Andrew Stuart of TD Auto Finance On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During…

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Andrew Stuart of TD Auto Finance On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Stay true to your vision and purpose: Short-term challenges should not cause you to make decisions outside of your values and purpose as an organization. For example, at TD Auto Finance, one of the things that we want to do is make sure that we’re providing outstanding customer service. We’ve talked about that extensively within our leadership team, and one of the challenges that we’ve had is wanting to make sure that when dealers call us, they speak to a real person. As a result, we made a decision to eliminate voicemail for all our credit underwriting shops a number of years ago. That showed a commitment to our dealers and they appreciate knowing that they will get to speak with somebody when they call our shop.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Stuart.

Andrew Stuart is the President & CEO of TD Auto Finance. In this role, he is responsible for the overall leadership and strategic direction of the indirect retail and commercial auto finance business in the U.S.

Andrew joined TD in 2014 and spent six years serving as President and CEO of TD Auto Finance before accepting a role in Corporate Transformation and Operations with TD Bank Group, where he served as Head of Corporate Operations.

Prior to joining TD, Andrew spent 22 years with the Volkswagen Group in the U.S. and Canada. Most recently as President and CEO of VW Credit Inc., responsible for a US$25B portfolio of retail, lease and commercial loan assets in the US and Canada. He has a broad automotive sales and lending background, having held a variety of senior roles, including EVP and CFO VW Credit, Inc., and President, Bentley MotorsUS.

Andrew served as a member of the Management Committee and U.S. Diversity Leadership Chair for TD Bank. He has been an active member of the American Financial Services Association (AFSA), serving as past Chair of the Vehicle Finance Board and the AFSA Board.

Andrew graduated from Saint Mary’s University with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1992. He moved to the U.S. in 1994 and held a number of roles of increasing responsibility while also completing an MBA at the University of Oregon in 1998. He graduated from the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School in 2021.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I lead the automotive lending business for TD Bank, and I’ve been in automotive related businesses for most of my career. I started as a car salesman when I was in university, progressed into management at the same dealership when I graduated, and then I joined the Volkswagen Group. I had a number of different jobs on the sales and marketing side of Volkswagen Canada and then I moved to the US as a regional manager on the west coast.

About halfway through my career, I moved over to financial services and started working for the captive finance arm of the group, Volkswagen Credit and Audi Financial Services. I started off as the director of marketing, then took on responsibility for sales and marketing, where I led the field organization for both brands. During that time, we were setting up Bentley Financial Services, which was a third Volkswagen Automotive brand.

My next role was President & CEO of Bentley North America. This was my first General Manager role and I was responsible for the Bentley business within US, Canada, and Mexico.

From there, I was asked to come back to Volkswagen Group of America in the role of CFO at Volkswagen Credit and Audi Financial Services, which was a very new role for me. It was a great learning opportunity, but a bit of a challenge to take that on right at the end of 2008 when the financial crisis was hitting the auto industry and the world in general.

After four years as CFO and head of operations, I became president of Volkswagen Credit and Audi Financial Services and was leading that business when I was recruited to take on my current role at TD Bank.

I may be an inch deep, and a mile wide having had the opportunity to work in a number of different areas across the automotive industry, including P&L jobs, but also operational roles. I’ve really been in and around automotive businesses my entire life.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?

One from when I first started in a leadership role immediately comes to mind. I was working at the Toyota dealership in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and I had just graduated from college. They had made me a sales manager at the store, and one of the first things I did during my very first week at work, was pay way too much for a trade in — I still remember it was a red Acura Integra. I wanted to make the deal happen and wound up paying way over wholesale value. The customer, realizing he had a great opportunity, made the deal very quickly, signed the paperwork and drove off in his new car. When I told my boss what I had paid for the trade, he just shook his head.

This was on a Friday evening. We went home, and the next morning, my boss came in to see me and said he wanted to tell me a story about when he did something very similar starting off in the early days of his career. He had worked for his dad, it was their family business, and he said he bought a car and he paid too much money for it. When he came into the store the next day, his dad, who owned the dealership, was in the shop with his sleeves rolled up, washing the car. His dad turned to him and said, “Hey, I know it was a mistake, but we’re going to have to work together to fix this.” And my boss was essentially saying the same to me.

The message I heard was, don’t ever take yourself too seriously as a leader that you can’t step in and help somebody recover from a mistake. Be gentle with people when they make a mistake, because often you can use it as a teaching moment so they won’t do it again. Sure enough, my boss, instead of being upset with me, helped me to solve the problem that was facing me at the time.

I’ve always remembered this experience as I’ve worked with people throughout my career — that happened when I was about 22 years old, and I will probably remember it as long as I live.

None of us are 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?

I’ve been fortunate to have several different people in my career that have sponsored me to take on bigger areas of responsibility. Clive Warrilow, the President of Volkswagen Canada when I worked there, gave me a chance at a very early age when I was a regional manager working on the east coast of Canada.

He encouraged me to move to Toronto and take on a new role in product planning. I listened and did that for a period of time, and then when he went on to take over as President of Volkswagen of America, he encouraged me to come to the US and take on a job in Oregon. This was important to me because I was still quite young at the time, and it was a large area of responsibility that he was asking me to take on. However, my career wouldn’t have progressed to where it is now without trusting in the opportunity he presented me.

I’ve spent 28 years in the US now, even though initially Clive told me he was going to send me there for a couple of years and then I’d be back in Toronto. It ended up leading to an amazing journey for me and my family and allowed me to have a very interesting career in another country.

When Clive sent me out to Oregon, he didn’t abandon me. He made sure we always stayed in touch. Then, when an opportunity came to me to take on a different role within the company, he was very supportive of that.

Clive’s sponsorship demonstrated to me that as leaders, we have a responsibility to always be on the lookout for talent and to stretch those people. Give people that you see leadership capabilities in an opportunity to take on something that might stretch them, and then make sure that you’re staying close and keeping an eye on them to make sure they are fulfilling their potential.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

TD Bank is over 168 years old, so I’m certain our vision and mission has changed over the years. Our current vision is to be the better bank, and our purpose is to enrich the lives of our customers, communities, and colleagues. This vision and purpose was carefully developed several years ago by our senior executive team with input from various businesses across the bank, and I think it very nicely captures who we are. It’s applicable to my division, TD Auto Finance, but also to the bank as a whole.

If you really sit and think about it, banking allows people to live their lives. It allows them to plan for retirement, it allows them to save for a special occasion, it allows them to buy real estate (or cars and transportation, in my case). It really does impact people’s lives in a very positive way. This is why I believe that our mission to enrich the lives of our customers, be thoughtful about how we’re impacting our communities and certainly the colleagues within our organization, is certainly a very valid purpose and acts as a guiding principle for many of the decisions we make across the bank.

Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

There have been various points in my career where I’ve had to lead through some difficult circumstances, but I think one that would be familiar to most people is the recent example of the global pandemic. When we had to move our entire organization to a work from home environment, all of our employees had to move to a work from home setup in the span of a few days. To us, this was the definition of a crisis because we still needed to service our customers. We had 7,000 dealers around the country sending us loan applications, expecting us to adjudicate those applications, approve them on behalf of their customers, and then be able to fund and service the loans — all of which make up the core elements of our business.

I still remember sitting at my dining room table having a daily (not a weekly, not a monthly but a daily) call with my leadership team to find out where we were in terms of transitioning our colleagues to a work from home environment. We had to make sure that they had the access to our systems, make sure they had access to internet, and access to the basic tools and equipment that they needed to be able to continue doing their jobs.

Many of the initiatives that we were working on at the time of the pandemic had to be set aside. I made sure to emphasize that what we needed to focus on servicing our customers, and relentlessly focusing on and prioritizing that.

I read a book a few years ago by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger who landed his airplane on the Hudson River in 2009. In his book, he described a period of time when he first realized he had engine trouble and he was talking to the tower to find out what he should do. But he soon realized what he needed to do was just fly the plane and find a place to land it. He couldn’t talk to the tower, he couldn’t talk to the passengers, he just had to focus on flying the plane — that was the most important thing at the time. I remember sharing this story with my colleagues, and I remember saying, “I just want you to fly the plane.”

I focused on putting everything else aside and prioritizing what we needed to do to keep the business running, and I had folks tell me that this really resonated with them, helped them prioritize, and helped them to say, “Okay, well what’s the most important thing that we need to do right now? It is to fly the plane.” This is a little story on how I think about things during a crisis. It’s all about prioritizing.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

My motivation really comes from the people that I get to lead, and I honestly don’t think too much about giving up. I find the work that I do extremely satisfying, and our business always has challenges that I enjoy trying to solve.

I know that everyone gets up in the morning and goes to work to support their families and pay their bills, and we all have bad days, and we all face challenges in our careers. I know there’s going to be good days and there’s certainly going to be bad days, but for me, the key to being motivated and keeping teams motivated is to let them know that you’re right there beside them doing the work. I think you have to make it a fun place to be. You have to tie what you’re doing to that vision and purpose I talked about earlier.

You’ve got to take time to celebrate the wins and not take yourself too seriously, but also maintain a laser focus on what’s important and continuously communicate that message. That keeps me motivated, it will keep the teams motivated, and subsequently, I don’t often think about giving up or consider giving up.

Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

This is a tough one for me because if you saw my office right now, you’d see piles of books that are read and piles of books that I am itching to read. My leadership team knows that sometimes I give them books if I find something that I really like, and many of them end up having a management or leadership element to them.

Over the past few months, one of the best books I’ve read is called ‘The Heart of Business’ by Hubert Joly, the former CEO of Best Buy. In it, he talks about his journey with Best Buy and his philosophy on leading with purpose and humanity.

He shares the basic idea that companies are made up of people working together for a common purpose, but, when that purpose aligns with individual values and a search for meaning, it creates human magic that leads to outstanding performance. His hypothesis is that profit is not the primary goal of business, but it will become an outcome if the company pays attention to purpose in people.

The idea is that by focusing on creating purpose, you have a framework for strategic decisions and for how you run your business. In Best Buy’s case, it was to enrich customers’ lives through technology. And when you start thinking about purpose, that influences how the people in their stores react, how Best Buy prices their products, how they think about their customers, etc. Best Buy is a great success story because if you look at some of its competitors back in 2012, with the Amazons of the world gaining traction, Best Buy’s competitors actually ended up disappearing. Best Buy seems to be thriving, so I think there is truth to what he’s talking about. His message really resonated with me as a leader, and I thought it was a fresh perspective.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

I would say that one of the most critical roles is communicating with your teams. Being empathetic to their challenges and showing up in an authentic way yourself are critical elements of this communication. There is a fine balance in keeping positive, being decisive in what can be an ambiguous environment, and most importantly, communicating “the why” behind the decisions you’re making. I believe a leader should be making decisions in the context of their vision and purpose for the business.

I also believe these decisions should be informed by a diverse group of leaders around you who are sharing their opinions and viewpoints and might even end up having a different view on things than you have. Taking these viewpoints into account, being honest and open with the people in your organization, communicating with them to let them know why you’re doing this — the purpose behind it and the way you’ve thought through it — and showing up in a very authentic way, is really, really important.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Communication continues to be key, especially regular communication. This means letting the folks in your organization know that you care, showing up authentically for them, and being honest with them about the situation. These are all approaches that are going to boost morale.

If you’re not communicating to people and they’re in the dark, they are inevitably going to form their own story. You’ve got to create a narrative around the challenges, and then you have to relentlessly communicate that. The more you can do it in person, the more that common message will resonate across the organization.

On the flip side of that, the worst thing you can do is stay silent in the light of a crisis. People will not only form their own story, but there’s also room for interpreting it to be worse than it really is. You not only have to be really clear in your message, but also honest and authentic too. I don’t believe in sugarcoating things. You’ve got to be clear about the challenges that the company is facing, why this is the challenge, and what you’re going to do about it in the context of your values and purpose as a company.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

This all ties back to a straightforward and honest approach. Rather than sugarcoating or bending the truth to make things look better, be honest and clear with difficult news. Make sure to let your team or customers know that you value them and appreciate what they’re doing, and always show a lot of gratitude.

If people are being negatively impacted, let them know that you care and will do what you can to help. I’ll share an example. A few years ago, in the early days of my time at TD Auto Finance, we had to close our contact center in Dallas. It was a decision that was the right thing to do for the business, but there were people who were negatively impacted by it. We put packages together and we moved some people to our new facility in Greenville, SC where the bank had a presence more broadly, but there were still some people that were impacted.

The way we tackled that is, by going down to Dallas to see the leaders of that facility, and to share the information in person. It was a difficult day, and there were difficult conversations I had to have. We had smaller group meetings to let people know why this was happening and where we were going. However, we then did something quite different over the period of time between when we announced that we were closing the contact center, and when we actually closed it.

We put together career fairs where we actually brought in other call center businesses that might be looking for people. These companies were really, really keen to come, and they were highly interested in talking to our employees. Many of them got hired, and it was a unique departure from what a company might normally do during a layoff situation.

We had many employees proactively tell us it showed them we care, it showed outside-the-box thinking, and that they really appreciated it. Some of those employees we’ve actually been able to bring back into our organization over time.

You really have to keep the employees at the center of your thoughts and your actions in these kinds of circumstances. Whenever you are having these difficult conversations, make sure that you’re empathetic to who’s hearing them, and how it might be affecting them.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Part of the job of a leader is to be able to operate in a vague or ambiguous environment, because it’s not always going to be black and white. In fact, in most cases, it isn’t. The future is unpredictable, but it’s always been that way. I think you must evaluate situations based on what you do know, create honest scenarios, both good, bad, and most likely. Rigorously analyze the situation, create financial plans, but most importantly, involve your team.

Being a leader can be a lonely sport, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve always found that bringing together a diverse group of leaders with different viewpoints to think through a problem leads to much better outcomes than trying to solve it on your own. There’s going to be times when the leader has to make the decision and own that decision, make no mistake with that, but trying to get as much good information in an ambiguous situation and then taking that to form a plan is really the best thing you can do. It’s never going to be totally clear. You’ve just got to be able to be comfortable in that environment and get the most diverse viewpoints that you can in order to inform your decision.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

There isn’t an easy answer to this question, but one of the things that comes to mind for me is perseverance. By this I mean having the grit and emotional intelligence to stay the course even when things aren’t unfolding the way we expect them to. Some people can get really frustrated in that sort of an environment. People are going to disappoint you, circumstances are going to seem unfair, and the best laid plans don’t commonly unfold the way you thought they were going to.

Coming back to the question on motivation, I think having the ability to persevere and realize that we are going to get through it, is key. I look back to when I took over as CFO at Volkswagen Credit in 2008, and the whole financial world was crashing around our shoulders. I was stepping into a world I really didn’t have any business taking on, to be honest, but I was surrounded with some really experienced leaders, and I was able to bring those folks together. We talked through some of the problems that we had, funded our portfolio, serviced our dealers, continued to contribute to the overall organization in a really meaningful way, and as a result, worked our way through it.

Having emotional fortitude and perseverance to go through some of these tough times has always struck me about the folks that have led through turbulent times, and we see that commonality historically in many leaders that we study.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make is losing sight of the big picture and making short-term decisions with long-term impacts. Oftentimes, this impacts employees in a negative way and can really hurt your brand. Keep the big picture in mind, think about the long-term, and recognize that sometimes what you’re facing could be a short-term problem that doesn’t deserve long-term impacts negatively affecting it.

Making decisions on the backs of your employees is sometimes the easiest thing to do, but it shouldn’t be. I’m not saying to ignore productivity levels, or not pay attention to output, because you certainly need to do that. But to only think about cutting employees or think of short-term layoffs on the heels of productivity, doesn’t always result in the kinds of outcomes that you want.

For example, there is a certain organization that was once a shining light in the American industry back in the eighties and early nineties.

One of the things that this company did, was relentlessly cut people out of their organization. They disposed of businesses that weren’t performing, performance managed their quarterly results to meet shareholder demands, but fast forwarding to today, well where are they? They lost the employee loyalty they used to be known for. They lost their long-term game plan. They cut right into the bone of their organization in many, many ways, and what was once a wonderful business became a shadow of itself over the long-term. I think we can look back at these types of mistakes and really learn from them.

Making decisions that don’t align with your core values or purpose becomes very transparent with people immediately. People are going to see right through leaders and view them as frauds if the leaders aren’t aligned with the core values or purpose of the company. If we say that our values are to enrich the lives of our employees, our customers, our communities, and our colleagues, but we’re making decisions that aren’t doing that, then people are going to see that and it’s going to cause them to question the leadership from a values point of view. These are the kinds of common mistakes that come to mind, and I see it all the time in business.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Stay true to your vision and purpose: Short-term challenges should not cause you to make decisions outside of your values and purpose as an organization. For example, at TD Auto Finance, one of the things that we want to do is make sure that we’re providing outstanding customer service. We’ve talked about that extensively within our leadership team, and one of the challenges that we’ve had is wanting to make sure that when dealers call us, they speak to a real person. As a result, we made a decision to eliminate voicemail for all our credit underwriting shops a number of years ago. That showed a commitment to our dealers and they appreciate knowing that they will get to speak with somebody when they call our shop.

Focusing and prioritizing relentlessly in times of crisis: If you’re in an uncertain or turbulent environment, you have to make sure you know what’s driving your business. Going back to the example I gave of “flying the plane,” make sure that your employees are focused and lasered in on the most important aspects of the business.

Demonstrating a calm but realistic approach to problems: Amid chaos, showing that emotional intelligence is really important. The last thing people want is a frantic leader or someone that doesn’t seem calm in the face of a difficult or turbulent environment. It’s important to look for leaders in your organization that have that emotional intelligence, who know how to focus and realistically look at things and show up in a deliberately calm way. This goes a long way to giving your colleagues, your customers, and everybody involved a sense that your organization has solid leadership.

Letting the people in your organization know that you care: We touched on this earlier and discussed frequent communication — more frequent than normal communication during times of crisis. Make sure you are showing up for your employees, letting them know you’re there with them, thanking them for their efforts, celebrating the small wins and letting them know that you care.

Cultivating diverse viewpoints: When it comes to decision making, both in turbulent times and regularly, cultivating diverse viewpoints will allow you to make better decisions. This is something I’ve learned through observation and in my own career. Having diverse point of views in terms of lived experience, background and expertise, and even personality traits and ways that folks have grown up and lived their lives, is very important. If everybody had the same background that I had, or looked like me, was raised like me, and had the same educational background, I wouldn’t need to have a team because I already know how and what I think. I think diversity around the table is going to help you to make much better decisions at any time, not necessarily just in times of crisis.

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

One lesson I’ve leaned on over the years is to take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. I’ve tried to embed this in my leadership style, where I show up as an authentic person. What you see is what you get. The people in my organization know that I can make fun of myself — I can dress up and wear green sneakers with a suit on for an awards show that we might be having for our employees. I don’t take myself particularly seriously, but I do take the work we do very seriously, and I do expect a level of excellence in presentations, analysis and leadership in our organization. I’m going to hold people accountable for that, and I certainly hold myself accountable for that as well. But again, don’t show up in a stuffy or unapproachable way. Essentially, taking your work seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously is something I try and live by.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can find me on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Andrew Stuart of TD Auto Finance On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.