Benchwarmers: Jack Brennan

By Claire Kramer

Table of Contents

ON THE BENCH

Jack Brennan
This was not one of my aspirations actually as a college athlete, to be a benchwarmer.

Jack Swarbrick
This this would have been the only place I was a college athlete would have been on the bench. You were a very successful college athlete, and not just one sport.

Jack Brennan
No, I was a college athlete. We’ll let the adjective be defined by somebody else. But it was a crucial part of what college was for me. And I look back and it’s why I’m such a huge proponent of and supporter of athletics as a core part of any university, but especially this university, because I know what it did for me.

A LOUSY GOLFER

Jack Swarbrick
I think one of the things that’s lost in youth sports increasingly, certainly high school sports and almost completely in college sports, is the multi-sport athlete. We’ve moved away from it. That’s such a shame. And you’re a great example of the benefits of that.

Jack Brennan
Huge benefits of it. I understand why we moved away from it… seasons overlap now; they didn’t overlap before. It’s funny. A Notre Dame hockey player stopped me. He said, “I always think about a talk you gave a couple years ago.” I’m impressed he went to the talk. I don’t remember the talk. And he said, “You talked about being a generalist and being balanced,” and he goes, “I got a book recommendation for you.” I get home. There’s a book from Amazon called “Reach” and it’s about generalists’ success in the world. Really cool. It really was. It’s a great tribute to what a Notre Dame student athlete is, right? But I think people who specialize, particularly in sports, too early… my view is that when you get to college, the best athlete still wins. I’ll take a great athlete who is a little marginally less skilled. Because I can teach him the skills but I can’t make him an athlete or her an athlete.

Jack Swarbrick
That competitive experience really can be a difference maker.

Jack Brennan
It’s huge. It’s huge. And by the way, you have to adapt to different teammates. The overlap in anything between my hockey teammates, and my lacrosse teammates in college, was zero, basically, except me. But I love them both. But just totally different experiences. And if you’re only on one team, you’re only with one group of people, it’s a little different, particularly growing up. You’re 14 years old, go play with a bunch of different people. Our kids played multiple sports and it was fabulous. They wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Jack Swarbrick
And you coached them in that.

Jack Brennan
I loved it. You know, these people say, “You’re a lousy golfer.” But I’m a hell of a youth sports coach! Because for me, it was a twofer, right. You get to help shape your kids in a different forum, and you get a lot of quality time with your kids.

YOU’RE BOBBY ORR

Jack Swarbrick
So you were a recruited student-athlete, highly sought after prospect… you picked Dartmouth. Why?

Jack Brennan
It’s a long story. But first, I did want to go to a place where I could play at least two, if not three sports, top level hockey in particular. But I needed a lacrosse team to go with that as well. So that narrowed the field down to where I might consider going. It felt like the right place. And for me, it was at the time. Ironically, one of my travel team teammates Dukey Walsh came here to Notre Dame the next year. We were all like: a.) Where is Notre Dame? And b.) Do they have a hockey team?! And he was a fabulous hockey player as anybody around here knows, and a great, great Notre Dame man. But it was good fortune for me. I had a great experience academically, athletically, and most importantly, it’s where I met my wife. Everything else could have been a failure. I consider that a success for me. I’m not sure for her by the way. We’re not gonna ask her!

Jack Swarbrick
It’s great here you mention Dukey because as a student here, my greatest fan interest was Notre Dame hockey. They had a heck of a team back then.

Jack Brennan
They did, and it was amazing to us Eastern snobs that Notre Dame could produce such a good team. One of the great stories about Dukey.. We went on a trip to Eastern Europe and Russia playing on a team representing the country. And blond hair, number four… they all thought he was Bobby Orr. A couple of nights into the tour, he just started signing Bobby Orr when anybody asked. He played like Bobby, compared to the rest of us. He was Bobby Orr! But it’s a great example of how quickly this place can build something. What you’ve done in lacrosse, my other sport, it defies the odds. It is an Eastern sport. And there are fabulous institutions, you can go to play it. And I don’t know for sure, but I’m confident we’re one of the 1, 2, 3 best records in the last 15 years cumulative. It’s the power of Notre Dame, right? It’s.. “I get everything I would get there… plus”. And to me, that’s the magic of Notre Dame Athletics, frankly, is striving to be the best and doing it the right way. I think it’s a miracle in some ways. But the more I get to know Notre Dame over time, I realize it’s not a miracle. It’s what this place is about.

THE VANGUARD CULTURE

Jack Swarbrick
We are very fortunate. And I’m very fortunate with the people I get to work with, both the coaches, but especially the students who are part of those teams. This place attracts great people.

Jack Brennan
And it’s a virtuous circle, right? You’re a recruit, you meet our student athletes, you want to be part of them. I think I told you. First time on campus, I was taking my oldest on a tour. I tried to hire the tour guide. And I admired the kid; he goes, “Mr. Brennan, I’m trying to milk this student thing for as long as I can!” I say, “Well, here’s my card, put it on your bulletin board. You have a job at Vanguard. You’re high character, you’re smart as hell, you’re fun. Come to work for us sometime.” He thought it was a lunatic. But it’s just an example. When you bring students to visit, whether student athletes or not, they want to be part of the student body. And then if you say “I can be with that caliber of person and compete for national championships”… Name me the five places you can do that.

Jack Swarbrick
Whenever I tell people I know you…

Jack Brennan
After they offer condolences, what do they say?

Jack Swarbrick
Almost always, they talk about the Vanguard culture. I mean it. I can’t think of a lot of businesses where it is more identified with the culture that exists within the business than it is at Vanguard. And you are identified as the person who helped to build that culture. Talk to me a little bit about identifying the need to do that. And then how you went about doing it.

Jack Brennan
So the need starts with differentiation. In my opinion.

I think culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that an institution, whether it's an academic institution, or a governmental institution, or a church, or a corporation can have.

Sustainable if you have an objective to be great, get better, and endure. And I had the privilege of working at a place before I went to Vanguard for a short period of time, called SC Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin. Family owned, unbelievable culture. And we didn’t really have a culture when I went to Vanguard. They were trying but weren’t quite sure they knew what they wanted to be or how to be it. My predecessor CEO and my partner for 14 years… one of the reasons he hired me was he wanted a different point of view. And so we stepped back and said, “How are we going to be differentiated and compelling to the marketplace, but also as importantly, compelling as a place to work?” And we made a very conscious effort. So frankly, we had to change people. We had to define really effectively the core values upon which we build this culture and never move from them. And then, what do we need in the people to make it happen? We made some mistakes along the way. But again, I think it’s a virtuous circle. If you have a compelling culture, it’s a differentiator in the marketplace. I believe that’s very true for Notre Dame as it is for Vanguard. It’s going to attract people who will come for the mission and the culture, not for $10,000 extra pay or something else. At the end of the day, it’s a long journey, and sometimes you have to make cultural change abruptly, or try to. I think we had the advantage of making the core of changes over six years, making some mistakes, and improving upon it. And then the big challenge, Jack, and you know this well, is sustaining and nurturing that culture. It’s, to me, it’s where organizations fall down. It’s hard work. In our case, we’re a highly regulated institution

We have no tangible assets. We got one thing and it's the trust of our clients and the loyalty of our employees,

who we call crew members. We tell people “We have no safety net. If you ever cut a corner… If you ever put our reputation for integrity and trusted at risk… you could kill us. And by the way, it is black and white here. If that’s not for you, go someplace else.” We’re never gonna say that’s a great salesperson, let’s treat her differently. We’re never gonna say that’s a great investor, let’s treat him differently. And to me, when I look over almost 40 years now, the thing that’s most remarkable to me about the culture of Vanguard, is it’s as strong or stronger today as it was when we started this journey in the early 80s. [Church bells ring.]

Jack Swarbrick
Whenever you say particularly insightful things, we’re gonna ring the Basilica bells, okay?

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What Matters

Jack Swarbrick
I came across “Leadership lessons with former Vanguard CEO Jack Brennan”.

Jack Brennan
I hope it was ghostwritten well!

Jack Swarbrick
I’m sure it wasn’t ghostwritten. The first was, “Measure the right things the right way”.

What matters? Not what matters in the minute. What matters in the long term.

Jack Brennan
What matters? Not what matters in the minute. What matters in the long term. I’ll give an example. So my first two visits here, I try to hire the tour guide. And at the freshman mass, Father Malloy gets up and says, “It’s great to have you here. I know for some of you, this has been a lifetime dream. For others, you’re here because we’re a pretty highly ranked University. Neither of those matters to us. We’re driven by taking young people in and sending them out as better adults who are going to do great things in the world. I really don’t care where we’re ranked in something.” I sent him a letter afterwards and said, “I feel so great about dropping my son there because you define clearly what matters at the University of Notre Dame. What impact will our students have in the world.” And to me, it’s great. My favorite number one flag is graduation rate. In the end, that’s what matters for us, and to do what else we do, is powerful.

The Mouths of Babes

Jack Swarbrick
The second one was “Make loyalty relevant to every employee”.

Jack Brennan
We’ve always hired people, and on the first day, you get visited by one of the senior people. I would always take the pre-lunch spot, and say, “I hope this is your last job.” And if you’re 22 it feels like a jail sentence, right? But we promise you a career, not a job. And we will demonstrate that by giving you opportunity. And we will demonstrate that by the way we reward you and so on. Because we truly believe that people who will sign on to this mission are teammates, not individuals, and being fully dedicated to our clients, are rare commodities. Loyalty is a two way street. It has served us unbelievably well. Our current CEO started as a summer kid.

Jack Swarbrick
I love businesses that are systematic about connecting senior level management to new people in the business, because you can’t let it happen by chance.

Jack Brennan
For 25 years I had breakfast with 15 random new people every week. Phenomenal experience. I had 15 of them one day rewrite the mission statement for the company. “Mr. Brennan, I read our mission statement” – which I hadn’t paid any attention to because I’m not a big believer in that stuff – “I don’t even understand it.” I said, “What do you think our mission is?” He answered, “Create better financial futures for our clients who are loyal to us.” I stopped. “Oh, that sounds pretty good!” Literally it was a Thursday, I had a Friday board meeting, I went to the board and said, “You know, I don’t think you guys have to pass on this, but..!” The kid who said it had been here six months. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

Jack Swarbrick
And having a having a forum where that can happen…

Jack Brennan
Our employee turnover rates are fractions of our competitors. Fractions. You can’t imagine how many 35 year people call and say, “Can I come see Jack before I leave?” It just it makes my heart swell to see these people who have dedicated their lives to us, but hopefully we’ve treated them well in return.

NO SUCH THING

Jack Swarbrick
“Don’t confuse customer service and customer loyalty.”

Jack Brennan
Service is easy. For us, one of the economic secrets to Vanguard is client retention rates that are multiples of the industry. In any business, attracting new customers is the hard thing. And the expensive thing. Retaining them is the low cost thing. That was one of the things we figured out early on. We needed to compound loyalty as a key value. Anybody can answer the phones. It’s how you answer the phones. Anybody can solve a problem. It’s how you solve the problem. Anybody can offer a better deal. It’s how broadly do you offer the better deal. And again, it’s a cultural norm that we’re owned.. I had somebody stop me on the plane on the way out here yesterday. She says, “You look just like Jack Brennan” and I was tempted to say, “I get that all the time”, but I thought I might get outed on it.

Jack Swarbrick
I’m really Bobby Orr!

Jack Brennan
I’m Dukey Walsch! But she said, “I just want to thank you, for what you and your company have done for my family. We’re just small investors.” And I said, “This is gonna sound trite. There are no such things as small investors at Vanguard. Every single person – I don’t care if you have a billion dollars or a thousand – you’re one of the owners of this company and we’re gonna stand on our heads for you.”

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FOLLOW THE LEADER

Jack Swarbrick
“Leverage the power of the CEO to focus the organization.”

Jack Brennan
I actually have never been a person who respects position or power, which, among the list of my 7000 character flaws, is high on the list. If someone says, “I’m the boss,” I couldn’t care less. But most of the world does. And so you realize

people watch how the leader behaves, where the leader spends his or her time... Does the leader walk the talk?

It’s an unbelievably powerful force, whether it’s the coach of the team, the athletic director of the university, the president of the university. Most people in that employee base follow the leader. I didn’t understand that frankly when I was young, because it was not my nature. I got smacked upside the head by a guy who I was gonna terminate, who said “You don’t understand. Everybody in this company hangs on every single thing you say and thing you do.” You have to carry that burden for the rest of your life. It was a great lesson.

Jack Swarbrick
You mentioned something which I’ve humbly humbly named the Swarbrick Paradox.

Jack Brennan
On accustom as I am to naming things after myself…

Jack Swarbrick
It’s my experience that frequently people who are best able to lead are the ones who are least likely to perceive the need for leadership, especially by them, because they don’t look for that in themselves.

Jack Brennan
I think it’s a brilliant observation. And it’s so true. Father Jenkins is the paramount example of that in so many ways. I think in the absolute best sense, it’s a calling. And my guess is, like most great leaders, in some ways he thinks he’s faking it every day. It’s funny when you see somebody who says, “I’m here to be the boss…” – they got no shot.

AN ACQUIRED TASTE

Jack Swarbrick
What screws up good cultures? When people get it and they’ve sustained it for a while, what are the threats? What gets them?

Jack Brennan
I think there’s a few things. Thinking that emulation creates great culture is one thing, because great cultures are generally differentiated. There’s two ways to think about culture. There’s “distinctive and competitively advantageous,” and then there’s “safe”. And “safe” is where most people and organizations feel most comfortable and want to be. So being different from our peers is an uncomfortable place to be. Competitively I think it’s a great place to be. And then the second thing is compromise. “Yes, But.” It’s the worst thing you can do. You have to say, “There are certain parts of this culture that are permanent and inviolable.” I’ve seen great competitors of ours, and they decided that just around the edges, they could tweak things from the core, and it’s a huge mistake. It invariably screws up a great culture. And then third, and probably most obviously, is bad leader. Great cultures are created by and sustained by great leadership, where they know who they are, they know how they compete. They know how they attract and retain employees and they’re admirable places. You know this, we’ve talked about this.

Jack Swarbrick
There’s sort of a self selection that occurs when you build the culture. People are either attracted to it or they’re not, right? I mean, most people aren’t gonna sign up for this.

Jack Brennan
My favorite exit interview is when one man who was leaving, and we were happy to see him go, reaches over my desk and says, “You know, you’re an acquired taste!” And I said, “I don’t know what to tell you. We don’t need 10 million people working here. We need 15,000 people who love what we do, how we do it and who we do it for.”

And as an organization, we get up every day and say, "I hope yesterday was the worst we ever were."

So you’re right. I always come back to this idea that great culture, great strategy is uncomfortable. And it’s why so few institutions attempt to establish that culture and follow that strategy. But they’re the winning organizations. And obviously, Notre Dame is a winning organization.

Jack Swarbrick
It’s so easy to talk yourself into exceptions. We see it in recruiting all the time. Coaches will have a very defined view of what they need, what they’re looking for, and what fits here, but then you’ll find somebody with a special physical talent, and you’re tempted to say “we can make this work.” And you can’t do that.

Jack Brennan
Absolutely. That’s great insight.

IT’S ALL ABOUT EFFICIENCY

Jack Swarbrick
As I think about the Jack Brennan culture, I think I know he went for a run this morning at some ungodly hour, right. He did.

Jack Brennan
5:50 am.

Jack Swarbrick
Okay. I know you’re thrifty. Is that fair?

Jack Brennan
None of these clothes were bought recently, I can assure you! It’s culturally from Vanguard. I hate waste. I hate waste of time. I hate waste of resources. I was an environmentalist before it was in vogue. Shut off the water while you brush your teeth; there’s limited water in the world. For me it’s all about efficiency. And if I don’t put on any weight, this sport coat lasts for 10 years, so why do I need a new one? It’s a great way to live your life, frankly, in my view.

HOME FOR DINNER

Jack Swarbrick
Next, on a personal culture dynamic, is that dedication to family. We share something. I’ve always told young people, “No matter how busy I was, I always get home for dinner.” No matter what. If I had to go back to work, I would go back to work…

Jack Brennan
I went to work at five in the morning to try to get home for dinner. And travel hard to try to minimize nights away, particularly when the kids were all young. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I learned it from my father. He was a hard working guy, successful. Listen. You got faith. You got family. In my case you got the firm. Not a lot of time left for others. I wouldn’t trade having those be my three loves, in my adult life, for anything else.

THINGS THAT WILL NEVER CHANGE

Jack Brennan
Jack – I know a lot about taking a little company and making it a big company. In the early days, we had 200 people. So every hire was critical. But you can never change from that view when it’s 15,000. Every hire is still critical. You do a different kind of hiring in some ways, with coaches and key members of your administrative team. Very high profile. How do you think about that in terms of the criticality of each on the one hand, and getting it right on the other.

Jack Swarbrick
It’s such an interesting dynamic in an environment like this, because almost regardless of the coach, there’s a community which is so focused on it. So concerned. First of all, they can coach better than the coach you’re going to hire. Right?

Jack Brennan
And I hear from several of them often when they when they’re designing plays to beat Georgia with 50 seconds to go.

Jack Swarbrick
And they can also all administer athletics better than I can, I can tell you that. So I think there’s several things. First, you have to shut out that noise. It just can’t be a factor. Secondly, never ever start with the candidate pool. Start with the characteristics. Always with the characteristics. We we were very disciplined before we looked at a single candidate when we were hiring Brian, to identify those characteristics. We screened every sitting division one college coach and several others against those 11 or 12 characteristics. It took us down to a pool of about 12 people.

Jack Brennan
I’m surprised there were 12…

Jack Swarbrick
And then when you vetted those, it took us to, maybe half a dozen. And that was it. So stay focused on those. And the last thing is it has to be a fit. You have to come here for the right reasons. I was given the best piece of advice from Gene Corrigan, when I took this job. He said, “When you hire a coach, during the interview process, give them a list of things that will never change here. Because in the first 30 days, they’re going to come back into your office and say, ‘I need this changed’. And you pull out the list and say, remember this list? It was on it. It’s not changing.” We’re gonna be a residential University. You’re not changing that. Academic Services isn’t going to be out of the athletic department; it’s going to be out of the provost office. Drug testing is going to be out of the president’s office. You won’t have anything to do with student discipline. All the things that define this place. If a candidate doesn’t embrace those and see them as positive, if they see them as challenges and think “How am I gonna deal with this?”… They can’t fit here. If they say, “Boy, I love those. I love that distinctiveness. That’s what’s gonna help me succeed here,” then they’re the right fit.

Jack Brennan
It’s so parallel to our journey, actually. The guy who’s now the CEO of Vanguard came in one day and said, “You know, I’ve seen you talk about just that 27 times. Why don’t you write it down?” Next thing I know, I write this book called “A Vanguard Leader”. We give it to prospects. It’s in its fourth edition. It’s evolved a little bit but not around the core. We say “Take this, read it, and then we’ll talk because that is not going to change.” It’s improved our hit ratio dramatically. And it’s not right or wrong. It’s just us. That’s the way it is, and it’s so important. I love the “things that won’t change list.” That’s actually a pretty good one. I might have to steal that one too, because it’s more succinct.

And it's not right or wrong. It's just us.

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GOOD WINS IN THE END

Jack Swarbrick
You are the chair of a leading University in America during a time where the relationship between athletics and education has never been under more stress or more in question. How do you view it today?

Jack Brennan
Well, let me take the narrow view and the broad view. I view us as the beacon of hope, frankly, for high level athletics, if we’re going to get the balance right between athletics and and the core purpose of the university which is to educate young people. At the higher level, I actually think we and a few others have to lead. We probably have to be more aggressive in demanding change at some levels, whether it’s structurally at the NCAA, which is far from a perfect institution, or maybe getting the ACC to do some things, because the ACC, of the power five, in my view, is the most progressive. So I think we’re in a window here, Jack, where with you and Father John, we need to ask what we can do to elevate the image and reality of athletics and address the exogenous challenges.

Change is going to happen. And I think it's a privilege and a burden for this university to lead because I don't see the other institution that's gonna do it.

And back to the front end of the conversation. I think it’s so important. 10% of our students are student-athletes. More than that, between intramurals and the rest of it. So it’s a core part of what this university is about. And by the way, it’s a core part of the culture of this university. When my friends who went to some Eastern school come out here, they just can’t believe the 80,000 person reunion that’s gonna happen tomorrow.

Jack Swarbrick
I believe passionately in the power of sport. Your experience, the role it’s played in your life… we all have a version of that. And our students who come here as athletes have a remarkable experience. And they get a great education at this university. When they come back, and I say, “Who most influenced you, outside your father, or your mother, who’s the greatest influence in your life?”… nine times out of 10 they’re gonna name a Notre Dame coach. The power of that as an educational vehicle. If you ask any professor, “What’s the ideal educational model for you?” And they’ll say, “Give me a small group of students for an extended period of time.” Well a coach has a student for four years, increasingly 365 days a year. And the power of if you take advantage of that, you have to see that as educational. When you do, there are few things that match it in terms of its ability to shape young people. That’s what attracts me to it. I wasn’t part of a university athletics program as a student, but I worked in sports, and I was always attuned to that. My coaches had an enormous influence on my life. They had a great impact, positively and negatively. So that’s what motivates me as to my perspective on where we are. We’ve made a huge mistake by resting on this notion of amateurism. I don’t think this has anything to do with amateurism. No one’s ever said the babysitter would have a better experience if you didn’t pay her. Amateurism isn’t a positive value. It’s an economic term. And once you make that what you want to talk about, you force it into an economic discussion. This ought to be about education. And when our activities start to not be educational in nature, when the educators we’re attracting to coach don’t see themselves that way, when the students don’t come here for that purpose… Well, then we have a problem. People think that the industry is under stress, in terms of financial divisions, and that’s true. But I think the real strain is cultural. For those universities who believe in the educational power of sport, and that it should be integrated into the university and not an auxiliary function of the university… That’s where the tension will be. That’s where it will lie.

Jack Brennan
You know, it’s an interesting thing, because I believe the institution that has the highest number of intercollegiate sports is Harvard. It’s like 42.

Jack Swarbrick
MIT is up there, too.

Jack Brennan
Couple of marginal academic institutions, right! But it speaks to your point. They invest in it because they don’t have $40 million of revenue coming in and you just hope that there will be an epiphany somewhere. I’m a perpetual optimist about things. People want to have dire predictions. I actually think good wins in the end.

WHY THIS BENCH

Jack Swarbrick
We are sitting here on a football Friday, with the campus coming alive and it will get more and more alive. Which brings me to the final question as we sit here on what the students have actually called the God Quads, the original quad on campus… Why this bench?

Jack Brennan
I’m still recovering from the “benchwarmers” series name! You spend your life and here’s where I end up, a benchwarmer! You mentioned I start the day on a campus run. I always try to stop here because it represents to me everything about Notre Dame. It’s the CSC in the Basilica, the CSC in Corby Hall. The founders, the faith basis of this institution that differentiates us, it’s our patron sun on the top. It’s the world’s best academic leadership team in the main building. It’s students in a dorm. It’s a gathering place for students. It’s research over here. And on a good winter day I think you can catch a flag on the most iconic sports facility maybe in the world. So for me, it says everything about who we are as an institution. But very importantly for me, I never stopped without saying thank you. Because to see what this place did for our kids, because of its unique culture of faith and excellence. This is the greatest gift our family ever had.

Jack Swarbrick
Well, from from the perspective of one member of the university’s leadership, you have more than repaid that gift by the time and talents you’ve given to make this place better. We are so fortunate to have you in that role. It’s great that you bring the perspective you do; you make us better. And thank you so much for joining us. I think we may have produced two episodes out of this. I could go another two hours, but thanks for being with us.

Jack Brennan
Couldn’t be better. Thank you, Jack. Really great.