Deanna Mulligan is the former President, CEO, and Board Chair of Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, a 160 year old Fortune 250 company with around 9,500 employees. She is also the author of a new book called Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap.
Deanna was named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune in 2019 and she was named one of “The 50 Most Powerful Women in New York” five times by Crain’s New York Business. Prior to Guardian Life Insurance, Deanna held senior positions at AXA Financial and New York Life Insurance and she was a principal at McKinsey & Company.
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In the financial crisis of 2008 nearly 9 million people lost their jobs. For four years unemployment was at an all time high, and people were having a hard time finding new jobs. It was at this time that Deanna started thinking about the concept for her book, Hire Purpose. She knew it was important to find a way to make sure that this type of situation would never happen again.
The focus of the book was, as Deanna shares, “How can we make sure that people are constantly being re-trained, thinking ahead, upgrading their skills, so they don’t have long periods of unemployment in the middle of their career–when they might have children and they might have elderly parents to take care of, when it’s the most difficult, when they’re saving for retirement– to be unemployed.”
From the very beginning of her time at Guardian she made learning a priority in the culture of the organization so that people could constantly upgrade their skills and their talents.
What is the skills gap and why is it a problem?
Technology is rapidly changing and customer expectations are changing along with it. As consumers we expect products and services to be faster, better, cheaper, and more customized. Because of that organizations are having to adapt and implement newer, better technologies to keep up with demand.
As a result of these changes, employees who were trained for a specific job with one set of technologies, now have to be able to do something completely different, and if those employees are not consistently growing, learning, and developing new skills, they are going to get left behind.
The consulting firm, McKinsey & Company estimates that in the next 10 years 350 million jobs globally will be changed significantly. They also estimate that 75 million of those jobs will go unfilled because there will not be enough trained people to do the work. Deanna believes that it is up to leaders to make sure that their people are ready for this new world of work.
Many companies today are looking to hire people with certain skills and abilities for new roles, but they are having a hard time finding anyone that is qualified. That is our current skills gap problem, and it’s only going to get worse, unless we all take action.
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What can CEOs do to close the skills gap?
As a leader of Guardian Deanna knew that she had to make learning a priority. But she realized that while initiatives are good, having one or two in place wouldn’t solve the problem. She knew she had to build a culture of learning that would become integral to the day to day operations of the organization.
One example of what Deanna implemented inside of Guardian was the start of leader learning day. On that day 900 of the Guardian leaders from around the country came together to figure out what they as leaders needed to learn and what ways they could help their employees learn. It was so successful that the following year the learning day was opened up to everyone inside the organization and it was extended to a full month instead of one day. Employees, no matter what level they were in the organization, could attend seminars, lectures, and courses online or in person. They came together to figure out things like–what am I going to do next? How do my skills and passions apply to what the company sees as new jobs coming up? Where can I go inside or outside the company to get the training I need?
People at Guardian understand that they are accountable for their careers and that the company wants them to be successful and therefore is behind them every step of the way to make sure employees have the resources and tools they need.
Who is responsible for learning–the individual or the organization?
For many decades there has been an assumption in place that what we learn in school will get us to where we need to be in our careers, and if anything new comes up our company will just teach it to us. But with the fast pace of change this is no longer sufficient. We have to realize that we need to be lifetime learners in order to keep up.
Deanna believes that education is a team effort. As she shares, “From my perspective companies that can afford it should help their employees to learn new skills and to do everything they can to be of assistance, but the company can’t know what you love or what you’re passionate about, or what makes you tick. And it really has to be a combination of the skills that the company is looking for and what you like to do and are passionate about, because learning takes energy. It’s hard to learn without passion, and I don’t think that anybody can force you to learn. You have to have initiative and want to learn.”
One thing we have all realized during the pandemic is that when we have to, we can learn new things. We all had to learn how to work from home, how to use Zoom or platforms like it, how to juggle family life while simultaneously working, etc…As humans we have the ability to learn new things and adapt. We have to stop getting stuck in a fixed mindset, where we believe that we have a limit on things that we can learn–and we have to move to a growth mindset, where we understand that we can gain new talents and skills through hard work, advice, education, curiosity, etc…
Advice for individuals who want to become perpetual learners
For any individual employee out there who wants to be prepared for the future of work and who wants to become a perpetual learner Deanna has a few pieces of advice.
1. Start small–look at a problem that you have at work or even at home and figure out if there is a different skill, ability, or technology that you could use to solve it. How could you take a different method than you’ve used before to take on a current problem.
2. Don’t be afraid to fail–When babies first learn to walk they fall down a lot. But they get back up and try again. And as adults we don’t even remember falling down, but if we gave up after one or two falls we would still be crawling. The same goes with learning new skills. You will probably fail a few times, but after you succeed even once you will have the confidence to keep going. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
3. Develop a learning culture–Once you solve a problem at work it will get easier to go find another one to work on. And it can encourage other people around you to think about problems they can solve as well. There could be a problem that will take multiple people, so think about putting together a group to solve it. It doesn’t matter what your seniority level is at work, you can inspire a learning culture around you at any level.
Advice for leaders who want to build a culture of learning
If you are a leader inside of an organization who wants to ensure that your people are prepared for the future of work and any employment changes in the future Deanna also has some advice for you.
1. Celebrate success–When an employee changes the way they do something or they learn something new–even if it is something small–it is up to you as the leader to elevate that. Make sure everyone knows about it and get everyone excited about it. Maybe you can get a cake, or put up a sign that says thank you to that employee, or call them out in a group meeting.
2. Give people room to fail–It is completely unrealistic to think that your employees are going to feel free to learn new things without making mistakes. Learning is about experimenting, struggling a little bit, and figuring things out. Failure is a part of that process. You have to let employees know that failure is okay and it is normal.
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