Looking inward to drive lasting industry change
by Mike JamesMr. James is president of NFP Life Solutions. He leads NFP’s Individual Solutions division, which includes life insurance, long-term care, annuities and wealth management. Visit www.nfp.com
Racial injustice is not new to our country, just as the barriers facing Black and brown individuals are not new to our industry. In the wake of events that remind us just how far we have to go, and as I hear the voices that are calling out injustice, asking questions and articulating ideas to move us forward, I continue to look inward.
My approach is shaped by my experiences and what I’ve learned throughout my journey. I entered the financial services business more than 28 years ago, and now, with the context of the work we have to do to advance justice for all people, the idea of looking inward – asking what you can do to fix problems, being accountable and not waiting for others to deal with the biggest challenges – has never seemed so right.
Our industry has an opportunity to effect lasting change for diversity and inclusion (D&I) and empower younger generations to be leaders across the financial services landscape. If we look inward to develop strategies to advance D&I in our own organizations, to remove barriers that hold us back from being as diverse as we should be, and accept – in every word and action – that we can, and must, be an active contributor to the change, progress will come.
It All Began In Boston
As a native of Boston, born and raised in the Roxbury neighborhood, what I once knew about John Hancock was limited to the tower that cut through the city skyline. But in 1991, I was offered an internship opportunity, with dozens of other college aged people from the area, at the life insurance giant that set me on a path to build an enduring relationship with a profession that I love.
The internship was a success because John Hancock looked inward to ask what they could do to “build a healthier, more equitable Boston” (as they say on their website to this day). I looked inward to move outside of my comfort zone to explore something new.
And through their deliberate action, in the form of a thoughtful, strategic and nurturing program, we both benefitted. I received mentorship from people who looked like me, including a corporate attorney and an operations leader. I had the structured freedom to learn about the business and see there was a place for me in it. John Hancock got an ambitious, hard driving young professional, who forgot about wanting to be a prosecutor and spent the next 15 years learning, growing and contributing to the success of one of the most recognized brands in the world.
In 2006, I seized an opportunity to join NFP and serve as Senior Vice President of business development at PartnersFinancial, their life insurance distribution organization. I was very familiar with NFP and viewed them as an attractive destination, both for what they had achieved up to that point and their willingness to evolve. I saw a path for myself, worked hard to learn and grow, and ultimately earned an opportunity to lead NFP’s Individual Solutions business and become President of NFP Life Solutions (my current positions). My experience at John Hancock – all the way back to that internship – prepared me to play an instrumental role in aligning NFP’s business with its vision and culture, a focus that continues today.
Making a Difference Today
John Hancock remains a leader in supporting youth and diversity with deliberate programs that advance diversity and inclusion and give them access to a deeper pool of talent. In fact, my daughter was part of their MLK Scholars program and currently works in John Hancock’s meetings and events department.
But there are other organizations doing fantastic work. I’m proud that what I learned at John Hancock about looking inward is consistently embraced by my NFP colleagues. We are a proud supporter of Year Up, which is working to close the opportunity divide by partnering with corporations across industries, including financial services, on focused internships. Too many employers are reluctant to hire candidates with “unconventional” paths that don’t align with what they view as optimal. Year Up recognizes that no journey is perfect and creates opportunities for those cut off from a stable career path with the skills, experiences and support that empower them to reach their full potential. Year Up students, most of whom are non-white, just need someone to believe in them, and their motivation and potential, to break through.
GenHERation, another organization NFP is proud to support, is helping young women and companies connect though their digital platform, networking events and a variety of professional experiences. I know many amazing women who are leading the way in our industry, but we need to do a better job to build awareness of the value we provide as a profession. Introducing young women to our business through programs like GenHERation enhance our ability to compete for their attention when they are deciding on a career path.
Any time you see an organization having success with an internship program, you see the power of coalitions. It starts with looking inward to identify the role they will play in making a difference, but then they have to embrace that the impact they have and the momentum they create will be greater when they partner well – with corporations, with young people, with community advocates. Looking inward doesn’t mean doing it alone.
Knocking Down the Barriers
There is an abundance of data on the barriers Black and brown professionals face from a career perspective, providing another opportunity for our industry to look inward and be better. When I look around our industry, I think we are more diverse that we get credit for. But we have an opportunity to elevate diversity in the c-suite, in client-facing roles, and in the boardroom. We can’t be satisfied with where we are and we have to create paths where people who want and deserve to be in these roles can make it happen.
But to attract those looking for a career, or even a career change, we need to be better about sourcing diverse candidates. Some get there by working with recruiters who are more diverse. Others focus on training their recruiting teams on the unconscious biases that prevent progress. But regardless of your approach, it has to start with belief. If you don’t truly believe your organization will be better, more effective, or more successful when it is more diverse and inclusive, any action you take will fall short.
What organizations have to realize is that the more diverse you become, the more attractive you are to that next candidate. When people see a company with people who look like them, they see it as a place where they can learn, grow and advance their careers and they want to be a part of it. The momentum that follows is organic and can be very powerful. My experience with John Hancock in 1991 is a great example. I connected with leaders during my internship who looked like me and had a firsthand understanding of my journey. This made me want to be part of that community and someday do for others what they did for me.
Getting there requires planning, diligence and collaboration. Nationwide Financial, who continues to lead the way in advancing D&I in our industry, recently announced the formation of the Financial Alliance for Racial Equity (FARE), a coalition of leading financial services organizations (including NFP) and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Connecting companies that need to build the next generation of talent with talented professionals who are looking for a career is a great step. It involves employers, colleges and universities, and young people, all looking inward to do what they can to move us forward.
Listen, Learn, Act, Repeat
Meaningful and sustainable progress in advancing diversity in our industry requires the active support, both words and actions, from CEOs and boards. Absent the belief I mentioned above and the commitment to invest in change, it’s unrealistic to expect things to improve.
I am fortunate to be part of an organization that believes, is committed and continues to take action to drive change. We don’t have all the answers, but we do embrace the need to look inward. We are asking ourselves hard questions, engaging with employees to understand their feelings, and developing strategies to make our company and the entire industry more attractive to diverse candidates.
We hear a lot about the need to listen and learn, and I believe that it’s a critical step in the process. However, organizations also have to take what they hear and articulate a position, develop a plan and act. We have three incredible leaders at NFP – Kim Davis, our Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Ginnette Quesada-Kunkel, our Chief HR Officer, and Mary Steed, our Chief People Officer – who are fantastic listeners. But they are also great at saying it – taking a stand on big issues – and living it to make it real.
This energy is also present in our Chairman and CEO, Doug Hammond, and our entire executive team and board. We are looking inward, having conversations, listening to each other and learning from each other to shape a plan that will continuously evolve.
We’re continuing our support of organizations like Year Up, GenHERation, and Nationwide’s FARE. We are focused on advancing understanding, inclusion and belonging within our organization through internal listening and learning sessions, resource groups, and a D&I hub where employees can share a variety of resources (articles, interviews, documentaries, etc.). We’re joining the American College of Financial Services in their “Four Steps Forward” plan to combat racial inequality and engaging with the Urban League to learn more about their activities to determine where we can provide support. And we are acknowledging that we will always have more to do.
No matter what action an organization chooses to take – and steps will vary across the industry – the key will always be about looking inward to develop that plan, committing to collaboration, and evolving the plan as you continue to listen and learn.