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Roger Ferguson, CEO of TIAA: Live the Cliche

Roger Ferguson

Roger Ferguson's first real job was cleaning bathrooms. Now he is the CEO of TIAA (formerly TIAA-CREF), the leading retirement provider for people who work in the academic, research, medical, and cultural fields.

Ferguson spoke at The University of Texas at Austin on Oct. 18 as part of the McCombs School of Business VIP Distinguished Speaker Series. Ferguson offered some key advice about the means to his success.

Take pride in your work

As a student at Harvard University during the 1970s, he helped pay for his education with a work-study appointment cleaning bathrooms on campus. The experience taught him two very important lessons.

While some of his friends hid such menial work from their peers, Ferguson did not. He advised students to take pride in whatever work they do. "Whatever your job, do it to the best of your ability," Ferguson said. "That's how you make progress and move up."

Be accountable

Ferguson emphasized that everyone faces challenges. One of his largest and most notable challenges occurred in 2007 around the time of the housing market crash.

He was running the financial services division of Swiss Re when one morning he awoke to a Financial Times article titled "Loss Lies with Ferguson Unit." Ferguson said that the loss of $1.1 billion reported in the article — while not entirely his fault — was his responsibility.

"You have to figure out how to come back from those things and hold your head up," Ferguson said. 

Being named responsible for such a huge loss was devastating at the time, he said, but eventually it was overshadowed by his long and impressive resume.

Believe in the mission

Ferguson said he loves what he does now, and believes in TIAA's mission. He said he appreciates how empathetic the company is and enjoys helping his customers.

TIAA collects money from its clients every pay period, makes investments, and then returns that money plus earnings when the client retires. As a nonprofit, TIAA is able to focus on giving its clients the best care and support without the distraction of having to earn a profit, Ferguson says.

Ferguson said that if you don't believe in what you are doing, you are not going to produce your best work.

 "You have to get excited about what's going on," Ferguson said.

Do what you love

If someone loves what they do, he believes they will never work a day in their life. He recognized the cliché but reiterated the importance.

"You have to figure out how to live that cliche," he said. 

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