Helping America's Military Heroes
Business Journal

Helping America's Military Heroes

Under the leadership of a visionary general, USAA fosters high employee engagement in the service of its military members. Here's how.

If we want our employees to treat our members with dignity and respect, we have to treat our employees with dignity and respect.

Josue Robles Jr. -- "General Joe" -- became president and CEO of USAA in December 2007, the month economists say the Great Recession began in the U.S. and nine months before a global financial collapse. But while many other financial service providers were treading water amid the turbulence of the financial crisis, USAA, which provides financial services to past and present members of the U.S. military and their families, continued to expand rapidly. Since 2007, its membership has grown by more than 50% and currently stands at just over 10 million. The company's annual revenue has risen 45% during that time.

Highly engaged employees who are fully aligned with USAA's powerful mission are an important factor in the company's success. USAA's leadership -- starting with Robles himself -- puts a high priority on its workplace engagement program. And the organization has seen positive results. Over five years, USAA has grown its number of engaged employees by 20% and is now in the top decile of companies in Gallup's Q12 engagement database. In 2014, the company was one of 32 to receive the Gallup Great Workplace Award.

Robles will retire in early 2015 after a distinguished 28-year military career and 24 years on the board of directors and in top leadership roles at USAA. He will leave behind a legacy of unwavering dedication to USAA's customers and a leadership style that emphasizes empowering employees to fully capitalize on their energy and creativity. Both characteristics are on full display in the following interview.

Gallup Business Journal: USAA has done very well in reaching new customers, maintaining its financial health, and expanding its online services since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. To what do you attribute the company's success in tough times?

General Josue "Joe" Robles: I've asked myself that question many times. It boils down to three fundamental things. First and foremost is our customer base -- we call them members. We have very loyal, very disciplined, very honorable people who constitute our membership because we offer our products to people who serve in the military, or have served with an honorable discharge, or are eligible as part of a military family. When you have customers who have that kind of discipline and background, it's easy to be successful.

Next, couple that with an employee workforce made up of people who are passionate about their work. They come to work every day charged up because they know they're going to help people who have served this country well -- or help families of those who have served. That's one of the reasons I came to work for USAA, because it's the closest I could be to the military and still be able to serve while not being in uniform.

The third factor is our tremendous financial strength and very conservative approach to leadership and management. While other companies go out on the risk curve and take undue risk, we tend not to do that. We tend to look through the eyes of our members when making decisions. I'll often say, "Let's talk about an issue, and I'm going to be a forty-seven-year member rather than the CEO -- how am I going to react to this?" So our success comes from a combination of great members, great employees, a very strong financial base, and a conservative approach to leadership and management that has made us who we are today.

How do high levels of employee engagement translate to positive business outcomes for USAA?

Gen. Robles: It starts with our focus on members. I learned when I first joined USAA that the philosophy or the culture was that if you take care of the customer, the customer will take care of the company. We want to make sure that we treat our employees the way we want them to treat our members. If we want them to treat our members with dignity and respect, we have to treat our employees with dignity and respect.

As long as I've been associated with USAA, we've had a special focus on employees. One of the things our employees have told us over and over again is "We want to work in a professional environment that supports what we have to do. And given that we spend long hours and long days on the telephone every year taking millions of phone calls, we appreciate the fact that you provide us with a world-class workplace that we can be proud of."

If you've ever been to our San Antonio campus, it's about 286 acres. And it has fitness centers, it has cafeterias, it has all the things that you would expect in a world-class workplace. I'm constantly looking for ways to improve the workplace as a fitting tribute to the work that our employees do every single day on behalf of our members. And we get strong positive feedback that says we're hitting the mark.

Now, we're not perfect, and one of the things that's useful to me every year when I get the Gallup engagement survey results is where employees write in and say, "You could do even better if you focus on giving us better tools," or giving us more media recognition, or whatever it happens to be. So the workplace has to be up to the standards of the work routine, and I believe that we match those two really well.

Servant leadership means I work from a service perspective -- service to the nation, service to my team here at USAA, service to our members and the communities in which I live.

How does USAA's mission to help service members and their families achieve financial stability influence engagement among your employees?

Gen. Robles: Our employees know that most of our members don't make a lot of money and that they often put their life on the line without asking much of their country except to support them when they're put in harm's way. Our members are such a special group of people that our employees take their hats off to them and help them in extraordinary ways that go way above and beyond the call of duty. When you ask our employees why they do this, they say, "Because it's the least we can do for our members." That's the prevailing attitude among most of our employees.

Under your watch, USAA has implemented technological innovations designed to improve access to its services, most notably advances in mobile banking. Why is it important that the company be at the cutting edge of technological change?

Gen. Robles: We're always striving to make products and services easier to access and simpler to use. I challenged our team to develop our smartphone capability so our members -- who are all over the world and deployed in many cases -- can do just about anything over the phone, whether they're in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or wherever. We call our mobile services the "representative on a belt" or the "banker on a belt."

We're not all the way there yet, but I would say we have one of the best, most comprehensive websites and among the best automated capabilities in the financial services industry. This year, it's estimated that we'll do more than 500 million interactions on smartphones, about 100 million with our member service reps, and another 300 million or more on desktop computers. So mobile banking fits perfectly with the lifestyle and the deployment characteristics of our members.

The White House recently held its first summit on working families to encourage employers to adopt family-friendly policies. USAA has already been recognized as a leader in this area, with benefits that include on-site daycare for many employees and flexible spending accounts for child care expenses. Why do you think this is important for the company?

Gen. Robles: Employees who have served in the military or are in the family of someone who wears the uniform represent one of the richest talent pools we have in this company. Military spouses also happen to be one of our key sources of knowledge about our customers. We spent years trying to locate our military members wherever they were, to track them down when they were on the rifle range, doing physical training, wherever. We often had a hard time connecting with them, so we decided to start connecting with their spouses on a regular basis. First, they're usually easier to find -- and second, they're often the ones to make all the household financial decisions anyway and tend to know about our products and services.

So we have a good connection with military spouses, and we put a priority on hiring them. I have a simple rule for my HR team: At least 30% of the new hires for this company will be veterans or military spouses because the richness that they bring to the workforce is extraordinary. We try to be as flexible as possible on where people work, so some military spouses can take their jobs with them if their husband or wife is relocated to another base.

You have been described as the model of a "servant leader." What does that leadership style mean to you, and how does it work at USAA?

Gen. Robles: I actually got a book about servant leadership called The Carpenter from one of my direct reports just before I started talking to you. To me, servant leadership means I work from a service perspective -- service to the nation, service to my team here at USAA, service to our members and the communities in which I live. When I retired from the military, I wanted to continue to serve military families because in my view, they were a group who were being underserved. They often don't make a lot of money, and at times they get taken for granted -- and they do wonderful things for this nation.

Within USAA, our employees expect their leaders to care, to be supportive, and to understand their needs more than anybody else does. I think that view of leadership resonates well with employees no matter what industry they're in, and certainly in this industry.

You're retiring early next year. How would you like people -- particularly USAA's employees -- to remember your tenure as the organization's chief executive?

Gen. Robles: I think I will be talked about as a leader who got the company moving back to its roots. We got really big during the financial crisis, partly because the members needed us more than they'd ever needed us before. But I also knew we had to shore up some of our fundamentals for the long term -- to make sure our contact centers had modern equipment and that our policies made sense for the 21st century. So I went back and looked at everything we did for our members and our employees to make sure they were modernized and innovative for the future. USAA is a great institution that needs to be treasured and constantly modernized.

Congratulations on your remarkable career. Would you like to add anything?

Gen. Robles: I want to emphasize one more time -- with feeling -- how wonderful our members are, because in the main, they're disciplined, they're great patriots, and they serve their country without asking for a lot. It is the joy and privilege of my life to have been able to help U.S. service members, both in uniform and out of uniform.

-- Interviewed by Steve Crabtree

This article is related to the "American Veterans in Transition" series on Gallup.com.

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