As part of our series about the “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rich Gilbert, Senior Vice President; Chief Digital & Information Officer of Aflac US Operations.
Rich Gilbert joined Aflac in January 2019 as senior vice president and chief digital information officer. He oversees the company’s day-to-day digital operations and strategy, including both business and information technology initiatives. He specializes in developing creative technology solutions and break-through strategy to transform customer and employee experience, improve operations, lower costs and accelerate business growth.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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 graduated from Auburn University (War Eagle!) with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. I later attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I received my Master of Business Administration.
My first real job was with IBM as a supplemental employee providing call center technical support on the newly released IBM ValuePoint PCs. Shortly after, I accepted a full-time role as a test engineer when IBM started to expand its business to manufacture desktop, laptop and server computers. It was exciting to have joined a tech giant during the tech boom of the early ’90s. I climbed the corporate ladder quickly and soon advanced into a management position leading the worldwide manufacturing process for the production of PCs. Later, as IBM developed plans to sell the PC business, one of my mentors suggested I transition into the IBM Global Services area, an emerging discipline at IBM, focused on information technology services. That is how I got my start in IT.
Throughout my career, I transitioned from a technology company (IBM) to banking (SunTrust) and returned to technology with HP and currently to insurance with Aflac. Over that time, it’s been interesting to move from a technology core business to a service company consuming those technologies. What I’ve seen is that in core technology companies, the pace of change has to be cutting-edge, leading the marketplace, integrating the latest and greatest into your environment to highlight its potential. On the other hand, in industries like banking and insurance, it’s all about innovating, but also applying proven technologies at scale, leveraging them to meet your customer’s needs, and fostering adoption, all while driving stable operations. You can almost think of it as changing a plane engine while it’s in flight. It is essential to meet changing customer needs, update legacy technologies and reengineer processes that no longer meet the business’s needs. The challenge then becomes how you strategically exchange those technologies with newer ones and still maintain your flight path and altitude. As I moved from a technology company into insurance, that’s what I set out to do when developing our One Digital Aflac vision and operating model to meet this challenge by putting the customer first, driving value quickly and generating results without disrupting the core business.
My current role is the chief digital information officer, containing both digital transformation and traditional IT activities. The importance of leading both a business digital strategy combined with executing that strategy in IT is advantageous. There is a single vision, faster execution and forward momentum toward outcomes.
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?
In my first year with Aflac, I planned an off-site meeting with every people leader in my division. I wanted to do something “off the beaten path” — something in the mountains, rustic, without any distractions, where we could do some team building. I found a location about an hour away from our office that checked all the boxes.
When we got there, I immediately had doubts. It was the epitome of a rustic setting. Inside the multilevel cabin-like main hall of the venue, there was taxidermy mounted everywhere — not unlike some of the best-known sporting goods stores and certainly not what my team was expecting. They showed up in suit jackets and high-heels, quickly swapping them for jeans and tennis shoes in their cabins where they would be staying for a few days. As everyone got settled, we began to realize that cell service was spotty at best. Although this meant my team was not distracted by a barrage of email, texts and phone calls, it did present a challenge relative to addressing urgent production issues. The irony of a technology team holed up in a place without internet access was not lost on anyone. We managed with some creative problem-solving, and perhaps I’ll count that as a bonus team-building activity. Overall, it was quite a memorable adventure that no leader on my team has forgotten and is now mentioned as an inside joke every so often. My biggest takeaway from this experience is that you can make the most out of any situation if you approach it with the right attitude.
None of us can 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?
Mentorship is one of the most powerful things you can have to guide your career. Two mentors in my career stand out to me. Bart Twitty was my first manager at IBM and served as my mentor and role model. Bart saw the potential and drive in me and fostered that through encouragement and coaching. He spent time shaping my thought process, particularly around what it meant to be a future leader, and that true leadership started with a people-first mindset. He cared about his team and was not shy about sharing that. As an up-and-coming leader, it was an important lesson to learn: “People don’t care about what you know until they know how much you care.”
Second, I worked for an up-and-coming vice president in the company with a peculiar sense of humor. If you were in a meeting with Paul Scorza sharing an outlandish idea — something that no one else had thought of, Paul would say, “You’re fired, Gilbert!” But the funny thing was that was his way of paying you a compliment, acknowledging that you did something unique, something that broke the mold and the norm, risking your reputation to reach beyond and drive success. To “get fired” by Paul was his highest praise and way of encouraging and challenging his team to think differently. Paul has always been a friend and mentor, driving me to do things that I didn’t know I could do — and as a result, helping me grow.
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?
While I joined Aflac for the digital opportunities I saw at the company, what ultimately sold me was its commitment to community.
Aflac’s commitment to helping others stems from a founding culture of compassion, authenticity and transparency. Aflac Chairman and CEO Dan Amos says it best: “Caring about others isn’t just a business decision. It’s the right thing to do.”
Founded in 1955 by John Amos and his brothers, Paul and Bill Amos, who lost their father to cancer and sought to provide insurance products to help others in their time of need, Aflac remains true to the idea that doing good is good business.
Because of its people-focused approach and putting customers first, Aflac’s culture is one of strong passion, purpose and promise. That purpose evolved in 1995 when Aflac embraced childhood cancer as its primary philanthropic cause. 2020 marked Aflac’s 25-year anniversary of supporting children facing cancer and contributing more than $150 million to support research and treatment for children with cancer.
I am also struck by Aflac’s commitment to social issues like diversity, equity and inclusion. The company’s workforce is 66% women and nearly 50% minority, and it goes all the way up to the top, including the president of Aflac U.S. and Aflac Incorporated’s general counsel, both of whom are African American Women. This is the kind of company that people today want to work for.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Our vision is a world where people are prepared for unexpected health expenses, and our promise is to be there for policyholders to help with the expenses health insurance doesn’t cover. One of the biggest focus areas over the last two years has been our policyholder experience. We’ve made it easier to file claims, service policies, pay bills and receive payments. Now, we are renovating our web and mobile portals to create a brand-new experience around all of these new capabilities tailored around customer feedback. We aim to use technology and every digital touchpoint to create a seamless and effortless experience while making it best in class for an insurance provider. We intend to protect our policyholders in their time of need and make it easy to file a claim and get paid fast.
We are working on a similar activity for our brokers and employers to offer Aflac products in the marketplace. Our goal is to make it easier for employers to provide our products while expanding our base product lines to include group vision, dental, life, absence management and disability. We will create a full suite of products that bring value to the employer and employees that work for them.
Both of these are very exciting for us, as they represent the culmination of two years of work to transform our way of thinking and use digital to make things easier. When we first launched our One Digital Aflac vision and strategy in early 2019, we conducted a series of workshops to understand our customer needs better. We examined feedback, reviewed pain points, mapped out customer journeys, and used those to build our knowledge around key moments of impact. This enabled us to prioritize our transformation activity in a way that would measurably improve the experience.
Finally, Aflac is a great company to work for, and we are continuing to evolve our processes and technology to make it even better. COVID-19 has impacted the way companies do business across the world, and our employees are essential to ensuring we deliver on our promise. We are developing a future work experience with virtual collaboration tools and capabilities that redefine how we work, engage, and be more productive in a post-COVID-19 world, which will redefine how we work, engage and be more productive, while fostering an innovative and collaborative culture.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. As you know, Digital Transformation refers to the integration of technology to speed up processes, efficiency, and productivity. Many CEOs have argued that Digital Transformation is not a choice but a necessity to stay competitive. Do you agree? Can you explain what you mean?
Digital capabilities have and continue to change our world and influence consumer expectations. A great example is the smartphones we carry around that have become the primary portal through which we run our lives. Apple disrupted the tech industry with its introduction of the iPhone. It was intuitive, easy for customers to use, and before long, customers expected to download an app for every service. That’s a prime example of how digital disruptors can influence consumer expectations across industries and shows how digital transformation is essential for many companies to deliver the experience consumers seek. Companies must adapt, evolve and innovate to stay competitive.
In the past, it was not uncommon to view digital transformation as a time- or project-based activity. You could read stories about companies standing up a new data center, hyping the replacement of older technologies with the latest and greatest, or migrating to a new platform. The difference between a technology-focused and a customer-focused mindset comes down to the “why” behind digital transformation and what business value it provides. At Aflac, we take it as a part of our DNA and business strategy, which has allowed us to innovate new ways to sell virtually, run our business and serve our customers. In today’s digital world, it’s crucial to recognize that digital transformation is not about a one-time project or activity, but rather a way of doing business.
We’d love to hear about your own experiences with Digital Transformation. How have you used Digital Transformation to improve customer experiences and other aspects of your operations and processes?
Before we get to those solutions, I have to acknowledge some of the foundational elements it took to get us to a point where our digital transformation work was meaningful. We started off by setting a vision called “One Digital Aflac,” which is all about using digital to make it easier — for customers to buy, for our distribution team to sell, for our employees to work — to ensure Aflac fulfills its promise to our customers. This is our “why,” and we needed to build customer-centricity into our operating model to achieve this vision. We reorganized our teams from a technology-focused orientation and reconfigured them to align by business service and execute in a way that reflects how we run our business. We transitioned our delivery engine from a waterfall approach to agile, taking large complex programs and breaking them into components that would deliver value quickly. We also embedded product owners from the business into our delivery teams to prioritize the backlog of capabilities that will best serve our customers’ needs.
With that foundation in place, we’ve improved how customers engage with Aflac. Our customers now have more online and self-service options to get the support they need around the clock, including automated and live-chat capabilities. We’ve provided a policy e-transfer solution for policyholders who leave their company, allowing them to retain the protection of their Aflac policy. A new mobile app makes it easier than ever to submit and track their claim status. A guest-checkout capability enables policyholders to file a claim without logging in to their account.
Additionally, we’ve enabled our distribution team to sell and service better than ever before. We’ve launched an Agent Hub app that allows our agents to be more productive on-the-go with mobile tools to assist with claims, sales performance data, and tracking progress with notifications and alerts. We’ve delivered a completely new enrollment platform with improvements to user experience, reduced steps, new shopping cart functionality and mobile capabilities that provide a faster, easier and more reliable enrollment.
We’ve also made it easier for our employees to deliver Aflac’s promise with a brand-new contact center platform that provides our customer care specialists with dashboards and capabilities that allow them to handle requests faster and more efficiently than ever before. We’ve even optimized our back-office operations with automation and robotics that streamline claims processing by consolidating key information for faster decisions and freeing our employees to focus on care for our customers.
In the wake of COVID-19, we have doubled down on digital capabilities to accelerate our ability to do business in a remote model. In under two weeks, 98% of Aflac employees became remote. The company implemented technical infrastructures to support this safe transition while upholding promises to policyholders.
As an example, with agents typically selling at the worksite, we delivered new virtual tools so they could continue to sell remotely. Agents can now use digital postcards to inform, microsites to engage and schedule, virtual conferencing capabilities to meet, and e-signature capabilities to complete the process, helping them continue to thrive in their business.
How far along are you with the digital transformation of your company?
We have been on this journey for about two years now. When we began in 2019, we had several initiatives in play, focused on what many at the time would have considered the standard transformation strategy for IT organizations: technology upgrades and rip-and-replace. We began a new journey with our One Digital Aflac vision, building our strategy with customer feedback, creating a service-based operating model, and delivering more quickly and iteratively with agile. That transition helped us to bring those projects over the finish line, but we had to make a couple of strategic shifts to get there. Relative to our legacy systems, we introduced a “wrap and evolve” approach to extend the life of core legacy systems with the intent to isolate and decouple them over time from the rest of our environment. Taking this approach meant that we would spend less time focusing on maintenance over time and gradually transition to a replacement. The other decision made was to double down on data and introduce “engagement” and “integration” layers as part of our three-tier architecture that would enable us to deliver a single experience and increase productivity. But that was no easy task, and for anyone setting out on this path, it’s imperative to recognize that it takes time to influence the speed of change and build trust and partnership between IT and the business.
Are there specific areas that you are digitally transforming or are you doing it across your entire company?
With the momentum and trust we’ve built over the last couple of years, digital has grown to play an even more prominent role in Aflac’s success, enabling us to achieve growth, retention and efficiency goals. It’s quite something at an insurance company to have our leadership acknowledging digital as an enabler for our five-year vision in all-employee meetings. Especially post-COVID-19, the imperative is shifting for us, where digital is no longer a channel; digital drives our business. So as we look forward, we have to embed digital into our DNA to reimagine and reinvent our value chain for a digital-first world, and that is across the company. We are looking to transform everything we do through the lens of digital enablement. Typically, digital is something driven by the IT organization. Today, our operations team, sales team and even our audit teams are looking to adopt digital capabilities to help grow their business line and transform the processes that run our company.
How are things going with this new direction? Has your digital transformation enabled you to provide a better value for your customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Things have gone very well overall, and we’ve had a positive impact on many fronts. Through the journey, we’ve realized that digital transformation not only benefits our customers but provides efficiencies in the way we do business; it’s a win-win. For example, our live and virtual-assisted chat capabilities mean that customers can get information online quickly and easily around the clock. For our customer service team, that means answers to easy questions are provided automatically, reducing call volume and allowing them to focus on more complex problems. Our online claims status tracker provides policyholders a way to view and track the status of a claim online, much like they would track a package to their house. That improves Aflac’s efficiency by eliminating calls to customer service and manual effort associated with finding the information. With our online claim submission platform, policyholders have a way to quickly and easily file a claim and attach documents online. For Aflac, digitizing claims submission up-front helps ensure data integrity and enables automated processing that reduces our operational costs. Our new policy e-transfer solution allows our policyholders to retain the protection of their Aflac policy with an online process to facilitate the transition from their previous employer’s payroll to direct bill. For Aflac, this has more than doubled our policy transfer rate by making it simple and easy while reducing calls to the call center.
Has integrating digital transformation been a challenging process? What are the challenges? How do you resolve them?
I alluded to this a little bit earlier but thinking back from where we started to where we are now, the biggest challenge is recognizing that it takes time to influence the speed of change. A journey of digital transformation is just that — a journey or a marathon, not a sprint. Maybe one of many sprints if you have an agile mindset. But the biggest challenge (or conversely, your biggest catalyst) is setting the vision, or the “why” behind the direction you plan to take. You have to start by assessing the company’s needs and build a direction for where to take the organization. Most importantly, it has to be something people can believe in, relate to, and understand in the context of their role, the company and the market you are in. When I joined Aflac, the vision we put together was One Digital Aflac — using technology to make it easier — for customers to buy, our distribution team to sell, for our employees to work at Aflac, all to fulfill our promise to our customers. We went from whiteboard to boardroom in three months with our vision because it was simple and it resonated. That’s the first and most significant step; it’s about getting people aligned on a direction, understanding the “why” that’s bigger than themselves and how they can contribute to that vision. You have to understand where you are, but more than anything, understand your end state. That’s something most shy away from — it’s too big and overwhelming. But if you shoot for the stars and land on a mountain, you’re still higher than where you started. You have to start with a grand vision; sports teams do it all the time with statements such as “our team will win the world series.” Once you have a clear vision of where you want to go, as you share and align the message, you build momentum with a team pushing in the same direction, and that is essential.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take A Company To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Recognize that digital transformation isn’t always about reinventing the wheel. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to adapt technologies or concepts from other industries and use those to drive creative solutions and bring innovative capabilities to your business. For example, the guest checkout and online claims status tracker capabilities we delivered last year are simple concepts. They’re in many industries today, and customers are used to them. However, they’re not used to them in insurance, so when you’re able to put those capabilities into insurance, it’s a game-changer.
- Drive improvements with a customer-centric approach to problem-solving. Digital transformation is not about technology for technology’s sake, but rather solving a business problem. Our approach at Aflac considers not just our policyholders as our customers but our agents, brokers, employers, technology partners and employees as the personas we serve. To build a digital transformation portfolio guided by our customer-centric vision, we had to understand what we would ultimately change in their experience. In fact, we have a Digital Engagement team to help us understand our customer journeys and how we are moving the needle for our personas as those evolve with new solutions and capabilities coming into play.
- Use Innovation to solve business problems and reinvent. Building off points one and two, look toward the future to explore, assess, and test innovative solutions that can help solve complex problems or address opportunities. When we set out on our One Digital Aflac journey, we established an innovation lab called “Hatch” to do just that. This team functions as the tip of the spear and innovation accelerator for our digital program. The policy e-transfer capability mentioned earlier is one example of a solution brought forward this way, ultimately benefiting our policyholders and our business.
- Ensure your IT operating model is aligned to support your business. For any car enthusiasts out there, ask yourself this question: If your vision is to go 200 mph around a racetrack, does your vehicle have the right frame, engine and aerodynamics to achieve it? This is what came to mind for me as we were setting out on our journey. We needed to introduce a new operating model, or frame, by reconfiguring our teams from a siloed, technology-centric design to one organized by business service with a customer-centric approach aligned to business strategy. Next, we had to tune our delivery engine for speed by shifting from a waterfall delivery model to agile across the organization. Finally, to improve our aerodynamics, we reduced friction between IT and business teams by embedding product owners from the business with our digital delivery teams, empowering the team to set priorities, drive alignment, and share accountability. We even renamed IT to Digital Services to reflect these fundamental shifts.
- Double down on data and introduce engagement and integration layers to deliver a single experience and increase productivity. From a technology perspective, there are many opportunities to drive transformation and optimize business processes with data and analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. As we move in this direction, those things together will help our organization and company deliver even faster by reducing turnaround times, reducing manual tasks and errors, and elevating our employees to higher-value activities that serve our customers.
Based on your experience would you recommend using custom software to digitally transform, or off-the-shelf software?
It depends on the use case, but generally speaking, I would recommend customizing the experience on the front end to tailor it to meet your customer needs, and then optimize the rest. Heavy customization can lead to complexity in your technology ecosystem, making it a challenge to evolve and adapt along your journey. It is helpful to think about a three-tier architecture with engagement, integration and data layers. We focus on using custom software for our engagement layer, and everywhere else, we look to purchase capabilities and software that we can plug and play to create an overall solution. Customization is all about achieving the ideal experience for your customers.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two quotes that frequently come to mind. One of my favorite quotes from a former mentor is that “if a job doesn’t scare you, you’re not stretching far enough.” If presented with a new opportunity, don’t be afraid to stretch beyond what you believe you can do today. A little fear is good and a big motivator for change.
Every experience throughout my career has taught me something new, shaped me as a person and helped me grow. Starting with a technical background, I realized that I needed to develop my business acumen, so I challenged myself by going back to school to get my MBA and become more well-rounded. This opened up new opportunities for me, so I would encourage others to do the same.
The second one is the shopping cart approach to leadership traits. “As you go through your career, you will meet various types of leaders. You will notice traits you love and those which you don’t. Only put the traits you love in your shopping cart and leave the ones you don’t on the shelf for someone else.” This way, you become the leader you love.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I usually post on LinkedIn when I come across something that excites me or when I have something I want to share.
Visit Aflac’s LinkedIn page — @Aflac — to find out about our latest news.