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TIAA SVP Sean Woodroffe: “Never worry about the next job you’re going to have, only focus on the job you have”

Never worry about the next job you’re going to have, only focus on the job you have. If you’re laser-focused on the job you have and doing it to the best of your ability, the next job will come along. Worrying about the next step can distract you from being a high performer in your […]


Never worry about the next job you’re going to have, only focus on the job you have. If you’re laser-focused on the job you have and doing it to the best of your ability, the next job will come along. Worrying about the next step can distract you from being a high performer in your current role and hinder your professional development.


As a part of my series about “Black Men and Women of The C-Suite”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sean Woodroffe, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of TIAA, a 100-year-old Fortune 100 financial services company that provides financial solutions for the not-for-profit sector. With more than 25 years of Human Resources experience, Mr. Woodroffe is responsible for TIAA’s human resources strategy and execution for the company’s global workforce, including compensation and benefits, talent acquisition, organizational design and effectiveness, and diversity and inclusion.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Overall, I was drawn to working with and delivering services for people. That aspect of a career in HR was serendipity.

When pursuing my undergraduate degree in International Relations at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, I aspired to work in international law, as I was inspired by my mother’s four-decade career at the United Nations. I was enamored with the prospect of serving in a Foreign Service capacity as a lawyer. The summer between my junior and senior years at Shaw, I worked as a Summer Intern at Merrill Lynch. That internship led to a full time offer upon graduation and I spent 18 wonderful years there. During that time, I had the opportunity to lead HR for the organization’s Japan Wealth Management business unit based in Tokyo, Japan, before transitioning into a London-based HR role as the Head of International HR. Since Merrill Lynch, I’ve led a variety of global human resources programs with financial services organizations, and am happily leading the human resources strategy and execution across the TIAA enterprise.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I worked at Sun Life Financial, they were a sponsor of the football stadium where the Miami Dolphins played. In 2010, during that time, there was seismic earthquake in Haiti that captured the world’s attention. I had the opportunity to visit Haiti firsthand as a member of a charitable delegation arranged by the Miami Dolphins to deliver goods and services to Haitians impacted by the earthquake. When I personally witnessed the abject devastation to the Haitian community — citizens living in tents with sparse belongings and minimal food rations — it was a life changing moment. It helped me appreciate the virtues of life and perspective of what is important, on what to focus on and what not to. It was a sobering reminder to me that even on our perceived bad days, things could always be worse and is generally worse for others among us.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My boss, who was the CEO at the time, sent me an email about an announcement that we had sent. I responded to him and inadvertently copied the entire company. My advice would be to double check the “To” line before you hit send!

Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?

Inclusion and Diversity are among the underlying principles of our organization. In fact, TIAA is one of the few remaining Fortune 500 companies with a black CEO (Roger Ferguson). As Roger Ferguson once said, a diverse boardroom is inspirational for a company’s workforce and “inspires people in the organization to look to the board and see faces that look like them and voices that sound like them.”

We recognize the value in not just having a diverse leadership team, but a diverse employee-base as well. A diverse workforce provides us with a deeper understanding of our clients’ various needs and the appropriate solutions to meet their needs. At TIAA, our diverse and inclusive culture allows all employees to show up as their full selves every day in order to contribute their unique talents and skills, enabling us to provide our clients with fresh ideas and distinct perspectives to help them achieve their financial goals.

More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?

No matter where we live, work or go to school, we are always going to meet someone who is different from us. Instead of focusing on those differences as a negative, look at them as a learning experience to understand new perspectives about life.

Creating opportunities where people from different backgrounds feel empowered and given the ability to go above and beyond to achieve greatness will help our neighborhoods, schools and places of work thrive.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?

It’s important to recognize that diversity isn’t limited to one’s gender or the color of his or her skin. Diversity in thoughts, ideas, personal and professional experiences, religious and political views, etc. are all pivotal pieces to an organization’s or community’s success.

At TIAA, we embed our inclusion & diversity philosophy into every aspect of our business. To help foster diversity and inclusion, TIAA has a rich community of Employee Resource Groups that provide leadership development, networking opportunities, community outreach and philanthropic efforts, business solutions and product input, and multicultural awareness.

By recognizing the needs of underserved or underrepresented groups and allocating appropriate resources and opportunities, local communities and frankly, society as a whole, can help the leaders of tomorrow reach their fullest potential.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership is a privilege, and it is all about serving others. “Servant Leadership,” as it’s called, is a doctrine that I’ve adopted from the moment I had the blessed fortune to lead others. Every day, in every situation, I always try to focus on the “we” vs the “I”, as success is a team effort.

An admired leader is not someone who talks about himself or herself, but one who is a great listener and takes interest in the success of others. They take every opportunity to ascribe the credit to others for when things go well, and inspire team members to be their best.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I’m an optimist, so I’d like to focus this question on the three things that people shared with me that turned out to be spot on advice and very useful.

  1. If you’re a high potential employee, you’ll find yourself in situations where your career is moving faster than an organization has the ability to commensurate pay increases. So, you may find yourself in a situation where you’re slightly below the market rate for your talent level. If you’re being challenged, getting good exposure and moving up in the organization, don’t worry about it, because over time the pay component always catches up! I experienced that myself.
  2. Never worry about the next job you’re going to have, only focus on the job you have. If you’re laser-focused on the job you have and doing it to the best of your ability, the next job will come along. Worrying about the next step can distract you from being a high performer in your current role and hinder your professional development.
  3. A lesson I learned early in life from my mother: If you want to be regarded as a high potential employee or team member, go above and beyond! Mediocrity should be mercilessly shunned. As was perfectly quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King: “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

What I feel most passionate about is that we all should live in a way where we are improving the lives of the people around us. What role are we playing in making this a better world? If everyone started putting others first, imagine the possibilities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As I mentioned, my mother worked for the United Nations for more than 40 years. As a child of the 1970’s and 80’s, I was drawn to international leaders, particularly South African president Nelson Mandela. In the movie Invictus, President Mandela meets with the captain of the South African rugby team and asked him, “How do you lead others, and how do you inspire them to be their best?”

Nelson Mandela’s definition of leadership means to inspire others to be their best. It’s a notion I’ve always been drawn to, and craft my leadership style around this mentality.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Wesley Autrey. Mr. Autrey was dubbed the “Subway Samaritan” following his selfless act of bravery by saving Cameron Hollopeter who suffered a seizure and fell onto the subway tracks. I’m amazed at his ability to react so quickly to someone in dire need of help and to virtually sacrifice his life to save another. That act is the purest personification of heroism.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and follow TIAA on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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