Guardian Insurance has experienced record revenue, profits, and customer growth in the decade since Deanna M. Mulligan became CEO. But ask Mulligan herself about Guardian’s recent success and she’ll defer to the soft-skills values that were in place long before she took the helm at the company, which has been in business for 160 years.
Today, at the twilight of her tenure at Guardian — from which she will retire in late 2020 — Mulligan has written a book about how the global workforce is changing and why business leaders must reimagine worker education and training.
The book, Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap, illustrates how she guided an old-school insurance firm and its workers to the forefront of the technology skills landscape.
What was the impetus for writing Hire Purpose?
It stems back to the Great Recession. Many people had a very difficult time finding employment coming out of that, and there were so many stories of people whose skills were no longer in demand. That really affected me. As CEO of a purpose-driven company with 9,000 employees, I wanted to make sure that what we did aligned with our values and helped in some small way to make the system more resilient. I wanted to demonstrate how employers can take care of and continually educate their own employees. Education is a lifelong thing — that’s the other message. It’s never too late to get one, and you’re never done.
The book is full of examples of how leadership at Guardian and other corporations are pushing change to prepare workers for the next technological revolution. Why should business leaders look to an insurance company for such advice?
A relevant example is that since March 10 we are 100% work-from-home in this COVID-19 environment. We were prepared for this type of emergency because of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when we were forced out of our New York City headquarters for nine months. We had five feet of water in our lobby and other infrastructure issues. We made it through, we served our customers, and we decided never to allow that to happen to us again. So we decided to become location-independent. We moved out of data centers to the cloud, equipped every employee with a laptop, and devised a plan that would help us be more flexible toward customers in terms of location. Even before the pandemic, 30% to 40% of our workforce was working remotely. That was different than most traditional insurance and financial services companies. It came out of the desire to be able to serve our clients and keep people out of harm’s way. It started with a storm and proved useful in a pandemic. Because we’re an insurance company, we’ve always had pandemic scenarios in the back of our minds.
We’re “tech-y” in other ways too. We’ve retrained some of our employees in data analytics. We’ve also recently retrained front-line employees — folks who answer the phones and provide customer service — to become coders, which will help them eventually obtain higher-paying jobs.
Your book talks about the importance of experiential learning and how Guardian has tapped into community colleges to foster apprenticeship models. How has this impacted employee recruitment at Guardian?
Guardian is a 160-year-old mutual company owned by policy owners. When I became CEO, I looked for ways to take our employees’ skills and company values and put them to work in service. We wanted to do more than just donate money. We settled on working with community colleges, because we found that their students often have a difficult time working, raising kids, and attending school. They’re overlooked when it comes to traditional scholarships and internship programs. We helped develop curriculum and pay for tuition and books. Some Guardian staff have even taught as guest speakers. We also decided that we needed to help these students learn in a more experiential way by hiring them. More than 50% of our community college hires come from underserved communities.
A recurring theme in the book is that professional success doesn’t always follow a perfect path. Your own career path wasn’t linear — you took two years off when you were in your early 40s. Can you talk about why that was imperative?
It wasn’t too long after 9/11 in New York City. My own mortality came into focus, even though I was only in my early 40s. I had never stopped to consider if what I was doing was really what I wanted to do. When you’re racing through your career in your 20s and 30s, you often don’t take a step back and ask, “What is my purpose?” I took some time off and thought hard about what my next move was. I wanted it to be something where I could do well by doing good. Guardian exemplifies something I realized back then: that companies can be successful while treating their employees very well. Profitability and purposefulness are not separate things. They build on one another.
You returned to the workforce by launching your own life insurance consultancy. Why was entrepreneurship the right move then?
I wanted to find out whether if I had just a room, a desk, and a phone (in the days before the internet was a big thing), could I make a living? I had nine years at McKinsey under my belt so I knew something about consulting. I had a great time.
Why did you decide to join Guardian?
Guardian ended up being one of my clients. I fell in love with the culture and the people; they were welcoming, open, and values-driven. You asked earlier how Guardian was ahead of other insurance firms technology-wise — it’s because the culture has always been to ask if there’s a better way to do things. That has led to technology evolution and cultural revolutions.
How did you keep values front and center at Guardian when you were working your way up?
They were well known and practiced at Guardian when I arrived: We do the right things. People count on us. And we hold ourselves to the highest possible standard. Those are three very simple sentences that can be difficult to live up to but are effective at guiding a company when acted on. I expanded on the idea that those values should guide every decision and be a part of everyday conversation. In meetings, people will say, “I’m not sure that’s in line with the values.” Or, “Are we sure we’re doing the right things for all parties involved?” I’ve tried to encourage that and make it a hallmark of our culture. When people ask me if it’s hard to run a big company based on values, I say that I’ll run it this way until we’re unsuccessful. We’ve had record profits over the past four years while we’ve been driving really hard on values.
Making decisions around customers and employees became salient during the coronavirus epidemic lockdowns. We’ve contacted employees and customers who receive disability payments and let them know that we’ll be paying them for two months upfront rather than one. We call and check on our clients to see if they need help. We did that during the Houston floods a few years ago, calling up clients to make sure they were safe, to see if they needed us to send emergency help or to contact someone. We also sent clients impacted by the Houston floods $1,000 to refill their refrigerators when they lost power for long periods of time.
How did your time at Stanford GSB influence your career?
One of the big things I learned there was the value of working in teams. It’s really important for students because in any company, everything big happens via people working together. I liked that much of our project work at Stanford was self-starting and not well defined. We had to do the work and come up with a plan for the end product. It prepared us well in terms of the soft skills we’d need to add to the hard skills.
Although the number of women running Fortune 500 firms hit an all-time record of 37 in 2019, that’s still only 7.4% of the magazine’s ranked businesses. How did you buck the trend?
I never thought of myself as bucking a trend. I never set out to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. As matter of fact, when I graduated from business school — where 30% of my cohort was women, a fairly high percentage for that time — there was only one woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and she had bought the company. It didn’t seem like a career path available for a lot of women. I wasn’t thinking about that. I just wanted to do well in the job that I was in, to add value, and to make life for my boss and clients easier. I wanted to contribute to society. It was continually focusing on what more can I do, what value can I add, how can I make this better and who benefits? Each day I try to think about what I didn’t do yesterday that I could have done to make today better. Thinking like that is how you become successful.
Women should also get lots of real-life P&L experience as early as possible in their career. Take a job on the factory floor or a sales job that’s based on the returns you bring in. Do apprenticeships. That type of experience, where results can be measured, is really valuable.
Why are you retiring from Guardian end of the year?
I have been Guardian’s CEO for nine years and have always had 10 years as an upper limit in my mind. It’s good for a company to have fresh leadership. I am considering lots of options for what to do next. I’ll probably start with a rest, and then I want to make sure I continue to contribute to the world. There are lots of problems today and I really want to be a part of solving them.
Photos by AE Fletcher Photography