Lincoln Financial CIO: How to build a learning culture – even in a pandemic

Lincoln Financial CIO Ken Solon shares how he's bringing a virtual perspective to his longtime commitment to prioritizing the people behind the technology
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I’ve never heard it said that having the right brushes is the secret to painting a masterpiece like the Sistine Chapel. By the same token, while having the right technology is an important aspect of leading a successful IT organization, I believe it’s the people putting that tech into action who truly determine your results. 

At Lincoln Financial, our multi-year digital investments enabled our 115-year organization to pivot in a matter of days to a remote work environment for nearly all our approximately 12,000 employees. As a result, we’ve enabled our distribution team to stay connected virtually with their financial professional partners, even educating them on how to meet with their clients in this new environment. And we’ve adopted virtual hiring and onboarding practices and transformed our in-person summer internship and graduate development programs into fully virtual offerings when the vast majority of students lost access to such opportunities. 

Our people, and their willingness to be agile, innovate, test, and learn, were one of the “secrets” behind those successes.

It’s clear to me that our people, and their willingness to be agile, innovate, test, and learn, were one of the “secrets” behind those successes. With that in mind, I’m bringing a virtual perspective to my longtime commitment to prioritizing the people behind the tech, including designing a strong talent pipeline and fostering continuous learning as technology evolves.

I’ve dedicated resources to ensure the members of my team have opportunities to develop as technologists and as people, engage in meaningful and motivating work, and experience an inclusive environment where they can feel comfortable – and hopefully have a little fun. 

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Leaning in to learning

I strive to be an insatiable learner – and I encourage my team to be the same. We have so much valuable knowledge within our organization, but we faced the question of how to serve it up to our 1,350 IT colleagues as they work remotely. In the past, we have delivered upskilling through internal roadshows featuring guest lecturers. The sessions had been informative, but the recent widespread adoption of digital collaboration tools inspired us to seek greater interaction and experiment with new platforms. 

In the spirit of test-and-learn, we created "Lean In and Learn IT," an interactive digital program that provides a deep dive into one key IT strategy each month. Topics include digital and architecture, agile and DevOps, cloud, big data, and cybersecurity. 

[ Are you over-communicating and not engaging? Read our related story: Remote leadership: 9 ways your style may backfire. ]

Based in our virtual collaboration platform, each topic features a kick-off video followed by a drip of content and interaction, including snackable articles, video clips, quizzes, and prizes to keep the team engaged. The month wraps up with a webcast focused on a key business application of the strategy, featuring subject matter experts both from within the IT organization and our business partners.

The involvement of partners is key, as our surveys tell us that few things motivate our teams as effectively as seeing the impact of their work. The response has been overwhelming. We’ve seen genuine engagement from employees – with 89 percent of our IT organization interacting within the platform each month. 

This creative approach to upskilling also provided the opportunity for some much-needed fun, with animation, costumes, and even some good-natured ribbing of the way IT senior leadership has been adjusting to remote work – pets, facial hair and all. 

Coding and coaching for good

While learning is key, sharing that knowledge can be just as important. For the past six years, Lincoln has sponsored codeLinc, a hackathon that challenges students to address a technological problem for a nonprofit based near our office in Greensboro, NC. Lincoln employees volunteered to travel to Greensboro and coach students during this intense, 24-hour event. When COVID-19 made our traditional in-person event impossible this year, the team challenged themselves to find an innovative way to keep our commitments. 

When COVID-19 made our traditional in-person event impossible this year, the team challenged themselves to find an innovative way to keep our commitments. 

As usual, they delivered – transforming codeLinc into an eight-week, virtual hackathon in support of the national non-profit organization Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. The team used online platforms to recruit participants, deliver the program, and keep students engaged. In-person recruiting events have been replaced with social media interviews with former winners and coaches and interactive chat sessions. Coaches check in on teams through Slack and WebEx, helping them storyboard their ideas and hone their pitches. 

Listening, learning, and doing for diversity and inclusion

Another vital aspect of continuous learning is the steps we’re taking at Lincoln to create a more inclusive environment where multiple perspectives, diverse backgrounds, and creative insights are encouraged and respected. 

I believe it’s my opportunity and responsibility to foster this change for the sake of my employees and my organization. To listen, learn and do more on diversity and inclusion, I’ve formed a diversity action team within our IT organization. This team is actively working to support increased awareness and education, strengthen our pipeline to recruit and retain diverse talent, and more.

Three questions to foster continuous learning 

So far, I’ve shared the programs underlying our talent development and recruitment strategy. But as Michelangelo could have told us: Good brushes won’t let me paint a masterpiece on the Sistine Chapel. And even well-crafted development initiatives won’t create an innovative, agile IT organization without an organizational culture that motivates and engages best-in-class technologists. 

To keep myself focused on our culture, I ask myself three questions:

  • How have I motivated my team members by helping them see the impact of their work on our business partners and clients?
  • How have I encouraged an insatiable curiosity for learning new skills and strategies?
  • How have I helped create an inclusive and diverse environment?

If I can point to ways I’m addressing these questions, I know I’m creating an engaging, dynamic culture for our team to thrive. In return, I know my colleagues will continue to meet each unexpected challenge with a test-and-learn approach, confident in their ability to take risks and experiment for each new pivot. 

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Kenneth S. Solon is executive vice president and chief information officer & head of IT, Digital and Enterprise Services for Lincoln Financial Group and is a member of the company’s senior management committee. Solon is responsible for Lincoln’s enterprise-wide Information Technology, and leads the company’s Digital strategy and execution.

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