In a series of presentations to Mays undergraduate and graduate students on Nov. 24, General Josue “Joe” Robles captivated his audiences by advising them to “never graduate.” Robles elaborated on this message by emphasizing the importance of lifelong learning in building a successful career and cultivating an engaged workforce.
As president and CEO of USAA and a retired U.S. Army officer who served on numerous active duty posts as well as director of the Army budget and commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One), Robles knows a thing or two about professional development and leadership. He shared a number of insights gleaned from his 28-year military career and his experience leading one of the world’s most successful diversified financial services firms.
In an intimate roundtable discussion over lunch, Robles offered advice to Business Honors students as they prepare to graduate, apply for jobs and begin their professional careers. “You need to know yourself, your preferences and tendencies,” he said. “How are you different from other job candidates? What do you bring to the table that is truly unique?”
Robles also stressed to the students the importance of following their passion, citing the example of one of his sons, who has recently embarked upon a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences in hopes of discovering a natural, non-chemical cure for cancer. He noted that internships provide students with a great opportunity to “test the waters” to see if the organization—namely its mission and core values—along with the work itself will hold their interest over the long haul.
Even as students graduate and begin a new chapter in their lives, Robles stated that “never graduating” is the most important factor in building a successful career. “You have to be committed to learning new skills and acquiring more knowledge throughout your life,” he said. “That will be the key to enjoying a satisfying career and continuously delivering value to your employer.”
When asked about the differences between leading in the military and leading in the civilian world, Robles commented on some of the changing generational attitudes today. “When I was coming up through the military ranks, leaders gave orders and expected them to be followed,” he said. Commanders, he noted, didn’t have to focus as much on their “softer” communications skills or provide explanations about why an order was being given. “The workplace today has become more collaborative and more team-oriented. The younger employees want to know the ‘why’ behind leaders’ decisions. So to cultivate an engaged workforce—where employees understand, accept and embody your mission and core values through their customer interactions—leaders must commit much more of their time to communicating with employees.”
Robles delved into his leadership philosophy during his afternoon presentation to a group of Full-Time MBA students. As a backdrop for this discussion, he noted the three mandates given to him by the USAA Board of Directors when he took over as president and CEO of the company in December 2007. “The great recession had just begun,” he said, “so the Board made it clear that I could not let the company sink like so many other companies in the U.S. and abroad. But just as important, they wanted me to improve the morale of the troops and reconnect the company with the communities in which we operated.”
One of his first initiatives was to implement a formal leadership development program ultimately focused on improving overall employee engagement. “I knew from experience that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of you,” he said. USAA’s enviable 16-percent attrition rate for its contact center employees (compared to an industry average of about 35 percent) speaks to the success of the company’s efforts in this area.
Robles also knew he needed to create a safe and open environment in which employees felt comfortable sharing bad news as well as good news with their managers and the USAA leadership team. To engender that kind of trust, he increased his communications with employees through casual “walk around” conversations as well as small group meetings.
Robles also noted that most big mistakes in companies are the result of breakdowns in character, so he redoubled USAA’s efforts to inculcate its core values in all employees. “We emphasized that taking care of our members (USAA’s customers) was more important than focusing on our profitability,” he said. “Acting in the best interest of our members has always served as a guiding principle for everything we do.”
When asked by a student about the greatest hurdle facing USAA and other companies in the coming years, Robles stated unequivocally that leaders’ ability to manage the people equation represents the biggest challenge. “In a global marketplace where your workforce is becoming increasingly diverse along gender, racial, cultural and generational lines, the ability to attract, train and retain talent will spell the difference between success and failure,” he said.
“General Robles stated that in order to build a successful company or become a successful leader in the business world, you must have strong core values and professional ethics,” said Business Honors student Michael Formella ’18. “But even after you attain success, he made it clear that you must never be satisfied. The company, along with its leaders, must always challenge themselves and their employees to learn more every day.”
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Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School educates more than 5,600 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students in accounting, finance, management, management information systems, marketing and supply chain management. Mays consistently ranks among the top public business schools in the country for its undergraduate and MBA programs, and for faculty research. The mission of Mays Business School is creating knowledge and developing ethical leaders for a global society.