As part of M Financial’s celebration of Pride Month and our ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion, Wes Thompson, M’s President and Chief Executive Officer, was interviewed by Jennifer Lowrance, M’s Senior Organizational Development Manager. During the conversation, Wes discussed company practices that make a meaningful difference in empowering employees, and how the intentional actions of people in his life helped him see a path that brought him to where he is today.
Jennifer: A huge part of a person’s wellbeing is being able to live life proudly and feel accepted. How do you make your racially- and gender-diverse executive team feel a sense of belonging and then extend it to others at M?
Wes: It’s really important that all the voices in the room are reflected in key decisions. Oftentimes, when everyone is heard, you get better ideas from those who aren’t subject matter experts because they’re not locked into thinking about a topic’s technicalities.
To answer the second part of the question, it’s really about creating an environment that makes everyone feel safe and inspired, and inspiring people to find their leadership voice.
Similarly, in our personal lives, a diverse set of friends helps us to make better life decisions.
Jennifer: Did anyone early in your career encourage your voice and make you decide to choose insurance as a career path?
Wes: John Filer, the former CEO of Aetna, the company that I was recruited to when I started my career, was an early advocate of diversity. His leadership helped create a welcoming environment. I was able to look around me and see that there were other people of color and women who were significantly high up in the organization. It made me feel comfortable and confident that there was a path, that I was welcome, and that if I applied myself, I could be successful.
Ultimately, it comes down to the leadership and culture, which is about the way that we treat each other within an organization. If you think about diversity, which is a part of culture, it’s not just about the celebration of any given month, but about accepting it for the entire year, for a lifetime. Pride Month and Black History Month aren’t about one month. They're about accepting and being willing to be open and recognize the value that diversity brings to the culture of the organization and the sustainability and success that it brings to any company.
There have been a number of times someone has been an ally to me, and because these experiences are so powerful, you never forget them. One, in particular, stands out. My family immigrated to Birmingham, England, from Jamaica, and in school there were only two or three people of color that looked like me. It was daunting because I was 10 and in a classroom of 25–30 kids in a school of several hundred. We just stood out. One teacher made sure that I got introduced to other kids in the class on a personal level and was at the playground during breaks to make sure that I, and others that looked like me, were being connected in a way that we weren’t just off to ourselves and isolated.
It was really intentional. And it wasn’t until I was a couple of years older that I realized how intentional it was. And that’s the point. You do have to be intentional about how you align to help people to navigate environments where they are different.
Jennifer: How do you act intentionally?
Wes: It’s really just doing for others what has been done for me. I’m very intentional, whether it’s just in normal day-to-day interactions that I might have, or through community involvement. I don’t think we can go through life and just stumble on things. I think we have to be intentional, particularly as it relates to diversity and inclusion, whether it be engaging the LGBTQ community or making sure we recognize the challenges of people of color or anyone that’s not in the majority. There is so much opportunity for engagement that it’s pretty easy to engage if you intend to.
Jennifer: How is M Financial being intentional?
Wes: Magnet, a program that brings diversity to our advisor network, is a big part of our efforts. The insurance industry needs to think about diversity and inclusion, and more specifically, the face, look, and feel of our advisor network. It will take years to do, but at least we’ve started that journey and we’re intentional about it.
Jennifer: Living intentionally feels like something easier said than done. What advice would you give to someone trying to enhance this?
Wes: During the turmoil of COVID-19 and protests last summer and fall, we were really forced as a community and as a nation to start listening more to better understand challenges faced by people who have been marginalized, and I hope that that carries forward.
Once we’re comfortable listening and understand what others are experiencing and feeling, there’s a real opportunity for positive action. Whether these are through daily actions or through our participation in organizations or nonprofits that actively promote diversity and inclusion, there are no shortages to how we can all make positive change.
We need to ask ourselves: How can I help others? How can I lead others? How can I pass along all the knowledge I’ve gained from experience and the care that others have bestowed upon me? And then intentionally strive to bring that change into reality.