Work Unleashed: Northwestern Mutual creates stability in a chaotic time

Northwestern Mutual

Welcome to our Work Unleashed series: a collection of posts from Box executives and conversations with Box customers on navigating the "new normal" of work today. Here, you'll find insights and resources that enable your teams to do their best work, anywhere, anytime.

People are overloaded with information, yet often find it hard to access the advice they need, particularly when it comes to insurance and finance. Northwestern Mutual recognizes this conundrum. With technology as a driver, the company seeks to increase financial inclusivity for consumers of all kinds.

The company has more than 6,000 advisors and other employees around the U.S., who rely on a tech stack overseen by COO Souheil Badran. "I’ve always enjoyed working on ideas that change industries,” says Badran. Northwestern Mutual's insurance and investment services also hinge on technology platforms that provide a better customer experience, both digital and traditional.

In conversation with Anisha Vaswani, Corporate CIO of Box, Badran broke down how, unlike a lot of FinTech companies that grew up in the digital environment, Northwestern Mutual has had to make an intentional shift. He says, “In my role, technology is critical for how we’re driving our strategy forward.” For this reason, Northwestern Mutual likes to consider itself TechFin — technology enabling financial services.

The migration to innovation

Nearly half of Northwestern Mutual’s workforce consists of technical talent, which showcases the critical role of technology. It drives critical services and removes the silos that used to inhibit change. 

“Innovation is part of it,” Badran says. “But innovation doesn’t always come from within. You also have to leverage best-of-breed.” The business and domain knowledge that powers Northwestern Mutual’s success has been built internally. But Badran’s team has selectively partnered with other technology providers to knit together a tech stack that gives cross-organization collaboration a major boost.

Over the last few years, the company has gone on a migration journey, leveraging cloud-based tools such as Box to create an omnichannel experience for customers and a streamlined, mobile-first experience for the workforce. 

Where preparation meets decisive action

“The way we run our business wouldn’t be possible without the tools we’re using today, such as Box,” says Badran. In addition to building a smart tech stack, Northwestern Mutual created an infectious disease and environmental risk (IDER) team back in 2009 to research pandemics, among other things. And while even that team was surprised by how fast the pandemic scaled, having a policy foundation in place helped them take decisive action.

When the work from home mandate was announced at the company’s facilities in New York and Milwaukee, the infrastructure tools were already in place for remote work. The biggest stressor was simply arming employees with equipment over a single weekend. "We were able to turn on a dime because we had the capability,” admits Badran, “but the need to do it helped us move faster."

Equalizing digital access for citizens

As a business licensed in every state, Northwestern Mutual has seen how some states are behind others in giving citizens digital access to information and services. COVID has changed that. Leaders now realize that digital literacy and access is key for citizens. States have realized that doing things digitally and remotely is key to the safety of constituents. 

"The current environment really underscores the importance of enabling digital experiences that give our clients and advisors access to what they need and what they're looking for,” says Badran. “In the last six months, we've been able to expedite that digital journey a lot faster."

Northwestern Mutual is working with advisors and clients experiencing financial challenges during this time to extend grace periods on premiums, enable them to borrow against a policy (depending on the state), and educate them on decisions that might impact their financial security moving forward.

Keeping priorities straight

Badran’s key advice on how to navigate in a chaotic time:

  1. As leaders, you have to listen closely to your teams. Let team leaders run their roles and be a sounding voice and enabler for their individual teams.
  2. At the same time, make sure your C-level is closely aligned. Have them meet daily at first, then a few times a week.
  3. Plan ahead, but have an adaptive mindset as you go — always paying attention to the environment you’re currently living in.

The biggest lesson Badran and the other leaders at Northwestern Mutual have learned over the last few months: the health and wellness of the workforce is paramount to the health of the company. “We’re not in a rush to drum up business,” Badran assures. “We just want to make sure everyone continues to be healthy.”

Watch the full session with Souheil Badran below.