be years, depending on precisely what we're trying to solve. So that's the approach that we take consistently when bringing new projects to market to solve different problems. Piloting it and then reiterating and pivoting as much as possible until we find the exact solution to the said problem. Sometimes that solution is something completely different than what we thought up, and at times we hit the nail squarely on the head. But that reiteration process, I think, is critical to any successful organization and team.
Henrik: I have one final question for you. And it's a bonus question. I will ask you to iterate what that word means for you quickly. My first word for you is Influence?
Johnny: The ability to connect with people. At a high level, to understand them from their lens and allow them to change your mind. So they will allow you to change theirs.
Johnny: Being able to move quickly together. As a company or organization, you will never be able to rush unless you're able to build collaboration and bring people together so you can move together. Nothing that you will need to do will be done alone by yourself. Agility requires liberation; it requires input from others to move quickly in the direction you want to go in.
Johnny: Not taking no for an answer, not succumbing to pressures, not succumbing to a pandemic, and finding a way to make things happen despite any other item you're facing as an obstacle. Said differently, a resilient leader can always find common themes that connect people so that they are not dissuaded by anything outside of their mission and have those people be on the same page with them, so they don't get displayed either.
Johnny: Effectiveness over efficiency. Efficiency says you can do something quickly, promptly. Effectiveness says you do the right thing the right way at the right time. So when I think efficiency, the first thing that comes to mind is effectiveness over efficiency.
Henrik: Fantastic. Johnny, it's been an absolute pleasure to interview you. I've known you for several years, and you keep inspiring me every time we connect. You are a terrific Creactive Leader. Thank you for your time.
Johnny: I appreciate your time. The fact that you coined the term creative leadership says something about you as you are the Father of that term and probably understand it more than most. I've been a student of yours, a follower of yours. Thank you for the work you do, how you do it, and how you regularly impact students and business leaders.
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