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“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of The Segal Group”, with David Blumenstein

Unplug daily and go deeper once a week- a short daily practice such as meditation or yoga exercises the muscle of awareness and a longer weekly intensive session increases the benefits. Awareness combats reactivity, fosters greater empathy, develops deeper listening and leads to wiser decisions. These traits are essential for all leaders, especially CEOs. I mentioned […]

Unplug daily and go deeper once a week- a short daily practice such as meditation or yoga exercises the muscle of awareness and a longer weekly intensive session increases the benefits. Awareness combats reactivity, fosters greater empathy, develops deeper listening and leads to wiser decisions. These traits are essential for all leaders, especially CEOs. I mentioned to one of my mentors that I was having a hard time finding 15 minutes to meditate every day. She said “If you seriously can’t find 15 minutes a day to meditate then you need to mediate 30 minutes a day!” She was right. People can feel overwhelmed by their roles as a parent, a spouse, a CEO, and daily practice is a great way to keep perspective.


I had the pleasure to interview David Blumenstein. David is President and CEO of The Segal Group, which has 26 offices throughout the U.S. and Canada. The Segal Group’s member firms include Segal Consulting, Sibson Consulting, Segal Marco Advisors and Segal Select Insurance Services. The Segal Group’s professionals are leaders in a wide range of consulting — actuarial, health benefits, human resources, investment, fiduciary insurance, communications, and technology. They are all bound together by a common mission: providing trusted advice that improves lives. David is responsible for setting short- and long-term strategy for every aspect of the business and leads the group’s Executive Team. In addition, he serves on The Segal Group’s Board of Directors. David has been with The Segal Group since 1988. As someone who cares deeply about benefits, he continues to serve as the lead consultant to several major clients. David is a frequent speaker at benefits conferences and other industry forums. In addition, he is an author on both health care and retirement benefit topics. David graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan with a BA in Philosophy. He is a committed lifelong learner who has participated in numerous continuing education programs, including courses of study at Harvard and the Center for Creative Leadership.


Thank you so much for joining us David! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up my family was of modest means, so I have been earning money in one way or another since the age of 13. By my count — before joining Segal at age 26 — I had nine paying jobs ranging from a stock and delivery boy at a local pharmacy, to a lifeguard, to a bartender. So, working has always been important to me, but I was not one of those young people who had a clear idea of what I wanted to do when I grew up. In college, my curiosity led me to study the humanities and eventually major in philosophy, but my more practical inclinations led me to decide that academia was not a path I wanted to follow. Coming out of school, my first job was in a start-up computer networking firm, but I found the work unsatisfying. I later met someone in the insurance industry and thought: “Wow, that sounds interesting.” so I began working for a large insurance company. I knew it was closer to what I wanted, but it still wasn’t really right for me. A couple of years later when my wife and I moved to Washington, D.C. so she could continue her medical training, I used it as an opportunity to look around. When I got to D.C., I reached out to a recruiter and she referred me to Segal for an interview. It’s hard to believe that was more than 30 years ago.

What made it stick? As the son of WWII refugees and immigrants to this country, I have a strong ethical and moral compass and wanted to be in a business that made a real difference to people. My grandparents didn’t have a pension plan. My mother and her family came to America in 1947 and owned a small army surplus store in the Bronx. Their pension was what they were able to invest and save on their own. My father and grandfather also came to this country in 1947. My father’s father was a pattern cutter for a union shop for 15 years, until he became disabled. Back then you needed a minimum of 20 years to collect a pension, so he was out of luck.

I know that the work we do at Segal makes a concrete, practical difference in people’s lives. We’re in the business of helping provide working people with high quality, affordable health care and with pension benefits that allow a secure and dignified retirement. For our clients and the people they serve, it provides peace of mind. This is our consulting mission at Segal: to provide trusted advice that improves lives.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

Time. For my entire career I was able to either choose to work more hours or figure out ways to become more efficient. As CEO, the span of responsibility no longer made this possible. All of the literature warns CEOs that, regardless of any other constraint you face, time is truly the most precious resource — and the literature is right! We are each only given 24 hours in a day.

Because our headquarters is in Manhattan, I now split my time between New York and my home in D.C. My family, friends and community are incredibly important to me. As a CEO, every second of time could be swallowed up by work responsibilities so delegation and prioritization are muscles that I work on every day and have become my new best friends.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

One key factor: how I approached my personal education. I consciously decided when attending university that I wasn’t going to use my four years as vocational training to prepare for a job. The path of study I chose was purely based on my curiosity and what was interesting to me at the time — much to the dismay of my parents! In college I learned how to learn and how to think. As a result, I am a lifelong learner, continuously reading, listening to podcasts and seeking out cultural and educational experiences that challenge me and keep me fresh.

And there is a related factor that I call “follow your curiosity.” Let me explain. It is very common today, when successful people give advice to young people about their future — particularly at college graduations — to tell them to “follow their passion”. There are people — though it’s rare in my experience — who are clear what their passion is and follow it. But for the rest of us — myself included — I believe that passion can be a trap because it sets the bar too high. For me, curiosity is a much better compass. When I was a six-year-old on the playground, I did not tell my friends that I had a passion to go into employee benefits. Passion burns hot and fast, but curiosity is accessible and available, every single day. Curiosity is a light tap on the shoulder, asks questions and opens doors.

I think Madeleine L’Engle had it right: “Inspiration usually comes during work, not before it.” Being in the mix, making mistakes, learning what I liked and didn’t like, going down blind alleys — all of these are part of working and part of life. Curiosity has been an essential component in guiding my life and career. When I started working at Segal in 1988, I can tell you that I was not passionate about this field. I simply wanted a job. Am I passionate now? Absolutely! Curiosity can lead to passion. But even if it doesn’t, you will be pursuing areas of meaning and interest.

More than anything else, these two factors have laid the groundwork for my success.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?

Remember that it is possible to both make a profit and improve our world- our company mission of providing trusted advice that improves lives, and our core value of treating others how we want to be treated, are the bedrocks of our work. Most people in our country are employed by profit-making institutions, so I believe one of the imperatives of being in business is also to be a positive role model for society. How we work with our clients, how we treat our colleagues, what we give back to our communities — these are all under our control and are not at odds with driving a healthy bottom line. Every company, no matter what they do, can both make a profit and make the world a better place.

Unplug daily and go deeper once a week- a short daily practice such as meditation or yoga exercises the muscle of awareness and a longer weekly intensive session increases the benefits. Awareness combats reactivity, fosters greater empathy, develops deeper listening and leads to wiser decisions. These traits are essential for all leaders, especially CEOs. I mentioned to one of my mentors that I was having a hard time finding 15 minutes to meditate every day. She said “If you seriously can’t find 15 minutes a day to meditate then you need to mediate 30 minutes a day!” She was right. People can feel overwhelmed by their roles as a parent, a spouse, a CEO, and daily practice is a great way to keep perspective.

Make room for change and surprise in your lifeChange and surprise are constants in life and in business. To say that you have to “expect the unexpected” or become “comfortable with discomfort” is paradoxical, but it is true. Plans almost never turn out exactly as envisioned. What’s the saying? “We plan and God laughs!” surprise — both the pleasant and the unpleasant — expect them, embrace them, and make them work for you. Each day I deal with expected and unexpected issues and the only thing I really have control over is how I meet the present moment.

Set a clear mission, vision, values and strategy- consistently communicating a clear mission, vision, values and strategy is powerful. It helps the entire company stay focused on who we are, where we’re headed and what’s important — in both good and challenging times. Marty Segal, our founder, took a personal interest in me and he would talk about why he founded the company, the human problems he was trying to help solve. Setting a clear mission, vision, values and strategy helps new employees and veterans alike stay attuned to what’s important and stay on track.

Choose a diverse group of mentors- having partners for the journey is essential. I define a mentor as a person who knows me well and has my best interests at heart. Having a diverse group of mentors, a number of whom have no direct connection to my business, or the HR consulting world, keeps my thinking fresh, broadens my view, and improves my decisions. They are also psychologists, educators, artists, and people in the health field that span across age, racial, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Having diverse guides in life helps me see more broadly and that makes me a better businessperson and, I hope, a better human being.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Have a spiritual practice. In this 24/7 world, insist on time when you can unplug. I’m talking about things that allow you to let go: meditation, playing music, communing with nature, yoga — the list is endless. Practice helps me stay connected to myself so that I can remain balanced and energized. When I stop laughing, stop listening to others, get grouchy and begin to lose patience, I know it’s time for practice. Also, it’s important not to treat it like a hobby. Make a commitment to it and do it on a regular basis. It may sound counterintuitive, but this kind of discipline helps to create agility and flexibility in your life. Another piece of advice: it helps to have a tremendous sense of humor about the whole deal.

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The section instructor in my Great Books class when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, Chalmers Knight.

He was in his early 30s then and that seemed ancient to me at the time. We would walk into the classroom and the blackboard would have a single quote: “Is the unexamined life worth living?” or “Is there honor among thieves?” And we would spend the next hour exploring these big, meaty questions through the lens of both the texts of the ancient books we were studying and the texts of our own lives. Chalmers, who is still a close friend, was the first person to recognize me as an adult, as a person who was pursuing knowledge and whose ideas mattered. That’s a powerful realization for an 18-year old and that realization has animated the rest of my life.

In retrospect, it makes total sense that I now serve as CEO for a consulting firm: a company whose stock in trade is learning and knowledge. Good consulting firms are, in many ways, institutions of higher education. It’s not a university, but it’s about as close you can get.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

In terms of my personal goals, it’s about continuing to evolve and grow as a person — to be a better husband, father, brother, son and friend and of course to be a better colleague and business partner. As a CEO I don’t have time to take on a lot of extra projects, but I am involved in my local community and recently joined the board of Jobs with Justice, a non-profit that advocates for justice in the workplace and empowerment of working families.

Professionally my goal is what I call “stewardship”. I want to take this firm that was established 80 years ago and transform it so that it remains relevant for the next 80 years. I want to hand it off to the next generation as a stronger, better version of Segal. I aspire to inspire another generation of leaders who are committed to our mission, vision and values.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

I see my business legacy as inspiring future leaders to continue the company’s work, to continue as a values-based organization. When I speak at conferences, I encourage people to be an activist in the lives of others. If you believe you can be of help in someone else’s journey, don’t hold back. Give two of the most precious gifts you can give: your time and your attention.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

At heart, I’m a benefits geek, so if I were to start a movement it would be to define the new normal in employment relationships to include minimum acceptable levels of health and retirement benefits. Business has a role to play in the basic security of our citizenry and this would be an excellent start.

Since, you’ve give me some license here, I would also start a movement about creating authentic workplaces. The key focus would be to encourage people to use their career path, their leadership journey, as a way to grow authentically as a human being. I believe the mental model of “work-life” balance, that splits my life into a work piece and a life piece is fundamentally flawed. Most people I know spend a lot of time at work, so I don’t think it’s beneficial to split it off. All of this is my life. One of the ways I am beginning to hear folks talk about this is to invite people to “bring their best selves to work.” In the spirit of improvisation, I would say “yes, and”. We should invite people to bring their best selves to work AND when they get to work we should help them continue to grow. Work, too, can be a place of great nourishment and growth, where I have a sense of discovery, a place where I am alive and not just marking time.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/dblumenstein

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