How Kristen Sieffert Is Shaking Up the Reverse Mortgage Trade
The reverse mortgage industry, like most of the financial services industry, is a male-dominated field. But Kristen Sieffert, president of Finance of America Reverse (FAR), is aiming to change that. After joining FAR as COO in 2012, Sieffert was promoted to president in 2015, and she hasn’t looked back. Under her leadership, FAR has led the charge for change in an industry that desperately needed fresh, innovative thinking and a new image. Sieffert’s vision, tenacity and willingness to challenge the status quo while, at the same time, motivating an entire company and fostering a culture of support and inclusiveness, is redefining what it means to be in the reverse mortgage business—and, perhaps more importantly, what it means to be a leader. Today, FAR is one of the largest lenders in the industry and an employer of choice for more than 400 professionals across the country who consider it a great place to work.
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Q: First off, I’d love to learn more about your professional journey. What led you to your role at FAR?
A: Graduating from UCLA, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do immediately. I had always worked since the age of 15 and wanted to take some time to think things through. A high school friend of mine called me and told me about an opportunity to come work with her at small company in a very niche market. I ended up saying yes, thinking it would be a temporary stop gap, and entered the reverse mortgage industry—something I literally had never heard of before. It turned out I was well suited for the position, and while I started in an entry level role, I quickly found myself in management. After a few years at this company, my friend and I were recruited to build a reverse mortgage division of another company in Southern California, and we quickly jumped at the chance. That was right before the 2008 market collapse, and while the first 10 months were an exciting run, I was immediately entrenched in market conditions I had never experienced, and the company was struggling to figure out how to make payroll. Thankfully, our company ended up being acquired by Quicken Loans, now known as Rocket, and I had an amazing time working there as a VP for many years. But I realized that there wasn’t an immediate path to allow me to do what I felt had the capacity for, and I made another change that led to me being COO of FAR in 2012. As COO, I felt like I found what I was meant to do. I loved the challenge of leading a broader team, overseeing initiatives at a higher level and felt very comfortable being in the number two spot. I traveled to the corporate office almost weekly to be with my incredible team for close to two full years, up until I was 36 weeks pregnant with my first child. When I was 34 years old and pregnant with my second child in 2015, my boss, who was taking a role within our holding company, offered me the role of president. I was humbled, excited and terrified all at the same time. Not to mention, I had a toddler and was expecting my next one in six months. I never envisioned myself as the main leader; I was extremely comfortable as COO and very adept in that role. But this type of offer doesn’t come around often, especially for women, and there was no other answer than a resounding yes.
When the news was announced it was met with skepticism—“is she cut out for this,” “why didn’t they bring in someone who has done this before,” “she is too young for this,” “it’s only a matter of time before they replace her.” All of these comments had the same undertone—why didn’t they hire an older man for this job?
Fast forward to today, and our company is more successful than we’ve ever been, our profitability is up dramatically and our culture is stronger than ever before.
Can you tell me more about FAR and your role leading growth and innovation for FAR’s reverse mortgage business? What does that entail?
FAR has been leading the reverse mortgage industry in innovating new and better ways to support our customers to truly thrive during their retirement years by leveraging their home equity. We are one of the largest reverse mortgage lenders in the country and have become a more complete provider of holistic retirement solutions that prioritize relationships with our employees, borrowers, lenders and partners. Due to a multitude of factors, including the lengthening of our lifespans, the rising costs of health care and the shrinking of defined benefit plans like pensions, many Americans don’t have enough money to support them through the length of today’s retirements. Reverse mortgages are an amazing tool to leverage as it allows homeowners to tap into their home equity, which levels are skyrocketing due to recent home price appreciation trends, without the burden of a required monthly mortgage payment. Adding home equity into an overarching retirement plan gives retirees financial stability and security that otherwise aren’t available.
FAR was the first lender to re-introduce a proprietary product to the market after the 2008 recession and has since expanded our singular HomeSafe product into a suite of products tailored to address the needs of individual customers. FAR has had tremendous success with our HomeSafe suite because we are building these products well in advance of the market need so that the options are available as circumstances and market dynamics shift. As a team, we have a strong culture of innovation and execution. This allows ideas to flow in through all of our different divisions, and when we identify an idea worth investing in, we have the infrastructure to quickly build, implement and launch the product. We thrive on viewing every day as a new opportunity for a new idea and are committed to blazing trails in our market so that we can be in the driver’s seat of our destiny.
Our newest proprietary product is a retirement mortgage called EquityAvail. EquityAvail is a first-of-its-kind, innovative solution designed to address real gaps in the market by combining elements of a traditional forward mortgage with elements of a reverse mortgage. The outcome allows homeowners to greatly reduce their monthly mortgage obligation for 10 years and then automatically eliminate that payment altogether afterwards. It provides a glidepath for people to start working by increasing cash flow. That cash flow increase becomes even great after 10 years, which is typically the time people are ready to fully retire.
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What’s your philosophy when it comes to how you think about growth and innovation—especially in an industry that’s been generally lacking in disruption?
There is a lot of room for growth and innovation in the mortgage and reverse mortgage sectors, and it starts with allowing room for creativity, opening opportunities to new talent and a good amount of leadership. The industry is ready to evolve, and disruption is on the horizon, and to be ahead of what’s to come, we have to allow smart people from all corners of the industry to have opportunities to contribute, share their ideas and feel empowered to bring them forth and actualize them and recruit smart people from outside of our industry so that we can get fresh perspectives and novel thinking. I think about Jeff Bezos’ motto that every day is “Day 1” and that for innovation to thrive, everyone on the team must be driven to achieve the same goals through learning, sharing and empowering. For that to happen, not only do you need to be open to ideas from all people, but a leader who will listen, be open-minded to different perspectives and empathetic to other’s lived experiences in order to understand aspects of markets that they may not have had exposure to.
For all this to be successful, however, I am a firm believer that people are first in all circumstances. Whether it is our clients or our employees, people are what matter. This is a philosophy that I adhere to in my approach to leading my team, and one that I ask from everyone in my company to keep in mind as they come to work each day. With that in mind, we launched a foundational objective within our company called “Playing for 10 Stars.” The theory here is that people expect five stars, so it is our job to figure out how to create a 10-star experience so great, so delightfully surprising, that the person can’t wait to tell someone about it. And we do this with EVERYONE—employees, vendors, partners and borrowers. This objective has been so rewarding for our entire team as it empowers them to decide on the spot what they can do to go above and beyond and find new ways to spread joy (which is something I believe the world needs more of now more than ever). We also launched an industry first Borrower Engagement division to assist our clients with any immediate needs throughout the life of the loan. I believe that the real work begins when a loan is funded and am committed to finding ways to ensure the customer is just as happy on the first day the loan is funded as they are 10, 20, 30 years down the road.
How did the pandemic affect your work? What did you learn about yourself and your company during this time?
No one prepares you for a pandemic, especially the first one many of us have experienced in our lifetime. The pandemic was truly difficult for everyone, and we had unique challenges because the demographic we serve was the hardest hit. We worked immediately to set up new processes to ensure that everyone on our team could easily work remotely and that our borrowers were able to work with our company without any risks. While many of our team members had already worked remotely before the pandemic, working from home while trying to also babysit or teach children was new territory and, frankly, not easy to navigate. We made it very clear to our team that we would be flexible and accommodating, and I understood firsthand how difficult, impossible even, it was to do it all as I had children myself now at home.
The mental and emotional balance aspect was the one I was most concerned with and how we could continue to feel connected as a team while being physically apart. Within this lack of physical connection, I believed it was more important than ever to nurture emotional and psychological connection. Out of that my Friday emails were born.
Each Friday, I would reflect on our business, the events outside of our business and my personal journey, then email our entire team with a message from the heart, not the head. My goal was to share my feelings authentically so that our team could know that however they were getting by at the time was perfectly perfect. As a working mom, I understood the struggles our working parents were facing, because I was facing them too. Through these shares, we created a culture of compassion and support and developed relationships with one another that never existed before.
The response I received from our team reaffirmed what I knew inside to be true—people want to see the “full” leader, not just the image of that leader. It felt like a great awakening where I could fully embrace a more personal form of leadership that I hadn’t revealed before. It was a dramatic shift for me, a risk that liberated me to be the kind of leader I’d always hoped to be.
In addition to my Friday emails, I worked with my executive team to create new touchpoints with our team and launched a monthly gift initiative where each employee received a customized package each month. It was designed to help boost morale and ensure health and wellness among FAR colleagues during an especially stressful time. This, in addition to celebrating employees in monthly emails, spotlighting excellent work at quarterly town halls and providing other perks to foster FAR’s positive, collaborative culture, all helped to boost a sense of camaraderie and proved how resilient our team really was. Reflecting on how our team rallied together during the most challenging moments of the pandemic, I can confidently say this team is able to not only thrive no matter what is thrown at them, but also able to be a beacon of compassion and empathy
I understand you have many women on your executive team. Can you tell me more about this and why it’s important?
I have always been a firm believer of creating a culture of opportunity for everyone and helping our team see and reach their full potential. At FAR, we have had several women, most of them mothers, who have earned executive level roles. They are smart, talented, hard-working and doing an incredible job within our business while also taking care of their families. In the mortgage industry, there are so many impressive women making real impact every day, yet we don’t see many of them rise to the C-level. Generally, women have different communication styles and different perspectives on what they prioritize, and it is critical that those of us in leadership roles embrace those differences and prove that they contribute to greater success and not detract from it. I want to be sure that I can inspire and show anyone that the mold of a successful leader can be a mold of our authentic selves and doesn’t have to be what we are accustomed to seeing. It is no mystery that there are greater forces at play, making it harder for women to rise to the top, but it can be lessened by other women and men learning what unconscious biases drive our decisions and perspectives so that we can create opportunities that were previously unavailable.
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Obviously, finance is a very male-dominated field, as is executive leadership. What were the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are today? What did you learn from those challenges?
The mortgage industry, like many financial industries, is predominately male. Starting in this industry at a very young age, I had to learn how to navigate situations that are unique to women. I’ve had my share of unsavory remarks but what bothered me more, at least at the start, was constantly being under-estimated. As I matured and gained confidence, I learned how to use this to my advantage, but I do look forward to the day where women aren’t judged for being women or, oftentimes in my case, judged for smiling too much. The silver lining in all of this is that it forced me to work harder than my peers and to commit myself to constantly learning new things. It also gave me the freedom to approach situations with a sense of wonder and curiosity rather than the need to know it all. I still encounter similar judgments today, and I am constantly practicing using my voice to articulate what I don’t appreciate when it happens. I think a lot of people still don’t even realize that their comments are offensive, and I believe I have as much responsibility as anyone to help educate them when these things occur. Every experience is either a teachable moment or a lesson learned and ultimately makes us stronger in the long run, as long as we don’t sacrifice who we are to fit someone else’s expectations.
How can men work as allies to help women break the glass ceiling?
There is a lot of research around unconscious bias and how the things we don’t realize we believe impact how we operate day-to-day and how we make decisions. For men and women to work together to help more women rise to the C-suite, both sides need to acknowledge we all have some sort of bias, that this bias absolutely plays a part in who we think is a “fit” for a certain role and then be open to understanding how to change it. Another factor is the role of women in giving birth and raising children. Businesses, and spouses, must take responsibility to build cultures that allow for women to be mothers without having to reduce their role at work. I was so fortunate that I was offered the role of president at my company, by a man, while I was pregnant. It is a rare story that someone wants to take a chance on a female in that type of situation. I am tremendously grateful he did, as this role has created more joy and fulfillment in my life than anything I’ve done previously, and I’ve been able to prove that my authentic leadership style can lead to financial success and an inspirational culture. I am also fortunate I have an extremely evolved husband who has been my biggest cheerleader through my professional journey and also an amazing coach along the way.
The good news is: The narrative is starting to change. We live in a highly transparent world, and societally, it simply will no longer be acceptable to have executive teams and boards run by men only. The outcome I hope to see in my lifetime is that leadership teams reflect the world we live and operate in, and until we get there, we have to strive for improvements wherever we can.
Work culture has become a huge topic, especially in the wake of COVID. What is your approach to creating a positive work culture that give employees the opportunity to thrive?
This is what gets me out of bed excited every morning. For many years, I didn’t feel fulfilled in my work. That slowly began to change as I was able to lead more and more people and realize that I had a tremendous responsibility to inspire our team to be the best version of themselves. I believe we all spend way too many hours at work not to derive meaningful personal benefit during the process, outside of just a paycheck. To do this effectively, I must make it clear what bigger impact we are working toward as a company and then empower our team to thrive by giving them the space to leave their personal mark on that mission. At FAR, we also have an initiative to help our team define their own personal vision statement. I view success as creating a path that allows the team to make those visions a reality, even if that means we inspired them to take a leap and do something outside of our company.
Ultimately, it is critical that we prioritize our people because with an inspired and engaged team, anything is possible. We recently received a “Great Place to Work” award, and I am proud that our employees believe in what we are building together to earn us this honor.
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What advice do you have for young women currently trying to climb the corporate ladder?
Growing up, my grandparents were big influences in my life. My grandpa would always tell me that if I wanted a beautiful life, I shouldn’t rely on anyone else to create it for me and that I had the ability to do anything I set my mind to. This instilled in me a deep sense of drive and a quiet confidence. My grandmother was more like a Mother Theresa, with an extreme amount of compassion and a belief that we should help people whenever we could. I would absolutely attribute many of my successes to their advice, which I’d define as a blend of vision, drive and compassion. Beyond this, I’d want to share four main pieces of actionable advice. First, invest in you. The more you can understand your own blind spots and your own limiting beliefs, the better chance you have at not being the one that hinders or derails your own success. To me, this one should be a lifelong journey. Second, know your numbers. If you want to get into the executive ranks, you must understand the financial drivers of the business and be able to make sound and strategic decisions from that understanding. Don’t be scared to ask as many questions as you can as you are taking on more responsibility and never stop being curious. Third, commit to prioritizing people and purpose. Doing this will generate so much more joy and fulfillment in the workplace, which are two things our world needs more of, but also will lead to greater financial success if done well. Last, be authentic to who you are. Let your light shine, inspire others to do the same and never compromise your values.
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