Together for Tomorrow
W. Kenny Massey is the President and CEO of Modern Woodmen of America - a nearly 140-year-old, member-owned, fraternal financial services organisation based in Rock Island, Illinois. Modern Woodmen serves nearly 730,000 members throughout the United States.
Tell us about Modern Woodmen’s long history and the values it’s built on.
Explaining our history starts with sharing the vision behind our name – there’s no woodworking, cabinetmaking or lumberjacks involved.
The name was actually inspired by pioneer woodmen, who cleared forests to build homes and communities and provide security for their families. Modern Woodmen’s founder, Joseph Cullen Root, felt this was the perfect symbol to illustrate his goal of clearing away financial burdens for families, and Modern Woodmen of America was born on 5 January 1883, in Lyons, Iowa. The headquarters moved across the Mississippi River to Fulton, Illinois, in 1884 and relocated downriver to Rock Island, Illinois, in 1897. We remain in downtown Rock Island to this day.
Modern Woodmen of America is the nation’s third-largest fraternal benefit society in terms of assets. Fraternalism is a unique combination of business and giving back to those we serve – a continuous cycle of positive impact.
- Our representatives provide financial products to help members protect their families and their futures.
- These products help fund member programs, including social, educational and volunteer activities that identify and meet local needs.
- These programs build relationships, allowing for membership growth and greater community impact.
Our members are connected by common values, including:
- Financial security, through life insurance, retirement planning and financial services.
- Quality family life, through fraternal member programs and activities.
- Community impact, through local volunteer projects that make a difference where members live, work and play.
Why is life insurance so important?
It’s tough to survive without it after the death of a breadwinner. Life insurance is the only thing that can ensure you’re able to take care of your family’s hopes, dreams and goals for the future – from where you live, to your children’s education and so much more.
Assets can ‘disappear’ after a death when everyone has to get paid, and things can get tied up in probate. It’s something I experienced firsthand as a teenager when my father died in a car accident. I watched my mother make ends meet by first selling the property around us, then eventually the house. It was a slow decline as money ran out. I’ve seen it happen that way, and I’ve seen the difference when adequate life insurance was in place. I’ve spoken with many people whose late spouses were covered with Modern Woodmen life insurance and that protection was the only money they had left after other things were paid off and the bills continued to come.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your industry?
For Modern Woodmen, our disaster recovery/business continuity plans provided a smooth transition. We were prepared from a business standpoint, but from a psychological standpoint, I think everybody, at all companies, was affected. Employees were sent to work from home and were isolated, worrying about the news and seeing what the pandemic was doing.
COVID obviously impacts our industry and selling life insurance. Over a million people have died, and it’s not over. Naturally, in our industry, we study mortality and are very careful with our finances. The reserves we set aside are predicated on possible catastrophic events, such as a pandemic or a financial market collapse. So overall, the industry has handled things in stride. Have we paid out more claims and more money? Absolutely. That’s why our members bought life insurance and why we exist. We’re fulfilling our promises, and we were built for situations like this.
What have you learned from the past two years?
I’ve had to learn to be more patient and to step away from situations, discussions and media reports that are emotionally charged, in order to keep a balanced perspective.
The immediate thing in the face of the pandemic was the business side – can we keep things running and maintain service? That played out in the first 2-3 weeks, and I learned that yes, we can. What I didn’t foresee at that time was the ‘long tail’ of the psychological impact of the pandemic. Over the past two years, I’ve thought more deeply about the psychological impact of the decisions we make and the importance of communicating with people directly.
Can you tell us a little bit about your life and the things that brought you to where you are today?
The circumstances of my father’s death and how it impacted our family led me here. The experience of us not having adequate life insurance caused me to take courses in college to learn more about the industry.
There I discovered the noble, social and moral good that’s done with life insurance. It’s different from other kinds of insurance; it’s not about replacing a house or a car. It’s being able to help financially fulfil people’s dreams for tomorrow, and that’s powerful. Life insurance is about paying forward, toward the hopes and dreams of your loved ones. It’s not for you, but for the generations to come, and it can be transformational.
That appealed to me, and I gained a passion for it as I learned more. I felt that we can’t let people pass away without being protected. That can be devastating to people; I’ve lived it. Personally, I had a great childhood. I received an athletic scholarship from Mississippi State University and was working, singing with a band for spending money. I felt like I didn’t suffer, but my family did. My family’s experience ignited my passion for this business.
What are the most important lessons your career and work for Modern Woodmen have taught you?
I’ve taken away many lessons, but a few rise to the top.
- You can’t inspire people without passion.
Passion provides your sense of purpose. It gives you energy, a fire from within, and it acts as a magnet to attract others. At the core of discipline, you will always find passion.
- Don’t hire like-minded people; hire those with like values.
Every leader needs to hear diverse opinions and different ideas in order to make the best decisions. Having like values allows participants to feel safe during spirited, or even heated, debates because common respect for each individual transcends any conflict. Having shared values and principles means you won’t question motives.
- Make decisions based on facts, not fears.
Too many times, our fears override logic. Emotions can be powerful and should be considered. However, in today’s world, we are saturated with emotional stimuli.
- Don’t do it alone.
I’ve never felt like I am better than anyone else. I’ve always felt there are people I can surround myself with who are better than me, and I can learn from them. As a CEO, you’re not trying to control situations or people, you’re trying to work with people, together.
It’s also important to find a mentor, someone who fits your personality. If their approach doesn’t resonate with you, it’s not a fit.
I also enjoy and find value in spending time alone and being reflective. Knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom. Wisdom is applying knowledge gained. We all make mistakes, and we learn from them. This refines us into who we are.
What are your favourite things about being the CEO of Modern Woodmen?
I never had a dream or desire to ascend to become the CEO. It wasn’t on my radar. I feel blessed that I had the opportunity and have been able to work with great people. The experience has been a journey of learning.
There’ve been hundreds of changes during my tenure as CEO, from the housing market crash and the Great Recession to regulatory changes, low-interest rates and a pandemic. If you’re not a change agent as a CEO, you’re not doing your job. You have to be willing to accept change and lead others through change, and you have to keep learning.
I’ve learned a lot about people too. You learn about people’s diverse personalities and their strengths and weaknesses. You begin to look at it like conducting an orchestra – when do you need the drums? When should the violins come in? You learn when you need certain areas to ‘play louder’ and carry things. In the end, you’re trying to make beautiful music that people will appreciate.
What do you hope your legacy to be?
I think that’s something the people I’ve served with will have to decide. My thoughts about it really aren’t that important. It’s how they feel that matters.
I inherited a wonderful culture at Modern Woodmen. There have been challenges, but I fit Modern Woodmen. Our purpose, our mission, our fraternalism – everything about this organisation attracted me. I didn’t have to mould it into something it wasn’t, but we’ve evolved. That doesn’t mean we weren’t focused on remaining extremely strong financially to protect the promises made to our members, whether it’s for their retirement planning or their life insurance coverage for those they leave behind. That will always be at our core.
Overall, I’m a recovering optimist. I’ve always thought people have more potential than they realise, and I think this organisation has a lot to be excited about.
About W. Kenny Massey
Kenny Massey, of Le Claire, Iowa, is the President and CEO of Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal financial services organisation based in Rock Island, Illinois. He serves as presiding officer of the Modern Woodmen Board of Directors and is responsible for the leadership, initiation and oversight of strategic organisational initiatives to ensure the delivery of quality service and products to Modern Woodmen’s members.
Kenny’s Modern Woodmen career began in Mississippi in 1982. He was promoted to district manager/managing partner in 1985 and was named agency manager/regional director of western Louisiana in 1988. In 1997, he became director of agencies, overseeing marketing and sales efforts and the administration of Modern Woodmen’s nationwide field force. He was appointed to Modern Woodmen’s board in 2002 and has served as president and CEO since 2005.
He earned a business degree in insurance from Mississippi State University, Starkville, Mississippi, and he completed the Kinder Advanced Management Academy, Purdue University Professional Management Institute and Agency Management Training Council programs. Kenny holds designations of Fraternal Insurance Counselor Fellow and LIMRA Leadership Institute Fellow (in conjunction with Babson College), and he earned the National Security and Strategy Certificate of Leadership Development from US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He also holds securities licenses 6, 63 and 26.
He has served on various industry professional organisations’ boards and committees, including the American Fraternal Alliance, LL Global (LIMRA/LOMA), the Society of Financial Services Professionals, GAMA International (now Finseca), the Fraternal Field Manager’s Association and the National Association of Fraternal Insurance Counselors.
In addition, Kenny has served on committees and as a board member for several community organisations, including the Martin Luther King Center, the Center for Active Seniors, the Quad Cities Contributors Council, the Quad Cities Air Service Committee, the Development Association of Rock Island, the Regional Opportunities Council, the Trinity Hospital Board, and the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce.
He and his wife, Tammy, have three children and six grandchildren.
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