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Lisa M. Weber – MetLife: Stand for Something

Lisa-WeberOther people simply have gut feelings. MetLife executive Lisa M. Weber has the guts to do something about them.

Consider this. The year was 1984 and Ms. Weber, a recent psychology graduate of the State University of New York at Stonybrook, was driving across town to take her grad school exam. Halfway across Brooklyn’s Verizano Bridge, Ms. Weber turned to her mother and announced: “I don’t know why I’m doing this. I need to go to work and figure out the rest later.”

Ms. Weber took her GRE and sat through her boards, but, in reality, she simply was going through the motions. “I had decided on the bridge that it wasn’t the right time for me to go to graduate school,” she says.

That fateful moment led Ms. Weber on a 24-year corporate career journey that reached new heights in 2004 when she became the President of Individual Business for MetLife Inc., one of the world’s largest providers of insurance and financial services. In her latest role, Ms. Weber is responsible for the entire MetLife retail businesses which includes auto, home and individual business.

The job sounds big, but seeing the numbers drives it home. Ms. Weber is in charge of 45 percent of the company’s overall operating earnings. In 2005, that figure was $3.27 billion — making Weber accountable for $1.45 billion worth of business and the caretaker for 12,000 agents and 142,000 points of sale. A position with that kind of heft makes people stand up and notice. And they do. In 2005, FORTUNE magazine named Ms. Weber one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” — for a second consecutive year.

A natural leader, Ms. Weber has a talent for mastering a business, quickly assessing its strengths and weaknesses, and inspiring the troops to build a more progressive and competitive model.

Her communication style is refreshingly direct and real. Sure, she can talk the insurance industry lingo and crunch numbers with the best of them, but it is her emphatic and decisive approach that makes her stand out. Mistakes? She’s made them, and she’ll tell you all about them. Opinions? Well, you better have some. “Stand for something,” she likes to say. “Stand for anything, but stand for something.”

“When you work for Lisa you always know the objective. She is able to galvanize not only the people who work for her — but the entire organization — around the rallying cry to get the thing done. You don’t only want to do it for the company; you want to do it because you want Lisa to succeed. And that’s the sign of a terrific leader,” says Lou Ragusa, a MetLife executive vice president who once — in a late-night planning session — volunteered his wife to wear the Snoopy mascot costume because he so wanted Ms. Weber’s vision of a morning MetLife investors meeting to be realized.

Ms. Weber joined MetLife in 1998 after spending 10 years being a powerful change agent at PaineWebber, working her way up through the HR ranks and playing a key role in the acquisition of brokerage firm Kidder, Peabody. At MetLife, Ms. Weber made it clear from the start that she was no Charlie Brown. Because of her HR track record at PaineWebber, MetLife executives were keen on Ms. Weber reorganizing one piece of the firm’s HR pie. She thought the entire department needed to be overhauled. So she submitted two proposals: the one for which her supervisors asked, and the one she felt would really work. The move was classic Lisa Weber.

“I could not sit by, knowing that we were going to take this company public, and understanding the fundamental and very dramatic change that had to happen here from a cultural standpoint and not do something about it,” Ms. Weber says. Today, Ms. Weber is credited as the principal architect behind MetLife’s culture transformation and robust performance management system and a leader in MetLife’s 2000 conversion from a mutual to a publicly-traded company.

That courageous ability to crystallize the business objective and awaken the ambition of thousands of employees is what MetLife Chairman and CEO C. Robert Henrikson saw in Ms. Weber in 2004 when he approached her to take the president of individual business job. For the first time in her career, Ms. Weber — then senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer — hesitated. “Rob talked to me about the job, and I didn’t respond,” Ms. Weber says. “And basically by not responding, I was saying no. I was very reluctant because I did not have the experience, and thus did not think I was the best one for the job.”

At breakfast one day, Henrikson broached the subject again, this time appealing to Ms. Weber’s innate call to manage. “I am asking you to do this not because of your knowledge of the product portfolio or the operating platforms or the sales distributions,” he told her. “I am asking you to do this because of your leadership.”

The job, Ms. Weber says, has been “phenomenal,” and overcoming her qualms about taking it was a good wake-up call for herself and other women: Leadership skills and deep experience are enough to take a seat in the executive boardroom. “What is important is that you demonstrate that you can learn the business regardless of whether you’re in the business. Figure out how what you do every day connects to the bigger picture. If you do HR for HR’s sake, you’ll continue to keep working on those file cabinets,” she says.

Debra Capolarello, senior vice president of human resources and chief talent officer for MetLife, says she is a student of Ms. Weber’s management lessons. “Lisa has taught me that you don’t have to be all-knowing to sit at the very top of the organization,” she says. “But what you do need to know is how to bring people together and understand their different perspectives. Then, you have to be willing to make the tough decisions — knowing that you’ve done it not in a vacuum, but by bringing all the right people to the table.”

Indeed, says Ragusa, what defines Ms. Weber’s leadership style is her impeccable judgment. “That is one of the most valuable coaching opportunities I’ve had from her — watching her decision making process. Many leaders have the table stakes’ version down. You know, it is easy to make the black and white decisions,” Ragusa says. “But Lisa recognizes that there are varying shades of gray, and she makes those decisions with confidence. And, you know what? She’s always gets it right She knows what’s best for MetLife.”

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