Vanguard CIO: 5 principles helping us navigate now

Vanguard CIO: 5 principles helping us navigate now

Vanguard went from five to 95 percent of staff working from home. Since then, CIO John Marcante's team has learned much about leading with compassion, trust, and agility

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It’s no secret that the onset of COVID-19 has posed many challenges for people around the globe. At Vanguard, we have been adjusting to the new landscape much like all of you: figuring out how to get our crew (what we call our employees) safely working from home while keeping business moving during this unprecedented time. I’m proud that we’ve received positive feedback, both internally and externally, for how we’ve navigated these uncharted waters. 

Here are a few things that have helped our success in recent weeks:

1. Make battlefield decisions

Early on in this experience, there were many choices that needed to be made without the benefit of perfect or complete information. It can seem daunting to make decisions before testing a solution, but in a crisis of this magnitude, perfect becomes the enemy of good. As a leader, it’s crucial to be comfortable with discomfort and to make time-sensitive choices with confidence.

As a leader, it’s crucial to be comfortable with discomfort and to make time-sensitive choices with confidence.

To help leaders make these decisions, we held touchpoint calls every day across multiple levels of the organization. This allowed the most crucial information to flow up the chain quickly, and also allowed guidance to cascade swiftly. Opening the lines of communication helped ensure people were receiving the information needed to help make decisions. Our CEO and head of Human Resources also held meetings with senior leaders across the company to share information as it became available. These meetings outlined what we did and did not know, and provided guidance for answering questions coming from their teams. 

All of this work enabled leaders at every level to make battlefield decisions knowing they were supported and equipped with the latest information.

2. Align on common – not competing – objectives

While there are still many unknowns, it is important to identify and align on near-term goals and to clearly communicate those goals to decision makers. At Vanguard, we had three enterprise-wide objectives in this crisis: serve our clients with excellence, get business crew home, and then get technical crew home. Being aligned on these objectives allowed us to achieve a smooth transition on all three fronts.

For our clients, critical functions such as logging into their accounts, checking balances, and executing trades needed to remain fully operational and robust, even in the midst of record usage numbers due to markets volatility. To support this, we renegotiated vendor contracts to increase our systems capacities.

To expedite the process, we created limited-contact drive-through hardware depots.

Preparing our crew to work from home was a different, fairly drastic undertaking. Prior to this experience, only about five percent of Vanguard crew regularly worked from home. Currently, more than 95 percent of crew are working from home, most of whom were successfully transitioned within two weeks. To expedite the process, we created limited-contact drive-through hardware depots that allowed crew to pick up needed resources including laptops, monitors, and phones. We had to rethink and retool our tech support function to virtually meet the needs of those creating workspaces at home. We also dramatically increased our VPN capacity.

The clarity on our goals allowed the business teams and IT to work hand-in-hand to achieve these objectives with speed and precision.

3. Lead with compassion

As I mentioned earlier, Vanguard was not a work-from-home organization before the middle of March, so almost all of our crew are working in a brand new environment. The weight of such a drastic change, as well as the added layers of homeschooling, elder care, other needs at home, and the general mental and emotional toll of the pandemic, is a lot for anyone to manage – crew and leaders alike. Many times leaders have to shoulder the burden of change, but they have the same needs as everyone else in this time and need support as well.

To address some of the challenges created by these new circumstances, Vanguard has rolled out a few additional benefits to crew, including increased sick leave, caregiver leave, and childcare leave for those with children under 13.

We’ve seen the power of being a compassionate support system for one another in this time. For example, one crew member lost a parent who had previously been ill, and he was deeply moved by the way his colleagues rallied around him to cover his workload and support both his family and his emotional wellbeing. Additionally, connecting virtually from our homes has enabled us to create more personal connections through meeting family members and pets, or just sharing a coffee or lunch together in a new way.

Although we’re physically distant, we’ve developed closer bonds.

Although we’re physically distant, we’ve developed closer bonds. Our new environment has opened up the door for some fun, too! I’ve personally enjoyed using the newly-released custom background option on Microsoft Teams, and some crew have even created virtual scavenger hunts, bingo games, and MTV Cribs-style home tours. We encourage such creativity and believe it’s important for teams to find ways to spread joy and have fun with their colleagues.

4. Trust your people

The quickest way to impede progress in this all-virtual environment is to micromanage.

Working from home can be difficult, but it is important to trust your team and allow each individual to adopt a schedule or routine that best meets his or her professional and personal needs. At Vanguard, our productivity levels have largely remained the same, and in some cases have even increased due to more concentrated working time. In the midst of all of this change, we were still able to deliver several major products, including launching a joint venture for advice clients in China.

The quickest way to impede progress in this all-virtual environment is to micromanage. Trust enables autonomy, innovation, and an ownership mentality. 

5. Don’t forget about the community

Vanguard has committed $5 million to support the communities in which our crew live and work. This includes more funding in immediate support of well-established global and local relief agencies, as well as additional funding over the longer term to agencies we partner with through our established corporate programs. More than $2 million of the additional corporate support will go to key partners in our Strong Start for Kids Program to help children and families who are already living in poverty and face significant vulnerabilities. We also are committing increased funding to our Hometown Grants Program partners who provide critical local services in each of our largest sites – Greater Philadelphia, Greater Phoenix, Greater Charlotte, London, and Melbourne.

Most impressively to me, on an individual level, our crew are out safely serving their communities – they have been planting community gardens to donate fresh produce to food banks, virtually mentoring newly out-of-work neighbors, making and donating meals for families, and sewing masks for frontline workers. It’s been a privilege to see and be a part of serving the community in these ways.

I’m tremendously proud of the resilience, agility, and compassion I’ve seen across our enterprise. I’ve also been genuinely impressed by how much our crew have accomplished in such a short period of time. Projects that would have taken months or years were completed in days and weeks because of the critical needs that arose. I’ve realized the next step for me as a leader is to examine how to develop a long-term environment that continues to encourage productivity and think about how we can evolve our culture to support this speed of innovation going forward.

I know Vanguard is not the only organization navigating these difficult times, and we are not perfect. But these are hard-won lessons, and our story, probably much like yours, is a testament to the power of the human spirit. 

[ Get lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

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John T. Marcante is Vanguard’s chief information officer and managing director of Vanguard’s Information Technology Division. Vanguard is one of the world’s largest investment management companies. As of December 31, 2017, Vanguard managed more than $4.9 trillion in global assets.

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