Focused on internal networking and upskilling, the marketing organization at John Hancock is well-positioned to compete in a digital world.

MIT Sloan Management Review: Could you describe your role as digital strategy lead at John Hancock?

Lindsay Sutton: Digital strategy crosses many organizations, and here, it means a lot of different things. In this particular team, it refers to any of our brand marketing. We work closely with an internal creative team, my team of strategists, as well as some John Hancock brand experts. Together, we’re building out campaigns or activations for the brand or for business units.

That could be anything that spans traditional advertising — offline and online — to things rooted in the social media channel and the relevant content that supports that, to thinking through how we interface with customers or potential customers and how to resonate in someone’s life with digital at the core of that. Anything that comes from that digital journey sits with me and my team.

You’re injecting digital into a brand that has not been particularly digital in the past. What are some of the challenges you’re facing trying to bring a more legacy organization into the digital age?

At John Hancock, as in any organization, there are pockets that have been doing that. Our team would never claim that we are the first to do it, but we do face a couple of challenges. Much of our business comes from intermediaries, advisers, or plan sponsors, so we haven’t necessarily had to talk to an end consumer directly. That’s shifting in today’s world with the new ways that people access information. While we still may not sell to end users, having our name and our brand and what we stand for be something that resonates, or pulls some sort of cord in their mind and in their heart, is very important. That’s a public-facing shift we are taking.

Inwardly, we need to bring senior leaders along if they aren’t already engaged. We’re fortunate to be in an organization where a lot of our senior leaders already think and feel this way. They know that it’s almost silly to call it “digital marketing” because marketing today is digital.

Typically, where roadblocks may have come from, whether from legal or compliance, providing real-world examples and letting those people have access to other brands or businesses that are doing this has helped us. It’s not as if every program or project is for the first time just because we’re not doing it for the first time. Giving them those resources is helping us get there faster.

When we talked to John Hancock’s chief marketing officer, Barbara Goose, she spoke of the importance of highlighting wins or proof points so that employees could move from what she called a “survive” to a “thrive” mindset. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how your team communicates those wins or proof points?

A lot of it is managing up and trying to communicate not only with the people above you but also with the surround sound of that, too. If we win or have built something, whether it be a small innovative media test or something larger on the content front, it’s about packaging it up to share so that other people can see how it’s been done. Obviously, Barb has done a great job at helping us communicate that out.

But even before I joined, we’ve been trying to see how those minitests work, whether it be a media test or an influencer test, and show that there is a way. It’s taking down those walls where people thought they couldn’t do it because it hadn’t been done. If we can show it as a proof point in one area, hopefully that empowers people to at least explore it for their area.

Do you have an example where you did that?

We’ve launched a new app called Twine. That was built out of the Lab of Forward Thinking, but a lot of folks on my team worked on it. We’re trying to showcase what we did there so that others can apply that learning, whether it’s for the brand or for another startup that may be more in the infancy stage in that incubator.

Factors including our relationships, personas we’ve built, and the way we’ve approached research have been a big piece of that. It’s showing that we can get these insights and figure out how to partner with the right folks to help shape either our products or our marketing approach, such as using actual stuff that’s live or almost in market. Even though we just did it, I’ve already noticed that we’ve been able to use a lot of the learnings we’ve had just getting to the launch stage for Twine in other pockets around the organization.

As you are digitizing the more traditional marketing organization, what skills are most important for employees to have, and how do you make sure employees have those skills?

It’s kind of the battle between whether it’s a skill you have that just needs to be brought out because you haven’t been in an organization that works that way or a new skill you need to acquire. Honestly, it’s a little bit of both. Part of it goes back to confidence and empowerment. If I can show them that there is a different way to approach something, a way they hadn’t thought about, that gives them the right to be able to play in that way. Or if it’s a completely new skill, is there a course, a professor, somebody they can shadow or mirror and learn from to obtain that knowledge? A lot of this is about giving them the ability to say, “Hey, I don’t know this thing, but I want to.”

For example, a coworker on my team told me, “I have all these image-editing programs on my computer, but I actually don’t know how to use them.” And even though we have a full creative copy and design team here, sometimes it’s helpful for the group that does social content to be able to resize images or retouch something themselves. I had her sign up for a class at General Assembly, where she was able to learn Illustrator and Photoshop in a day and get some of that prime knowledge she needed. While that isn’t necessarily her job function, knowing little pieces of how everyone approaches something just helps make us stronger.

As you have moved toward a more digital environment, have any changes been necessary in the organization itself or in how employees are managed to become more digitally minded?

I’ve been here for only about seven months, and the brand team is one family. We really try to create smaller subsets within that family to help build those skill sets. For example, instead of having the creative team report to the person who runs brand advertising, we are making sure that the executive creative director is building his creative copy and design team underneath him to be able to pull that up in their strengths, both as they serve for the brand and professionally.

It feels like we’re siloing people, but actually it’s creating these little communities that know that skill set the best and then bringing in folks from other places in the organization who may be doing this really well, or from outside, who can help pull us along without disrupting what a team has going because it has been so strong over the years.

How do communities know who has the skills or whom you can tap into to learn something or connect? Is there a digital platform? Is it a leadership kind of thing?

I’d say it’s more leadership. There are definitely places that I go to or read about that I try to make sure people take the time to do. But honestly, it’s all about attitude. Having the attitude to say you’re ready for this change, you want to embrace it, and you’re hungry for it — that’s the biggest thing. Then, leadership can provide that for you. Leadership is a slightly misleading word sometimes because it refers to people who have a very long tenure somewhere, or in their career.

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, especially in a digital environment where we need to be playing for this brand. I’ve worked with people who have three or four years of experience, right out of college, and they can run circles around other people I’ve worked with who have been in the industry for a long time, just because they’re native to that digital environment.

Leadership of many shapes and sizes is huge. It’s networking within your organization and out. For example, an individual on my team hungry to embrace this change, with a great attitude, ends up giving her mentor a mentor, someone who’s doing her exact job a couple of years ahead of her, someone not at John Hancock, so that they can share war stories and learn from each other and push their organizations forward. To be able to skill people up that way is really interesting to me.

Are there any other ways you’re encouraging this intentional networking?

Within the organization, we work with the brand and we have individual business units. We have wonderful talent in each business unit, but they may not be speaking to one another. We have two different offices in Boston, and individuals on my team work very closely with folks, say, in Back Bay [our second location]. When they spend time with that team, we try to see if there’s somebody else they can connect with who may share a similar job or function they can learn from during that outing. It’s trying to make better use of the time that we spend so that we can learn and grow.

I want to go back to Twine for a second. Take me through the journey there. You’ve got this incubator lab that comes up with an idea. How do you go from idea to launched product? How do you have the courage to make that happen, and what happens to the ideas that don’t quite make it?

For Twine specifically, it’s been a couple of years in the making, but a lot of it is about being in a place that is confident in your ability to build that up. The team had an idea, and they pushed it forward. We did acquire a small company to be able to start it called Guide Financial Inc. in San Francisco. The bones of what we needed were there, but it was about building talent around it to bring it to fruition.

It may be different from the John Hancock of many years ago, but this entire group functions just like a startup. It’s having us sitting right next to legal or having compliance in your sprint reviews, having your project managers as part of all design reviews. It’s having people at the table together but not losing any steam by having too many powers-that-be in those conversations.

The big success they’ve had is including a slimmed-down group of who we need, knowing that we can always escalate. That’s why they’ve been able to go so much faster and can get something tested and marketed and are not scared of partnering, whether it be with an agency, a research firm, etc. There’s a confidence you have to build amazing technology in-house. That’s how it gets brought to life. It’s trusting that community.

One thing we’ve seen through our research is that as companies become more digitally mature, they rely more on cross-functional teaming. It sounds like you’re saying one of the reasons you relied on cross-functional teams in this particular situation is it’s a way to enable agility and move this idea to market faster. Is that a fair characterization?

Yes, absolutely.

To the point you made, it sounded like it was a streamlined team, but is it fair to say it would still include somebody from legal or finance, just to make sure everything was connected?

It was a collaboration. But in some organizations, you come up with a whole meaty, wonderful idea, you get 9/10ths of the way there, and then you say, “Legal, take a look at this.” That’s not what we’re doing. We’re keeping everyone at the beginning together knowing that the idea is going to be that much greater with a collective brain trust.

But at the same time, because of the size of our organization, it’s getting the right person who is accountable at that meeting, who can escalate or pull in outside counsel — not in the legal way, but actually outside counsel. If I’m in that meeting and I just want to run something by the CMO, I’m able to do that, but I’m also able to make decisions in that meeting without her.

How do you find that person? Is it a VP level?

I really don’t think it’s level-based. I might be a unicorn in this organization to say that, but my experience goes back to attitude, confidence, and empowerment. It’s someone who has the wherewithal to understand the business, the product, their expertise, and they’re able to move the work forward, flag barriers, break down barriers, ideate with the group, and think well outside their skill set to bring a better product to market. Those types of people are built fundamentally differently than someone who says, “I have one job and I have one job alone.”

Does that require a culture shift?

Yes and no. These types of folks obviously thrive in a culture that thinks, feels, and breathes like they do. But they’re still able to make big headway, depending on how self-motivated they are, too.

It’s about finding the people within the organization who want to work like that and recruiting them for that team.

Yes, absolutely. That goes back to your earlier question, which is, How do we use that as proof points so that other people want to work like that, too?

How do you find those people?

It’s based on networking, talking to people, seeing how they work in situations you have with them. I can see the people who want to take on more work or throw themselves into something, or the people who say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got it,” and then they check in with me, or I think of it as the folks on your team who, if all the balls are in the air, are the people who are grabbing them all, trying to figure them out and make sense of them, and tapping you when they need you. People with that mentality are everywhere. Some of them need to just be reminded that they can be that person. Others are just always that person.

Is it fair to say you have the resources, the skills, the talent at John Hancock;it’s just a matter of finding the right people and putting them in the right situation so that they can express that skill set and thrive in a different environment?

Yes, but I always think that outside eyes and energy are critical at any point in any organization. That has helped us here a lot. Even our senior leadership has gone through a lot of changes over the past six months. That outside energy, depending on the type of person you are, what kind of bucket you fall into, really energizes you because you say, “Ah. That person thinks just the way I do, and I’m excited to go every day to work for them because I know I’m going to make a difference.” Sometimes you need to bring in that outside talent across levels to instill that attitude into everyday, sometimes mundane tasks.

It’s not as much about people bringing in particular skill sets, although that’s part of it, but it’s a model to help the existing employees know how to jump onboard with this direction.

Yes. Again, definitely a combination.

Are there any questions I should have asked or anything about the digital transformation at John Hancock you feel is important to mention?

At the end of the day, so much is about talent. Talent is two-pronged, by skill set and by attitude. Those people can be found within and outside of an organization, but that’s what you need to drive an organization forward into an era they are primed to be a part of. Attitude is the one thing we sometimes forget.

As a leader, is it about how to find people with that attitude, or are there things I can do to bring it out?

I absolutely think you can cultivate and curate that attitude. Whether it’s a personality shift, or team-building exercises, or exposing and empowering people, it’s something you can bring out in people. At the end of the day, though, they have to be hungry for the work they’re doing.

Somebody asked me once, “Do you really love coming to work every day? Do you like doing what you’re doing?” I laughed and said, “Yeah, I do. This is what I went to school for. This is what I live and breathe every single day. I’m super-passionate about this.” Do I go to sleep thinking about financial services? No, but what I’m excited about is I’m building a brand that can connect to more people who use our products every single day, and that, whether you’re a Nike or a John Hancock or whoever, is what’s exciting. We’re doing something that’s helping and shifting people’s behaviors. If you don’t have that and you ask that question, then maybe that’s the problem.