Diversity and Inclusion as a Business Driver: Spotlight on Northwestern Mutual (NM)

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Many organizations, both within and outside of the insurance industry, have struggled with how to embrace or operationalize diversity and inclusion and how to bring it through their eco-systems.

Ronald Adams, Assistant Director, Leadership Development/Diversity and Inclusion, joined Northwestern Mutual in 2015 to support the organization’s dedicated focus on diversity and inclusion as a business driver. Ron graciously shared NM’s vision for organizational change with us as a panelist at GAMA International’s LAMP Conference in Nashville this past March. Importantly, these initiatives are a part of the company’s effort to fulfill the goal set forth when Northwestern Mutual’s CEO John Schlifske took the helm: “The best must get better.”

The process began with internal assessments and interviews with field leaders. The results revealed that despite its many successes, Northwestern Mutual had an opportunity to do better at attracting, developing and retaining diverse talent. The company also recognized that there were underserved markets and gaps around educating potential customers about its product offerings. Internal challenges included individuals who did not feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work and leaders who had never been challenged to recruit, develop, think or lead differently.

So what was the compelling reason for choosing to embark on this diversity and inclusion journey in such a strategic and significant way? “Both head and heart!” Ron explained, “Not only is it the right thing to do… it’s a smart business decision. You find the best and the brightest – you recruit, develop, promote - through a culture of inclusion and respect. And they in turn, recruit, develop and promote the best and brightest in a culture of inclusion and respect and soon you’re the best and brightest organization… and your culture is steeped in inclusion and respect.”

Such profound culture change can only be accomplished through a deliberate focus on diversity and inclusion from a leadership perspective and by changing mindsets.

“It’s not enough to change strategies, structures and systems, unless the thinking that produced those strategies, structures and systems also changes.”
- Peter Senge

To that end, Northwestern Mutual developed a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy to harness the talent of its workforce to best serve its clients – and with the intention that this culture would become business as usual.

While it is no surprise that pockets of resistance emerged, leaders across the system remained committed, driving these fundamentals deep into the organization. Their approach was built on three pillars.

Developing Leaders:

  • More than 700 leaders completed immersion experiences to develop their diversity and inclusion role model skills and become better leaders and allies.
  • A diversity and inclusion education program was offered to all home office employees through an engaging online education experience.

Enabling Employees and Advisors:

  • A coaching program for diverse financial representatives and field leaders was created to better develop and retain talent.
  • Northwestern’s integrated corporate internship program and strong relationships with several HBCUs fortifies a talent pipeline.
  • Function and department diversity and inclusion dashboards helped to assess progress and engage in action-focused talent conversations with senior leaders.

Strong Client Focus:

  • Northwestern is actively building its capabilities in five priority markets (Hispanic, African American, Women, Asian and LGBT), with market leads in place to meet the needs of these communities.
  • Annual African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Women Affinity Summits are held for field representatives. The summits provide best-practice sharing and development to maximize market knowledge.

Field colleagues who participated in Diversity and Inclusion immersion meetings across the organization shared these takeaways:

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Through these targeted efforts, Northwestern Mutual will better reflect and serve its current and future customers, while developing leaders who can bring out the best in their teams. Ultimately, the goal is to expand brand awareness, leading to new markets, and the ability to attract, develop and retain top talent.

Some of the key outcomes that are already evident include:

  • Leaders are leading differently.
  • Tough conversations are being had around sameness and difference as they relate to gender and other dimensions of diversity.
  • The focus is on equity versus equality.
  • Leaders are revisiting meeting times and formats.
  • Leaders are stepping up as sponsors and mentors across gender and culture.

Northwestern Mutual views this as a journey, not as a destination that it has arrived at or expects to arrive at. As Ron explained, “this journey requires us to remain alert, deliberate, committed, flexible, teachable, and courageous.”

Ron’s commitment to advancing these diversity and inclusion efforts and to overcoming some of the internal challenges is inspiring. And the results are evidence that with focus and determination, people can work, think and lead with more intention.