Insights from a CHRO: Lincoln Financial’s Lisa Buckingham

Veteran HR executive gears up to help her organization usher in the “new normal.”
By: | April 29, 2020 • 4 min read

Lisa Bettinger Buckingham has one of those personalities that instantly makes you feel like you’re visiting with a dear friend. Consistently cheerful and funny, she often peppers conversations with references to her beloved Golden Retrievers, Maggie and Millie, usually punctuated by her infectious laugh. Don’t let her easygoing nature fool you. Buckingham is as smart and savvy as they come—a true visionary and respected HR professional who was named HRE’s HR Executive of the Year in 2017.

Buckingham serves as executive vice president, chief people, place and brand officer at Radnor, Pa.-based Lincoln Financial Group, where she’s been since 2008. She previously held HR positions at Thomson Reuters, MarketSwitch, BT Ginns and Woodward & Lothrop, where her tremendous potential was first recognized.

HRE recently connected with Buckingham from her Pennsylvania home to talk about her formative years, what she thinks the workplace will look like post-COVID-19 and how she envisions her own future.

HRE: You were an Army brat. How did that experience shape you?

Lisa Bettinger Buckingham

Buckingham: We moved around a lot. I would be the new kid mid-year or I would be the kid leaving mid-year. That helped me realize you have to formulate relationships quickly. My dad’s military leadership propels me all the time. In my mind, it’s always “do the right thing; do the best you can; and you are always doing it for other people, not for yourself.” That defined me. CSR was embedded in my DNA before it was even a function or an effort or a purpose. I am so blessed that I’m a military brat. It’s let me be tough, I learned to be direct and fair and always act with high integrity and trust.

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HRE: What was your first job?

Buckingham: When I was 15 and eight months, I got my work permit and sold cosmetics and fragrances at a department store called Woodward & Lothrop in Washington, D.C. I ended up working there for 13 years—part-time through high school and college and then I quit college and kept working.

HRE: Originally, you had a very different career in mind. Tell us about that.

Buckingham: I wanted to be a television newscaster. I started out with broadcast journalism at Marymount, but when I would do anything at school with the camera, when the light turned red, I got nervous. Can you imagine if that camera light didn’t bother me? I wouldn’t be talking to you. Maybe I would have made it or maybe I would have been a loser.

HRE: How did you come to HR?

Buckingham: When I was at Marymount, I was offered an internship with CBS to be a beat reporter. I was still working at Woodward & Lothrop and when I went in to tell them I was going to go intern for the summer and that I wasn’t going to work behind the counter, they were like, “No, no, no, you need to go meet this woman, Judy Moore.” She was the head of HR. I went to meet her at corporate headquarters and she said, “I want you to stay and I want to put you into a management-development program and I’m going to show you everything in Personnel.” That was my big break. I was an assistant director of personnel in several different stores. I would do hiring and also be the closing store manager at night. I absolutely loved it. It was amazing and I learned so much about the labor side.

HRE: People would be surprised to learn you didn’t graduate from college until you were 34. How did that come about?

Buckingham: My dad said, “I will help you with college if you do ROTC.” I didn’t do ROTC, so he didn’t pay for my college, so I had fits and starts as I could afford college. I was interviewing with this amazing man named Jim Rutt and he said, “I’m going to hire you, but you are so close to getting your degree. If you don’t get it within the next year, I’m going to fire you with no severance.” He kicked me in the butt and he was the best mentor. He was the one who said, “You will be really regretful one day if you haven’t finished that because I think you have a talent and I think you are going to go places.”

HRE: Tell us about your morning routine and how you gear up for the day ahead.

Buckingham: No matter where in the world I am or how many hours sleep I’ve had, I get up religiously without an alarm clock at 5 a.m. I get my cup of coffee and go find the sunrise. I love to sit with my dogs and have that moment when you can just be so grateful for the people in your life, for somebody that’s done something special or for sadness that’s going on in the world. I ground myself in what I need to accomplish. It’s not all about work. Sometimes, it’s “I’m gonna call my mom” or “I need to pay my bills.” I want to get all that noise out of the system before the morning starts. I used to go fire up my laptop or iPad during that time. I don’t do that anymore. The morning is such a new day, it’s a new opportunity. Sometimes, the sun doesn’t rise as beautifully because of bad weather, but I still have that ritual with my coffee. It’s real important to me. It’s sacred.

HRE: Your company is named after one of America’s most revered figures. How do the life and accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln influence HR within Lincoln Financial?

Buckingham: It is the foundation of everything that we do. We want to be Lincoln. That’s a tagline that we have at the organization. We ground ourselves in strength, courage, integrity, dependability, optimism and respect. That goes a long way in how I operate, how I work with my team and how I work with external partners and candidates. The authenticity of that is really important.

HRE: You arrived at Lincoln at the height of the 2008 recession, and now, we find ourselves in the midst of another tremendously turbulent time. What do you expect to be your greatest challenges over the next year or two?

Buckingham: When COVID-19 settles, when the curve flattens, we are going to have to create a new norm. What does that look like? Who goes into the office? Who stays working virtually? The remote worker proposition just got super-amped. It’s making sure our employees have a deep sense and understanding that we want them to focus on their mindfulness and their wellness while they are working from home. Everybody working from home is balancing different things. I’m balancing when Andrew [her 13-year-old son] is running in to grab something off the printer when I’m on a video call with my CEO. A year ago, I would have been mortified. Now, it’s the new norm.

On March 1, the biggest corporate global reset button was hit. Now, it’s up to the innovators and the leaders to figure out what the new global corporate looks like. How do you build strong teams remotely? How do you identify your high potentials? What if we lose 25% of our workforce because they are down with a virus? These are all things we’re going to have to think through. The next two years is all about driving massive change, but I’m excited because we’re all in this together. I feel like there is a more cohesive world right now. People are getting to that human side. We are all going to be on a new learning curve and we are going to have to have a great attitude about it.

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HRE: You always speak glowingly of your CEO, Dennis Glass. Tell us about that relationship.

Buckingham: My respect for him grows all the time because he understands that human resources is one of the strategic business enablers for any organization. The relationship is all about understanding the business drivers that he’s looking to propel across the organization and how the people strategies enable the long-term and short-term strategic goals. We are value creators and it’s not just from shiny, happy programs. This is about true people strategies, making sure we have the right people in the right jobs, at times making hard decisions, but making those hard decisions in the right way.

HRE: Do you ever aspire to the CEO spot?

Buckingham: The answer is yes. I believe I am a great leader. I would be a terrific CEO in an industry where I know the domain really well. I either aspire to be a CEO in a publicly traded company or to start my own business. That’s my next chapter. I’m not done. I’m not thinking about retiring. I feel like I have something else in me, but I love what I do.

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.