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CareerBuilder Leadership Series: Spotlight on Wes Thompson, President, Sun Life Financial

“I’ve always had the philosophy that strategy in leadership is as much about what you don’t do as it is about what you do.”

In the following interview for CareerBuilder’s Leadership Series, Sun Life CEO Wes Thompson reflects on the importance of people as they relate to sustainability, what he looks for in candidates, and the value of trusting your gut.

What do the employees at Sun Life mean to your organization?
People are really the only sustainable advantage that any organization has over time. Products come and go. Ideas can be copied. These are not sustainable differentiators. Companies that are truly sustainable are those that focus on A-player talent, because you can’t copy talent. So if you’re able to constantly recruit, retain and develop the best people, you can differentiate in the markets that you compete in, and you’ll have a sustainable advantage. It’s really that simple in my view.

What’s your philosophy in terms of how you find great people?
There’s a lot of hiring that’s gut-related, especially when you get more experienced at interviewing candidates. Technical competencies, product knowledge—those kinds of things can be learned over time. Oftentimes, I’m looking for the challenges individuals have taken on in their lives and careers. I look for examples that clearly demonstrate they’ve been able to overcome some significant challenges. I try to ascertain the values they stand for and if they fit with our core values here at Sun Life. This fit is critical to building a solid foundation and culture at any good company.

Throughout your career as a leader, what’s the best or most significant hiring decision that you’ve made?
It’s hard to quantify your best hiring decision. As I reflect on my career, there are so many talented people that I’ve had the pleasure of hiring and watching succeed. In one instance, I hired someone that was my peer at another company. I knew our competencies were extremely complementary, which is important. And we both realized that we could build something unique. I firmly believe if you surround yourself with great talent, you’ll figure out how to win.

Why would someone want to work here?
The culture at Sun Life is shifting and so are the reasons behind why our employees enjoy working here. Historically, you would want to work here because it’s a nice place to work and you could be here for 30 years. I think our employees are beginning to consider Sun Life a great place to work because you can be challenged, you have the autonomy to drive results, and the results are visible and rewarded.

What’s it like to work for this organization? How is the Sun Life culture reflected in the brand?
Our first ever national brand campaign in the U.S. has had a tremendous impact on the culture and the way our employees feel about working for Sun Life. Everyone wants to be affiliated with a company that has a strong brand. And it makes it easier when your brand reflects who you really are. We highlighted our strengths that are deeply ingrained in our culture, particularly our financial strength and focus on sustainability, but we had some fun with it and added some humor to the campaign. It resonated well with our employees, particularly long-term employees, because we stayed true to ourselves. Our people really embraced that.

What is your leadership philosophy?
First, I don’t believe that the leader has all the good ideas, and I’m open to being challenged. Leaders can’t be successful if people are afraid to challenge them. This will stifle the creativity of the organization and you will not get the best out of people. Second, I’ve always had the philosophy that strategy around leadership is as much about what you don’t do, as it is about what you do. Through my experience, I have found that it’s really easy to figure out what to do and what to start, but it’s really difficult to figure out what you’re not going to do, particularly when there are implications for not pursuing or stopping initiatives. And, third, I am big believer in rotating talent at all levels of the company. This not only develops our people but brings new perspectives to all areas of the business, helping to drive collaborative and innovative thinking.

So you just went through, a tough time, a recession.  What did you take out of it?  What did you learn in those last three years?
During a time when external forces are affecting your business, you must focus on the things you can control. You must have a long-term view of the business and what is truly sustainable under various market conditions, not just the favorable conditions. Alignment along all aspects of the value chain is critical in order to be sure you’re focused on markets that have sustainable value from a shareholder perspective.

ABOUT WES THOMPSON: As President of Sun Life Financial, U.S., Wes Thompson leads all aspects of the company’s growing operations in the United States across the annuities, employee benefits, and life insurance business lines. Since joining Sun Life in 2008, Thompson has been instrumental in renewing the strategic direction of SLF U.S. He has championed key initiatives focused on growing the business and positioning it for further success. Prior to joining Sun Life, Thompson held leadership roles at Lincoln Financial Group, where he created the company’s wholesale distribution organization, before becoming President of Employer Markets and then President of the Retirement Solutions division. Thompson started his career at Aetna in 1979 in the Executive Management program. He later joined CIGNA in 1994, where he played an active role in the integration efforts as Lincoln Financial Group acquired CIGNA’s individual life insurance business in 1998. Thompson received a bachelor’s degree from Brown University. He is an active board member of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Hartford and the Wadsworth Atheneum-Amistad Foundation.

ABOUT SUN LIFE FINANCIAL: Sun Life Financial is a leading international financial services organization providing a diverse range of protection and wealth accumulation products and services to individuals and corporate customers. Chartered in 1865, Sun Life Financial and its partners have operations in key markets worldwide, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, India, China and Bermuda. As of March 31, 2011, the Sun Life Financial group of companies had total assets under management of US $484 billion. For more information, please visit www.sunlife.com/us.

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
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