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#WomenInFinance Thrive When Challenged - An Interview with Marianne Harrison, CEO of John Hancock

State Street

September 14,2018

As we continue our #WomenInFinance series, it’s important to highlight one of the few women sitting in the highest office — the CEO. What does it take to rise to the top and what lessons in leadership can others learn from her?

#WomenInFinance celebrates strong women in all corners of the financial services industry who are using their talent and power to change the game.

When Marianne Harrison took over as president and CEO of John Hancock in October 2017, she was the first female chief executive in the company’s 150+ year history. Marianne is the latest addition to a small, yet incredibly powerful, group of women in finance. As her first anniversary as president and CEO approaches this October, we talked to Marianne to see what brought her to Boston from her hometown of Toronto, Canada, and what she has learned from her time at the helm of one of the largest life insurers and fastest growing asset managers in the US.

You are originally from Canada but came to the US in 2008 to take a role at John Hancock, just as the financial crisis was unfolding. Describe that move and your first year at Hancock.

It was the perfect storm of events. On top of everything, including moving my family, it was also a major career change. I went from a lifelong career in accounting to my first job in general management. I needed to build muscles I never used before — sales, marketing, operations, technology, etc. I remember talking to my distribution team and they actually liked that I didn’t know anything! They thought it meant I wouldn’t be too interested in how they operated and they could carry on as usual. But I needed to know how operations worked, so I told them I was going to dive even deeper in. We all migrate toward what we are good at, so I made a conscious effort to steer clear of finances for a while and get out of my comfort zone.

Then the global financial crisis happened and within my first six months, I had to testify at a US Senate hearing. There was a huge learning curve but it was also probably my favorite year because it was so hard. I’m kind of a crisis person — I thrive most when I’m being challenged.

You oversaw some pretty dramatic changes in John Hancock’s long-term care business. What surprised you about the role and what did you enjoy the most?

Long-term care is a hard business. It’s tough to get it to work even under good circumstances, and we had to implement significant rate increases during the crisis — the first ever at John Hancock. The rate increases made the sales team uncomfortable, so I brought them into the back office and put them on the phones for a month. By the end of the month it became clear many customers didn’t really understand what they had bought! All the bells and whistles we added to the products were not critical to our customers. We can get caught up in the details—the big and beautiful product launches—but sometimes you just need to focus on the basics.

Test, learn, pivot. Accept failures and move on. We are only as good as the lessons we learn.

When someone needs long-term care, it’s usually a very emotional time. Someone dealing with Alzheimer’s might not even know what their policy means, and then their kids come in and try to deal with it. At that moment, they just need to know if they are going to get the help they need; simplicity matters more than anything.

How has the industry changed since the crisis? How does it still need to evolve?

The world has changed but life insurance policies largely haven’t. Historically, there has been an enormous amount of time with little engagement in our customers’ lives following the initial sale. And even more worrying: between 60-70 million Americans have inadequate or no life insurance protection at all.

We wanted to change that, which is why we began offering John Hancock Vitality in 2015.

I’m incredibly passionate about this product because it encourages people to live longer, healthier lives by incentivizing healthier life choices through discounts and lower premiums. An added benefit is that this product engages people almost daily with their policies — John Hancock Vitality customers are engaging with us an average of 22 times per month / 264 times per year compared to only 1-2 times per year with traditional policies. This takes life insurance from dead-last in an assessment of customer engagement by industry, into the top-tier category.

We need to continue offering cutting-edge products as an industry and bring the financial services up to speed with consumers wants, needs and behaviors.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently said that had Lehman Brothers been “Lehman Sisters,” perhaps things would have been different in 2008. As the first female CEO of John Hancock, do you agree with that assessment?

It’s an interesting observation. I think women tend to be more conservative around areas of risk, so yes, having a more gender balanced group around the table could have changed the course of history.

Diversity of representation is always better, and women live a different life experience, so we of course bring a different set of perspectives in decision making. We’ve also been conditioned to communicate differently and that plays a large role in running a business. Studies have shown a mixed gender group increases the IQ of a room. And diversity doesn’t end or begin with gender, it is also about different personalities, colors, abilities, geographies, etc. I’m happy to say that since I started as CEO in October 2017, 40 percent of my management team is diverse across race and gender.

What was the most important thing for you to establish during your first six months in your role as CEO?

I wanted to really gel with the team. Traditionally, we operated in a lot of silos and my personal style is to be much more inclusive. I wanted all perspectives from all businesses and personalities at my executive management meetings.

We spent the first several months going through strategic planning. Where do you think the future is going? What is the right strategy to get there? It was pie-in-the-sky time — what business do you have today that you might not necessarily want in the future? What businesses aren’t we in that we should be thinking about entering? Here is a blank sheet of paper, so let’s think outside the box.

When we had our first few dialogues, there was a lot of silence. Change is tough. I am sure they thought I was crazy! But the more conversations we had, the better the dialogue became. We had conversations that my execs had never had at the leadership table and that really got everyone to buy into the vision. As the new boss, I needed to learn what my people really wanted and show them I knew what I was talking about to get their respect.

What are the leadership qualities that you most admire?

The biggest thing for me is that leaders need to take ownership and accountability, as well as be collaborative. I am a big believer in teams; bring people together and make sure we can leverage each other’s expertise.

If an executive has the attitude, “This is my world, leave me alone,” I won’t put up with it. We need to be sure we are all working toward the same objectives and are accountable for our part of it.

It’s also important that we are not afraid to take risks. Try things and if they don’t work, that’s ok. It’s not a problem to fail — let’s learn from what didn’t go right and try again. Test, learn, pivot. Accept failures and move on. We are only as good as the lessons we learn.

Topics: Financial crisis , Talent Management

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