Just when the recession was at its worst in 2008 and financial firms were either buckling down expenses or begging for bailouts, Mark Saunders packed his bags and moved from the U.K. to Canada to begin his role as CIO for the insurance firm founded in 1865.
One of his first thoughts upon arriving was that the office needed a renovation.
“Just looking around, the furniture, the environment – it had all the markings on an old, traditional, stodgy insurance company,” he says. “One of the first things I did was totally renovate all of the space and try to create a work environment that would be better fitted for the type of organization that I wanted to build.”
A call to redecorate the office might seem strange given the financial crisis at the time. But Saunders insight into what it would take to get employees excited about work was the kernel for transforming Sun Life and being named the 2018 CanadianCIO of the Year by IT World Canada and the Information Technology Association of Canada. Saunders was honoured last night at the Ingenious Awards.
We interviewed Saunders for 5 Lessons from New Technology Leaders. We’re back for our second season, exploring the stories of some of our CanadianCIO of the Year finalists. This season will include some of the top technology executives from Canada’s oldest and most-recognized institutions and brands. Today, we have the stories of both the CanadianCIO of the Year in the private sector and in the public sector to share with you. Be sure to listen to the podcasts and read our articles to recap the 5 Lessons for each CIO.
Lesson #1 – Every great leader needs a great team to succeed. And you attract the right talent, you need to create the right environment for it to flourish.
Saunders wanted to recruit top talent to help him transform Sun Life’s IT department from underinvested legacy into an innovative digital leader. He knew he couldn’t woo them to come work in an environment surrounded by beige-walled cubicles.
“We had to create a modern, attractive work environment so that I was able to attract talent,” he said. “I wanted to rebuild the IT organization… in order to do that you have to have an attractive place and an environment that people want to come and work in.”
Today, Saunders’ colleagues credit him for developing some of the best talent in the business. His ability to create that positive work environment is recognized by his added responsibility of managing the corporate real estate for Sun Life. But of course Saunders knows that it takes more than a modern office to get employees engaged. It’s about having the right values and embuing them onto the work culture.
“Respect, integrity, teamwork, and everybody having a voice – those are some of the principles that undermine how we work,” he said. “Then you layer that into an environment that is a good collaborative workplace that has the right tools and capabilities.”
In the fall of 2017, Saunders’ push to create a modern workspace culminated with the move to a new global headquarters for Sun Life at One York Street, at the foot of Lake Ontario. The new office tower has 17 floors of working space for more than 2,000 employees and includes Ignite Studio, an agile lab space.
The space was influenced by Silicon Valley offices and emphasizes a flexible work environment that can move at a fast pace. There are videoconferencing areas to link up with teams in other parts of the world. Smaller rooms offer a quiet environment for a small team to gather. There are also a variety of snacks available, and ping pong tables ready for a quick game.
Lesson #2 – Executives should roll up their sleeves and be hands-on working with their teams. Provide some flexibility at the workplace, and make sure you create some opportunities to have fun in order to foster an engaged team.
Once you have a great team hired, you have to find a way to keep them engaged. It takes more than a friendly game of table tennis to foster that. Saunders makes a point to spend time with employees in person. As a result, he finds himself getting on a plane pretty often.
This past summer, he visited the Ireland office to help celebrate its 20th anniversary. He played golf with the employees as part of a charity event. He also listened.
“The Ireland team has a strong sense of community,” he said. “There’s very low attrition in that organization.”
In fact, there’s low attrition across all of Sun Life. That’s why it’s made LinkedIn’s Top 25 companies where Canadians want to work. Credited for that success are simple policies like allowing employees to “dress for their day” and not assigning employees to workstations, instead allowing them to book the space they require.
Sun Life also hosts fun events for employees, like a summer barbeque that saw Saunders roll up his sleeves and work the grill. He even sat in the dunk tank chair and let his employees take their best shot.
The mix of fun and the dynamic work environment seem to do the trick. Sun Life’s employee engagement rating is 90 per cent as rated by professional services firm Aon, which compares very well against the global average of 65 per cent.
Lesson #3 – Put the customer first. Especially if you’re going to make a point of collecting and managing their data.
Sun Life’s strategy can be summed up in three words – client for life. Saunders makes sure his team pursues that goal by serving clients with financial products that are characterized by trust and integrity.
He also recognizes when he needs help achieving his goals. When IBM was introducing its cognitive solutions portfolio around its Watson artificial intelligence, Saunders was one of the first to seek out more information. IBM Canada President Ayman Antoun recalls the meeting.
“Everybody in the industry at the time was just watching and looking and trying to see what makes sense for them,” he says. “Mark said I’m ready to listen and he brought his entire leadership team with him.”
Saunders knows that his client data is one of Sun Life’s most valuable assets. That’s why he wants to work to ensure he can turn that into value for his clients. For example, Sun Life could tell employees who aren’t making full use of their benefits about how they could put that money to work. Another example is on drug claims, where people can often save money by buying the generic version of a drug rather than the branded version. Sun Life could recommend the less expensive alternative drug and reduce how much its customers have to co-pay.
Saunders team has created advanced analytics capabilities that provider deeper understanding of customer behaviour. That learning is used to serve those customers better.
Lesson #4 – If you serve customers in the channel they find most convenient, you’re likely to broaden your prospects too.
The days of getting dressed up to visit a branch are an antiquated approach to financial services that will never return. These days, most people want to manage their services the same way they do everything else – with a mobile app.
Sun Life has responded by developing an app that helps its clients manage transactions as conveniently as possible. For example, clients can take a picture of a bill and upload it to file an expense claim. Usually by the next day, the money is transferred to the client’s bank account.
Sun Life Mobile is rated an average of 4.5 stars out of 5 on Google Play and Apple’s App Store. Sun Life claims that’s the highest rating of all apps from financial organizations in Canada. It’s in no small part to the new releases delivered every six weeks, which Saunders’ team is responsible for.
Plus, the app has expanded to be available to all Canadians, helping more people become aware of Sun Life’s brand and what it has to offer.
Lesson #5 – Agile development is about talented people collaborating to improve a product and keeping a customer-first focus.
Sun Life’s development team can maintain a release cadence of every six weeks because it has 50 agile teams working in the IT organization. Saunders is an adherent to this way of working.
“We’re able to, through that very interactive, collaborative type of design thinking… get business and IT working together in collaboration and that helps cut a lot of time out,” he says.
Much of that work is taking place in Sun Life’s Ignite Studio at its new headquarters. Saunders personally will spend time there to discuss products with his teams, focusing on the customer experience. He even makes a point to read the comments on mobile app reviews to understand customers better.
“It’s always hard to stay out in front because everyone’s nipping at your heels,” he says. “But you just have to keep this innovation and creativity going as fast as possible.”