Key Takeaways

  • CEO Mark Steffe emphasizes respecting and integrating into a pre-existing company culture instead of imposing new ideas immediately. This has been a critical element of his successful leadership at First Command.
  • First Command proactively recruits military spouses and veterans but attracts individuals who identify with its mission, even without direct military connections.
  • Growing up in a middle-class family taught Mark the values of a strong work ethic, honesty, humility, and teamwork, which have been crucial to his success.
  • Clear and consistent communication, as well as trust and empowerment within teams, are key elements to the success of any organization.
  • Despite facing the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic immediately upon assuming the role of CEO in 2020, Mark and his team managed to adapt quickly and maintain the company’s growth trajectory. This resilience was underpinned by the company’s long-term plans and the team’s commitment to the mission.

Executive Summary

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for tuning in to another exciting episode of The Leader Show with Lou Carter. Today, we are joined by Mark Steffe, the CEO of First Command Financial Services. A renowned financial advisory firm, First Command is committed to supporting U.S. military service members by offering comprehensive and complimentary financial plans tailored specifically to their unique needs.  

With that said, let’s find out what makes First Command a Most Loved Workplace. 

The Power of Embracing Company Culture: Fostering Success through Respect and Integration

Lou initiates the discussion by lauding Mark for his well-respected leadership and ability to connect with clients, despite coming from a non-military background.

The latter attributes his success to a leadership principle he learned from a development program 15 years ago: being respectful of the past, realistic about the present, and optimistic about the future. He emphasizes the importance of understanding and respecting the history and culture of a company when entering a new environment. According to him, it’s the newcomers’ responsibility to integrate into the existing culture, not to impose their own ideas or changes immediately.

Mr. Steffe highlights that those who take the time to appreciate and understand the values of First Command tend to find more success within the organization than those who try to impose a different culture.

Uniting First Command’s Culture and Mission

In response to Lou’s question about the role of respect in First Command’s culture, Mark explains that respect and love are almost synonymous within their organization. Love is defined as putting others’ good ahead of one’s own. This principle governs their work, their clients, and their coworkers.

He further highlights that one must look at its history to truly understand the company’s values. First Command was founded in 1958 by Lieutenant Colonel Carol Payne, a retired Air Force officer. Payne was motivated by two significant life experiences: witnessing the financial hardships faced by families of soldiers and observing many service members who were unprepared for their retirement.

So, to tackle these issues, Payne vowed to establish a company to better equip service members for financial challenges, be they personal tragedies or long retirements. Thus, First Command was born, a company made by a service member for service members and their families.

This foundational commitment influences the organization’s mission: “coaching those who serve in their pursuit of financial security.” This mission specifically refers to military families and is viewed by First Command employees, advisors, and teams as compelling, inspiring, and unifying.

Additionally, Mark mentions that First Command’s culture is one of selfless service, drawing heavily from military principles. The company attracts employees with military backgrounds or connections, reinforcing its core belief that while no one joins the military to become rich, they shouldn’t struggle financially. First Command aims to help military families achieve and maintain financial security.

Embracing Diversity: United in Mission and Compassion at First Command

Next, the speakers talk about First Command’s unique talent acquisition process. Mark mentions that the company is proactive in recruiting military spouses and veterans, recognized consistently for its efforts in this regard.

Mr. Steffe further highlights that the appeal of First Command goes beyond those with direct military connections. He cites his own experience as someone who did not serve but was drawn to the organization’s mission and the potential positive financial impact on military families. He asserts that even those without military service can easily align with the mission if they are willing to understand, respect, and commit to supporting military families. 

Overall, this dedication to caring for military families serves as the common denominator uniting all employees at First Command.

Lessons from Humble Beginnings: Work Ethic, Modesty, and Teamwork Shaping Mark’s Path to Success

Moving on, Lou inquires about Mark’s personal journey and success. The latter shares that he grew up in a middle-class, blue-collar family in the Midwest. His father was a mechanic, and his mother was a secretary for John Deere.

From his upbringing, Mr. Steffe gleaned valuable lessons such as the importance of a strong work ethic, honesty, and humility. He learned to celebrate successes modestly and quickly move on to the next goal. This mindset has remained with him throughout his career.

Mark also emphasizes the importance of teamwork in achieving greater success than what one could accomplish alone. This team-oriented mentality, which he developed while playing sports in his youth, has been applied throughout his professional life. His approach involves understanding the mission, identifying the best strategies to address issues, and collaborating with the right people to solve problems.

Fostering Success through Effective Communication and Empowering Teamwork

In response to Lou’s follow-up questions, Mark shares two key elements that have been crucial to his success and the success of First Command: communication and teamwork.

He stresses the importance of maintaining consistent, clear, and logical communication with his team, regardless of their position in the company hierarchy. Plus, he believes that every decision should be comprehensible to all employees, even if they may not personally agree with it. Mark argues that when leadership is predictable, and decisions are understandable, trust within the organization increases.

In terms of teamwork, Mr. Steffe emphasizes the need to trust and empower employees. He strongly opposes micromanagement and advocates for a leadership style that encourages employees to take ownership of their roles. 

Overall, Mr. Steffe tries to lead in a way that not only he believes is best for his team but also how he would want to be led himself.

Navigating Challenges with Resilience and Growth: Mark’s Journey as CEO of First Command

Reflecting on his journey, Mark acknowledges the successful transition of leadership from Scott Spiker to himself, which he credits to a well-planned succession process and a solid foundation laid by his predecessor.

Stepping into the CEO role in January 2020, Mark faced immediate challenges brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite these difficulties, he and his team remained committed to their growth aspirations and five-year strategy. The company had to adapt quickly to the changing circumstances, shifting from face-to-face interactions to virtual environments and transitioning employees to remote work. Despite these challenges, First Command recorded a year of growth in terms of revenue and profitability.

Lastly, Mark expresses immense pride and gratitude for his team’s resilience, dedication, and commitment throughout the challenging period. Their ability to work through the obstacles posed by the pandemic while keeping sight of the company’s long-term plans has been instrumental in ensuring First Command’s continued success.

Lou and Mark go into much greater detail throughout this conversation.

Thank you for listening!


Lou Carter : This is great to be here with Mark Steffe, the CEO of first Command. Wow! Mark, it's great to meet you.

Mark Steffe : It's good to be here. Thank you.

LC : One thing that really struck me is the way that your employees describe you, being caring, understanding, really connecting with clients and customers, and being from a non-military background and gaining the respect of everybody at First Command. Tell me how you did it?

Embracing Change and Respecting Heritage [0:59]

MS : [laughs]. That's a great question. I think for me, I went through a leadership development program years back and, like any of these programs people go through, I think there's certain things that stick with you. And something that has stuck with me ever since I went through this program, which was probably more than 15 years ago, is this concept of if you want to lead change or you want to ingrain yourself into a culture, you've gotta be respectful of the past, realistic about the present, and optimistic about the future.

And I think when you come into a new environment like I did, coming from the wealth management world and coming to First Command that isn't dealing with ultra high net worth clients and has more of an insurance focus than maybe I'd had in my past, to take the time to really understand and be respectful of that past and what is this company all about and what is it they're trying to achieve?

And what's led us from where we started back in 1958 to where we are today. And I think too often when people come into a new environment, there's this tendency to just come in with great new ideas or to not spend that time really ingraining yourself in the culture that exists and realizing that you're the new person there, right? And it's your job to learn about the company you've gotten or you've arrived at, not try to change the company. You just got to something like where you came from.

And so, I like to think, and I see this with a lot of people that come into First Command from other organizations. Anyone that has taken the time to truly understand, respect, appreciate what this company is all about, has been really successful. And those that have tried to morph it into something that looks like something else maybe from where they, you know, a company where they came from. I think those folks have struggled more.

LC : First Command, obviously, is a Most Love Workplace, one of America's top Most Loved Workplaces in Newsweek. Now, congratulations on that.

MS : Thank you.

LC : What you had mentioned about respect and how important that is to your culture and connecting into that, respect is a big part of the Most Loved Workplace, love of Workplace Index.

So, tell me more about the role of respect inside of your culture, both for employees and for customers.

Rooted in Respect and Love: The Founding Values and Continuing Mission of First Command [3:16]

MS : Yeah, I think there's two words I'd almost use interchangeably, and it fits right in here, obviously is respect and love are almost synonymous at first command. And we define love as putting others' good ahead of your own. And so, yeah, I think you can see that connection to between those two words. And there's this love for the work we do. There's a love for who we do the work for, and there's a love for who we work with. And I think if you wanna understand that at a, at a deeper level, you really have to go back to the founding of First Command. We were founded back in 1958 by retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Carol Payne. And there were two major life experiences that drove him to founding First Command.

The first one is he saw too many airmen killed in combat. And when he had to communicate back with the family's state side, he quickly realized that too many of those families, almost all those families didn't have enough insurance investments or savings to live off of once the service member died. And so that changed the entire family dynamic.

And then the other thing he saw after he came home and, and got back stateside, he saw too many service members who hadn't adequately planned or prepared for their retirement. So if they'd survived through the war, they hadn't put enough aside to kind of carry their family forward and have a comfortable retirement, the type of retirement that he felt they definitely deserved after all the sacrifices they had made for the country.

So, his vow was to change that is, to create a company that would better prepare service members either in the event of a tragedy or in the event of a long, successful retirement.

So he vowed, he vowed to change all that. He wanted to make sure that service members and their families in the event of a tragedy had had the insurance and the investments aside so that the family could continue to live in a way that they were accustomed to. And in the event of the retirement, he wanted those military families to have a long, successful retirement, as I said, because of all the sacrifices they'd made to our country, he wanted to ensure that they had that.

So, we're a company that's founded by a service member for the benefit of service members and their families. And what that creates is when you bring that mentality or that idea, that concept forward, that commitment that he had then creates this huge commitment to our current mission. And the mission statement of First Command is coaching those who serve in their pursuit of financial security in that mission statement, those who serve specifically refers to the military families.

And I think the employees and the advisors and the, and the teams that work at First Command find that mission. They find it compelling, they find it inspiring, they find it unifying. And then what that does that creates the culture of First Command. And that culture is very much one of selfless service. It very much pulls from the military culture of selfless service, and then that permeates the organization, and that's perpetuated by the people that come to first command, either as our advisors out in the field or our home office employees. Many of our people at first command come from military families and or they've served themselves and or their spouses of military family or their spouse of a military service member. So we have this kind of ingrained belief throughout the organization that military service members, no one gets into the military to be rich, but we have this belief that they shouldn't have to be poor either.

And it's our job to help get military families on a path of financial security and to continue to coach and guide and counsel them to stay on a path of financial security. And really, that's, that's what the company's all about.

LC : When you were mentioning that about who is a big part of your culture, the people who are a big part of your culture, I thought, well, that is probably a big part of your talent acquisition process, is knowing that the people who apply, the people who will become part of your company, truly have that love and respect for those who have served, number one. And number two, knowing that they want to support their financial freedom and their financial independence.

Embracing a Culture of Service: How First Command's Mission Attracts and Aligns its Workforce [7:41]

MS : Very much so. We're big recruiters of military spouses. We're big recruiters of veterans. We've been recognized year in and year out for those exact things. And so not only do you attract these incredibly hardworking, educated, committed people that are coming from the military or military spouse, but if you look at someone like me, for instance, that that didn't serve, once you understand what that, that mission is all about and and who you're serving, the kind of impact, the positive financial impact you can have on a military family, I think as I look at my own experience, it brings people to First Command.

Even if you didn't serve, it's very easy to get aligned with and behind that mission. And as long as you're willing to learn about and understand and respect the military, it actually becomes pretty easy to fit right in even if you haven't served. Because the underlying sort of common denominator is this willingness and drive and commitment to take great care of military families.

LC : Now I have a good feeling that Mark is about that too, and I like to learn about the, the leader behind the man, the man here, leader behind the person, man, Mark. Tell me more about Mark, who you are and what brought you to where you are today, the success that you've achieved. Worked so hard to get to.

From Humble Beginnings to Leadership: Mark’s Journey Emphasizing Honesty, Humility, and Teamwork [9:02]

MS : Yeah, thanks. I grew up in the Midwest on the western side of Illinois. In a very, very middle class blue collar family. My father was a mechanic, still is. He's 79 years old. I think he's retired two or three different times and keeps finding his way back to work because that's what he likes to do. My mom was a secretary for John Deere where I grew up, was the world headquarters of John Deere, was right there in our hometown. And that's the experience.

And I think what I've carried forward from that experience, there was a, this sort of blue collar, very ingrained work ethic. Honesty was a big part of growing up, humbleness, humility, those sorts of things. So, okay to celebrate your successes, but keep it short, keep it a little bit quiet, and then move on to the next thing.

And I think I've carried that forward through, through my entire career. And you realize early on that you're never gonna be able to accomplish as much on your own as you are going to be able to accomplish with a team. And I've always tried to carry that sort of team mentality wherever we went, whether that was simply playing sports, you know, as I was growing up or through high school or as I got into the workforce, kind of continuing with that team mentality and really trying to understand what the mission was and what the best approach to solving those issues were or was. And to bring in the right people to partner with you, to attack those issues and solve those problems. And then move on to the next one.

LC : I can really sense the humility and how down to earth you are and how important that is to relate to people in that way and how, what you described in the teamwork itself, people need to feel comfortable, right? Making mistakes, getting to the right solutions. And it sounds like that's a big part of how you've become successful is enabling not just the right people on the team and bringing them on the team, also giving them an atmosphere where they can thrive.

Building Trust through Consistent Communication and Empowered Teamwork [11:01]

MS : We really try. So to me, two big things come to mind as we get into this topic. One is communication. And the other one again is this teamwork and communication, as strange as this might sound, I always try to think back to when I first got in the business and try when I'm communicating as the CEO to talk to that person, someone that's maybe several steps away from a C-suite role and, you know, maybe several steps down the corporate ladder, but someone who isn't involved in all the decision making, doesn't have all the information and, and doesn't necessarily have an opportunity to get the full perspective. And if we can talk to those people, that might be the furthest away. So even the person that feels the furthest away from the CEO office understands what our decisions are and why we're making those decisions.

And as we're making those decisions, what I always try to communicate is, look, I know 600 home office employees, people aren't going to love every decision we make, right? You're just not going to make everyone happy with every decision you make. And so what we try to communicate as a leadership team when we're making these decisions is you may or may not love or even like the decision, but hopefully when you sit back and look at the decision, you can say, Hey, I wish it would've come out differently. I wish it would've been a, you know, a different outcome for myself. But I understand the decision, the decision makes sense. I understand why they went that direction, and I can respect that decision. And if we can have everybody respect the decisions we're making, then I think we go a long way. And that creates this sense of consistency and logic.

And I think consistency and logic turn into predictability. And if you're predictable as a leader, I think the trust goes way up. If you're swinging kind of from one end of the spectrum, from one end to the other and sort of whips on your employees or your teams and they can't track with you and they can't, they can never really align. And they don't know if they can fully trust the decisions or the outcome. And I think when I look at our leadership team and what we've done, especially over these last couple years with COVID, I think that's gone a long way. And then in terms of the team itself and this teamwork I learned a long time ago and with some painful leadership lessons along the way, that you really gotta trust and empower your employees. If you're gonna micromanage someone, if you're gonna try to do their job for 'em, if you're not gonna trust them, you're not gonna get the team you want.

You're not gonna get the success that you want. And, you know, most of us don't wanna be micromanaged. I know I don't wanna be micromanaged, so I just try to lead in a way that, you know, not only do I think the people wanna be led, but lead in a way that I would also wanna be led. And that leads to a lot of attracting the right people, really talented people. And for a small firm, you know, 600 home office employees in Fort Worth, the talent we have at First Command is incredible. And I think it has a lot to do with that culture, with that empowerment, with the teamwork that we try to foster throughout the company.

LC : That's awesome. And the predictability component is essential when following and how you lay things out in a logical fashion and people know what to expect. That's where true followership comes in and great leadership begins. And that's exactly what, what you've done, Mark. I can tell already. That kind of measured approach and the kind of emotional regulation that you've developed is essential for leading First Command.

MS : Thank you. Thank you. Yeah.

LC : Yeah. This has been terrific, Mark. And, you know, any other things that you would like to kind of share with employees about, you know, I know there you've made some hard decisions and you've also had transformation as a leader. I could tell just in what you said in terms of from your learnings, right, and where you've come to today, that that was a huge share. I appreciate that. What else would you like to say to your employees or anyone out there about, you know, being a Most Loved Workplace and that which, where you're going right now, what do you want them all to know?

Navigating Success Amidst A Global Crisis [15:00]

MS : I think the thing we tell 'em all the time is we, we just couldn't do it without them. I look back at the evolution of First Command. So I got here in March of 2010, so it's been almost 12 years at First Command, I had the benefit of following a really successful CEO. Scott Spiker was our prior CEO and our current chairman. And he was our CEO for about 13 years. And through his own leadership, he built the succession plan to move from the CEO and transfer that role over to me. And it was about a four year development plan. So completely, Scott went out on his own terms, in his own decision and had the full support of the board and gave me an opportunity to slide right in.

And we spent four years working side by side so that I was as prepared as I could possibly be rolling into the CEO role in January of 2020. Unfortunately, in January of 2020, about 70 days later, you know, the Covid outbreak hit. And we already knew that in Scott's 13 years, he had kind of built and rebuilt this incredibly solid foundation for the rest of us to build upon for the next 5, 10, 15 years. And so we already had these sort of aspirations of, in a sense, moving from linear growth to exponential growth. We really felt that we're in a position to sort of catapult our growth as we move forward and, and put ourselves in a position to serve even more military families year in and year out.

So, we had these growth aspirations and kind of this five year vision, and then we had to manage that against the backdrop of all this stuff that was happening because of COVID and what we've done for the last two years, collectively, home, office, field, you know, leadership employees.

We've really worked hard to balance both of those things, is to not take our eye off of the ball and these growth aspirations and the five year strategy that we have, but to also effectively lead and manage through this COVID environment. So, you have to deal with the here and now, but you don't want to do it so much that you lose sight of where you're trying to get 3, 5, 10 years from now. And I couldn't be prouder of the team that we have, our field force who normally works face to face, knee to knee with our clients.

When COVID hit, that business model kind of went out the window, right? We had to find a way of interacting and serving, not only serving our existing clients, but getting more military families in the fold and doing that in an electronic and virtual environment.

Our home office employees overnight went to work from home, right? And we had to figure out how to operate in that environment. And these last two years under Covid, just as an example, last year, our fiscal year ended at the end of September of 2021, we had a record year in terms of revenue growth and profitability growth. And I like to think that leadership had a part of that, but I know for sure that the hard work, dedication and commitment of our employees and this field force full of advisors and support staff that just never let COVID get in their way or become an excuse for us to not be able to continue to do this great work. It's just phenomenal. We cannot thank our employees and our field force enough for their attitude and their approach in never allowing Covid to get in the way, but to stay focused on working our way through COVID, but continuing to progress on this five year plan that we had.

LC : Thanks, Mark. I mean, all this has been great, and it's clear now why you're a most loved leader and leading a Most Loved Workplace. You embody all of the values and competencies and behaviors that it takes to create this kind of environment. Thanks for joining us today, Mark.

MS : Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.