“Be a good listener, and build your network.” Those are the words of Michael Burwell, a Chief Financial Officer living in Detroit, Michigan. He is a fan of finance, operations as well as entrepreneurship. He is also interested in technology and business. Burwell has been married to his wife for over three decades, and the two have a girl and a boy. Burwell is a rare combination of fair ruthlessness, compassionate execution, a love for teamwork and people, a unique ability to truly listen and get to know people as well as one of the most successful within the finance and accounting sector. He is a true leader who believes in human potential, while at the same time relentlessly focusing on advancing business operations overall.
Micahel Burwell was featured on IdeaMensch earlier this year – the interview is a powerful insight into his personality both personally as well as professionally. Burwell possesses over three decades of experience, and he is a respected authority in the field of finance and accounting. His professionalism, expertise and outstanding performance are why he is considered to be among the top as well as most influential authority within the finance sector. Furthermore, Burwell has consulted about projects for both large and small private national companies, he has consulted on business models and projections of various private equity funds and lead teams analyzing individual product profitability and product/process enhancements across several industries.
In other words, Burwell has distinguished himself through both his professionalism as well as outstanding performance within his field. He has guided management of global as well as regional finance departments as well as consulted several local and international enterprises when it comes to finance. Most notably, what sets Burwell apart from the rest of his colleagues in the finance industry are several additional qualities. He is a unique and effective leader whose leadership style focuses on nurturing talents rather than upholding strict rules. This is evident in Burwell’s continuous efforts to inspire his teams to continuously strive to become more innovative. This he achieves by mentoring and inspiring his teams to always think outside the box and beyond the instructions as they seek more effective and durable solutions to complicated problems. Along those lines, when asked about how he brings ideas to life in a recent IdeaMensch interview, Michael Burwell points out that this is hugely dependent on the people within his organization. More specifically, he points out that individuals within his organization have great ideas that he makes sure get the proper light of day. He is convinced that the next Uber and Airbnb talents are within his organization, and he focuses on making sure these ideas are heard. “These digital ninjas are the secret weapons,” he states.
Furthermore, during that same interview, Burwell was asked about the one thing he would do over and over and recommend to everyone else, and his answer was very people-centric, again. He underlines the importance of listening to others as well as expanding one’s network. This, he states, is because there is something interesting about everyone and only by listening will one find out what that really is. He adds that he “really tries to be in the moment when communicating with others and engaging to understand them.” He also believes that each person is different, and only by listening can one understand what the individual’s assets are and, more importantly, how to enhance those assets. Burwell underlines the importance of being positive in this endeavor and finding out what an individual is looking to achieve personally as well as professionally. “What is driving them? What do they want to accomplish?” as he states. Once that is understood, then one also understands who that person really is.
De-couple the positive as well as the areas for improvement otherwise the individual only hears the latter.
Burwell’s love for interaction as well as people is evident from several perspectives. He is also honest about how people have affected him. He gives credit to many of them by saying that a lot of people have contributed to his success, including business acquaintances, friends as well as other connections. This he ties back to being a good listener, again, and building those networks that are so vital to one’s career.
Another notable quality of the Detroit-based certified public accountant is that he is self-inspired. When asked about where he gets his inspiration from, Burwell suggests looking in the mirror. Rather than seeking motivation as well as inspiration from those around them, leaders ought to try and become that themselves. He mentions his wife being one of his greatest motivators, someone who is always honest about her opinions and who has always given him the right kind of feedback that has helped him move forward.
He also mentions his upbringing as having had a huge influence on the development of some of his most notable characteristics that have also helped him in his career. He grew up in Michigan on a farm, where he had to help his parents during most of his childhood. This included waking up early in the mornings to attend to farm animals, which he did not always enjoy. Burwell states that that has had a lasting effect on him as he wakes up early in the morning to this day, and the experience of having to do what he does not always enjoy has taught him perseverance as well as dedication, which have helped him succeed in life and in his career.
When asked about what his typical day looks like, Burwell shares with IdeaMensch that he wakes up at 5am every day and that his very first activity is making his bed even when he is on business trips and spending nights at hotels. This, he states, makes him feel like he has already accomplished something that day. He then gets on his Peloton bike – a high tech stationary bike – and plans his day while he is exercising. “It keeps me on task and at the beginning of the month I reflect on the month, and at the beginning of the week and so on,” he states.
Burwell also credits his mother for steering him into the direction of accounting and finance. She was in a financial services business working in a local school district, and she would often bring her work home with her. Burwell, having been a curious kid, always inquired about what it was that she was working on. “She got me hooked,” he states. “She was very good about getting me interested.” This interest started in high school and that is what Burwell took up on college and has been doing ever since. Burwell has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Michigan State University where he shaped his skills in Mergers and Acquisitions, Finance, CPA, Leadership and Portfolio Management. He is a certified public accountant. He was named Michigan State University’s Alumnus of the year in 2010.
Burwell is currently the Chief Financial Officer of Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW), which is the merger of Towers Watson and Willis. It is an 8.6 billion revenue company with 43,000 employees operating in over 100 countries, focusing on offering global advisory, broking and solutions in order to help clients around the world turn risks into a path for growth. According to the company website, the firm “designs and delivers solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas – the dynamic formula that drives business performance.” Specifically, Burwell’s focus is on advising global insurance services provides on all things finance. This is considered particularly appropriate for this role due to his expertise in realms such as business valuations that is crucial for the insurance process.
In terms of what he believes makes him successful, Burwell states that it is a combination of possessing confidence in his abilities as well as the decisions he makes. He also adds that he is diligence, as he elaborates, “I’m relentless, I put the work it takes to get the job done and I feel that they have served me well in my career.” Furthermore, he also believes that it is his desire and drive to connect to people, understand their potential and do everything he can to bring out the best in them. Parallel to that, he himself always looks to be as efficient as possible. He seeks to truly maximize his day and focus on efforts to develop the best team possible so that he can rely on his colleagues and trust them. He is cognizant of the fact that people are a crucial part of the business, and as such he spends a good part of his week on talent development. In terms of trust, he believes that meeting as well as exceeding expectations are best means by which trust is maintained. In other words, keeping the promises that one makes is crucial in building trust, which is pivotal in a successful business.
When asked about what Burwell considers to be true but almost everyone else disagrees with him on, he states that it is his opinion on micro-communities. He believes that they “will continue to grow and the technology to support them will be key. I believe the platform will continue to evolve because like-minded people want to connect and advertisers want to reach them. Watch this space!”
When asked about how long it took him to become profitable, Burwell’s answer is very level headed. According to him, “Again, as with how I make money, profit is not something you get and then just have. You can lose capital and value just as easily as you can earn it. In fact, in a lot of ways it is much easier to lose it than it is to earn it.” He adds that one must learn from one’s experiences and take advantage of the lessons that are provided. “With experience and an understanding of your industry, you can make smart decisions about risk and business operations that will lead to profitability,” he adds.
Burwell shares that the one strategy that has helped him in his entrepreneurial endeavors is perseverance. “Be positive, be relentless, everyone will tell you why it will not work. I would always celebrate wins with the team and assess why we won and why we lost; we can always get better. As an example, simply ask what one thing could we have done better?” Burwell is also notably practical. When asked about what it is that makes him productive in his days, he states that it is the mindset of how to maximize that which one is working with. In other words, how to do more with less, which is why Burwell believes that technology makes great individuals even more productive.
In terms of failures, Burwell recalls during the IdeaMensch interview one instance that his colleagues viewed as a failure but he himself did not. He was the lead on a new technology, and the company had already invested several million dollars into it when Burwell decided to stop it as he foresaw that the efforts were not going to lead to a market lead. He believed that the best decision was to stop it, while his colleagues disagreed and therefore viewed it as a failure. Burwell comments that this experience served as an example-fail fast and a learning example. He mentions that one always has to keep an eye on the marketplace for potential disruption – had he not stopped the effort, the company would have lost millions more.
The advice that Burwell would give to his younger self is not something that one hears every day. Rather, it is the advice of someone who has a lot of introspection. “Collaboration does not equal consensus,” according to Burwell. “You will get the lowest common denominator if you must have consensus every time, be careful trying to make everyone happy, although it is always nice if you can.” Burwell hopes that he will serve as an example for other leaders and entrepreneurs so that they implement the same practices in their leadership roles.
Michael Burwell was also featured on The Art of Success podcast, hosted by Daniel Budzinski, who asked him to comment on how the entrepreneur stays humble during his successes and what cues he uses to remember that life is not all about material values, Burwell comments that he believes that everyone is important in an organization, beginning from the maintenance team and going all the way up to the executives. He mentions that he is grateful for everything that everyone does and that he makes it a point to thank his colleagues for the work they do, regardless of the level at which they operate.
Budzinski asked Burwell about his next steps and what he believes the future looks like for him. Given his focus on creating the best teams and bringing the best out of everyone he works with, it comes as no surprise that Burwell is very focused on the next generation of leaders. His focus is on them and devoting as much time to them as he can so that his vision can be propagated inside the company beyond his tenure there. Furthermore, he will continue working with colleagues in helping solve client issues. He is excited about growing the business, about hiring great people, as well as the continued investments. He states that he looks forward to being part of a tremendous story five to seven years from now both business wise as well as community wise.
A few more interesting facts about Burwell, based on the IdeaMensch interview are that he uses flip board, a web service he finds useful as he believes “it brings him content on a real time basis for him to browse.” One trend that really excites him is InsureTech “the ideas that are surfacing really interesting starting in the B to C marketplace. We have been observing these through our Plug and Play relationship. We see very interesting connections and changes.” Furthermore, one book that he recommends everyone ought to read is Soft Selling in a Hard World by Jerry Vass. He believes that it could help the reader understand what it truly takes to be successful. Burwell’s favorite quote is one by his daughter, “There is only one place to look for leadership and that is in the mirror.”