My time at Quicken Loans

I usually blog about what I’m learning in school or on my own and avoid talking about my job. Today, I’m breaking that rule.

This is my last day at Quicken Loans, where I’ve spent the past few years as a member of the agile coaching office – ILean. In that time I’ve learned a tremendous amount from many fantastic teammates but there are a few lessons I’d like to call out.

Investing in Culture

To start, at Quicken Loans there is an emphasis on culture that is weird (at first). The important lesson here is that most companies (and teams) tend to think that culture just happens and that (1) they’re powerless to change it and (2) it doesn’t matter. These ideas are patently false and will be tackled in more detail another time.

In getting new team members (not employees) aware of the culture, the CEO (Bill Emerson) and chairman (Dan Gilbert) spend a full day explaining the culture to the newbies. They tell jokes, stories, and do whatever they can to help people understand something that can be very foreign – the culture at Quicken Loans. This is doubly true given the big auto companies that are in the area, in which many people have worked, and are mired in culture that could best be described as bureaucracy or machine-like.

Quicken Loans aspires to have the reverse. A very human environment in which anyone can step out of their role at any time and even call the CEO if they think it necessary (he shares his cell phone number during the day long session).

Bad MBA

There were a few stories from the session that took me a little while to frame in a way that I could understand. Many stories were very disparaging of MBAs. I’ll admit some bias here since I was already well into an awesome MBA program at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately for MBAs, the stories were more than a little apt.

MBAs were painted (not entirely without justification) as rather ignorantly trying to use processes and rules to control behavior rather than inspiring individuals to do their best. There’s even the running joke about how MBAs require an ROI on everything and cannot make a decision without one. To combat this type of thinking within Quicken Loans, one of the 19 “ISMs” (cultural talking point / reminder / value statement) is:

Numbers and money follow, they don’t lead

This directly challenges the need for an ROI by saying that results will follow if we simply do the right thing. That’s a powerful statement that resonated well with me. Maybe that’s the millennial in me, but the notion of focusing on a cause and trusting money and such to work itself out, is something that feels right and is quite liberating once experienced.

The problem with some of my fellow MBAs is not the use of ROI itself. It could be a valuable tool in comparing ideas to better understand trade-offs. The trouble is when the tool itself becomes the purpose and the reason for using it gets lost. The same could be said for poor project managers who believe their role is to create and manage the plan itself rather than using their planning tools to help make sure value is going to be delivered.

Too often people fixate on the tools, which are easier to understand, and apply the without understanding their limitations. The solution? Remind yourself to keep those things where they belong. Lead with purpose. Start with why. If you do that, the numbers will follow.

Ironically this plays very well to what I’ve learned on the way to my MBA. At this moment I’ll assume it’s because the Ross school of business at the University of Michigan is the best program in the universe. At school, I’ve heard two messages repeated consistently over the years.

Positive Organization Scholarship

Despite the name of the movement being a horrible marketing miss (ironically at a business school with marketing people all over) the POS ideas focus on creating positive work environments in which people feel connected to each other and to powerful causes.
In case that doesn’t sound familiar, that harkens back to Quicken Loans trying to be a great place for humans (minimal bureaucracy) and focusing on purpose over just numbers (remember, at QL, numbers follow).

For years before joining QL I heard and could appreciate these ideas. It wasn’t until I had spent years at Quicken Loans that I could honestly say that I understood them. Life at Quicken Loans turned the abstract ideas I learned in the classroom into an experience that will stick with me.

Creating and sustaining a positive organization that is purpose driven does not happen by accident and requires constant vigilance to keep up. Despite that effort being applied on culture instead of just execution (or perhaps because of that different focus), the results are amazing.

Going forward, my test will be to see if I can apply those ideas. I’m optimistic that I can, but not on account of my own awesomeness. Mostly, it’s because I’ve had the advantage of having the best teachers in the world on the subject (at both the University of Michigan and at Quicken Loans).

The Batman

As an aside, over the years I’ve developed a theory about Quicken Loans’ move to downtown Detroit that I’d like to share.

In 2005 the film Batman Begins was released. It included the idea of Bruce Wayne’s parents having been the saviors of Gotham through their benevolent investments and philanthropy. After they were murdered at the opera, Bruce resumes their work but as the dark knight.

A few years after the film was released, Dan Gilbert decided to invest heavily into the city to help restore it (strangely similar to the senior Wayne’s).

Many of his investments are also very close to the opera house (I’m unclear if he frequents it).

He’s also purchased many properties and even built a state of the art data center in downtown (bat computer).

One of the buildings contains an underground command center (bat cave) which is used to monitor the downtown and ensure the safety of those in the area.

There’s even a private security team that patrols much of the downtown in black cars (bat mobiles).

At a certain point, one cannot help but wonder whether Dan Gilbert’s plans include becoming or creating the batman. The evidence is simply too vast to be ignored.

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