National Life Group CIO on adjusting to coronavirus

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Nimesh Mehta is SVP and CIO of National Life Group, where he previously served as Head of Life & Annuity Operations, Chief Strategy Officer, CTO. Prior to joining the firm in 2008, he held leadership positions at Lincoln Financial Group for over 14 years. He holds a BS in Computer Engineering and an MBA, both from Case Western Reserve University. He spoke with Novarica on March 27, two weeks into the COVID-19 state of emergency; Novarica granted permission to repost the interview

Obviously, the last few weeks have been about transitioning the company to work from home. What do you think some of the longer-term effects of the current crisis might be for organizations like yours?
Right now, everyone has come together to make sure the company can make the immediate adjustment. There’s a lot of adrenaline, and people are doing whatever needs to get done. But the real question is, if this situation continues for a few weeks or months, what does the new normal start to look like? How is productivity going to change, and what’s the long-term impact of remote work on the organization? I believe we will be productive to get work done, but the bigger question is how innovative will we be when we are not together as a team?

Some things become more important than they were before. For example, there will be a new focus on the availability of systems. Before, uptime was important, but now any downtime at all is intolerable. There will a lot more attention on things like release management and change control to make sure everything goes smoothly and everyone is ready.Fraud detection is going to be even more important, as well as cybersecurity. It’s not only about securing a few campuses now, it’s about securing thousands of home offices.

Digital will also undergo a fundamental change. It’s going to be the only way to do business; it’s not a nice to have anymore. “Mostly” digital processes and functions aren’t going to cut it anymore. It becomes the new world where we make choices when we don’t have choices.

Obviously, I think collaboration tools and connectivity are going to play an even bigger role in the future. I also think it’s going to change the model of how insurance is sold. If there’s a long-term shift away from face-to-face, the shift hasn’t happened yet in life annuity. It’s not just about being digital, it’s a whole new conception of a new business model and process, not just technology.

What leadership lessons or opportunities have you seen as the crisis has unfolded?
The most important thing for me is being a part of a learning organization. In crisis, you learn hierarchies don’t matter, and things get done without bureaucracy. The entrepreneurship of our team is really impressive. As a leader, you can do a lot by just being there, you don’t have to be directive. People will figure it out. A crisis can be a great time to lead from the back and provide a context for people to act.

Connections are critical. If you can’t stay connected to your teams, you can’t lead them. You have to structure and focus on the desire to connect or it will get dropped. Coaching and mentoring remotely is a new skill that many of us haven’t had to develop before. It’s also important to give teams a break. In a crisis, people are working 20-hour days sometimes, and you need to get them to stop. I’m not the best at leading by example on that, but it’s important to recognize. In a work-from-home environment, people don’t have the natural breaks in their day of a commute or lunch when they can decompress a little. We need to have teams take the time to reboot.

How do you think the industry’s appetite for innovation and risk is going to change?
I think companies are going to be increasingly careful about the risk they take. They’re going to focus on the most important things first and make sure they use their capital surgically to get the best bang for their buck. We’ve stopped a bunch of small projects and nice-to-haves—we’re focused on data analytics, some core system digitization, and making it easier to do business with our distributors and policyholders. It’s not just about the expense, it’s about the focus. You have to be focused to execute flawlessly.

That also translates to working with InsureTechs and startup vendors. I’m not sure there will be as much of an appetite for experimentation there. It’s going to be hard for some early-stage companies in the space.I also worry that individual employees are going to be more risk-averse. Innovation requires a degree of personal risk, and with high unemployment, market fluctuation, and ambiguity about the future, you might not see as much of a willingness of people to get outside their comfort zones.

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Coronavirus Work from home Core systems Life insurance Business process management Novarica CIO Data processing