The Net Promoter System Podcast

Culture, Mission, and Taking a Public Stand on a Challenging Topic

USAA’s former chief brand officer, Tony Wells, explains how the company used its shared values and mission to align employees on the national conversation on racial inequity.


Culture, Mission, and Taking a Public Stand on a Challenging Topic

This is part two of a two-part conversation with Tony Wells, who recently embarked on a new role with Verizon. Listen to part one here.

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, discussions surrounding race, discrimination, and privilege became a priority for many corporations. Employees and customers demanded real, meaningful action from businesses.

USAA took a public stance on racial justice—even as other companies chose silence or avoidance. Tony Wells, USAA’s chief brand officer at the time, says the organization’s conversation began privately, however. Given the company’s history of strong internal communication and employees’ deep sense of mission, Wells believed that they were set up for successful discussions and change.

Before publicly sharing a plan to advance racial equity, Tony explains, “we wanted to look inward, get our house in order, and make sure that we started with our employees. If our employees understand our intent and how this connects to the mission, if we can make that evident, we know that, historically, we’re going to be pretty darn successful.”

In the conclusion of my conversation with Tony, recorded earlier this year, he explains how USAA’s mission and strong culture informed and guided the company’s response to the global outrage following Floyd’s murder.

“Some brands experienced challenges because they tried to turn it into a brand play or a marketing campaign. That was never what we intended for it to be,” Tony told me. “It was about serving three stakeholders: employees, our members, and the communities in which we operate.”

Since the summer of 2020, USAA has counted diversity and inclusion as a strategic imperative. The company has kicked off new efforts for its advancement, inc­luding learning and development opportunities for employees to understand racial bias and privilege and a company-wide initiative to integrate D&I priorities across the organization.

“We need to drive our outcomes and D&I efforts,” Tony told me, “to ensure that we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘Every employee at USAA has the opportunity to live and work to their full potential.’ And until that’s done, then we know we still have work to do.”

You can listen to part two of my conversation with Tony on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher or your podcast provider of choice, or through the audio player below.

In the following excerpt, Tony Wells explains how USAA maintains a strong company culture, authentically and consistently.

Rob Markey: How do you find that USAA is different from other companies that you are familiar with, that you’ve worked with, in living the values, as opposed to just speaking them?

Tony Wells: My belief is that every company has to have a culture that’s right for them. For us, this idea of knowing what it means to serve—that’s one of our brand taglines—is really a reflection that we are seeking to know and understand what our members go through, to have empathy. Which I think is so important in the delivery of customer service or servicing our members. 

And so, if you join USAA and you may have a financial view of the world and have worked at previous companies that were all around the margins and the profit, and you come to USAA and you keep that same approach—or if you are someone that’s motivated by some other corporate philosophy—I think you will not likely be successful at USAA. You won’t have the joy. You won’t have the success. You won’t be embraced. Because, for us, the mission is first and foremost. And as folks come in, and assimilate in, it is readily apparent to them. 

Rob Markey: In what ways? Give me an example.

Tony Wells: In terms of how we make business decisions, how we conduct ourselves, the types of questions we ask, and the types of trade-offs and resource allocations that any company has to make. 

There are always decisions around where are you going to allocate resources and what’s going to be the focus, what are going to be the key performance indicators, what are you rewarding and compensating folks on? And I would say, without a doubt, if you’re with USAA, it’s very, very important—and it is communicated, and it’s rewarded, and it’s incented—to be [focused on] things and activities and outcomes and results that benefit members. 

We just recently had a board meeting. There’s just so much focus and discussion all the way up to our board around, “How are we serving members?” The types of questions they ask, the type of data that they’re requesting and looking at.

So, right or wrong, [at] some companies that I’ve been at … NPS, for example, it’s shown at the monthly business review, but it’s literally two or three minutes, and then you move on. And I think for us, there’s a fair amount of time and attention paid to how we show up, how we support members. 

And do we get it wrong occasionally? Yes. But what I can say consistently every day is that everybody at our company gets up with a focus on delivering the mission, and it is evident and apparent as we just talk and go about our day.


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