CNO Financial IT leverages people-centered strategy to achieve Tech Happiness
Mike Mead, the chief information officer at $3.8 billion insurer CNO Financial Group lights up when asked about his team of 250 corporate associates and 1,400 global partners, whom he passionately refers to as “One-Team”. Mead offers, “I get to work with some of the best in the business, a team focused on achieving Tech Happiness for our customers and committed on achieving it Together.”
Mead spent many of his 30+ years in Tech cultivating his people-centered strategies. However, it was the three-and-a-half years he spent running a global operation from Malaysia that expanded the margins. There, Mead’s IT philosophy shifted from technology-as-a-solution to people-as-a-solution, which he admits is a little different than the typical technologist mantra.
“Looking back now, picking up and moving my family to Malaysia really opened us up to different cultures and worldviews,” Mead said. “It helped me understand the importance of the people component—their own needs and desires—and working together to build a culture where all were valued, empowered, heard, and supported.”
Mead’s people-first leadership approach is his passion, and aligns perfectly with the servant leadership philosophy that CNO chief executive officer Gary Bhojwani and his predecessor have championed for the past decade. At an enterprise level, CNO’s commitment to culture can be seen through the lens of its growing Business Resource and Affinity Group lineup. These groups assemble underneath the DE&I umbrella, and Mead is elated that many IT associates have taken active leadership roles.
Internally, IT’s culture movement is a great example of an organic associate-led journey toward an aspirational culture where every associate and contractor (or all of One-Team) can achieve both personal growth and a sense of value and belonging. When asked about his role, Mead smiles and states, “Other than supporting the journey and ensuring that there are no mandates from leadership, my role is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of One-Team learning, growing, and doing my part to live our new culture motto, “Be The Change…Collaborative, Honest, Accepting, iNclusive, Growing, and Empowering.”
Mead is also inspired by the work that One-Team has put toward achieving professional growth. Certifications in Agile, Lean, Organizational Change, Program Management and other disciplines, as well as a commitment to upskilling through LinkedIn Learning and corporate-led training has motivated Mead to upskill as well with a recent certification as a SAFe 5 Agilist. For Mead, it’s about walking the walk.
All of this is nice but would feel muted if IT weren’t achieving outcomes that matter for the whole of the company. As stated earlier, IT’s vision is to Achieve Tech Happiness at an enterprise level. Achieving “technology happiness” can be a strange thing to hear. Collectively, we disassociate the two words in the same way that we disassociate work and happiness. But doing things a little bit differently makes all the difference for Mead and the IT team at CNO. “Happiness may be a squishy word that’s hard to quantify, but has anyone ever asked you if you’re happy with your technology or not? If everything is working well, then great, but if we can discover and solve a consistent frustration for a coworker, partner or customer we are increasing happiness even if we can’t easily measure it.”
Three things that Mead and the team have focused on is accessibility, the importance of voice of customer programs, and the diversity of thought when it comes to solutioning against known customer problems. For accessibility, Mead facilitates or participates in many direct engagement sessions with IT associates, IT partners, and business partners alike, so that all have frequent access to him and his leadership team. No filtering, no red tape. The sessions are built to ensure two-way communication at all times. Any questions, concerns, rumors, feedback or ideas are par for the course in these sessions. There are limitations though. “Change and constant improvement doesn’t just happen,” Mead said. “You have to engage and really listen, but as a senior leader I’m subject to the iceberg principle and no matter how engaged I try to be, I’m still only going to get a small portion of the feedback that’s available on my own. That’s why it’s important to have mechanisms or programs in place to capture more actionable feedback.”
The Voice of the Customer
Voice of the Customer (VoC) is something companies aspire to have and hear, but most lack the intentionality that are built into CNO IT’s VoC programs. Multiple branches of the same tree offer plenty of fruit for CNO IT. AskIT VoC sessions focus on sharing information on a requested topic (ex. How to get the most out of internal collaboration software/tools) with “ask anything” Q&A that follows. IT Trailblazer VoC initiative enjoys the participation of 42 cross-enterprise business area representatives that test new technology, provide tech-related experiential feedback, and generalized focus-group feedback on new pinch points or IT improvement opportunities. How can IT see if their VoC programs are hitting the mark with business partners? They provide routine Tech Happiness surveys to ensure improvement against a known Net Promoter Score (NPS) baseline.
Diversity of Thought
Diversity of thought, experience and ideation/collaboration are essential to developing robust solutions to known or emerging problems, risks, or emerging threats. Mead shares, “It is important to me that we hire leaders. We need people in the room with confidence to speak up and add to the solutioning exercise. We don’t want fear of failure to enter the room. We will fail, we will learn, and we will grow better and develop better products and service because of it.” In fact, Mead is adamant that each of these, along with focus on people and culture, will pay dividends in helping to improve the overall customer experience. That level of Tech Happiness is an outcome that matters to IT!
Another outcome Mead points to is recent success in developing the company’s myhealthpolicy.com site for direct-to-consumer service and support. “Through our commitment to collaboration and a collective focus on customer success, a team of both IT and Business leaders were able to successfully build and launch myhealthpolicy.com.” Mike is proud of the work performed during the pandemic, through remote collaboration, developed with agility to achieve record speed (less than three months), to replace direct-to-consumer sites for CNO and the customer.
As CNO IT transitions to a longer-term view and policy around permanent remote and hybrid workplace options, Mead conveyed it’s imperative that IT shows it can continue to stand and deliver like it did with the new site. Mead states, “The technology doesn’t succeed unless the business succeeds. Developing technology without either the voice of the customer, alignment on vision and aspirational outcomes, or open collaboration throughout would stop us well short of achieving the outcomes our customers expect and deserve.”
As success grows, the demand for new products and service grows. CNO IT is faced with significant opportunity to grow One-Team to address significant business growth initiatives assigned to IT. Asked what traits he values in people looking to fill CNO IT roles, Mead stated, “When we’re trying to fill a job opening, we’re looking for people who have the fundamental tech skills, of course, but we’re also looking for diversity of life experience and people who care about making and impact beyond the keyboard.” He states further, “In order to build and maintain this culture that helps us love what we do, we need people who are willing to speak up and be heard, who embrace and want to lead positive change, and have a bias for action—that is what we mean when we say we only hire leaders. We are eager to hire people who want to be part of a company and IT organization that values diversity and believe it’s a key ingredient in a culture that puts people first.”