Fostering a Team-Oriented Culture at John Hancock

John Hancock’s chief marketing officer describes how the legacy company is organizing for digital.

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Sloan Management Review: Can you give me a brief description of how John Hancock has been digitizing its marketing operations and the organization as a whole?

Barbara Goose: Ultimately, customers drive change in companies, and good companies listen to their customers. Today, customers want to have much more control. More than half of people with the means to hire a financial adviser do not and are therefore looking to manage their money on their own. Our company is working to respond and get aligned to what customers are asking for, both in the kinds of products they want and in how they want to interact with the company.

What challenges have you faced in making this shift in the organization?

There are several challenges. First, it’s hard to drive change when people feel that the company has been successful doing everything the way it always has. People don’t see the need for change when we still have returns coming in and a stable customer base.

Eventually, people do understand the need for change. In looking toward the future, they can see that the world and customer needs are changing. Even with that recognition, however, there are legacy systems in place, and many employees still need training to learn new skills. We need to evolve and experience a revolution to get to a very different place as fast as we can, but it’s hard to do that quickly in such a big company.

What are some of the most successful strategies you have used in driving this revolution?

I was brought in by John Hancock as a change agent about a year ago, and bringing in people who have different backgrounds and a variety of different skill sets helps to see different opportunities and figure out how to carve that path forward. We got started in the direct-consumer advice space by making an acquisition, which gave us a head start and brought in new technology and team members who think very differently about the opportunity set.

How have you found the assimilation process of these new employees who have a different way of thinking?

It works best when you can bring in people who not only have a certain skill set but also the right attitude. If people come in wanting to learn, partner, teach, and make the workplace an inspired place to be, people within the firm will enable them to lead the change.

How are the existing employees handling the changes?

John Kotter [founder of leadership consulting firm Kotter International] laid out the idea of the “survive” or “thrive” mindset in a seminar I attended, which explains this well. People with a survive mindset come in every day waiting for the next day to begin, but other people push for more — they thrive.

A lot of people are excited about the change at John Hancock and are getting used to living in a culture of change, to be a part of what’s next. Good leadership helps that, but it also requires people to come in with an open mind and a good attitude. I believe the majority of our employees think that way.

Are there any key triggers as people go from a “survive” to a “thrive” mindset?

I don’t think there’s a formula; perhaps it happens differently for different people. When we have a successful pilot of a new product, we can get proof points to demonstrate that there is a path forward and a real opportunity, and that’s when people really get interested in jumping on board. When we do customer research and bring real evidence to the table that people are used to making decisions around, that helps a lot, too.

You mentioned earlier that it is hard to get people to change when the company is successful. What drove the desire for change at John Hancock?

John Hancock has been a successful and stable company for some time. Part of that, however, is that we are always looking for new opportunities, especially in digital advice products. Our board and our leadership teams have a responsibility to our shareholders to evaluate what’s next and what can be a part of the company’s growth.
Although the financial services industry is one of the last to be disrupted, anyone who was paying attention to what was going on in other industries — like travel and taxes — with the increased presence of digital technology realized that this would affect our industry. It was just a matter of when.

How would you describe the culture at John Hancock? Is the culture changing as a result of these initiatives?

The base culture is made of kind and generous people who are deeply involved in the community, which has created really deep roots in our corporate responsibility initiatives. Our culture allows our people to feel proud of our brand. On top of that, our people want to be successful by attacking opportunities and joining what’s next. Although new initiatives also require teaching and leading, our people are eager to join, and we have a very team-oriented culture.

Do you feel the culture was this way when or before you arrived? Or do you think that it’s changed over time?

As people have been exposed to more proof points of the direction of the market, they’re becoming more accepting of trying new things than perhaps they were when I first arrived just over a year ago. In general, though, I have found that the teams have very open minds.

In a previous interview, you said that you think it is important for your team to think like a startup. What did you mean by that, and why is it important?

The notion of acting like a startup is proceeding as if you have a rolling five-year plan you’re going to continue to make better every day rather than acting as if you have a specific set plan for every single day for the next five years. In my own role, I am now updating my team monthly, and to an extent daily, as something could have happened overnight that makes that day different, whereas in the past I may have created only an annual planning cycle.
I also encourage people to take on what I would call “hybrid roles.” You may be the creative director for one initiative and the project manager for another. Being able to pivot and work broadly across scopes is critical. You want fluid team members who can adapt as change occurs.

Do you have a structured way that you execute this idea of a rolling five-year plan, or is it just ad hoc as you continue to update things on the basis of your environment?

It’s more of a mindset, as well as an actual profit and loss (P&L) that sits there. It is important to have the mindset that what I thought was the right answer yesterday might not be the right answer today, but also to know that you can influence things. You can change the plan to meet needs. Even my finance partner has embraced this; he is successful because he meets with us and knows how we’re adjusting each day. He can feed updates to his team on what our priorities are and how they’re changing.

Companies really struggle with embracing risk and changing and deviating from plans. Is there a secret to making that happen?

I definitely don’t think there are any secrets; if there are, I wish I knew them. However, there is a higher importance placed on more-frequent communications. I can see that in the way our leadership meetings have changed — rather than presenting updates once in a meeting, we’re now expected to send them ahead of time and educate ourselves on our counterparts’ updates so that when we do have those meetings, we can really use the time to talk about the change.

How did John Hancock approach cross-functional teaming, and what did the company have to learn to make that more effective?

When you put cross-functional employees on a dedicated team, they’re baked into those teams, so they understand what the team is doing. They understand the mission and the urgency, so decisions are made differently. Decisions are made in the context of what the business is trying to accomplish versus in isolation. Embedding everyone in the team ensures that everyone is aware of what the experience should be for the customers and what the legal and regulatory environments are from the beginning. With cross-functional teams, things happen faster and you get further.

It’s hard for some individuals. It’s definitely hard for an organization that hasn’t needed to take on a different way of thinking, that hasn’t needed to be out there facing the customer, that isn’t used to getting customer complaints because they didn’t have a customer as their end customer. All that is new, and we need to learn and adapt, but again, when you see the returns and the impact you’re making with these customers, people are more willing to participate and find the right solution.

Let’s talk about some of the innovative work John Hancock is doing with Twine out in San Francisco and your Lab of Forward Thinking. How are those projects working, and are they stand-alone or will they be integrated back into the company?

Initially, they needed to be stand-alone. They needed to be freed from the corporate shackles in some ways to be able to innovate and progress faster. To be successful in scaling, however, we realized that we need to integrate this process into our core. I would say we’re in that transition to do that, but maybe it’s a little bit of both in the end. I don’t know that I have the exact formula, but the projects needed to be by themselves to get a running start, but to really scale, it’s about reintroducing them to the core in time.

Was there a process used for the transition, or has it been a gradual evolution?

You could equate it to transitioning from a strategic initiative to becoming a business unit. Once the risk of a new project begins to pay off and things start working, you want to give that project the backing of the core of the company through integration.

One thing we’ve seen that separates more of what we call “digitally mature companies” from “digitally immature companies” is the ability to integrate innovation and experiments into the core of the business. How do you integrate these concepts into core business conversations?

We’re still working on it, but we’ve begun to make digital a priority within the company. We’re pushing a customer focus over a product focus, but it requires a lot of change.

If you ranked your company from where you are now to where you want to be, in terms of your ideal vision for the digital John Hancock, where are you in your journey?

We’re passing, but we have a projection to do better. For now, we have to focus on finding the wins and releasing the resources in the right places so that we can orient around the places where we can really shine.

How does the regulation of the financial services and insurance industries affect your ability and willingness to take risks? Is there any discussion around failures of projects within the organization?

We have a lot of conversations about how to go from “no” to “how” and ultimately from “no” to “how” to “wow.” Shifting from a more risk-averse culture to one that embraces the willingness to take risk is dependent on building understanding between teams. For example, we now work closely with compliance and legal from the beginning of projects to ensure they understand our goals and can help us chart a clearer path. Being involved from the beginning helps them understand how they can put risk in context and understand the ultimate goal and benefits of taking a new approach.

Are there specific challenges inherent in being a legacy organization?

People often characterize legacy employees or legacy companies as the big, bad, evil corporation that can’t realize what the customers want. In my experience at John Hancock, however, I’ve found that people don’t say “no” just to be jerks; they say “no” because they’re operating the way they always have. Once you show employees a different way and can prove that it’s what the customer wants, people want to be a part of it. They’re not bad or difficult; they just have to be shown.


Digital Leadership

As organizations rely increasingly on digital technologies, how should they cultivate opportunities and address taking risks in a fast-moving digital market environment?
More in this series

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