To commemorate Veteran’s Day this year, we sat down with our VP of Settlement Operations, Gus Lee, to discuss how his military service shaped his career and outlook on life. Gus is a sponsor and leader of the Freedom Riders, the Employee Resource Group supporting African American and Black employees and their allies here at Freedom Financial Network, so we also asked him to share his perspective on diversity in the workplace.
Freedom Financial Network: Tell us about your career before FFN.
Gus Lee: Even though it dates me, I’ll start with my time in the military; I was in the army from 1989 to 1995. I resigned my commission as a Captain of the United States Army in 1995 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I then worked at General Motors in Saginaw, Michigan, as a production engineer working on the Saginaw steering system. Fun fact: I helped design the steering system for the 1996 Chevrolet Malibu.
I went to work after that for ten years in the Correctional Food Service Division, where I worked my way up from being a District Manager to a Regional Vice president, and spent about a year at Allied Waste. From there, I went to work at Dollar Financial Group in Florida as a Regional Vice President with various territories. One more fun fact: I’ve been married for 29 years, and we have moved about 22 times.
FFN: What inspired you to join FFN, and how did you get here?
Gus: The SVP of Operations at FFN, Jason Pack, he’s very … convincing. He and I had a great working relationship at Dollar Financial and he was able to convince me to at least visit, because I had no desire to leave Dollar at that point. But when I came out here, I did some research on Freedom, and the culture of the organization was just amazing to me. I really admired what (co-founders) Brad (Stroh) and Andrew (Housser) built and what they continue to refine. At that point in time of my life, I felt that Freedom was a great fit for me, and I’m honored to be here.
FFN: Can you describe yourself in one word?
Gus: That’s a tough one. I asked some of my peers, my wife, some family members, and some of my direct reports, and I got all kinds of different descriptions. The one from my wife I’m not going to tell everybody, because it’s not too flattering. But the other responses were very humbling, as a matter of fact.
I think the word it all came down to was: consistency. I’m very consistent in my approach. I’m very consistent in my leadership style. The one thing that I have learned throughout my career is that I’m very cognizant of the fact that your team does not want a leader that is not predictable, that is wishy-washy. For me and for my team, consistency breeds alignment, and that’s really important to the success of an organization.
FFN: Veterans Day was November 11th. How would you say that your service has impacted your life path?
Gus: My time in the military absolutely grounded me, and defines me, even now. It made me realize that your team, your comrades, are much more important than the leader is. It made me realize at a very young age that evil does exist in this world, but so does good. My time in the military laid the foundation for how I interact with people. Because of the diverse members of the military, you learn how to deal with different types of personalities, different types of approaches.
FFN: You are one of the leaders and executive sponsors of the Freedom Riders Employee Resource Group. Talk to us about what you would like to see the group achieve and how they can impact FFN.
Gus: As everyone here at FFN knows, the Freedom Riders is the African American/Black ERG that we just started over the last month or two. We’re very excited about it and the organization is very excited about it.
What we’re looking to do, especially in today’s environment where there are a lot of cries for social justice, is to be a very positive force for change here at Freedom and more importantly, in our communities. We want to celebrate and teach about the African American/Black culture within Freedom and in our communities to make sure that people understand that there are doors that are open. We just have to help people get through these doors, in part with our mentorship programs. I’m extremely excited about being a part of that.
FFN: In your experience, what does a truly diverse company look and act like?
Gus: I think this is a fantastic question. A truly diverse company, to me, looks and acts like Freedom does. It is a very inclusive organization that values its employees regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of the choice of religion, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Can Freedom get better? Yes, absolutely it can. However, when a company led by its owners recognizes that there’s an opportunity to get better, that there is an opportunity to become more inclusive, and acts (as opposed to just relying on words), that is when you know that you’re in a company that is truly working on becoming diverse and inclusive.
FFN: What are you hoping to achieve in 2021?
Gus: Keeping things real simple for my crew makes life a lot easier — that consistency thing. So, probably the most important thing that I would like to do is to continue to develop my team professionally and personally. I get no greater pleasure professionally than to see my team grow. Next, I’d like to continue to learn from my team — because every day is something different. Every day you learn a new way of finding a settlement through an agent, and it is so much fun to work with these guys. Finally, I want to continue to enhance the overall culture of my Settlement Operations Department so that we can continue to deliver the results the organization has come to rely on.
FFN: What is the one thing that you learned during your time in the service that has made you really good at your job?
Gus: I’ll be telling on myself a little bit here, but it’s a story that really defines my approach to business, and how I interact with people on a day-to-day basis. After you finish at the United States Military Academy, they assign you to your branch of choice, and I chose Air Defense Artillery. So I went to Ft. Bliss, Texas, for the Officer Basic Course. While there, you learn how to become a 2nd Lieutenant, how to become a leader of men, and how to become more proficient in the technical aspects of your position.
After the graduation from Officer Basic Course, I was chosen to become a Battery Executive Officer for the Basic Course program/curriculum. It’s a big honor, and I was so pleased that I was just giddy. Then after that three-month tour, I received the Army Commendation Medal, and I thought “Yes! I got an Army Commendation Medal. I’m about to become the next General Patton.” So, my head got a little big.
I report to my first duty station at Ft. Stewart, Georgia and I go to the Colonel, the Battalion Commander, and say, “Sir, Lieutenant Lee reporting for duty.” He says, “Hey, Lieutenant Lee. Heard you received the Army Commendation Medal. That is outstanding work there, young soldier.” I said, “Thank you, sir. I’m here to do my best.” He goes, “On that note, I want you to lead out my battalion convoy next week for the first field training exercise that we’re doing here at Ft. Stewart. I went back to my room and poured over all the manuals on how to lead a convoy. So, the day of the convoy, I’m in the lead. I have my map out, I’m looking at my map. “Let’s go.”
We’re traveling down these dirt paths and I say, “Take a right here; take a left. We’ve got two clicks to go. We take a right over here.” And then I look at my map. I look to my right. I don’t recognize this area on the map. It’s not there.
Meanwhile, my sergeant is telling me, “Lieutenant Lee, we’ve been doing this for a long time. We know how to do this. We can help you out. We make this a lot easier for you.” But, nope. I got an Army Commendation Medal! I can do this on my own!
Needless to say, as I’m looking around, I didn’t recognize anything I saw on the map. My sergeant comes over again and says, “Lieutenant Lee, I think we missed our turn. They changed the roads on the post, and it doesn’t match up with the map any longer.” I say, “Oh. Do you have any ideas, sergeant?” He goes, “I can take over from here, Lieutenant Lee, if you really want me to.” “Yeah, Sarge, I think I can let you do that.” So, we had to turn around 150 vehicles.
As I’m riding back toward the same direction we had just come from, I see the battalion commander lying on the top of the hood of his vehicle with his hands behind his head, laughing at me. Because he knew. He knew what I was going to do, and it was a lesson for young 2nd Lieutenant Lee.
The main thing that I learned from that was that you have to trust your team. You have to be able to listen to what they bring to the table because you can’t do it on your own. There’s a reason there’s not an “I” in team. So, that’s how I lead my team, every day. We collaborate. No decision is made by one person; it’s a team effort. That is one of the reasons we get the great results that we do in the Settlement Operations Department.
FFN: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit and tell us about yourself and your experience here at FFN.
Gus: Well, thanks a lot. I really appreciate the opportunity to do this.
FFN is proud to have leaders with the kind of life experience and outlook that Gus brings to our company. If you’d like to learn more about opportunities in your community to support diversity efforts, or to support our veterans and their families, take a look at the resources and information below.
Watch the video of our interview with Gus. [embedded content]