The financial services industry was a tumultuous place to be when Lisa Buckingham joined Lincoln Financial Group in December 2008.
The financial meltdown that would eventually upend the U.S. economy for the next several years was still gathering momentum. Like so many others in the industry, Lincoln was dealing with the fallout and bracing for more turbulence to come.
“We were entering into TARP. We were reducing the workforce,” says Buckingham, the Radnor, Pa.-based insurance and investment management provider’s executive vice president, and chief human resources, brand and enterprise communications officer. “It was right at the beginning of the market crisis.”
As such, there was a high probability things would get even worse. So, when Lincoln Financial Group President and CEO Dennis Glass offered Buckingham the organization’s top HR post, Buckingham’s father, for one, questioned why she should take it.
“He said, ‘Don’t you think it’s risky to go into financial services?’ “ recalls Buckingham, who came to Lincoln from Thomson Reuters, where she was a senior HR executive and on the short list to one day succeed the organization’s CHRO.
Buckingham–Human Resource Executive®’s 2017 HR Executive of the Year–clearly didn’t share her father’s reticence about her next move.
“I said, ‘Dad, it’s the No. 1 job, and I’m managing my career. So this makes sense as my next step. And, what Lincoln does, from the standpoint of protecting financial futures, was something I thought I could really sign up for.’ “
Indeed, by the time Buckingham completed the four-month-long interview process and had gotten to know Glass and the Lincoln HR team, she felt her confidence was well-placed.
“When I met Dennis, and then the leadership team and many HR folks as well, I knew I wanted the job,” she says.
In her one-on-one conversations with Glass, “he really talked a lot about wanting to retain our best people and investing in the company’s talent strategy during this tough time,” says Buckingham. “He wanted to make clear to me that there was a light at the end of this tunnel.”
Buckingham’s first step, however, would be building and getting to know her own HR team.
At the time, “we were divesting businesses and focusing on the strengths of our organization,” says Buckingham. “So we did the same thing for HR.
“I made sure I evaluated my direct team, and when I had departures–this happens; some followed leaders to other places–I stood up, learned their roles and operated in them until I found the right talent,” she continues. “Some of those roles were open for a year. It was hard work, but having an open mind, being humble and asking questions truly helped my success” in eventually filling those positions.
In the nearly nine years since, Buckingham and the HR team she leads have turned their attention to a wide variety of HR-related programs and initiatives. Her leadership has helped Lincoln advance its diversity and inclusion efforts, improve talent management and succession-planning processes, and develop a fully revamped career framework.
These sorts of accomplishments have earned her high praise from her CEO, who says Buckingham has “brought exceptional results to Lincoln,” and has done so with “warmth, caring and heart, all of which have made Lincoln a better place to work.”
Fairly or not, financial services has never been perceived as an especially cutting-edge industry. Upon her arrival at Lincoln, Buckingham wanted to change that, and began offering an experience to the company’s customers–internal and external–that was similar to “born digital” companies such as Amazon and Uber.
To make that happen, Buckingham drew on her experience as an HR leader at Thomson Reuters. (Buckingham’s roles at the mass media and information organization included chief talent officer, head of HR and organizational development for Thomson Learning, and head of global talent for combined Thomson Reuters organizations.)
“We went from being fully print to fully digital during my tenure there,” she says. “So it was in my blood.”
First, she had to make the case for doing so to Lincoln’s corporate leadership group, a council of its 75 top executives.
To help get them on board, she enlisted Ram Charan–a renowned author, speaker and business advisor–to meet with Glass and the corporate leadership group, discussing the digitization happening in other industries, and stressing to the council that failing to do the same would put the organization at risk of obsolescence.
With the leadership group in tow, Buckingham became the “executive sponsor” for Project Ambition, the initial six-month phase of the project, during which the group devised its digital strategy.
Project Ambition would provide a three-year road map for the organization’s digital growth, and included selecting top talent from across the organization–an effort that Buckingham would lead–to work alongside external consultants in carrying out this vision.
“I wanted to make sure that our people didn’t think we were trying to become Apple,” she says. “But we were thinking that we’d like to take a lot of manual processes out for our customers and our employees.”
For example, “someone calling in with a question about a life-insurance policy is working with one of our life-insurance-services representatives,” she says. “But [that customer] should also be able to access details online if he or she wants to check the status of a policy in the middle of the night.”
Buckingham and her handpicked team met with hundreds of associates across the company, actively seeking input on how to best implement this digital strategy, and to see that employees’ questions and concerns were addressed. They asked for ideas during town-hall meetings and created a hub on the company intranet where employees could submit questions, which included queries about which aspects of the customer-service experience would be digitized, for example.
“We’ve had very transparent communications from the beginning. We didn’t want this to be perceived as being done behind the scenes. This was about improving service delivery to our customers and employees,” says Buckingham of this effort, which also led to the hiring of Lincoln’s first chief digital officer, Raj Chakraborty, earlier this year.
Buckingham’s leadership, “from strategy to planning to execution, was key in bringing this vision to reality for Lincoln,” adds Jen Warne, senior vice president of talent management at Lincoln Financial Group, who reports directly to Buckingham.
“And she served in this role while continuing her other job duties,” says Warne, noting Buckingham’s additional marketing and communications responsibilities. “[This] is a testament to her resilience, her capacity to take on strategic initiatives and her ability to select the talent needed to achieve significant strategic prominence in the marketplace.”
Dedicated to Diversity
The best talent can come from many different places, and from many different backgrounds. When Buckingham arrived at Lincoln in late 2008, however, the company found itself lagging behind industry benchmarks with regard to female and minority employees, especially at the officer level.
That year, “we looked at our officer levels,” says Buckingham. “We feel we’re a highly female-oriented organization, but when we sliced the data, we felt we didn’t have enough female officers.”
Buckingham subsequently established a dedicated office of diversity and inclusion–and developed the job responsibilities for, and oversaw the hiring of, the organization’s first-ever chief diversity officer–that would implement a variety of programs and processes designed to foster greater diversity.
Buckingham also introduced the balanced slate process and officer readiness framework, the first of which requires hiring managers to include at least one woman and one person of color on each officer-level candidate slate. Meanwhile, the officer readiness framework provides a personalized development experience for high-potential individuals just below the assistant vice president level, including a customized individual development plan based on career goals, strengths and gaps; quarterly peer networking events; and retention activities such as career discussions with senior leaders across the enterprise.
At least once a quarter, Lincoln measures the percentage of the organization’s officer population that is female or minority. This practice preceded Buckingham’s arrival, but the numbers underscore the progress the organization has made in this regard since she came on board.
Since 2012, for instance, the company has roughly doubled the percentage of officers who are female (from 18 percent to 37 percent) or minority (from 5 percent to nearly 10 percent). Overall, 60 percent of Lincoln’s approximately 9,000-employee workforce is female, which beats the industry average by 6 percent. Minorities make up 19 percent of Lincoln’s total workforce and 10 percent of its executive ranks, compared to 17 percent and 8 percent, respectively, in the financial industry.
“Diversity doesn’t just mean all kinds of shiny, happy people working together. There are tough conversations that sometimes have to be had,” says Buckingham, referring to the aforementioned discussions that she and the leadership team had about the dearth of women and minorities in officer roles. “That’s why we started looking at our officer levels a few years back, for example. The world’s demographics are changing so quickly, and we’ve really been focused on that.”
Many of the individuals in the aforementioned executive positions have come from within Lincoln’s own ranks. Glass credits Buckingham for her part in increasing internal promotion rates throughout the organization.
“Lisa has dramatically improved our talent-management and succession-planning processes,” says Glass, who conducts an annual review of the high-potential senior talent in every Lincoln Financial business unit and evaluates succession plans for each of these divisions.
For example, Buckingham implemented internal assessments and coaching services designed to identify and groom the high-potential talent that could be the next to fill those roles.
She has also helped introduce psychometric testing to evaluate high-level candidates and instituted behavioral interviews for high-level positions, along with switching from a six-box model assessment approach to a nine-box model, with the extra three boxes representing the appraisal of employees’ current contributions and their future potential.
The results of these efforts justify Glass’s commendation.
In the past year, for instance, 81 employees were promoted into officer positions or moved laterally from one officer role to another. (The organization has 715 officers in total.) In the last 18 months, Lincoln has also added 13 new members to its corporate leadership group and two to its senior management committee. Of these additions, 40 percent were internal promotions.
Under Buckingham’s watch, Lincoln has also created an all-new career framework resource, available on the company intranet, where employees can learn about available opportunities elsewhere in the company and assess their own strengths and weaknesses for new roles or promotions.
The framework tool “shows employees every single job in the organization and the skills needed for that job,” says Buckingham, adding that it is meant to help Lincoln employees forge their own career path at Lincoln, whether it leads up the ladder or to a lateral move.
“While this continues as a work in progress for Lincoln, we have seen improvements in our 2014 and 2016 engagement scores, related to career pathing and development,” says Glass. According to the company’s 2016 employee engagement survey, 79 percent of Lincoln workers recommend the company as a great place to work.
Buckingham is optimistic that she and the HR team can keep that momentum going.
“I came to Lincoln because I was managing my own career,” she says. “Sometimes the best opportunity for an employee is not always in the same company they’re currently in. We hope we’ve created a framework that allows them to find that next great opportunity here.”
Read these stories about the 2017 HR Honor Roll:
Splitting the workforce of Kraft Foods to build two new packaged-food companies is only one of several daunting challenges Mondelez International CHRO Karen May has surmounted in recent years.
Ultimate Software’s Vivian Maza takes pride in her role helping the company achieve consistently high rankings in Fortune’s Best Places to Work list.
David A. Thaeler used the Great Recession as an opportunity to help transform the culture, strategy and operations of Haskell.