Most people get varsity letter jackets from their school, not their company. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first corporate job was more like a school for me, than just a job. Like a good school, I learned how to lead. I learned good habits. I learned the right way to do things.
It’s easy to be nostalgic about the past, but more than that, I want to share what I experienced because it was rare and special. Here we go.
In the fall of 1999, I landed my first real corporate job as a full-time employee. Before that, I worked as a contractor, but I wanted something more permanent. I wanted to feel part of something bigger than myself.
I joined RFC. RFC stood for Residential Funding Corporation. It was a mortgage securitization company headquartered in Bloomington, MN, and owned by General Motors. I worked in the IT department for eight years. Here are the lessons I learned:
I was a nobody. I didn’t go to a fancy school. I didn’t have any connections. I worked hard, learned fast, and advanced quickly. In my eight years there, I went from the help desk to leading a team of senior systems engineers through a series of five promotions.
I benefited from meritocracy. Now, I look to do the same for others. I keep my eye out for talent on my team, for hidden gems, for the diamonds in the rough. I shine a light on the unseen. I help people move around and up. There are few pleasures greater than giving an opportunity to someone who has earned it.
All the way back in the early 2000s, RFC was a digital company. We bought and sold mortgages on the Internet back when the Internet was new. Few commercial software solutions were available in the market, so we custom-developed most of our technologies. We were an agile digital product company before anyone knew what to call it.
I’d love to take credit for that, but that would be misplaced. I didn’t create that environment, but I lived in it and learned from it. The IT department had amazing technical prowess, but it was the business demand that made the most impact. Our business leaders understood the power of digital technology and went all in.
From the experience, I learned about the important partnership between business and IT. We desperately need each other. IT needs the business to drive the vision. The business needs IT to create innovative solutions. Since then, I’ve valued and fostered those important leadership relationships.
I worked for incredible leaders at RFC. I just had no idea how lucky I was. They cared. They created a community. They drove hard and expected excellence. They took the blame when things went wrong and gave credit when things went right. This goes beyond any single leader but was a leadership culture that permeated. It was people-first every day.
Because of this, servant leadership is my native tongue. Command and control just seems weird to me. I recoil when I come across it. Others have only experienced bad leadership, therefore unlearning those bad behaviors is difficult. I learned by example to lead the right way from the onset, and I’m very grateful.
Work is fun
I mentioned earlier that RFC stood for Residential Funding Corporation, but internally we called it “Really Fun Company” because it was. It was at RFC that I learned that humor sets people at ease, laughter bonds a team, and fun makes us more creative problem solvers.
Business values matter
So far, you might be thinking, “RFC sounds like the perfect company.” Well, it wasn’t. My first seven years there were great. The last one was not.
RFC was in the subprime mortgage business. If you’ve ever seen the movie, The Big Short, you are aware of the corruption that surrounded the 2008 mortgage crisis. RFC was far from blameless in this, and it eventually went bankrupt.
From my low position in the bowels of IT, I was oblivious to the corruption in our business, but I was nevertheless impacted by it. I watched the company I loved burn to the ground. I left by my own choice with the help of a strong professional network.
I had other jobs after RFC, but my search for a values-based company eventually landed me at CHS. There are a lot of good business practices that make CHS solid, but it’s our values that will keep us going for another 100 years.
The RFC School of Leadership
In retrospect, it was fitting that RFC gave their employees varsity letter jackets. Like school, we learned, we made memories, and then we all moved on. Most RFC alumni I know look back at those days fondly. And most, like me, know exactly where we keep our RFC jackets. I eventually toss most corporate knickknacks, but I’ll keep this one forever. It was more than a mortgage company. It was an alma mater.
RFC alumni in my readership, please give me a shout in the comments!