Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.
We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined with Deanna Mulligan, Board Chair and former CEO of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. Prior to being named CEO of Guardian in July 2011, she joined in 2008 as Executive Vice President to lead the company’s Individual Life and Disability business.
Deanna authored a book in 2020 entitled “Hire Purpose: How Companies Can Close the Skills Gap.” She provides a significant message that many executives are dealing with today, ‘how to effectively reskill their workforce’ to meet the needs of the future. Deanna speaks about the social and moral obligations business leaders have to society to prioritize reskilling their workforce, rather than downsizing, costly in many ways. In this month’s episode Deanna shares some of these challenges, strategies, solutions and the importance of demonstrating organizational agility.
Tune in as Deanna addresses a shortsighted concern for the longer term benefit of reskilling, when executives raise the question: What if I train my employees and then they leave?
“We want to make sure that people can learn, and know how to learn, and we can teach them the skills that they need.”
Deanna is active across the industry and community serving on many boards: Board of Directors for the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), the New York Department of Financial Services State Insurance Advisory Board and the Economic Club of New York. She also serves as a trustee on the Board of Directors for The Vanguard Group, a position she has held since 2017. Committed to advancing communities she serves on the Board of Trustees for New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Partnership for New York City, Catalyst, Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose (CECP) and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT. Fortune named her one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” and Crain’s New York Business recognized her as one of “The 50 Most Powerful Women in New York,” five times each.
It is with great privilege we present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined “Hire Purpose,” with Deanna Mulligan.
Leadership Reimagined is available on the following popular podcast stations:
Show Notes: Deanna Mulligan
Deanna Mulligan on what lead her to write Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap
I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time. It actually goes back to the 2008 financial crisis when I began my work at Guardian. Guardian wasn’t impacted by the 2008 financial crisis very dramatically; as a matter of fact, we were upgraded by the rating agencies in 2008. But we noticed that many of our friends and neighbors in our communities were having a very difficult time being laid off and not being able to find work. Middle management people with college degrees who had never expected to have long periods of unemployment, suddenly did. So I started thinking about why this was happening and looking into the existence of a skills gap and thinking about the future of Guardian and how we wanted to make sure that our employees could continue to work for us and we could continue to be competitive. So that was sort of the start of this book: thinking about how the skills the workforce needs can change so rapidly, as they did in the 2008 crash. How can we be prepared for that in the future, so that we can make sure we don’t have to lay off a large number of employees? That was really the beginning of the thinking of Hire Purpose.
Deanna Mulligan on Guardian’s re-skilling project
Well, one of the things we did at Guardian was start to rethink our corporate responsibility and the money and time that we were donating to various not-for-profits. And we said, “what if we could really focus on reskilling and repurposing?” And we ended up partnering with many community colleges. Eventually we were partnered with one in almost every area in the country where we have an office, and we were helping to provide financial literacy training to community college students. The reason we picked community college students was first of all, they tend sometimes not to get as much attention as college students when it comes to philanthropic thinking. And secondly, we saw community colleges as having a key role in the future of work and in helping people repurpose and reskill. So one of the things that we did at that time was to start sponsoring a course at community colleges, helping pay tuition for people to attend the course, providing employees to mentor other community college employees and also hiring community college employees as interns, which we hadn’t really done before. So this whole idea of going to a two year program and developing specific skills as opposed to a four year program was something that we supported as a way for people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t do a four year program and also for people who might have a degree but wanted to retrain in other areas to get productively back into the workforce.
I occasionally hear from leaders who say, “well, what if we train these people and they leave?” And I think that’s a little bit of a false dichotomy. I would say, what if you don’t train them and they don’t leave? Isn’t it far better to have a skilled workforce that other people are interested in and may want to hire than to have a less skilled workforce that no one wants to hire? And we have found that people appreciate it very much when their company gives them the opportunity to expand their skills. They’re less likely to leave if you train them, not more likely.
Deanna Mulligan on the moral obligations of business leaders
I think this idea that business is responsible for more than just shareholder bottom line profits has really come into its own. You see things like the Business Roundtable and their statement and many organizations now that are really grabbing onto this idea of business playing a broader role in society. So I don’t think it’s very controversial now. In 2008-2010, when I started thinking about it, it wasn’t as common. I think that what you see now with COVID shutdowns and the number of people who have lost jobs is that this is a societal problem, and it’s going to take businesses, not-for-profits, educational institutions and government all working together to solve the problem. I don’t believe that employers can just say, “well, these people aren’t our problem anymore,” because this affects all of us.
Deanna Mulligan on the role of local public-private partnerships in reskilling
Everyone has a role to play. We have just partnered with EnPower, for example. They like to bring people who need to be reskilled into the workforce. So veterans, for example, and homeless people, we’d like to bring them on board as interns and apply some of our skill building programs to them. We have one program, for example, that turns lay people into coders and gives them an opportunity to have a very lucrative career in it. And that’s an example of a not-for-profit working with a business. In New York City, we have several fine examples of companies working together with educational institutions. So the original P-Tech school, which IBM forged with the city of New York, basically allowed high schoolers to take an extra year of high school that was equivalent to community college and go on to work at IBM. And IBM has since put together a program for other companies to replicate that in their local areas across the country. Roger Ferguson at TIAA was very instrumental in working with the City University of New York and several local employers to think about putting together a minor in data science and cybersecurity for City University of New York students who were low income and probably needed some income support. And we were one of the companies that joined among many to hire these students as interns and to help contribute to funding their education and to give them an opportunity to learn skills that could put them in an upper income group, having come from a lower income group. So there are real opportunities in local areas. As a matter of fact, some of the best opportunities are local businesses partnering with their local high schools, community colleges, colleges, institutions like the YWCA and YMCA to put programs like this in place.
Deanna Mulligan on the future of in-company retraining and reskilling
I think you’re going to see more of this because, let’s face it, there aren’t enough people at this moment with digital skills and automation skills for companies to go out and hire. Companies are going to have to retrain a lot of their own if they’re going to make their goals. And we see this particularly now, in this COVID era in which many customer service functions, many sales functions have gone online. Pre-pandemic, those might have taken years to develop into fully online functions, but by necessity, they went online right away. And the support for those functions is largely being driven by companies’ existing employees, who are learning this on the fly. We’ve had many companies go to a work-from-home model and express surprise at how successful they’ve been and how quickly their employees adapted. So I think that’s an example of employees learning new skills inside the company to help the company at a time when it was critical. And I think companies and CEOs have learned from that and said, “hey, our employees can do more and we can do more digitally and virtually than we thought we could and maybe we have more skills in the organization than we knew we had.”
Deanna Mulligan on how the future of work will impact the insurance industry
Well, I think we have some of the same challenges that all industries face. We are trying to become more and more efficient so that we can deliver more and better service and products to more people at a lower price. And I think that’s everyone’s goal right now. And certainly digital and automation are two ways to do that. The insurance industry is known for having big back offices full of people doing calculations and people answering the phone and lots of paper. We actually eliminated paper about two years ago. We were fortunate in that we moved to a new location in New York City and we just made a rule that said that unless it’s required by regulations, you’re not allowed to keep paper. And, in a very compliant way, people got rid of lots of paper and learned to do things online and digitally. So we were prepared for the current shutdown in that we were already operating digitally. But many people have expressed surprise at how little paper they see when they come to our offices.
Another example is that we have wonderful people who provide customer service to our clients via telephone. But during the coverage shutdown a lot of our clients had questions about their benefits, needed help, needed answers and we couldn’t hire enough people fast enough to help them. So we pushed into service some AI tools that normally would have taken a much longer ramp up time, but we pushed them in quickly because we wanted to keep up our great customer service scores. And our customers ended up liking them and using them, and they had a very high adoption rate. Of course they had the chance to opt out to talk to a person, but many of them ended up using the automated agent to help them. And so as we look forward, we have a program to retrain some of our frontline customer service people into coders who will ultimately be able to do automation and help us automate some of the customer service functions. We don’t envision ever eliminating in-person customer service, but we are going to support it with automation, and some of the people who are doing customer service today, we’d like to have them retrained to help do the automation. So that’s a great example of innovation that you might not realize would be going on behind the scenes at an insurance company.
Deanna Mulligan on taking a two-year career break after 9/11
I was in Manhattan on 9/11. As many New Yorkers did, I lost a few people whom I knew in the towers. I also had a family member who became quite ill quite suddenly and passed away, leaving three small children. My husband had also been in an accident and was home recovering. So I had seen a lot of death and destruction. I was 39 years old and it seems hard to believe now, but at that point I think I hadn’t really come to terms with my mortality. And all of a sudden all of these events happened within a few months. And I said to myself, “wow, I could die tomorrow. Am I really doing what I’m supposed to do and what I was meant to do? And is there something else I should be doing?” I was very inspired by many of the first responders at 9/11 who showed great bravery, and by the very heroic actions of the New York City police and fire department, which we will never forget. And of course, the great hospitals like New York Presbyterian and all the others who opened their doors and worked around the clock to save people. And I said, “am I on the path I’m supposed to be on?” So I decided to take some time to think about that. I thought I was going to take six months off. I did go around and interview some people I had known and respected who had taken career breaks or sabbaticals, and I said, “tell me how it went, tell me what I should do, tell me how I could be successful.” And everyone said, “Six months isn’t enough.” Some people said, you need a year. Some people said two years. And I said, “oh, I don’t believe that. I couldn’t even imagine it.” I ended up taking two years. And it was just the right amount of time. And in that time, I really solidified what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, what values were important to me and kind of recommitted to making sure that everything I do from a career perspective and every organization that I join is committed to making the world a better place. It’s cliche, but for me, it was very important. I can’t tell everybody that taking a two-year break was the right thing to do, but certainly it was the right thing for me. I’m quite sure that I would not have ended up as CEO of Guardian had I not taken that break. And there were many people who told me I was crazy to take a break and that I’d never be able to get back on track, and that it was especially difficult for a woman to take a break. And why would a woman, especially a woman with no children, take a break? And I had to kind of block out those things and think about what it was that was really important to me and that I really wanted to do.
Ultimately, ending up at Guardian was exactly what I wanted to do. Because Guardian is a values-based company that is owned by its policyholders. Many people don’t know, but we’re a Fortune 250 company, even though we’re not public, and we’re really set up to do the right thing for our policyholders, but also for our communities and for our people. And I ended up in the right place. But it was really a result of a lot of thought about what I wanted the next ten years or my time on Earth to look like.
Deanna Mulligan on serving on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans
Again, it was a great honor to serve on that commission for President Obama with so many wonderful and talented people, both from the administration, from the not-for-profit world and other CEOs of large and small companies.We issued a report and started some initiatives to help young people think about very important questions like “should I go to college? If I do go to college, how can I apply for financial aid? How can I make sure that I can afford to repay the loans” and so on.
One of the big things that the commission also learned was that a major financial obstacle facing these young Americans was finding a job. Whether it was finding a job after coming out of community college or coming out of a four-year college or in some sad cases, dropping out of a four-year college and having to go to work to pay off their student loans. One thing that all these groups had in common was trying to find a satisfying career. So a lot of what I saw in the work of that commission is again reflected here in the Hire Purpose book. And that is we need to make sure that as companies, we’re doing everything we can to help young people develop the skills they need to have a satisfying career. And it doesn’t have to be through a four year college or a community college. It can be through some of the programs like those. We have a program at Guardian where we take high school students as interns and put them, for example, into a code academy situation where they learn how to code to help us deliver more of that technology that we’re going to need for the future.
Deanna Mulligan on skills-based hiring
The Business Roundtable has done a lot of work on credentialing and stackable skills, and I think there’s a great realization now among employers that we need to look at candidates differently in the future and hire differently. And we need to look more at a skill space than a degree, because anything learned in a new degree, even ten, five or ten years ago, there are new skills that have come into play since then. We want to make sure that people can learn and know how to learn, and we can teach them some of the skills they need. But I think it’s really important for people to have that learning mindset. As we move forward, trying to create more inclusive and more diverse organizations, one of the ways that we can do that is to look more at skills than at background or college degree. I think what we’re going to see in the future is people with the skills and talent and the ability and desire to learn are going to move ahead much more easily than they might have in the past, even if they don’t have a college degree.
Deanna Mulligan on reskilling as a cost-saver
Let’s face it: it’s expensive to lay people off. Most companies give severance. It’s expensive to have severance. It’s very hard on the quote-unquote “survivors” in the company. When there’s a big layoff, the people who remain are sad. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes innovation is stifled because people are afraid to take risks. There are definitely community impacts of laying off a number of people. So the cost-benefit analysis there is whether you keep the employees and retrain them or lay them off, and it’s much better for the organization and for society at large to try to keep the employees and retrain them. And retraining does not have to be expensive. Community college tuition is one of the great bargains in this country. And one of the things that we found at Guardian is that our employees are more than willing to volunteer to mentor one another. And so mentoring programs inside the company don’t cost anything, and they tend to raise morale and produce better results.
Deanna Mulligan on the role of recruiters in reskilling efforts
I think recruiters have a huge role to play, because you have the skills and the abilities of assessing people and assessing jobs and saying, “here’s a match, this isn’t a match.” And I would imagine in the future, firms like Ellig Group are going to do more of something I know you’re already doing, which is, in addition to recruiting, helping companies build those internal programs and find those internal matches of skills.
Deanna Mulligan on what the workplace will look like in 2025
I think we’re already seeing clues to that today. Obviously, COVID has taught us that it’s really impossible to foresee the future in a perfect way. But I think given where we sit today, you’ll see many more things being done virtually, much more remote work. I think clients are always going to demand a high level of service. Some of that can be in person, some of it will be over the phone, but an increasing amount of it will also be digital. I think we will see more companies working in a very agile way. We’ve already trained our entire workforce on the agile methodology, and I think you’ll see more and more of that. Companies have been, I think, a bit surprised at how quickly their workforce adapted during the shutdown to the situation we faced. And I think we can build on that going forward and say our people are a lot more creative and resourceful than we might have imagined. And so let’s push to see what we can do, how creative we can be, how imaginative we can be about the future of work. We have a lot of discussions with our employees and a lot of surveying and a lot of listening about how they’re feeling and their engagement level. And what we’ve heard during this period of time when we’ve been largely work-from-home is that while it doesn’t work for some people, many people like the option of not having to commute to the office every day. And they like the productivity that they have when they can solve business problems, take a few minutes to solve personal problems or child problems, then work a few minutes later at night. Being on their own schedule has been enormously freeing for them. So I think we’re going to see much more of that in the future.
Deanna Mulligan on what companies can do now to prepare for future skill needs
First of all, I think developing a learning culture and mindset inside your organization is really important. At Guardian, we started a year and a half ago with Leader Learning Day, and that has morphed into Learning Month, where we really help people to understand how many different resources are available to them to learn new skills. It’s not an expensive thing to do, and I think it’s a very important thing to do. So that would be an easy first step.
A second step, if you haven’t done it already, is to reach out to the resources in your community. You mentioned the Ys, which are great resources for reskilling and retraining and helping to find new candidates. I would also add to reach out to your local high schools and community colleges and colleges and talk about what it is you need in terms of skills and what you see over the next five years. And you’d be surprised at how adept they can be at helping you find students, develop curriculum, even, in some cases, delivering a curriculum to your employees. Again, something you could do right away that doesn’t cost very much.
The third thing is to examine your own mindset and the mindset of your executives and really do some thoughtful planning. Are we ready for the new future of work? Are we looking at candidates in the right way? Are we assessing skills instead of just backgrounds and pedigrees and degrees? And are we ready to open up the organization to people who might not have all of the credentials that are on our strict list of criteria, but could certainly develop them if we gave them a little bit of a boost? It’s really a way to bring some creativity, to bring some diversity to the organization and to make everyone feel included. I think those three things are things you could do tomorrow at fairly low cost. And with the social issues in our society today, it’s so important to be doing.
Deanna Mulligan on the best piece of advice she ever received
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is that feedback is a gift. Seek out feedback. If people are willing to take the time and energy to provide you with feedback, listen, thank them. You don’t have to agree with everything, but if you take the time to seek it out, you’re going to learn a lot. It’s really hard to move forward in your career and in life in general without feedback.