How One CEO is Changing Culture In A 157-Year-Old Company

In this second part of a two-part interview, CEO Marianne Harrison shares how she introduced more diversity, and more authenticity, to John Hancock's traditional culture.

CEO Marianne Harrison kicks off John Hancock’s “Signature Series,” an employee story-telling event designed to foster authenticity and connection.
In 2018, you said that since you began as CEO, 40 percent of your management team is diverse across race and gender. Has that figure changed?

My management team is still currently about 40% diverse across race and gender, but we have made big strides in our overall D&I journey over the past two years. I hired our first ever head of diversity, Sofia Teixeira, in the fall of 2018 and she was recently promoted to oversee our diversity efforts globally.

We are also doing a lot of work on the hiring side to remove bias from the recruiting process and ensure all capable and talented candidates are considered. We have introduced diverse candidate slates at our officer level and are using technologies like Textio to remove unconscious bias language in our job postings. And we are now disseminating an Inclusive Hiring Training to hiring managers to help them think differently about how they approach the entire candidate experience and process.

Now in its 12th year, the MLK Scholars program exposes more than 600 Boston-area high-school students each summer to community-based work, while providing meaningful economic support. Scholars work for 20-25 hours each week, gaining valuable work skills and earning a summer salary made possible by John Hancock’s funding. This summer we hired our largest class of MLK Scholars at John Hancock (23), and we are continually working to formalize MLK Scholars as a consistent pipeline for diverse talent coming into our own organization.

And we just hosted our second day-long session for leaders with Dr. Livingston, Dr. Livingston, lecturer of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, to share his “PROGRESS Model” (an engaging, relatable and unique way to discuss the current state of diversity). The program was both educational and interactive; Dr. Livingston first shared his research and learnings, and then facilitated a case study analysis to help us understand what actions we can take to enable this cultural change within our own organization.  Although we have made good progress there is still a lot of work ahead of us on our D&I agenda.

Despite studies showing benefits of diverse teams, there are still quite a few skeptics. Why, in your view, is diversity of viewpoint (including race, gender, background) so critical to success? How does a culture of inclusion and vulnerability lead to increased productivity and bottom-line results?

It is important to me that people are recognized for their accomplishments and rewarded as such, regardless of if they are male or female. I would never want someone to credit my gender for my success. Men and women think differently because of their upbringing, and I think the key to a successful leader is being able to recognize the value in differing perspectives. It’s not just about diversity, it is about inclusion of thought. If everyone was of the same mindset, we would not be able to see new and innovative ideas or different ways of doing things.  Having diversity of thought allows us to think more broadly and see different/new perspectives.

We have so many colleagues who sit beside each other every single day, but don’t know what their neighbor deals with in their personal life, or how their upbringing impacts their personality. That really impacts how we all work together and understand one another. I was excited to launch the John Hancock Signature Series to give employees the opportunity to share what makes them who they are with the rest of the organization and I was really proud of the ten stories that were shared—they were all incredible and it showed me that we’ve created a safe space for people to bring their whole self to work.

When it comes to the business side of building a diverse and inclusive culture—they go hand in hand. Research shows that diversity is indicative of an inclusive environment—so there’s a natural connection between inclusion and vulnerability, and productivity and business results.

When did you realize there was a stigma around being vulnerable at work? How did you discover that this was an area you’d need to work on?

Twelve years into my career as a public accountant, I had just had my second child and was thriving personally and professionally. One of my managers took me aside and told me that having any more children would hurt me from progressing in my career. Two months later, I was pregnant with my third child and now I am the CEO of John Hancock. These types of experiences really stuck with me, and I want to make sure employees feel they are in a safe space and can bring their whole selves to work.

Any advice for CEOs for whom this more personal style may not come as easily, but who want to create a culture more like this? 

I believe that being open and honest is important in culture change—and I am a firm believer in transparency at the top. Being an authentic leader is important to me.

I hope to set an example for my leadership team by stepping out of my own comfort zone. At a recent Town Hall for our Insurance team, I stood on stage and talked about my summer and shared a few anecdotes that have shaped the past few months of my life personally. This is not something that comes easy to me, but I encourage all employees—especially team leaders—to “share their humanity,” so I feel that it’s important for me to do the same.

How did you come up with the idea for the Signature Series?  

After spending a lot of time detailing the company’s mission, values and strategies alongside my US leadership team, I wanted to focus on our employees and elevating their voices to define our culture as a team. I truly believe that the more employees can share their humanity with each other and think big, the more they can inspire each other, change perceptions and learn something new to create meaningful change. When I expressed this desire to my team, my head of communications brought this fabulous idea she had previously tried and it took me all of 30 seconds to say how much I loved it.

The event, hosted on September 26, highlighted 10 employees who shared their inspiring stories and ideas on stage in front of over 850 company employees in-person, and hundreds more tuned in virtually, providing an opportunity for employees to learn more about the colleagues who they may sit next to every day, but know little about. The series also served as a professional development opportunity for employees to enhance their public speaking skills—we partnered with TED to coach employees and help them share their stories. Each of their personal experiences affects the way that these employees view the world and how they experience everyday life. When colleagues know more about each other’s backgrounds, it builds a deeper trust and understanding of how to work with one another and ultimately, increases productivity and business results.

Financial services is not known for being “touchy-feely” or for encouraging vulnerability. Did you get some odd looks when you announced this? Did you encounter any resistance from employees or your management team?

When I started in my role in 2017, my team and I began an intensive review to define our business model. That kind of bold transformation comes with a lot of change, especially when a company has 157 years of history!

Our first step was launching a refreshed set of values to provide guiding principles that are helping us embrace the big changes that will enable us to transform our company, and in turn, our industry. The Signature Series reflects our commitment to one of those core values: encouraging people to share their humanity.

The idea for this event was not met with any  resistance—and I think it’s because culture has become increasingly important at the company over the past few years. My leadership team is supportive of that and takes the extra step to build excitement around the possibilities that come with change to help all employees thrive.

What surprised you personally about the stories you heard at the Sept. 26th event? Any other reflections on how that event went?

I was amazed by how many brave employees applied to share their stories, and our Curation Committee had the extremely difficult task of choosing ten finalists.

I can’t begin to tell you how special that moment was—not only for the ten speakers, but for us as a team. We sat on the edges of our seats as those speakers showed us sides of them we’ve never seen before.

From discussing struggles with mental health, to overcoming trauma and finding your authentic self, our speakers truly shared the most vulnerable parts of themselves and inspired each of us with their passion and amazing stories. And there were many laughs, too. From being passed over for the middle school band, to the struggles of discussing life insurance at dinner parties and moments of humor in the journey toward minimalism—the comradery-building nature of this event was what made it so special.

I am incredibly proud of the people in this organization and excited that we can inspire each other and share our passions, as that is what makes a company powerful. And employees felt the same way. There were more than 850 people who attended in person and over 300 who dialed in or watched remotely from viewing locations. Of those who attended the event, 98 percent said it was inspiring and engaging. Additionally, 93 percent noted that the event made John Hancock’s values seem real to them and 92 percent said it made them feel proud to work at the company.

You seem to have a very collaborative style of leadership and don’t tolerate a lot of management dictatorship – did you lose any executives during your first two years because of this?

I do have a collaborative work style but I also have very high expectations when it comes to what we need to accomplish.  My collaborative style is really about listening to people, getting their views and not making unilateral decisions without the benefit of diversity of thought. I also don’t hesitate to make decisions so to me it is about finding that balance.

I have not lost executives, but rather have attracted new executives to the organization over the past two years. And that was because I laid out my expectations early and was clear what success would look like for the team and the individuals. I was focused on breaking down the silos within the organization so that we were all focused on our customers and shareholders versus just focused on their narrow responsibilities.

As you compete in the U.S. market, are there any advantages (or disadvantages) to being a Canadian company subsidiary?

Although there are certainly cultural differences based on our varied customs and product differences in each business, having the global perspective of our colleagues in Canada and Asia makes our work better and helps us to see different products and approaches in the other geographies as we go to market with new products and campaigns.

We are also able to leverage economies of scale in some of our product lines. For instance, about two years after the US launched our Vitality product, Canada followed suit and it has been met with excellent results. On the employee engagement side, we are in talks to extend the success of this year’s Signature Series globally in 2020. We are constantly learning from each other and working together to bring the best of the best to all of our regional segments.