EVP and CHRO Lisa Buckingham’s role expands outside of HR—and it has given her wings to fly.
By Kim Shanahan
Many HR leaders are tasked with expanding their roles beyond the basics of human resources. Lisa Buckingham, executive vice president and chief HR officer for Lincoln Financial Group, is one of those executives who is doing just that—and doing it well. She is currently responsible for HR, brand and enterprise communications, and corporate social responsibility activities for the financial services company. Headquartered in the Philadelphia region, Lincoln Financial Group is a Fortune 500 company with more than 10,000 employees. With a strong focus on four core business areas—life insurance, annuities, retirement plan services, and group protection—the business is built around supporting, preserving, and enhancing customers’ lifestyles and providing better retirement outcomes.
Recently, Buckingham shared her experiences, the value she places on her team and what she looks for in leadership, and how her expanded role has impacted her view of the HR function.
Describe Lincoln Financial, market conditions when you joined and conditions today.
Lisa Buckingham: It’s hard to believe that it’s been over six years since I made the decision to come to Lincoln Financial. When I joined the company in late 2008, we were deep in the midst of the financial crisis. The insurance industry was under tremendous scrutiny and our primary focus was navigating through the crisis while keeping our policy holders, shareholders, employees, and affiliates at the forefront of our minds. Today, we are still facing some challenging macroeconomic conditions, but I really think that the tumultuous times we experienced during the crisis period pushed Lincoln forward. During such uncertainty, we were fortunate to have incredible leaders who focused on strategies that have made Lincoln strong, agile, and innovative.
Today, Lincoln Financial has more than 10,000 employees who provide retirement, insurance, and wealth protection expertise to help our clients address their lifestyle, savings, and income goals, as well as to guard against long-term care expenses. We believe that what we do empowers our clients to take charge of their financial lives with confidence and optimism.
You have a very broad role at Lincoln Financial today— beyond HR—and inherited this additional responsibility during an interesting time. Why were you selected and what advice would you give others who want to expand their roles?
Buckingham: There’s a great story here. When I came to Lincoln Financial, I was hired as the CHRO in late 2008 and immediately became a Board member of our Foundation. Shortly thereafter, Lincoln’s CEO Dennis Glass asked me to lead our Foundation and over the next few months, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) area was formed. Building a CSR function was the next logical step in our culture. We focus our $10 million annual grants in the key communities where we are located.
We firmly believe we are investing in the community and ultimately building a talent pipeline for Lincoln and other employers. So it made perfect sense to bring the Foundation and the CSR function to human resources.
Then in late 2009, we had a leadership change in the centralized marketing function and I was asked to lead a strategic project in partnership with an external consulting firm to look at our overall marketing and communications model. We also partnered with the business unit presidents and our overall senior management committee.
Through that six-month project, we looked at external models, internal analysis, surveys, etc., and determined we could decentralize our marketing functions into our businesses. We knew that it made the most sense to keep the corporate brand, enterprise communications, and advertising at the corporate level. To make that happen, we needed to recruit and appoint chief marketing officers for each key business and corporate function.
As we were looking at the corporate functions, I asked my team for their recommendations. Surprisingly, there was a giggle and unilaterally, my colleagues pointed at me and said ‘You. You need to lead it.’
That was the day that I literally had the opportunity to have a new view of how marketing can affect an organization. I had the profound opportunity to take employer branding and our consumer brand and build something powerful. I wanted to develop an identifiable brand for our customers and communicate it through brand ambassadors. To say the least, my leadership skills have been stretched. But by building an amazing team and hiring one of the best domain expert CMOs Jamie DePeau, I believe we have done something special.
We have also built a strong enterprise-wide marketing leadership team to ensure alignment and cohesion on brand and communications efforts. It has taken me out of my comfort zone, but let me just say, I love it.
Has this additional responsibility enhanced or altered how you lead the function?
Buckingham: When you think through the partnership of HR and marketing, it’s just so easy to get it right. We have 10,000-plus brand ambassadors, so we darn well better get it right. We want the employee experience to be consistent from when candidates are recruited into the organization throughout their entire career at our organization. I truly pride myself on ensuring that we are building consistency for our employees, customers, and shareholders.
How? Over the past several years, I have made a deep effort to ensure connectivity across all functions. Various programs require leadership support and participation. No matter what we are working on—when it’s branded HR and when it’s not—our deliverables must support our business and talent goals. We all own it: That’s the bottom line.
My additional responsibility has also enhanced my view of the HR function from the perspective that people are core to all business strategies and functions. If you look through a very small lens and think about HR in the simplest sense, you can lose the power of what amazing talent can provide to all functions.
You have held executive-level HR roles in very different industries, market conditions, and geographies. What has been the most difficult transition? Why?
Buckingham: December 2008 to December 2009 is still a blur. I came into an organization that was focused on customers, shareholders, and employees during one of the most challenging markets. We called it, ‘One of the greatest global economic meltdowns in history.’
When I was leaving Thomson Reuters, the now CEO Jim Smith said to me, “Lisa, make sure you focus your energies on learning the businesses and don’t get too corporate-focused. Your early days are important to your assimilation.” That was amazing advice, and trust me, I took it to heart. I figured out how to meet all my objectives first.
The most difficult part of my transition to Lincoln was that I had not worked at an insurance company before. The learning curve of the business, how we earn money, and the simple language that folks use was challenging. I remember writing down acronyms and would later do research to learn what was being discussed.
I was also very lucky to have a CEO and management team who took the time to help ground me in the ‘Lincoln language and business’ so I could be most effective. I worked diligently on my personal learning curve. There were many late nights in the office—and that commitment has paid off.
Lincoln Financial received Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds in 2009. How have you and the executive team turned the company around?
Buckingham: I must say, when we learned we would be a TARP recipient, it was during the very early days. I had to ensure that we abided all the Interim rules, keep our workforce focused, and ensure our top compensated individuals didn’t leave. We worked very hard with outside counsel and consultants to figure it out. When you walk into a deliverable that has lots of areas of grey, you have to get it right. That was challenging.
But we successfully navigated an 11-month TARP period. As the crisis was pushing us every day to ensure we were protecting our customers, shareholders, employees, and affiliates, we knew what we needed to do. There was amazing leadership from our Board and CEO. We focused on getting our business back to our core businesses by divesting some businesses. We were vigilantly protecting our brand and had a deep focus on talent.
I hadn’t personally ever been in this challenging of a position. I needed some lifelines and mentoring. I remember picking up the phone and calling Randy MacDonald, the former head of HR for IBM. He had been in similar challenging circumstances and I was lucky to have someone willing to help me navigate new waters.
A big learning for me was to know what you don’t know and surround yourself with strong people and networks.
One of the reasons that Lincoln Financial was attractive to me—enough so that I would leave a company I loved working for and relocate my family during a period that didn’t easily have a light at the end of the tunnel—was CEO Dennis Glass. When I met with him during each interview, he truly focused on investing in a talent strategy so that Lincoln would be even stronger after the market crisis.
During a time when other companies were closing off any investment in people, the talent agenda was core to our focus. We made investments in our talent and learning and development framework. We weren’t going to lose our talent without a fight. Luckily we had very little regrettable turnover during that period of time. We made a bet on investing in our future talent, even during very hard times. By developing our talent, we built an even stronger internal talent pipeline, which made it much easier for Lincoln when the competition for talent increased in our segments. This situation was a gift of learning and a test of leadership, for both myself and our senior team. We all grew exponentially.
In addition to TARP, what have been the two or three most challenging obstacles you have faced taking Lincoln Financial through significant change?
Buckingham: Workforce reduction and management delayering. I led an effort that was going to affect many individuals’ careers at Lincoln. The strategy and deliverables were sound, but I never lost sight of the important fact that we were impacting people. I focused on ensuring an efficient process, treating individuals fairly, ensuring the right outplacement, and having strong communications strategies in place. I also am a huge believer in networking and I personally helped any affected employee if they wanted my help. By working with a strong management team and getting the process right, we could make the hard decisions appropriately.
Employee engagement. Believe it or not, our engagement scores have been incredibly high the past two years of surveying our workforce and way above the average for financial services. Our overall engagement results were 59 percent in 2014 with a financial services benchmark of 44 percent. What’s difficult about that you ask? The difficulty is ensuring we are continually focused on how to make our HR services connected to our business. HR must continue to make the case that we should continue to raise the bar each year and even though the organization experienced a great result that doesn’t mean the program doesn’t need further investment. I believe our engagement results are a direct result of the things we invest in for our people, across the company.
You have been quite a champion of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Why is this important and how have you been successful driving the strategy?
Buckingham: Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is near and dear to my heart. When I first came to Lincoln, I met with every senior leader to see what was on their mind from an HR point of view. D&I was discussed in every meeting and each executive felt that we could do more.
Our leadership team determined that D&I was a business and people strategy. Being relevant to all markets is important to our success and having an inclusive workforce that’s reflective of the markets we serve and want to attract is necessary.
Today, we have an amazing Chief Diversity Officer Allison Green. We have a D&I Council of business leaders from across all units and functions. We engage our workforce through business resource groups (BRG). Our BRGs provide incredible insight into potential markets and opportunities to build relationships with external diversity and financial services organizations.
We have spent a considerable amount of time to ensure D&I remains front and center internally for our employees, and externally through our advertising efforts as well as investing in business partnerships. We recently received the results from our employee engagement survey and D&I was one of the top five highest scores with 87 percent agreeing diversity and inclusion is important, the workforce feels respected, and that managers respect and leverage differences.
What does your CEO understand about the power of HR that others may not?
Buckingham: The CEO and CHRO should share some of the same guiding principles when it comes to leadership, people, and business. If you don’t have that relationship, you should make a change.
I think Dennis would say that my contributions and HR helps drive the business. He has allowed me to transform our organization by focusing on initiatives that help improve productivity, culture, and engagement of our workforce.
Kim Shanahan is president/CEO of accelHRate and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BOX: Keys to Success
Lisa Buckingham offers three pieces of advice for HR leaders who want to expand their roles or who are going through change efforts.
1. Change management cannot be done from an island. Communicate, communicate, and communicate more. I am a believer that change cannot be simply HR led. You may ‘own’ the responsibility, but it’s your responsibility to bring other leaders along to help drive the change. Clear, simple, honest communications are table stakes in change efforts. Be as consistent and transparent as you can be. People want to help lead change. If it’s ‘done to them,’ it will fail. Change needs to be grounded in the business and have goals and objectives with measurable results.
2. “It’s your career dammit.” And that’s a direct quote. HR counsels people every day on their careers. Do you ever take a step back to assess how you are doing and if you are doing what you want? If you don’t help navigate your career, it’s your fault. I always find it refreshing to speak with both individuals who are early in their career and those toward the end, and ask them what’s on their mind. I know I speak constantly to my CEO about my career.
It’s a fluid thing—not an annual thing. We should be the exemplars of best-in-class career management.
3. Build the right team. I think you must be the leader you ask other leaders to be. Hiring great talent is your job for your team. Don’t accept sub-standard contributions. I find that recruiting quality talent is one of the most important jobs we do for our company and our function. Don’t settle. Coach and train, but don’t settle.
BOX: Executive Vice President Lisa Buckingham is the chief human resources officer for Lincoln Financial Group, responsible for all human resources practices and policies for the organization. She is also responsible for overseeing the corporation’s brand and enterprise communications and corporate social responsibility activities.
Buckingham has more than 25 years of experience in all aspects of human resources management. Buckingham earned her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. Her professional areas of deep interest include organizational development, total rewards strategies, change management, and talent management.
She is an active member of the HR Policy Association, the Personnel Roundtable, and the American Health Policy Institute. Buckingham was named 2012 Pennsylvania Woman of the Year by the Pennsylvania Diversity Council. She also serves on the board of the Eagles Youth Partnership and chairs the Lincoln Foundation.