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Driving Growth in a Storm

Lincoln Financial Group\'s HR team implemented an executive development program to grow and sustain talent during economic crisis and beyond.

January 30, 2011
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
This last recession pressured many companies to cut back on investments, reduce staffing levels and restructure operations. Financial services company Lincoln Financial Group was no exception.

In the midst of making decisions about expense reductions, Lincoln CEO Dennis Glass stressed the importance of investing to prepare leaders for the eventual recovery and re-engaging the workforce at a time when many companies would not be focused on talent development. To carry out Glass’ vision, the Lincoln HR team designed a leadership excellence program that would develop the leaders needed to drive Lincoln’s growth in the coming years.

Formalizing the Program
The HR team selected the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to be its partner in creating an executive development program that would provide executives with the tools required to help them achieve their professional potential and move the company forward during one of the most crucial times in the history of the insurance industry.

Professors from Wharton worked with the HR team to design a custom, weeklong residential program, funded by Lincoln, for the company’s top 60 corporate leaders. The program formed the basis of the company’s broad-based enterprisewide development curriculum, which focused on delivering on the CEO’s key goals — that all leaders at Lincoln share a common language and approach to problem solving, collaboration and strategic planning — and integration of three disciplines necessary for the company to flourish: strategic thinking, execution and innovation.

To ensure the program design met the needs of stakeholders, the development team conducted interviews with Glass and his senior management committee and focus groups with the 60 members of Lincoln’s Corporate Leadership Group (CLG) — the program’s targeted participants. The result was an intensive weeklong residency program at Wharton for the CLG, followed by action learning in cross-functional working teams to address critical business projects selected specifically to help the company delve into topics that had the potential to influence strategic direction or investments. Working group members met routinely with Wharton professors to review research findings and scenario planning, culminating in formal presentations and recommendations to Glass and the senior management committee.

LEADing Employees
The first Wharton residency program was held in March 2009. The timing seemed inauspicious at first — the markets had reached their lowest point of the financial crisis in March — but it turned out to be a good time to focus on enhancing strategic skills such as scenario planning and incremental innovation that would prove important to lead the company through the recovery.

Feedback from the CLG participants and the senior management team was positive. From their perspective, the focused investment in leadership development during the downturn resulted in a number of planned and “bonus” outcomes. In terms of morale, the program strengthened the leadership team’s cohesion and bolstered their confidence. The program sent a message to leaders and the employee base that Lincoln was continuing to invest in the future.

The result was a high level of employee engagement. According to a 2010 companywide survey, engagement levels remained steady and in some areas even increased compared to a similar survey conducted in 2008. Lincoln also maintained a low level of regrettable turnover.

The weeklong residency program was delivered in two cohorts, the first in March 2009 and the second in April 2010, and formed the basis of a companywide leadership development effort called Leadership Excellence and Development (LEAD). This program was designed to foster the same core competencies of strategic thinking, execution and innovation across the employee base, and it integrates a specific focus on developing both current and emerging leaders for the post-crisis environment and long-term future of the company.

Lincoln’s HR team collaborated with Wharton to design a LEAD curriculum that would nurture leaders at every level of the organization, including non-managers, early career professionals and emerging leaders to build and maintain bench strength for the future. The team designed the program in three phases:
• Foundational leadership development is offered to early career professionals, including individual contributors who can lead by example.
• Management leadership development is offered to new and experienced managers who can lead others.
• Executive leadership development is offered to top-level executives who can lead the company as a whole.

The HR team developed the curriculum to harmonize with courses and concepts of the Wharton residency program and incorporated the foundational training necessary to prepare individual contributors, as well as new and emerging managers, for the next phase of their careers. Examples of foundational development offerings include courses on fundamental business and financial skills, goal setting and performance management, critical thinking strategies simulation, time management and presentation skills. Classes have a maximum of 30 participants and are offered through a broad range of delivery methods to accommodate employee schedules, locations and travel restrictions. The program offers live instructor-led classroom experiences, online self-directed learning modules, virtual learning experiences, reading lists, tutorials, immersion and consultative experiences with industry experts.

To maintain the program’s effectiveness, Lincoln continues to meet regularly with academic advisers from Wharton and periodically conducts follow-up needs assessments.

Within six months of the conclusion of the first Wharton residency program, participants from Lincoln’s distribution company, Lincoln Financial Distributors (LFD), requested to use materials from the Wharton program for an upcoming meeting with a strategic customer firm. The HR team went one better and arranged for Wharton to lead a small-group working session at the meeting. Since then, the HR team has partnered with LFD to share industry and management insight, including the importance of scenario planning, with key customers. While it is a somewhat unusual partnership between talent management and sales, this is a natural extension of Lincoln’s company culture, enhancing the company’s reputation as a learning organization and underscoring its commitment to its customers.

Future Growth
Lincoln’s aim in launching the program was to prepare for the future by anticipating talent needs and providing a workplace environment where employees at every level can develop their career potential. Over the past two years, the HR team has worked to instill the leadership development program as a top priority among all of Lincoln’s 7,500 employees. Since formally launching in 2009, Lincoln’s programs have trained approximately 1,200 employees per year and have provided more than 1,400 individual learning experiences across all business lines.  

In addition to employee growth and positive feedback, the LEAD program has had impact beyond the realm of talent development and employee engagement by strengthening customer relations, which ultimately can boost bottom-line sales. A number of customer firms have requested that Lincoln Financial help them connect with Wharton in order to build out their own internal training programs.

The program also has allowed the company to align its leadership under a framework of consistent development that strengthens the talent pipeline and boosts leadership at every level of the organization. To ensure the program continues to deliver value, written evaluations and one-on-one interviews from participants are collected. HR also holds monthly meetings to discuss feedback, gauge program success and focus on opportunities for improvement. As the LEAD program continues to evolve, the HR team will conduct quarterly program assessments to further measure success.

Through the economic crisis, Lincoln Financial weathered the storm by remaining committed to learning and development at all levels and even taking steps to provide more development. The company’s leaders take the position that, as the economy improves, companies that focused on talent, innovation and business growth will be poised to emerge as leaders in the new era of the insurance industry. The HR team at Lincoln Financial Group is vigilant that it must foster a learning environment that positions Lincoln’s workforce and leadership team for continued success.
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