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 Heather Milligan.
Heather is Senior Vice President leading Underwriting and New Business at Lincoln Financial Group. The Underwriting and New Business Teams are responsible for underwriting and policy issuance of Life Insurance, Executive Benefits (Corporate and Bank owned life insurance), and MoneyGuard (hybrid long-term care/life insurance).
Underwriting and New Business provides policy issue, mortality and morbidity risk assessment for the Life Businesses with annual sales of more than $750 million which provides new life insurance coverage of more the $55 billion for American consumers annually. The operation serves five distribution channels: Lincoln Financial Network (LFN), Wholesale, Brokers (Executive Benefits), Bank and Wirehouse. Heather is also responsible for the compliance, business analysts, project managers, trainers, auditors, the Office of the Chief Underwriter, and the Medical Team who support execution of the business.
In addition to leading Underwriting and New Business, Heather is a member of Lincoln’s Diversity Council and she is part of the Lincoln’s Corporate Leadership Group (CLG). As a part of the senior leadership team for Life Solutions, she actively participates in the creation and execution of strategies that manage and grow the Life Insurance Business profitably for Lincoln.
Heather holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in business studies with a concentration in organizational leadership from Southern New Hampshire University. In addition, Heather has earned her CLU, FLMI, ACS, and AIAA designations. Heather is also a supervisory principal, holding her NASD Series 6 and 26 licenses.
Heather relocated in 2015 from Concord, NH to Greensboro, NC with her husband Greg and son Christopher. She is a board member of the United Way of Greater Greensboro and she is an informal parent-advocate for parents of children with Asperger Syndrome. Her hobbies include hiking and gardening.
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?
Thank you for the opportunity to participate and share with your readers. I started in the life insurance industry right out of high school, in an entry-level role filing records for a small life insurance company. In that role, I had the opportunity to learn how customers applied for life insurance, the process that they went through to be medically underwritten, how their lives changed throughout the “life” of their policy, such as beneficiary changes due to the birth of children and, sadly, how the claims process worked in the final payout of death protection coverage to the loved ones of the insured. In short, I found meaning and purpose in the work that I was supporting in taking care of customers and even doing something great for Americans in general. From that role, I progressed through a series of roles in operations including Customer Service, Licensing & Contracting and Commissions for the agent’s selling our business, Administrative Services, New Business Policy Issue and Underwriting, all while obtaining my Bachelor’s Degree at night. I have been fortunate to hold 19 distinctly different roles within the three companies that I have been a part of over my 31-year career.
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?
When talking about life insurance, particularly in the area that I am responsible for currently which is underwriting and issuing new policies for Lincoln Financial Group, I have learned the importance of choosing every word with great care. Once while describing a change to our cognitive testing rules to the CEO, I used the word “you” in an example that I was giving him. “For example, you might have a cognitive impairment if you showed signs of ….” That one little word out of place, the word “you”, had the unfortunate impact of implying that I thought our CEO had a cognitive impairment. Luckily, he laughed about it good-naturedly! It taught me the importance of being very deliberate in communicating the INTENT behind your messaging and choosing each word with care.
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?
While there are many people that have helped me along the way, the ones that specifically propelled my personal growth as a leader were ones that were able to “hold the mirror” up to me in a gentle, but firm, manner, so that I could “see” how I was being perceived by others. It’s amazing how much you can learn about yourself when you are truly open to the gift of feedback, and are wiling to see areas where you can improve. One example of this was when one of these mentors challenged me very firmly about having a hang-up about the non-traditional path that I have taken in my career. I didn’t go to college in the sense of the campus experience, I worked full-time and was raising a family, while earning my degree. I didn’t realize that I was projecting less confidence than peers that had taken a more “traditional” path into a career. It took her sharing this with me, and helping me see that I had as much right to ‘sit at the table’ as everyone else. This was also a good lesson for me about how important it is to be inclusive and to do it purposely. One of the reasons that I felt less confident at times was that I didn’t have an alma mater to brag about before meetings began, or to cheer for specifically when discussing college sports. I have other things to offer and I think it’s critical as leaders that we do not accidentally exclude others because of our own set of assumptions and values. Now I work very hard at trying to find a personal connection with each person on an individual level to help shine a light on their specific gifts and backgrounds that they bring to the table.
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?
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My drive comes from the very early days of my career when I made a personal, deep connection between the work that we do as a company and the people impacts that decisions that are made each day make on families. As I grew in responsibility over the years, the “people” component of leading others also energized me. I enjoy helping others reach their potential, while solving complex business problems, and having a voice into the strategies that will make us successful as a company. Even with the transition to working full time from home, which we have been doing since mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic started, I find energy each morning in thinking about what great things we do and lifting up the people that do them. Video calls have been a fantastic tool to stay engaged and it certainly helps sustain my personal connections to people until we can safely return to the office setting.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I believe the most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to LEAD. People are looking for direction, for information, for reassurance, for guidance and most of all for a human connection to what is happening during the crisis. The best leaders show up first, offer praise freely, listen carefully but are not afraid to give direction and act as required, and who make a real connection to those that they are leading. For myself, I am attracted to those leaders that jump in to action during a difficult situation, not as much to those that sit back and wait and watch for others to act.
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?
Transparency and over-communication are two things that I believe help anytime there is an uncertain situation or crisis. People want to know what is happening and they want you to be transparent and truthful to them about the facts. When I prepare to speak to large groups of employees, I try to think about how to connect whatever I am sharing to as many of their specific roles and jobs as possible — so that they can understand what the problem/crisis is, what leadership is doing to address this issue, and then what we need them to do as well. When people feel like they have a role, they gain power back over the situation. Boosting morale can be as simple as making people part of the solution so they don’t feel like things are happening to them. Being an over-communicator during a time of crisis is a good thing. I feel like I say the same message sometimes a dozen times a day, however people need to hear things repeatedly and in different ways to connect to the message. When the COVID-19 crisis started, I immediately began daily huddles with different levels of my leadership teams to keep them engaged, informed and to give them a chance to express what they were feeling and ideas they had to make the situation better.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be direct, be transparent, be compassionate but firm, and treat people the way that you would want to be treated in hearing a difficult message. Try to put yourself in their shoes and customize the message to them in a way they can both digest and connect with. Written communication can be particularly challenging to convey a sense of warmth and personalization so I suggest verbal, video or phone communication for any news that you wouldn’t want to read about personally.
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.
- LEAD — jump in with two feet and be visible.
- COMMUNICATE — often, in a variety of mediums, make it personal, tie it to your customers and/or employees personal values and work
- BE TRANSPARENT — talk to people clearly and without crowding your message. If you can’t share something because it’s confidential, tell people that you can’t share
- BE AUTHENTIC — people know when a leader is being inauthentic. Bring the real you to leadership each day and allow people to get to know you as a person as well as a leader.
- SMILE and GIVE ENCOURAGEMENT — as Mary Poppin’s once said…”a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” People will do more for you if you give them back some human encouragement and nurturing. That’s not to say that you can’t be firm when you need to be however keep in mind that you get more with honey than with vinegar. People give more discretionary effort in their daily work to those that they like, admire and respect.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Abraham Lincoln — “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” I am a pleaser and early in my career, I tried to make everyone happy. I finally realized that I could not make everyone happy and sought to just be my authentic self — as a leader, as a mother, as a friend, and as a spouse. Recognize that you can’t control what other people’s reactions are, you can only control your own actions.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me on LinkedIn.