USAA's president to his fellow CEOs: You need to be 'multiple crisis managers on an ongoing basis'



Wayne Peacock Leadership

On this episode of Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast, co-hosts Alan Murray and Michal Lev-Ram talk to USAA President and CEO Wayne Peacock about the insurance company’s 102-year (and still going strong) focus on serving America’s military families. They also discuss the timing of Peacock taking over the top spot at the company, which took place just as the pandemic took hold, and why the company’s DEI efforts on the hiring front are essential when it comes to serving USAA members.

“The world requires broader thinking about how to make the best decisions, and I think our employee base needs to reflect that diversity, all manner of diversity in order to best prepare ourselves to serve today and tomorrow’s military,” says Peacock.

Listen to the episode or read the transcript below.


Transcript

Alan Murray: Leadership Next is powered by the folks at Deloitte who, like me, are exploring the changing rules of business leadership and how CEOs are navigating this change.

Welcome to Leadership Next, a podcast about the changing rules of business leadership. I’m Alan Murray.

Michal Lev-Ram: And I’m Michal Lev-Ram.

Murray: Today we have Wayne Peacock, the CEO of USAA, on the podcast. USAA is an unusual company. It’s one of my favorites, actually. It provides financial services to members of the military and their families, and it has done that from the very beginning. Its purpose is clearly defined as helping the financial fortunes of veterans.

Lev-Ram: Yeah, definitely a really interesting and unique company. By the way, it’s been around for over a century, so it’s got some longevity. Wayne’s been with the organization for over 30 years. A long time, so something to be said here about legacy all around, both with the brand and with Wayne’s career. And he shared with us a bit about how USAA has managed to stay fresh and innovative and just constantly evolve.

Murray: My guess is he personally has a lot to do with it. He’s clearly very thoughtful about leadership. Let’s dive right in. It was a great interview.

[Interview begins.]

So let’s start with the basics. USAA is a Fortune 100 company, but it’s a different kind of company. Explain to us exactly what USAA is and does.

Wayne Peacock: Well, we do one thing and we do it really well every single day, which is to take care of military families. We serve them with auto insurance, many personal lines of insurance products, and retail banking. So that’s kind of what we do for them. But really, our mission is clear, which is to help military families build their financial security. And we have been around for 102 years now. We’re actually an interesting company in that we’re owned by our policyholders. So we’re still private after all of these years. And USAA got started back here in San Antonio in 1922 when five Army officers couldn’t get auto insurance back in the early heyday and thought, how hard could it be to start their own insurance company? So they put their money in the hat, found 20 of their friends, and the 25 of them started USAA in June of 1922. And to your point today, we’re a Fortune 100 company serving over 13 and a half million active-duty members, veterans, and their family members.

Murray: But just to be clear, Wayne, if I’m not a military family, you won’t sell me insurance.

Peacock: That’s correct. Yes. You have to have served or be related to someone who did to be in the club, if you will.

Murray: And I know when you started back then, it was partly because military families were having trouble getting insurance because they were viewed as a higher risk. Are they a higher risk or are they a lower risk? What’s the risk profile of your customers?

Peacock: Well, over history, I would tell you that across the board, our members perform better than what traditional kind of credit underwriting would say that they would. And I think that comes back to this sense of duty and discipline that is taught in the military. And it’s complemented by the sense that our customers, our members are actually owners of the company as well. So I think there’s an added perspective of ‘we’re in this together.’ We’re not just a customer, we’re a member. And for many of us, we have an ownership stake in the company as well.

Lev-Ram: So we want to hear more about your unique customer base and structure, but a few questions about you, first of all. You have not been around since 1922, but you’ve been with USAA for a long time— for 30 years and just stepped into the CEO role a few years ago, in 2020. Can you tell us a little bit about that transition and what it’s been like, especially since the last few years have been pretty turbulent?

Peacock: Yeah. Great question, Michal. Thank you. It’s actually 36 years in September. And I started way back in 1988, which was a long, long time ago. I’ve had the great opportunity to serve USAA in a multitude of roles. And literally on February the first of 2020, right before the pandemic struck, I got the opportunity, I would say truly blessed to get the opportunity, to lead USAA. I’m actually the first civilian to lead USAA in its 100-year history. And probably like many folks who have been around for a while, you build your kind of plan and ideas of when I get my shot, here’s what I would like to do. So I got about six weeks of preparation before February 1st to get ready, and then the pandemic struck and we literally put much of that aside and went into crisis mode. And I would tell you that the beginning of my tenure was very much around crisis leadership and addressing kind of the challenges and the uncertainty of the pandemic, from getting employees home to figuring out how to continue to give great service when you’ve disrupted the business model. And then many challenges that we have all seen since then. So it’s been a fascinating ride, a challenging ride, but really one where I think what has made USAA successful for a century-plus shined through in times of crisis, which is knowing your mission and the North Star and keeping that central and then some very basic tenets around taking care of employees, asking them to do their best to take care of members, and making prudent financial decisions every single day. And that combination, I think in times of crisis, helped us drive through in a very successful way.

Lev-Ram: Do you feel like now you’re having a chance to implement the ‘this is what I would do if I become CEO’ vision?

Peacock: I would say yes and no. There’s still some hangover, I think, as we all know from post-COVID, whether it’s the inflationary impact, the impact from increased interest rates, all of that with an impact on business. But generally, yes, we’re starting to come through that and move towards what’s the future for USAA. I do think, though, one of the real interesting changes, post-pandemic, is that this idea of crisis management has not gone away. But at the beginning of the pandemic, there was really just the crisis of pandemic response. Now, it’s how do you manage five or six or seven things that are coming at you that create uncertainty, challenge, and opportunity. But I think all CEOs today really have to become those kind of multiple crisis managers on an ongoing basis.

Murray: So let’s stick with that, Wayne. You and I have spoken in the past about the importance of purpose-driven leadership in enabling leaders to get through multiple crises happening at the same time. Explain why that’s important to you and what it means and how it works at USAA.

Peacock: Well, it comes back to why are we here and what do we stand for and where do we focus every single day. If you walk the halls of USAA and talk to our teammates and you can pick whatever random sample you want, you’ll find that people want to be here because there is exciting and rewarding work. They love the teammates who they work with, but there’s always some connection—in most cases, a personal connection—to the why behind the work and knowing that our work matters past just being really good at the work. Because on the other side of that are folks who have put a uniform on, who have put themselves in harm’s way, who have sacrificed greatly so that we get a chance to live in this wonderful free country. And those people who sacrifice don’t get paid a whole lot from the government. They don’t have a lot, but they do it every single day. So our employees have this sense that the work matters past the work of the work. And I think that helps drive discretionary effort, a pursuit of excellence, and a desire to be even better tomorrow than we were yesterday.

Murray: And why is that particularly important in a time of turbulence, multiple crises, craziness?

Peacock: Well, because I think it keeps you focused, right? You can be distracted, you can feel the pressure, you can feel the uncertainty of the world and kind of impact your performance. But if you come back to what you can control and know that what matters are those members on the other end of the phone or those members who are on the other end of a digital experience with us, and what we’re doing today is important for them, it almost puts yourself in a place where you’re committed to something larger than yourself. And you know what that is, which is getting tomorrow’s member experience better than yesterday’s. And for the 200,000-plus folks who call in today, every one of them gets an exceptional experience today as well.

Lev-Ram: So it’s interesting, you have this singular focus that you’ve had for 102 years, like you said, and at the same time, the company is known for being really forward thinking…you talked about digital experience and member experience, and I know you hired a chief transformation officer. Can you explain sort of how you strike that balance of being very focused on what the mission is and what it’s always been and at the same time evolving with the times, providing these new experiences? And then tell us also, what are those new experiences and those new ways of engaging with customers?

Peacock: Well, the members matter to us and the members change over time and the members’ needs change over time. So the mission stays constant, which is serving them. But what they need or how to deliver it to them evolves and sometimes evolves rapidly as well. I’ve got my Navy shirt on here today. In 1922, it was only Army officers, right? We got really innovative in 1923 and we let the Navy in, right? So there’s a good example of some of the first change that happened.

Murray: It’s like that’s like putting Carolina and Duke together. Isn’t it Wayne?

Peacock: Some things change, right? And if you come back to some of the really interesting innovations that had happened in this digital world, I would take you back to pre-iPhone where literally there were folks on Navy ships in low-bandwidth environments that still wanted to do their banking capabilities, and we actually got insight from those sailors about what they needed and what life was like on the ship, which was the beginning of our mobile experiences that we built before the iPhone became what it is today. When our members needed to deposit cash—and we have been a single branch bank for 40-plus years—we invented the ability to scan your check on your computer and deposit it into our bank. And then we transitioned that to the mobile phone. And what is ubiquitous today of taking a picture with your phone and depositing your check was actually invented at USAA because of a member need that we were an early digital bank. So those would be some examples historically that we have done in the beginning of this digital age to be relevant to our next generation of members. Obviously today, the ability to build great digital experiences that are personalized, bring the empathy of talking with one of our great member service reps is an example of things that we are building around chat bots, using AI, etc. to kind of emulate that great experience for the more simple transactions that our members are doing with us. And although we pride ourselves on the great service of our member service reps who talk to our members on the phone every day, over 97% of the interactions that happen every day at USAA happen digitally through great experiences on dot com or mobile or chat.

Lev-Ram: Your customer base or a significant percentage the members have been remote, long before COVID. So you had to think creatively to innovate before some other organizations did. I guess.

Peacock: We have. And what I would tell you we’ve benefited from over the years is that most folks in the military are, on average, more tech savvy generation to generation than maybe the average consumer has been. That has helped us. But the fact that they are mobile, moving from location to location, whether it’s a permanent change of station or whether it’s just deployment moving to somewhere else, they’re always on the go. Their ability to stay connected and manage finances, even though typically the spouse at home has the heavy load, has been a hallmark of what we have had to address long before digital became kind of the thing for financial services.

Murray: Hey Wayne, USAA has a strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can see that in your employee numbers, the mix of your employee base. And it matches, of course, the commitment of the military to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But but we’re operating in this strange political environment where you’re in Texas, the governor of Texas has actually directed state offices to ignore diversity and equity goals. How does that affect you? How do you deal with that or react to that?

Peacock: Well, I’m going to answer in a way that probably isn’t surprising to you. It comes back to the mission and the mission of serving a very diverse military community. And I think today the world is moving fast. As we know, the world is complex. The world requires broader thinking about how to make the best decisions, and I think our employee base needs to reflect that diversity, all manner of diversity in order to best prepare ourselves to serve today and tomorrow’s military.

I was at an event last week for our fiesta here in San Antonio, where we celebrate what we call the Military Ambassadors program. And there are ten enlisted troops who are stationed in San Antonio who become ambassadors in the community for the probably five or six weeks here of the annual Fiesta celebration. And when you listen to each one of them talk about their background and where they’re from, what they stand for, what matters to them, it was essentially everything that you would see in America represented in those ten folks. And when you think about my earlier comment of letting the Navy in in 1923…in 1996, we opened up to enlisted. In 2009, we opened up to enlisted no matter when they served. So the diversity of our membership base has expanded greatly and it continues to change. And this for us comes back to connecting, to being able to serve with relevance. If you don’t understand who you’re serving and what they need, it’s really hard to continue to innovate and build great capabilities for them. So for us, it’s a mission imperative. But it’s also something we’ve been doing long before DE and I became a thing.

Lev-Ram: So are we correct in assuming, kind of reading between the lines in your answer, that the current backlash, whether it’s potentially regulatory or just kind of a social sentiment, is not impacting that sense of mission?

Peacock: The current backlash and the political environment that’s out there is very real and all of us are addressing and dealing with it. We just try to come back to what we’re doing today. One, we have a meritocracy, right? We hire the best qualified people to be able to serve at USAA, and we seek to expand the opportunity for folks to compete to join us. And we seek to expand opportunity for folks who are here to be able to reach their full potential. And if you ask me what I’m talking to my teammates about on an ongoing basis, it’s [that] I want folks to feel like they truly belong as part of this USAA team, no matter who they are. And I want them to have an opportunity to reach their potential here at USAA or prepare themselves to reach their potential somewhere else down the road, because I think that’s great for our society to occur. And that to me is pretty commonsense and pretty straightforward. And that’s about being relevant to our mission and being able to have a successful business going forward. But yes, the political environment is real, and we are not able to avoid that.

[Music begins.]

Murray: Jason Girzadas, the CEO of Deloitte US, is the sponsor of this podcast and joins me today. Welcome, Jason.

Jason Girzadas: Thank you, Alan. It’s great to be here.

Murray: Jason, everyone in business is talking about AI. It clearly has the potential to dramatically disrupt almost every industry, but a lot of companies are struggling. What are some of the barriers that companies are facing in creating business value with AI?

Girzadas: Yeah, Alan is on every client’s agenda. I think every CEO and board interaction and conversation that I’m a part of proves the fact that the promise of AI is widely held, and the hope is far and deep that it creates business value. But there are challenges to be sure. What we’ve seen is that the probability of success increases dramatically with strong executive sponsorship and leadership. There has to be a portfolio of investments around AI as well as to link the business ownership with technology leadership to see the value of AI-related investments. Over time, we’re optimistic and confident that the value will result, but it will be a portfolio where other short-term opportunities for automation improvements around productivity and cost takeout and then longer-term, medium-term opportunities for business model innovation that are truly transformational. So this is a classic case where it won’t be a single approach that realizes value for AI.

Murray: It sounds like you take it a step at a time.

Girzadas: A step at a time, and also a portfolio recognizing that some investments will have short-term benefits where you can see immediate use cases creating financial and business impact, but longer-term opportunities to really invent different customer experiences, different business models, and ultimately create longer-term benefits that we can’t even fully appreciate at this point in time.

Murray: Jason, thanks for your perspective and thanks for sponsoring Leadership Next.

Girzadas: Thank you.

[Music ends.]

Lev-Ram: Can you tell us a little bit, I mean, speaking of your own employee base, I know you hire a lot of veterans, what have you put in place in order to make sure that those opportunities are presented to the right potential employee base so that you are representative and able to serve your customers the way you want to?

Peacock: About 25% of our employees today are either a veteran or they are a spouse or partner of a veteran. And that’s kind of the standard that we have set for ourselves. That’s about the right mix that we would like to see. And we have a myriad of veteran hiring programs where we will have cohorts and certain parts of our company and we’ll bring them in in groups. We have a tremendous amount of work going on to help translate skills from the military to be relevant to USAA, and we continue to enhance and build kind of smaller cohort programs that help fill in the gaps.

There is a great analyst community in the military and we have dedicated programs to help those folks transition in to be part of our data analytics program. Junior military officers who have served five to eight years or so and are getting out is another one of those cohorts. And then inside of USAA, kind of like you would think about from a diversity business group, we have VetNet, which was actually our first diversity business group way back about 20 years ago. And there are thousands of our teammates who are part of that group which helps them build a sense of community inside of USAA. But they also work to support what the military experience is for the civilians who work at USAA as well. And that combination of creating community for them, but also giving them a purpose to teach, train, and support others helps to reinforce the great value proposition of being part of the USAA team.

Murray: The relentless focus on your well-defined customer base is impressive, Wayne. You also have a program called Face the Fight that’s designed to combat veteran suicide. Can you talk about both the problem and what you’re doing to deal with it?

Peacock: Outside of our commercial work that we do, delivering great products every day, our corporate responsibility program historically has worked on important causes. If you go way back in the day, airbags, car seats for kids [are] a couple of examples of things that we did in earlier generations. We worked on veterans’ homeless issues in the past. But today we are focused on veteran suicide and our effort is called Face the Fight. It’s actually a coalition today of over 150 companies that are both corporations, veterans’ service organizations, and other institutions that are involved in this conversation to come together to try to help make a difference on what is a very pernicious, but we believe, solvable challenge. Veteran suicide rates are one-and-a-half times the national average today. And we’re working very diligently to amplify the work that has gone on in the VA, in the DOD, but also to bring new thinking and kind of a private coalition to this as well. So, we are very excited about the opportunity. We’re early days of leaning in. We’ve done grant making of around $10 million so far to various institutions to do things like build capabilities for counselors that would live outside of the VA system where the VA is not resident. So think about rural opportunities as an example, but also understand that many veterans choose to get care outside of the VA system. So if you can extend these capabilities and great training into community-based settings, it creates more opportunities for folks to be able to get help.

And then I think what we’ve also found—not new insight from us—but I think we’re talking about is that a sense of community matters? You’re in the military, you have your tribe if you want to frame it that way, you get out and you may not find a new community and then isolation occurs. And then other attendant issues that aren’t just around mental health, that are around financial stress [or] marital stress that turn into other issues like alcoholism or drug abuse, contribute to those. So if we can get upstream and create connectivity and help folks get placed when they come out, I think that will help obviate some of this challenge as well. And then we’ve got other issues we’re looking at around gun safety and how we help kind of out the tip of the spear as well. So it’s a wide ranging effort to try to attack something that unfortunately is truly a national challenge today. And when you think about how many people post-9/11 went to the battlefield and what has happened on the battlefield, and then you come back and look at how many have died by suicide, it’s really a sad statement that more people have died by suicide than what we have seen on the battlefield.

Lev-Ram: I want to ask you this. This is just adding to the challenges I think that members are probably facing, but there is this perception and a lot of it is real, that it’s become harder and harder to own a home. Auto insurance is going up. You talked about inflation earlier on in the conversation. What, from your perspective, are you seeing with some of those macro trends and how are they impacting your particular membership?

Peacock: Well, let’s take auto insurance first and then we’ll come to homeownership. Try to do that quickly. Inflation related to repairing cars and replacing cars outpaced headline inflation by whatever definition you want to use, kind of through the early stages of this. And it has put tremendous pressure on auto insurance providers across the country. And the unfortunate side of that is that we have raised rates in a pretty significant way across the industry. In 2022, the auto insurance industry lost eight cents for every dollar of premium that it wrote. And you’ve seen the impact of that through increased rates. What we have been working on is helping our members get the right coverage. At an individual level we can help adjust to be able to manage some of the increased expenses. And then we’re continuing to work legislatively across 54 jurisdictions to ensure that there are healthy practices in each state and that some of the abuse that’s happening in the legal system can be mitigated as well because that contributes to this as well.

Now about inflation and as it relates to the auto insurance environment, it is coming down and it is coming down maybe not back to historical norms, but we do see those trend lines in a positive way. And our sense is over the next couple of years, we’ll get back into a more kind of normalized environment. But the reality is auto insurance will be more expensive dollar for dollar than it was pre-pandemic or pre-all of this inflationary challenge.

The issues around homeowners are really a much broader right. The cost of a mortgage is significantly up from 2 or 3% to 6 or 7%. It is putting a big barrier into homeownership that doesn’t get solved until interest rates come back into a more reasonable way, wages catch up a bit, and probably we all normalize back to a more traditional mortgage rate because 2 or 3% is probably not where it should have been on an ongoing basis. But the reality is, it creates an affordability gap in the short run. And then the issue around homeowner’s insurance is the same in auto in terms of the cost to repair homes, although I will tell you that with increased rates and a reduction in building. lumber and concrete and those materials are starting to come back into a more normalized environment. But the bigger challenge around homeowner’s insurance will be weather-related risk. And you’re seeing many carriers today who are pulling back from markets. So it isn’t just about the cost. It’s about the availability as well. And this is a big challenge for us. As a member-owned association, we’re not in the business of saying no to our members, but we are in the business of maintaining financial strength. So we’re being very thoughtful and careful on kind of trimming around the edges of our risk profile to limit exposure where we can, but still try to say yes to as many members as possible. But I do believe we have to have more of a national conversation on what’s happening with homeowner’s insurance here over the next couple of years.

Murray: Wayne Peacock, great having you on Leadership Next. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Peacock: Alan, Michal, thank you all very much.

Murray: Leadership Next is edited by Nicole Vergalla.

Lev-Ram: Our executive producer is Chris Joslin.

Murray: Our theme is by Jason Snell.

Lev-Ram: Leadership Next is a production of Fortune Media.

Murray: Leadership Next episodes are produced by Fortune’s editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel. Nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.



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