Michael Burwell: Can Greatness be Cultivated? The Art of Building Your Business Team

leadership Michael Burwell

For Michael Burwell, the Chief Financial Officer of Willis Towers Watson, great leaders are always cultivating a great team. Growing up on a farm in rural Michigan, Burwell learned at a young age that a strong family, like a strong team, becomes a laboratory for generating important personal traits like resilience, curiosity, tenacity, and esprit de corps. In his leadership role at Willis, Burwell understands that he must not only keep the money moving for his business, but he must also position his lieutenants to take the reins of leadership in the near-term and the future.

Giving the Team the Right Experience

Effective leaders appreciate the power of delegation; they know that doing it all is a disservice to the business. In his own leadership model, Michael Burwell gives his team members ample opportunity to bring their vision and management acumen to various roles with Willis. Often the team is invited to partner with Burwell in his role as an organizational change agent. “Mike created change in his Transformation role,” notes blogger Daniel Budzinski, adding that Burwell works “to optimize organizational effectiveness in overseeing a diverse group of internal functions including Human Capital, Finance, Technology and Global Strategic Sourcing.”[1] A graduate of Michigan State’s prestigious accounting program, Burwell notes that his success is built upon the leadership lessons that were shared with him during his formative years. What does Michael Burwell try to instill in the emerging leaders he mentors? For starters, be ruthless in decision making, have compassion when you execute a plan, and take time to understand what you are doing and where you are headed.[2]

Of course, putting the team out there in leadership roles comes at some risk. Sometimes the individuals you assume have the talent and guts to make it in the solo task can underperform or outright disappoint in the execution of assigned tasks. Understanding that the strongest members of a team can flounder from time to time, Burwell sees the setbacks of his team members as catalysts for future growth. “I…always celebrate wins with the team and assess why we won and why we lost…. we can always get better. As an example, simply ask what one thing could we have done better?”[3] While folks on the team must be held accountable for mistakes that hurt the business, the mistakes can also be leveraged to shape a healthier path forward for both the business and the aspiring business leader.

The Power of Listening and the Importance of Speaking

While learning about life during his formative years on the farm, Michael Burwell was taught that effective leaders are effective listeners. In his financial leadership and leadership cultivation roles, Burwell believes that effective leaders know when to suspend speaking to gain a fuller understanding of a situation, client, or challenge. Burwell isn’t alone in this assumption. Craig Impleman of Success.com contends, “A key element in the art of listening is to not be thinking about what you’re going to say while the other person is talking. Quieting your thoughts and really hearing the other person with an open mind sometimes requires a conscious effort.”[4]

Read more about Michael Burwell: http://bitsylink.com/2018/02/26/michael-burwell-and-an-overview-of-his-career-until-his-current-willis-towers-watson-cfo-position/

However, emerging and seasoned leaders know they are times when voicing input, concerns, and the like are essential. Quoting from the late UCLA coach John Wooden, Impleman joins Burwell in underscoring the essentialness of speaking up at the appropriate times. “As a leader, you must be confident enough to employ individuals who aren’t afraid to speak up and voice their opinion. If you’re willing to listen, it means little if nobody is willing to talk in a substantive manner.”[5] To this point, Michael Burwell contends that building a strong team means placing individuals on the team who are willing to challenge the assumptions of the principal, bringing worthy and workable ideas to the table.

The Growth Mindset

One of the leadership qualities that continues to keep Michael Burwell’s lieutenants out in front of trends and trouble is the notion that all actions can create opportunity or hardship for the organization.  A leader working in the best interest of the larger organization always trains her team to have the growth of the brand or organization on the razors edge of deliberation and decision making. This so-called growth mindset permeates through the organizational ethos. “With a growth mindset, we look at setbacks and challenges differently – they can be experiences we can lean into and learn from rather than just more examples of the way in which the world is against us.”[6] The latter, often called a negative bias, looks at mistakes and bad news as punishable, detrimental, and of no value. When a negative bias is instilled in leaders, especially following a disappointment or downtrend, opportunities to learn, retool, and grow beyond the disappointment are thwarted. Leaders in the Burwell vein always “pull themselves up” and press forward for the good of the organization.

Blurring the Lines

 Michael Burwell understands that some of those he is training to lead the organization will replace him at some point. Is this threatening? No. This is richly satisfying for a leader like Burwell. When the mentored can lead the management and transformation of an organization, the teacher’s work can be labeled “success.”

[1][1] Extracted from: https://danielbudzinski.com/podcast/the-art-of-success-podcast/michael-burwell/#.W75SwmhKjIV, 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Extracted from: https://ideamensch.com/mike-burwell, 2018.

[4] Extracted from:

[5] Ibid.

[6] Extracted from: https://minutehack.com/guides/brain-training-for-business-help-your-team-develop-the-right-mindset

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