From Intern to Executive: Jim Meeks

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For most of us, our first big financial move as young adults might have been an apartment security deposit, say, or the down payment on a used car. When Jim Meeks was 17 years old, fresh out of high school in Paducah, Kentucky, he said to himself, “I want to buy some life insurance.”

He didn’t come from money, see – and besides, he wasn’t like those teenagers who fancy themselves immortal.

“If I were to die,” he realized, “I would not want my parents to be arguing about money because of me.”

His mother was a nurse; his father worked for – and eventually ran – an industrial insulation company. Meeks remembers laboring alongside his father in power-plant asbestos removal and insulation installation.

Meeks did his research and wound up with $100,000 worth of life insurance – purchased from Northwestern Mutual, on advice from his brother, “who at the time was the smartest individual that I knew on the planet.”

He met with an adviser named John Wise, and the conversation turned quickly into a job interview. Wise learned Meeks was about to begin his freshman year of college, and asked, “Do you need to make money?” Meeks recalls. He answered yes and learned of an opportunity to test-drive a career in the financial services industry – while still in college.

“I was just trying to see if I liked it,” Meeks shrugs. “I didn’t even have a suit. I didn’t even know how to buy a suit – my dad was blue-collar.”

He started as an intern and never looked back. Thirty years later, the sales records Meeks set for Northwestern Mutual while studying at Murray State still stand.

Now, Meeks is managing partner of the Memphis office of Northwestern Mutual. He works with an executive leadership team (ELT) to develop and implement plans to keep growing the business of financial planning. The rate of growth for Meeks’ office, he notes, averages 10 to 15 percent annually – well above the national growth rate of about 3 percent. That means that “today, we’re 100 percent bigger than we were 8 years ago” when Meeks moved to Memphis to take the reins.

The secret to that growth, Meeks says, is not a secret at all: “I’ve built a team of leaders around me.”

From his own beginnings as a young intern, Meeks learned the value of training new leaders, starting at the very beginning. That’s why his office welcomed 36 new interns this month. “They’ll test, try, see if this is a career they would be successful in,” says Meeks, himself a product of a successful start in college.

Internships are, he observes, “a little bit of a secret bullet in the gun of Northwestern Mutual – this program has developed the highest level of leaders across the company.” Indeed, there are 70 people at Meeks’ level, scattered among the 50 states – and “of those 70, more than half of us started as college interns.”

But it’s not just interns who have valuable lessons to learn. In 2010, Meeks recalls, “we had a better year than in ’09. In ’11, ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16 – every single year we went up.” But in April, he realized 2017 might go in the other direction.

“I was kind of in ‘oh my gosh’ territory,” he says.

He went to his ELT, listened to their feedback, and realized more accountability was needed across the board. That’s when he developed “Jim 2.0” – his personal redesign “as a person and as the leader of the organization.”

Then the ELT said they wanted to be “ELT 2.0.” Individual team members wanted 2.0 versions of themselves.

Together, they were learning and continuing to develop. The numbers got back on track, and Meeks believes 2018 will be the team’s best year yet.

“The win for me in 2017 – even though it wasn’t the best year from a results standpoint – it’s the best in the sense that I re-engaged and started holding a higher level of accountability. The team responded and drove us up to recover.”

Every year, Meeks chooses one word to be his mantra. This year’s word: intentionality.

“Everything I do, I do it intentionally – not just because I’m on the treadmill of life.”

Meeks and his wife have three young boys – ages 6, 4 and 3 – and Meeks applies the same principles to fatherhood as he does with his team at Northwestern Mutual: “At work, with my leaders, I let them know they’re important: It’s not me, it’s we. As a family, it’s we: What kind of legacy do we want to leave?”

Jim Meeks is a graduate of the Leadership Development Intensive (LDI) at New Memphis. Learn more about the LDI today.