Last Monday, all the Fidelity interns across the United States participated in a panel discussion with five of the senior leaders of Fidelity. Since almost all the interns, including myself, rarely, if ever, interact with leaders who are at such a high level in Fidelity, the panel provided some valuable insight into the leader follower relations in Fidelity. The leaders included two presidents of the company’s main business lines, Kevin Barry and Kathy Murphy, the head of asset management, Steve Neff, the head of human resources, Bill Ackerman, and the Chairman and CEO, Abby Johnson. It was a unique opportunity to hear about the careers and lives of the top Fidelity leaders in a more candid way than we traditionally can. All five individuals lead busy lives given the demanding nature of their jobs, and thus, their willingness to participate in this event shows how much Fidelity values their employees and intern program. The fact that the Chairman and CEO, Abby Johnson spoke was particularly unusual for Fidelity, as unlike many CEOs, she does not usually speak at industry events or public discussions. She will typically give an occasional print interview, but besides that, she prefers to live a quiet life out of the public spotlight.
This somewhat unusual interaction between leaders and followers, in which the top leader prefers to avoid public appearances, is both a blessing and a curse. It helps to build some of the mystery that has always surrounded Fidelity and the company’s success, yet it also limits employees’ ability to feel connected to senior leadership. However, since Fidelity is such a large company, most employees would likely never interact with senior leadership anyways, so it is not as detrimental if the company was much smaller. One way Fidelity’s leaders work to stay connected to employees is through annual town halls held at each site, yet this is only once a year.
Ensuring that employees feel connected to senior leadership is one of the largest issues Fidelity faces in terms of leader-follower dynamics. Almost all the senior leaders are based in Boston, while many of the mid and lower level employees are based in sites around the United States. However, none of these offices are based within a major city, and are usually outside cities such as Raleigh, Dallas, Denver, and Cincinnati. As a result, many of the most important decisions are made in Boston in a centralized manner (i.e. all executives in a conference room), but this can leave out many of the employees at other sites. One possible recommendation to fix this would be to spread the senior leaders among the various offices. This would likely increase employee’s interactions with leaders, but comes with a financial cost of moving people. Furthermore, since many executives are hired from competitor companies in the Boston area, it is easier to attract them if they do not have to move to take a new job.
Regardless, the panel presented an interesting opportunity to learn what Fidelity’s senior leaders valued at Fidelity. One common theme emphasized the importance of making sure the correct people are in the right jobs. Many of them said that the most important part of their job is to hire people and help set the overall vision for Fidelity. Another theme they stressed was the importance of cooperation among the various business units. One strategy Fidelity uses to gain more customers is to handle all their client’s investment needs across the different business lines. This includes college savings, employee benefits, retirement savings, and wealth management. I thought the emphasis on cooperation and people related to many of the topics we have discussed in our leadership classes. Leadership is less about managing people, and more about empowering them to make decisions on their own.