Profile in Business
MassMutual Executive Is an Expert in Many Fields
By GEORGE O’BRIEN
She admitted that, more than three decades later, they stay toned through regular and rigorous workouts at the gym, but stressed repeatedly that the foundation was laid from what amounts to bench-pressing 50-pound sacks of potatoes and piling them into pickup trucks, among innumerable other chores.
“I don’t do it anymore, but I used to arm-wrestle boys all the time — and beat them,” joked Sarsynski, executive vice president of MassMutual’s Retirement Services Division and chairman and CEO of MassMutual International LLC. “We had five kids in our family, four girls, and we [girls] had to do whatever our brother did. That’s how it was. Farming is hard work, and I became really strong.”
But Sarsynski’s years on the farm would provide her with much more than rock-hard muscles. There would be many lessons in life and in business, she explained, noting, for starters, that her mother was the real entrepreneur in the family and transplanted some of her considerable business energy, acumen, and instincts to her children.
“She would think beyond picking squash and selling it wholesale, and about what she could do on a more retail level,” said Sarsynski. “She went around to local restaurants and supermarkets and said, ‘if I cut up that butternut squash and put it into half-pound bags, do you think that would sell?’ And they said, ‘yes.’
“Lo and behold, we became one of the first farms to pre-package vegetables,” she continued. “I only wish my mother had taken out a patent on it, because everyone does it today.”
There were many other lessons from those days peeling, slicing, and packaging that squash — “there were always eight to 12 bushels of it waiting for us when we got home from school” — or picking cucumbers, stripping tobacco, and countless other duties. They covered everything from work ethic to effective time management; from pulling one’s own weight to the necessity for diversification in the fields — and business in general.
“We had about 10 crops that we produced from spring through fall, and that was a very important lesson,” she said, “because I remember one season there was a flood, and the majority of our cucumber crop was destroyed. But because of our efforts on the other kinds of crops, we were able to pull through that summer. So I learned very early on that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Sarsynski applies this lesson and countless others from the farm to her work at MassMutual — where she manages, to one degree or another, more than 2,500 workers and 15,000 agents in Asia — and often touches on them during the many speeches she delivers, including the one she gave at a meeting of the Women’s Partnership just a few hours before she talked with BusinessWest.
She said she spoke on the subject of the glass ceiling and the extent to which she believes it still exists — “if it does, it’s much more subtle than when I started in business 30 years ago” — but also touched on matters ranging from work/life balance to the importance of financial planning, to the need for all those hoping to succeed in business to hone their public-speaking skills.
“It’s important because we must communicate well, in written form, and while speaking in front of audiences,” she explained, adding that time in front of a microphone is a key part of any individual’s brand-building work. “It’s imporant to be able to articulate your position in a calm, thoughtful way, and speaking in front of an audience is one very good way to build that skill.”
For this, the latest installment of its Profiles in Business series, BusinessWest talked with Sarsynski about everything from diversity and inclusion in the workplace to her management style — and most all things in between. And she had much to say on all those topics.
The Sarsynski farm still exists, but almost all of the 70 acres are now leased out to other parties. There is a large garden at the homestead, however, in which Sarsynski will work during some of her many visits home.
It’s been more than 30 years since she’s actually worked on the farm, but she certainly hasn’t forgotten much from those days. Consider these comments when asked about the crop Hadley is perhaps best known for, asparagus, and why it carries a high price at the grocery store.
“It takes about four years before you can actually start producing a crop,” she explained. “It’s also susceptable to various diseases, so some of it may not make it till the time you harvest it. The thing I like most about asparagus, even though I don’t like picking it, is that in optimal conditions, meaning when it’s warm and moist, it can grow a foot a day. So, frequently, not only would we get up early to pick it, before we went to school, but we would have to pick it again when we came home. I didn’t like days like that.”
But while Sarsynski’s parents contually stressed the importance of meeting one’s responsibilities in the field, they were even more focused on their children’s education. The four girls would all go on to attend Smith College, while their brother would graduate from Amherst College.
“My parents did not have college degrees, but from very early on, they stressed the importance of us going to college,” said Sarsynski, who would also earn an MBA from Columbia University. “They wanted the best for us, and they stressed that a good education was the key to real success.”
Sarsynski has put her education from the farm and the classroom to good use at career stops that include stints with several financial-services giants, work as a consultant to the real-estate industry, and even two elected terms as chief executive officer of the town of Suffield, Conn.
She started out as an analyst at Morgan Stanley Realty in New York, and eventually joined Aetna, where she spent 17 years and held a number of senior management positions, overseeing segments of the company’s Investments Division and leading the Corporate Finance Department. She also served as corporate vice president of real-estate investments, and was responsible for the direction and oversight of Aetna’s $15 billion mortgage-loan and owned-real-estate portfolios.
By 1998 though, Aetna was going through some changes organizationally and philosophically, and Sarsysnki was looking for a new challenge. Actually, upon leaving the company, she took on several.
She taught real-estate finance at Columbia for a semester, for example, and, at about the same time, created the Sun Consulting Group, LLC, offering consulting services to the real-estate industry. The firm was responsible for helping Connecticut Innovations Inc. to develop and implement Connecticut’s multi-million-dollar biotechnology lending and construction-development program.
While these endeavors were demanding, they left her with more time for her family — and her community, Suffield. And during one talk with the town’s first selectman (CEO) about economic-development matters, he convinced her to apply for the soon-to-be-vacated position of economic development director for the community, which she was awarded.
She never intended to stay long, and didn’t, but in her short stint did succeed in advancing a number of projects and helping Suffield win substantial state and federal grant money. Within a year in that post, she was ready to return to the private sector, but was instead talked into running for first selectman by the man who was getting ready to leave that position.
She won the seat handily, and settled in for what would be four years of service that she found fun and rewarding, while also providing more lessons that would help her thrive in a corporate setting.
“I loved it because we had an opportunity to effectuate change,” she explained, noting that, among other things, she led the town through 9/11 and its profound impact on public safety and national security. “And I was able to continually hone my leadership skills.
“In many ways, this was more difficult than being in the corporate sector,” she continued, “because you had to have people endorse your vision, and endorse what you were accomplishing. You can be the best mayor or town selectman in the world, but you still have to be involved in the political process of being elected. So you always had to be sure you could communicate your vision and the vision of the community, articulate the positions you were bringing to town meeting in such a way that people embraced and supported them so you could get re-elected.”
Sarsynski would take these and other lessons back to the corporate world and, more specifically, Babson Capital Management LLC, a MassMutual subsidiary, where she was responsible for the Portfolio Consulting Group. In 2005, she joined MassMutual as senior vice president and chief administrative officer, responsible for corporate services, human resource management, corporate communications, community relations, and MassMutual’s strategy implementation.
In 2006, she was appointed chairman, president, and CEO of MassMutual International LLC, and became responsible for the company’s international insurance operations, including subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Luxemborg, Chile, and China. She assumed added responsibility for the company’s retirement-services business in 2008, and under her leadership, the division achieved its second consecutive year of at least 20% sales growth and its highest annual sales volume in history.
To hit those numbers — and lay the track for more like them — Sarsynski says she’s been applying the many lessons acquired through business school, the farm, elected office, and from those she’s worked for and with over the years.
She said that success for MassMutual or any other company begins with leadership — “it drives the performance of the entire team, and especially the direct reports” — and when asked about her style, she noted, repeatedly, that it is to lead by example.
“I set high standards, and I expect those standards to be met,” she continued. “I think I’m fair and reasonable, yet I really do demand excellence from my direct reports because this is a very competitive industry that we work within, and it’s important that we have exceptional customer service, product development, and execution. People enjoy working in retirement services because we set those high standards, and we’ve been able to achieve them over the past couple of years.”
Sarsynski said her basic philosophy with regard to professional development is to continually reach higher and set new career goals. She encourages those she directs to do the same, and to help them reach their full potential she becomes the supervisor’s equivalent of a chameleon.
“I try to see what will motivate a person to become the best he or she can be,” she explained. “So my management style, and anyone’s management style, should change depending on the audience that you have, the person that you’re dealing with, and creating that unique environment to help them excel, to help them learn, to drive them to perform to the height of their ability.
“So the way I approach my head of marketing might be different than how I approach my head of distribution,” she continued. “In every case, I give them enough rope so that they can manage their organizations, and as they excel, I give them even more rope, because my ultimate goal is to have succession plans in place for all my businesses so that I become obsolete and my successors are extraordinarily well-prepared to continue to produce the kinds of results the organizations wants.”
As she searched her memory bank for an example of how her leadership style, not to mention her farm-honed life lessons, manifest themselves, she mentioned a recent suggestion (more like an edict) that her staff members with long commutes get satellite radio in their cars so they can stay better-attuned to business news and national and international commentary on current events.
“I told them they could hear the thought leaders of the industry talking about where the markets are going and where the global world is going, what Congress is doing, and what the president is doing,” she said, adding that she considers this a better use of their time than listening to rock music or sports talk. “It’s interesting, because they all went out and got it. I believe it’s very important to use time wisely, because we only have 24 hours in a day; you have to prioritize time.”
The Root to Success
During one recent trip to Hadley, Sarsynski actually took a moment to thank her mother for stressing education early on — and also for farm lifestyle and all that it gave her.
“It was a terrific way to grow up,” she said. “I was very close to my entire family, and we learned lessons in management, in commerce, wholesale, and retail. We learned work ethic that you can only learn in an environment where you get up early and go to bed late and your livelihood depends on the produce of the farm.
“It was a very wholesome way; there was no question of whether you were going to roll out of bed at 5:30 to pick asparagus — you just did it,” she continued, adding that, while she is three decades removed from those experiences, that ‘way,’ as she called it, is still very much with her.
“It’s there in terms of work ethic, frugality, focusing on the value of a dollar, asking if we are efficiently producing work at MassMutual, and focusing on the value of the individual and achieving the mission of the team.”
In other words, Sarsynski still has the muscles she earned on the farm, but she has many other ways to show how strong — mentally and physically — she’s become.
George O’Brien can be reached
at [email protected]