TIAA-CREF – A Culture Change Story, Starting with Values

Founded in 1918, TIAA-CREF is a Fortune 100 company that serves 4.8 million individuals and is ranked number one among all financial firms in serving the not-for-profit and K-12 markets. Engagement at TIAA-CREF is at all time high, while retention is at an all time low. Not to be complacent, however, in early 2013, Skip Spriggs, EVP and Chief Human Resources Officer, and the leadership team at TIAA-CREF embarked on a journey to create a high-performance culture. It begs the question: Why fix something that isn't broken?

In short, turbulence and change within the industry created challenges and opportunities that necessitated continuous improvement. Despite having a highly engaged workforce, low attrition and being named to many “Best Places to Work” lists, Spriggs and his leadership team needed to make sure they had the right culture in place to support their long-term strategy of growth and diversification (Vision 2020).

Recognizing that their culture needed to evolve with their strategy—and that vision and cultures don't change overnight—TIAA-CREF began the process of defining the culture of the future by identifying which elements of the current culture they wanted to preserve as well as the values that their people live and breathe every day.

Beginning with a retreat, leaders across the organization met to define and refine the organization’s values. A Culture Committee was formed, comprised mostly of front-line managers tasked with benchmarking the initial set of values against leading industry companies, then vetting them with employees through focus groups before being finalized. Through this process, TIAA-CREF came up with a set of six values: customer first, deliver excellence, act with integrity, personal accountability, operate as one team and value people—of which the last three were new (as stated values) for TIAA-CREF.

To create awareness, the first step in creating change in an organization’s culture, the HR and marketing teams partnered to create materials and programs to help employees understand what the values mean. Their job was to equip the leaders, help embed the values in their management practices and engage and inspire a movement. One of the programs included creating a video that highlighted dozens of employees sharing what the values mean to them and how they are exhibited in the organization.

Spriggs highlighted the importance of leadership, not just HR, owning any culture change initiative. He also emphasized the importance of tying any culture change initiative to overall business strategy and making sure to take a holistic view of all the elements that make up the organizational culture.

Awareness is only the first of many stages of a culture change initiative; next on the journey is for all employees to understand how the values help drive success.

Change is inevitable. Organizations and individuals have two choices, resist and stay the course, or embrace change and enjoy the ride. One long-time employee at TIAA-CREF said it best, “though I have seen lots of change, it’s all for the better and it’s all for our clients.”