How to Build the Foundations of a Learning Culture

Deanna Mulligan, the CEO of Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, was so confident that the “learning mindset” she helped create at Guardian was the way of the future, she wrote a book on the subject. "Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap" offers practical advice on creating what Mulligan describes as a “learning and growth mindset.”

Mary-Clare Race, Chief Innovation and Product Officer, LHH
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The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America did not need a pandemic to realize that their business, and the skills required to succeed in it, were changing rapidly. 

Deanna Mulligan, the CEO of the 160-year-old company, said everyone realized that many of the core functions of its business were undergoing a significant change due to the introduction of AI and machine learning. That meant many of the jobs at Guardian—particularly actuaries—were going to be heavily influenced if not replaced by machines. 

So, in 2019 Guardian set to work with General Assembly, a global leader in upskilling and reskilling, and sister company to LHH with The Adecco Group, to train actuaries to be data analysts. “It was a very rigorous, intensive course,” Mulligan said in an interview for the LHH Conversations webinar series. “(Participants) spent 10 hours a week at work and 10 hours a week at home studying for a year.”

The results of this investment were almost immediate, Mulligan said. As the pandemic struck and disrupted many of the traditional approaches to work, an increasing roster of Guardian employees were already well on the way to new, more sustainable jobs. “We’ve had some very successful graduates of that course go on, not only to work in our data analytics area, but just to be able to apply data in their everyday jobs.”

But Guardian didn’t stop there. Another pilot program was launched to reskill call-center workers to be coders. “As their jobs become more automated, they will have the chance to move on to another field, another area within the company where there are a lot of growth opportunities,” she said.

Mulligan was so confident that the “learning mindset” she helped create at Guardian was the way of the future, she wrote a book on the subject. Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap discusses the obligations that employers have to prepare their employees for rapid change through learning opportunities, while offering practical advice on creating what Mulligan describes as a “learning and growth mindset.” 

Mulligan agreed far too many organizations still put up a lot of barriers to the adoption of a learning and growth mindset. Some business leaders still view reskilling or upskilling as risky investments because of the possibility that employees will learn new things and then seek a job elsewhere. Mulligan said that is not the scenario business leaders should be worrying about.

“Other CEOs often say to me, ‘what if I train people and they leave and take the skills with them?’ Mulligan said. “And I say, ‘What happens if you don’t train people and they stay?’ This is a business investment and it’s really core to your company’s future but it’s a different way of thinking.”

Before Guardian could fully embrace a learning mindset and deliver projects to reskill actuaries and call-center employees, it had to build the foundation of a learning culture. To achieve that goal, the company started small, with an annual day dedicated to micro-learning.

Learning Day offered a wide variety of programs, from two-hour seminars to “lunch bites,” 30-minute videos on different topics that people could watch while eating lunch at their desks. It was so popular, Mulligan said that it evolved into Learning Month. “August is now the month where we have different activities every day around a learning and growth mindset. It is possible to change the culture to a growth mindset but none of these things happen overnight.”

The whole concept of a growth mindset—a term coined by renowned American psychologist Carol Dweck—is gaining traction in many workplaces. In keeping with Dweck’s theories, more employers are putting an emphasis on hiring people who believe that their talents and abilities can be enhanced through education and commitment. Mulligan said growth mindset is so important as a basic skill that it should prompt some companies to reduce the emphasis they place on academic credentials and previous work experience and start hiring based on a candidate’s capacity to learn and embrace change.

“One only needs to look at the situation we find ourselves in now, where we’ve all had to improvise over the last several months to accomplish things that normally would be easy to accomplish,” she said. “And the people who are best at that are the people who are flexible, who have a learning mindset. There was no job description for pandemic manager nine months ago. We all had to figure out how to do it. The days of managing risk by having people who’ve done the exact precise job repeatedly is gone. The world doesn’t operate that way anymore.”

When she is asked by other business leaders about where to start building a learning and growth mindset, Mulligan said her advice is simple: start small and keep moving forward.

“Don’t give up. This is major change, this is hard. You might fail at first but keep trying. The results are worth it. Your employees and your customers are depending on you to get this right.”

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