Three in Five Podcast

Episode 9: Three leadership questions for Dean

Steve sits down with Dean Connor, Chief Executive Officer at Sun Life, as he reflects on his experience as CEO and the next chapter after retirement.

Steve Peacher: Hi everybody, thanks for tuning in. This is Steve Peacher president of SLC Management, and this is “Three in Five,” in which we ask three questions to our experts across the platform. And today I’m pleased to have with me Dean Connor who is my boss and the Chief Executive at Sun Life, who will be retiring and a few months. Dean, thanks for taking the time.

Dean Connor: Pleasure Steve.

Steve Peacher: Dean, as you look back on the CEO job at Sun Life, you know these are big jobs and they come with a lot of pressures and expectations, what were some of the, looking back, some of the biggest surprises that you had relative to the expectations you had coming into the role?

Dean Connor: You know Steve, I have to say my biggest surprise, frankly, is how much progress Sun Life has made in the past, nearly 10 years. I really didn't expect that. I thought we’d do well, but, you know if you told me that earnings would grow from you know, a billion two in 2011 to $3.2 billion last year and the stock price would more than triple, I would have said “boy that's ahead of what I thought was possible”. Now part of that luck and timing. So, December 2011 when I took over was the aftermath, the global financial crisis, so we are starting at a low. Markets have done well since then, lifting many boats, although we did have a headwind on interest rates. And U.S. tax cuts under President Trump really helped. Part of it was also choosing what's turned out to be a winning strategy, the four pillars strategy, so you know prioritizing more capital-like businesses, selling our U.S. annuity business, stopping life insurance sales, emphasizing businesses like asset management, group retirement group benefits, where the underlying revenue keeps growing with markets and health inflation, and then making Asia one of our four pillars. But I think the biggest part of it, and maybe the biggest surprise, was just how strong the execution was, by what is a really an amazing group of people, so changing the culture, growing talent, playing to win, ambitious but achievable goals, polite but direct, creating accountability, client for life, client obsession, digital data and analytics. We completed I think over 20 M&A deals, we probably looked at well over 100. We launched new businesses, like yours, like SLC, we entered new markets like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore. And our risk is important, our risk, compliance, legal colleagues helped us avoid any serious landmines that nearly every FI steps on. But, so the list goes on and it's really strong execution by an amazing group of people. When I put all that, together, I was surprised how much we achieved.

Steve Peacher: Well, you may have just answered my next question, which is you know the most rewarding aspect of the role given all that success, but so maybe I'll rephrase my this question a bit, which is: these are big challenging roles, what have you liked the most about the role personally?

Dean Connor: So I’ll say two things. First of all, to see how everyone at Sun Life, at every level of the company, really bought into the strategy. They bought into client for life, they bought into the culture change. Just seeing how people have bought into that has been incredibly gratifying. To see how you Steve and other senior executives, you guys grab these goals, you grab these themes, you made them your own, you lead from the front – that's incredibly gratifying. You know, when you create that degree of alignment, you can move mountains. And then the second thing, and it kind of goes with that, is just to see the incredible growth of people in the company. And you're a great example, Steve, you've gone from CIO to now assembling one of the most dynamic alternative asset managers in the industry with big goals to take on the best of the best. My guess is that was not in your head. Probably wasn't in my head either, so I think that's amazing. So, seeing people thrive, seeing people grow, contribute in Sun Life as what's really an opportunity machine, that's really gratifying.

Steve Peacher: Dean, of course Kevin Strain, who is moving from the CFO role to be your successor into the CEO role is going to be happening in August, and when you think about Kevin's ascension to your spot or anybody moving into a CEO role, given the experience you've had now as CEO at Sun Life, what would be the words of wisdom that you have, what would be the advice you would give to an incoming CEO?

Dean Connor: Well, first I’d say Kevin is an extremely talented leader, so he really doesn't need much wisdom from me, I think everything he's done his whole career has prepared him for this job that he's stepping into. So, I think he's going to do great. But you know for any newly minted leader doesn't, not even CEO, I would say this: be humble, don't take yourself too seriously, it's okay to be wrong every now and then. You know I made lots of mistakes in the last 9, 10 years. But the key is you acknowledge them, you're realistic about them, you kind of learn from them. And that leads me to the other point, which is don't be a know it all, be a learn it all. Satya Nadella at Microsoft said that, I liked that. “Don't be a know it all, be a learn at all.” So, that's one thing, don't take yourself too seriously, be humble, learn. The other one is to get the right people, in the right jobs, with the right goals. If you do that, you can then, as the leader, put your feet up on the desk.

Steve Peacher: I don't think I haven't seen you put your feet up on a desk yet. Dean, so one final quick personal question: these CEO jobs are a 24/7 job. So, you know, when you finally retire in a few months, hopefully it's going to free up some hours in your in your day and evening. What is something that you're going to look forward to doing that you just haven't had the time to do over the last seven or so years?

Dean Connor: Well, you know, we have two new, relatively new, grandkids and I’m looking forward to spending more time with them, that's particularly been hard with Covid. So, that's one. Another one is I play guitar in a band, we have a lot of fun playing. And we're going to record an album in the fall, it's been, gosh, 15 years since we were last in the studio, so I’m looking forward to that. I gotta run like hell and write some songs and but I’ll do that after I retire and then look forward to putting that out on Spotify sometime later in the fall.

Steve Peacher: Well, great we're going to hire you to do a theme song for us, for SLC Management, so I look forward to it. Thanks so much thanks so much for taking the time and everyone thanks for listening in to this version of “Three in Five”.

Dean Connor: Thanks Steve.

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