As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Scott.
Diana Scott is Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, where she leads the company’s human capital strategy, driving performance and building culture through talent management, compensation and benefits, organizational development, inclusion and diversity, culture and employee experience. She is passionate about growing talent, making space for creativity, enabling greater collaboration and inspiring teams to think in new ways. Previously, she served as Chief Human Resources Officer at Prologis in addition to more than a decade of management positions at John Hancock.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am currently the Chief Human Resources Officer at Guardian Life, but my path here was a little unconventional. I began my career in marketing, which led to a long tenure on the P&L side of insurance and financial services. That’s where I recognized the importance of talent strategy to support teams, drive growth, and develop great people and culture.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career, I worked at an ad agency and had to fly to a prospective client to pitch a proposal. I cut things too close, was late getting to the airport, and ended up boarding the wrong plane! I was supposed to go to Newark and was about to go to Atlanta. When I realized my mistake, they let me off the plane and I made it onto the correct flight, but it was embarrassing and I got a ribbing from my teammates. I should have noticed that none of them were on my flight.
Lesson learned: Plan ahead, prepare, double-check everything, and always leave extra time. Haste makes waste!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I didn’t have traditional HR experience when I became the HR leader at John Hancock, but my leader at the time knew my passion for helping people develop and grow their careers and building sustainable, successful teams. I am grateful to him for giving me that chance and helping me chart a new path for myself. I think back to that experience as an example of how important it is to show people what drives you and what your strengths are, and to continue to develop your skills so you’re ready when the “tap on the shoulder” comes your way.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Guardian was founded in 1860 with three core values: we do the right thing, we hold ourselves to very high standards, and we believe that people count. Our values are who we are and what we stand for, and our customers, policyholders, and partners know they can trust us to protect their life, wealth, and health. Those values guide the decisions we make as a leadership team, help us attract and retain the right talent, and make Guardian a rewarding place to work.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Communicate frequently, inclusively, and transparently, recognizing the range of what your employees may be experiencing. Throughout the challenges of this past year, we have listened, invited and shared many stories, and taken action to implement policies and evolve our culture.
To give you an example, early in the pandemic we recognized that people were struggling to find balance, taking on additional caregiver roles at home and seeing changes to their financial situations. We gave our leaders of people greater autonomy to grant flexibility, revamped our time off policies, provided resources to help people do their best work from anywhere, and reinforced that safety was our top priority. We want to provide stability when so much else in the world seems uncertain.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving your best effort and never giving up are part of your DNA when you grow up as part of a military family! I am also inspired daily by my teams, who work tirelessly and with such energy and commitment in driving our talent strategy. I count on them to support our business with expertise, passion, and dedication, and I know they are counting on me too.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I shared earlier that I think the most important thing a leader can do is communicate frequently and transparently about the actions an organization is taking in response to a crisis. Listen intently to what you hear from your teams, then demonstrate commitment to the organization’s values, people, and culture. People need to feel connected, informed and cared for to continue to perform at their best.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Every day can bring new and diverse challenges, especially right now. Give people the flexibility they need to balance uncertainty so that they can bring their best selves to work. As leaders, we need to make a point to check in with our teams more often, listen more intently and with empathy, and ensure that we are evolving resources as the organization’s needs change.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With transparency, respect, and compassion. Be direct about what is changing and how it specifically impacts the person you are speaking with. Acknowledge their feelings and give them time to react.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders should always think about where their business or industry is headed, keeping an eye on the disruptors and investing in talent and capabilities needed to thrive in the long-term. Do not get overwhelmed by the “what if’s” and focus on ensuring your organization and team is set up to be flexible and nimble as priorities evolve.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay grounded in your values. Your organization and stakeholders’ needs will evolve, but if you stay consistent and true to your values, you will retain the trust of your people, customers, and partners.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
These are common and easily avoided: Contradicting the organization’s values, mission, and purpose; keeping information close to the vest; and not listening to customers and employees.
Withholding information is one that comes from a well-intentioned place, when leaders feel they may cause unnecessary concern by sharing. But news travels fast today, and employees feel connected and aware when leaders share what they know in real-time. It feels vulnerable, but our job as leaders is to stay engaged so we can continue to lead effectively.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Flexibility and agility are key. A strategy that was working in a robust economy may not work when there is volatility or uncertainty. Be ready to pivot if your current strategy is not right for the new environment. Stay very close to your customers, because they will tell you what is not working, how their situations have changed and what they need to keep doing business with you.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Communicate frequently and transparently (this includes listening). I shared earlier about how important this is, especially during a crisis. You need to be visible. Our entire leadership team downloaded new software so we could create video messages and were sharing them company-wide almost daily in the first few months of the pandemic. We saw incredibly high viewership and heard from our employees that seeing and hearing their leaders helped them feel connected as an organization, even as we worked remotely. We asked a lot of questions in our videos and received feedback that we used to develop new policies, provide needed resources, and make decisions with our employees at the table.
- Help your teams stay focused. If you want happy customers, you need empowered, supported employees. The stressors and anxieties caused by turbulent situations can cause a very real impact to productivity if you don’t take steps to support people. I also take mental health very seriously. Hosting regular mindfulness meditations, encouraging the use of PTO, modeling healthy habits like disconnecting from email after a certain hour, and giving people flexibility are all part of how to help people with self-care.
- Be mindful of your blind spots. As a leader, it is your responsibility to be an advocate for everyone, not just your “squeakiest wheels” or most pressing issues. Make decisions inclusively, make sure you are hearing from people you might not typically hear from (such as through skip-level meetings) and always remember that what is normal for you is not normal for everyone.
- Continue to give opportunities for growth. The best thing people can do for their careers is continuing to learn. We hosted a month of career development-focused activities and events to inspire people to learn new skills, reflect on their careers, and dedicate time for development. Especially during uncertain times, people want opportunities to grow and explore their career possibilities. Ensuring employees have rewarding careers continues to be a top priority for me.
- Recognize great work. We know that people are working longer hours than ever before, and in many cases, we have had to move mountains quickly as organizational priorities shifted. Recognize people individually in the way that they want to be recognized, whether that’s a public shout-out or a sincere thank you in a one-on-one setting.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Stephen R. Covey said, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” Listening is hard. It takes attention and patience, but it is crucially important. Listening to understand a different perspective leads to better relationships, connections, collaboration, and outcomes.
How can our readers further follow your work?