When it comes to the life insurance industry, the word innovation may not come to mind. The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, which has been in business since 1847, is demonstrating that no matter your age, itâs never too late to think outside the box and innovate your way to the top. At Penn Mutual innovation drives their strategic objectives and leading that charge are two women, Eileen McDonnell, Penn Mutualâs chairman and CEO and Sue Deakins, the companyâs CFO, who are one of only seven female CEO/CFO duos in the Fortune 1,000. Penn Mutual is differentiating themselves through diversity, technology and a unique sports sponsorship, which has given them access to a robust audience of millennials as a source of talent and new clients.
I sat down with Eileen at Penn Mutualâs headquarters in suburban Philadelphia to learn more about innovation and the role of female leaders in corporate America. This is especially important, as many of you know I think an important goal for America is to have 50 Fortune 500 CEOs who are women (we’re only at 24 now!)
Robert Reiss: Eileen, tell us a bit about your commitment to innovation and how itâs seeded in a company with such a long legacy as Penn Mutual?
Eileen McDonnell: I believe deeply that innovation is contagious and I tell that to everyone in our organization. Once you start innovating, you canât stop â itâs not a start-and-stop endeavor. Rather, ideas beget ideas and innovation propels further refinement and invention. Innovation is the great engine of our economy, and our country has an ability to constantly find new solutions and act upon them.
Reiss: So how do you manage the innovation process at Penn Mutual?
McDonnell: To advance innovation at Penn Mutual, we have embraced agile development, a concept adapted from the world of IT.
Within the agile model, we start with an idea or desire to make something better. We then document it and begin development, habitually improving and enhancing it along the way. The key to agile development is to be continually innovative instead of waiting for the final product. That approach allows us to go to market more quickly with products that our customers value.
Reiss: Can you give us some examples of innovation in action at Penn Mutual?
McDonnell: Well, one recent innovation is our Accelerated Client Experience or ACE. Penn Mutual is the first life insurance company in the U.S. to introduce an automated application and underwriting experience that simultaneously allows our advisers to focus on better serving clients while eliminating the obstacles customers once faced in securing a life insurance policy. ACE allows us to speed up the underwriting process by automating and managing data flows in a way that eliminates blood and urine tests, EKGs and other impediments to implementing a life insurance policy.
Reiss: What impact has ACE had on the companyâs operations?
McDonnell: ACE now accounts for 60 percent of the policies we write. Thatâs in an industry where only 15 percent of policies have any front-end electronic application at all. At the same time, ACE has vastly improved the effectiveness of our advisers, allowing them to increase their placement rate to an unheard-of 93 percent, compared to 73 percent for paper-and-pencil applications.
Reiss: I know youâre doing a lot with reaching the millennial audience and your go-to-market strategy is very different than other firms in the financial services industry. Can you tell me more about how you went about this change?
McDonnell: Historically, Penn Mutual had been an adviser-focused brand; but five years ago, we decided to also build out consumer awareness. To that end, we turned to the emerging sport of collegiate rugby. We chose rugby because of its growing appeal to a millennial market that is now comprising more and more of our workforce and customer base.
Like their parents before them, millennials enjoy sports. But while their parents focused on baseball and American football, Penn Mutual realized that rugby held the same level of intrigue with young people that soccer did 15-30 years ago. Itâs an international sport that brings an unparalleled degree of inclusion â women play on the same pitch as men, with the same equipment and rules. That balance among genders was attractive to us.
Reiss: And when it comes to Penn Mutualâs culture, Iâve been to your headquarters in Horsham, PA. Itâs not that of a typical, old-school financial services firm. You can tell people are collaborating and are happy to work there. How do you create and sustain an innovative work environment?
McDonnell: Innovation can only take place in a strong, collaborative work environment. As a leader, I try to constantly take the temperature of our employees and our culture. I listen closely to employees, and we frequently survey them, conduct roundtable lunches and have executive manager meetings. At the end of the day, most people want to work with people they like and respect. We have worked hard to develop an environment that people take pride in and a culture where people enjoy interacting with their coworkers.
I have a saying, âHappy people, happy company,â and that happiness is what allows us to retain good people who refer us to other good people. An example is Sue Deakins our CFO. She has been with the company for more than 30 years, raised three children, was widowed and then went on to become the second female CFO in the companyâs history. Understandably, Sue holds a profound respect for the value of life insurance. But she also respects the quality of employees weâve attracted, so itâs a two-fold lure. Quality individuals like Sue understand that people must hold a passion for the product as well as the people involved in its delivery.
Reiss: And as a successful female business leader, what do you think is most important for women to learn from you and how to succeed in business?
McDonnell: This is a topic I often discuss with Sue. Among the Fortune 1,000, Penn Mutual is one of only seven companies with both a female CEO and CFO. Our board is also over 40 percent female, so I think I am uniquely qualified to talk about this. Frankly, I am not a fan of the victim mentality. Women have a choice of where to work and if somethingâs not working for them, there are other jobs out there. In fact, that goes for both men and women â this isn’t just a female issue.
To succeed, you canât simply complain; you have to either speak up and make change or move on. We very much believe that each person has the power to change their own circumstances and make our company better in the process. Women today are in a unique position in that they represent a larger portion of the workforce than ever before. The opportunities are unlimited. All thatâs required is a willingness to have their voices heard in order to shape the work environment.
To listen to the commercial-free radio interview with Eileen McDonnell, go to The CEO ShowÂ