How Culture Contributes to High Performance at Northern Trust

Leadership Profile
Written by Kara Bobowski

Tom South

Executive Vice President & CIO

Northern Trust

JULY 2023

Executive Vice President and CIO Tom South has been at Northern Trust for more than 22 years. He believes the company’s values and culture are the reasons why. Earlier in his career, Tom worked in consulting, which gave him the opportunity to observe how other companies and their cultures worked. “What helped me choose where I am today is the way Northern Trust’s values aligned most to my aspirational values,” he explained.

Tom had opportunities to go elsewhere over the years, but as he said, “There is this culture that is really appealing to me. The reason I belabor that point is because it's the reason why I'm still here.” 

The company’s core principles of service, expertise and integrity are values that Tom “aspires to live every day.” He was also impressed that all the leaders he worked for in IT in 1999 were women. “That was not common,” he said. “I had been in tech organizations at other financial firms, and there were no women in leadership. So, there was something about gender equity here that I had not yet seen in my career experience.”

Embracing a “Culture of Caring”

The established values of Northern Trust served the company well over the tumultuous years of the pandemic. “In our own technology organization, we really worked on this culture of caring because most of my time leading IT have been health crisis years,” said Tom. “We started leaning into this, asking managers: ‘Hey, first thing you do, check on your team, and make sure they're okay.’ And I didn’t mean that their projects were green. I meant, ‘How are you doing?’”

Tom said that he started a Friday tradition in which he video calls three people randomly around the company and checks in on them. “Then, our managers started doing it, so we've really built this culture of care and collaboration. To me, it was a natural offshoot of the company culture that was in place when I joined in 1999.”

3 Leadership Principles That Impact the Culture at Northern Trust

Based on Tom’s experience at an organization with a great culture, these are three leadership principles he thinks are most important: 

Integrity. “I would rather work with people who have integrity than work with the most brilliant minds. At the end of the day, if you can't count on a person's word and bond and commitment, that's a really hard place to be in.”

Curiosity. Tom believes that people can no longer acquire skills that are going to last for a long time – they have to be lifelong learners. “In the tech industry today, given how fast things are moving, the number one skill out there is the ability to acquire new skills. That constant curiosity and learning is a big one.”

Joy. “Whether you call it fun, fulfillment, enrichment or esprit de corps, you've got to find some joy in and enjoyment out of your vocation. I look for team members who want to be here, who want to find some joy in this vocation because the jobs are hard enough already.”

Culture Carriers and Returning to the Office

Like many companies, employees at Northern Trust have been working from home since the start of the pandemic. Navigating a hybrid workplace has been another opportunity to apply the company’s culture and principles. Tom said their approach is evolving like everyone else’s, and they are “keeping our core principles in mind.” He acknowledged to his team that “things will evolve, and we will be open on where we made decisions and why we made them. You may not agree with all of them, but we make them with the idea that we lean towards flexibility.”

We are in an evolving workplace environment. No firm in our industry has it figured out, and no firm in any industry has it figured out. We're trying to find what works best for us to meet the clients’ needs.”

Tom believes that a company has to find the right fit for employees in the workplace environment. “What I know is that we have to find what makes it special about working together here. At Northern Trust, we came up with a framework around the kinds of activities that make sense to be in the office. For instance, if employees work with clients, and the clients are in the office, then the employees should be there, too. We believe that we are ‘building a practice together,’ and the mentorship and collaboration that go along with that are more effective in person.” 

Then, there are what Tom calls “the culture carriers,” another important factor in being around colleagues in the office. He explains that they have one of the strongest tenure rates in the industry with people who have been at Northern Trust for thirty to forty years. “This culture, I learned it from somebody,” he explains. “I was coming from consulting. It was a very different culture. If you didn't have a gig for two weeks, then you were going home. This isn't that kind of place. So, I learned the culture by being around other people who are culture carriers.”  

Tom also believes that it is most important for people who are starting their careers to be around culture carriers and build a network internally. “I've been here long enough that I know the key players,” he said. “I know somebody in audit, I know somebody in HR, if I need help. But you have to build that network.” 

And the ways of networking have changed drastically with remote work. Tom said, “The way you used to build that network when you first came into the workforce was you came into the office, you went to happy hours, and your work became a big part of your social life.” He said that it’s more of a struggle to be newer in your career right now and not have access to those opportunities. “We are starting to plan social interactions specifically for people who are early in their careers at Northern Trust.”

How Organizational Culture Contributes to a High-Performance Team

Tom believes that it’s not just about having a great organizational culture, but how that culture contributes to results and performance. To remain competitive in their industry, Northern Trust has to draw the highest performance possible out of the workforce. As he explains, “We are in a cutthroat industry, in which most of our competitors are five times our size. We don't survive without high performance. So, our aspiration is consistently that – high performance. Our way of evoking that from people is to care about their well-being. Be clear on their objectives. Be fair in our assessment of their performance. And be fair in our dispensation of compensation, rewards and recognition.”

We have hired a team of people that believe in the concept that if you treat people the right way, they'll work harder than they ever would have… because what we aspire to is a high-performance culture.”

He said that he occasionally tests out with his leadership team if they are spending too much time on soft skills and organizational culture – but their performance has never been better. “Our metrics, our portfolio health, our retention, our engagement scores — almost every metric we have tells us that we're performing as well as we've ever performed,” Tom said.  

He adds that the long tenure of their employees and their low turnover rate is a “strategic advantage.” He also believes that Northern Trust attracted a lot of great talent during the pandemic “partly because of our culture.” 

Tom sums up the company’s approach by saying that “the thing we are doing here is trying to build for the long term. That's why we've been leaning into the principles we've leaned into. It’s been our way of achieving this high performance.”

Tom South is a Governing Body Co-Chair of the Chicago CIO Community, and was previously featured on an episode of The Next Big Question podcast.

Special thanks to Tom South and Northern Trust.

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