John R. Ettelson, President & CEO, William Blair & Company

The first step in inspiring our employees to deliver on that mission is to make sure everyone understands that our clients always come first.

June 2015

What role do stories play in your organization?

They provide insight from a cultural standpoint. William Blair is an 79-year-old firm with a strong corporate culture. Through stories, the newer people learn what the values of the firm are and how they should act when working with clients. These anecdotes are a great way to articulate the values that matter most to us as a firm.

How do you motivate others? And what motivates you?

I think one of the best ways to motivate people is to help them understand what they are passionate about and then put them in situations where they can put that passion to work. In my career, I’ve always immensely enjoyed the projects that I’ve been involved in, and investment banking has been a career that fit very well with my natural aptitudes. It’s not hard to get motivated when you’re doing something that you enjoy and it’s something that gives you an opportunity to challenge yourself every day.

What contributes to making the corporate culture at William Blair so attractive?

Clearly the leadership! All joking aside, I think we do a good job of hiring people who truly want to be here and enjoy what they do. That goes a very long way in creating a positive culture. On top of that, I feel that we provide them with a good working environment, challenging work, and financial rewards commensurate with what they do. The opportunity to advance within a private company with a partnership structure is a unique opportunity in our industry. We also work hard to foster a collegial environment, and we think this is a major factor in creating an atmosphere where people enjoy coming to work. Rather than adopting a competitive environment, we focus on rewarding collaboration and teamwork, which helps us all focus our energy on serving our clients better.

Are there any initiatives in place for promoting from within?

Our people are our greatest asset, and our success depends on being able to attract and retain the brightest minds in our industry. We work very hard to recognize and reward our top performers and create an environment where people understand what’s expected of them and what they need to do to advance in their careers. As we continue to grow, we are constantly looking for ways to better institutionalize our business across business lines and across the 13 cities where we have offices. Implementing techniques to identify and promote our most talented people is certainly an important part of that effort.

How do you identify those “quality” people?

Finding the right people is one of the most important things we do, and it’s not easy. We are looking for people who are not only a great fit in terms of their abilities and experiences but also are a great fit for our culture. We have a very extensive interview process where candidates see a broad array of people internally before we commit to hiring them. Our process gives us a chance to evaluate them from multiple perspectives, and it gives the candidates a chance to get a broader view of who we are.

What motivated you to stay long term with William Blair?

The atmosphere here at William Blair is great, and the people are even better. I often asked myself: “If I’m working with a great group of people already, why would I want to leave?” Could I have gone somewhere elsewhere? Maybe, but I always knew William Blair was a great place for me. I’ve been fortunate to work with so many wonderful people and had the opportunity to take on many leadership roles and impact people in a positive ways here at William Blair. The people, the work, the impact, and the rewards: all of those things together have made it a very easy decision to stay here.

Where did you develop your understanding of loyalty?

I learned the concept of loyalty early on in life, and that concept has continually been reinforced and refined throughout my career. I was always told that if the organization has been good to you, you should be good to the organization.

Where do you find balance to both lead in the community and in the workplace?

Finding balance is not easy, but the first – and most important – step is to figure out your priorities. Investing in our community has always been a priority at William Blair, and it’s been a priority for me, as well. The community has been very good to me personally and professionally, so I feel that I have a duty to return that goodwill. Whether it’s being a leader here at William Blair or being a leader with the Lincoln Park Zoo or the Francis Parker School here in Chicago, having the chance to make an impact is what keeps me going.

What advice do you have for students entering the working world who hope to become a CEO one day?

I never thought I would be the CEO of a company. When I started out, I was focused on the 10-year time frame. If you just look at what’s in front of you now, you’ll miss out on other opportunities that present themselves because you won’t think as broadly. My advice is to think about where you want to be and how you want to get there. It’s important to have a vision for your career and think about the things you should be doing to reach that goal.


Interview By Aaron Westbrook

Fast Facts

Chicago, IL
Number of employees:
Number of years in current role:
10 years
Previous experiences:
President & COO: 2003. Chief Financial Officer: 2001-02
First job:
Summer Intern at American National Bank of Chicago
Leader you admire the most:
There isn't just one.

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