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Northwestern Mutual Sets New Standard For Developing Next-Generation Leaders

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at August 4, 2021

While average leaders struggle to build teams and hold on to their best people, great leaders are able to attract talent and retain high performers. In the financial services industry, where talent equals revenue, closing the leadership gap can literally be worth billions of dollars.

Understanding the importance of leadership development, in 2018, Northwestern Mutual’s managing partners asked for training and development that could support more of their agency leaders (e.g., college unit directors, growth and development directors, field directors). Not only did they want to develop today’s leaders, but they also wanted to prepare and inspire other high-potential team members—particularly women and people of color—to pursue leadership roles.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Vicki Holt, assistant director of leadership development, to catch up on how Northwestern Mutual’s foundational leadership program, known as Leadership Ascent, has blossomed since that initial 2018 meeting—and how Northwestern Mutual’s aspiring leaders have blossomed along with it.

In Search of High-Quality, Scalable, Micro-Learning

Given that Northwestern Mutual provides holistic financial planning to 4.75 million clients, the first requirement was that the new leadership program had to be scalable. The second requirement was that the learning had to fit into the busy, on-the-go nature of life as a financial advisor/representative or wealth management advisor and the workdays of those who support them.

Given these requirements, traditional classroom lectures and live workshops were out of the question. Northwestern Mutual needed a solution that could be accessed easily, on-demand through smartphones, in bite-sized chunks.

An exhaustive search resulted in four possible micro-learning vendors, who then participated in a comprehensive proof-of-concept program. Each vendor was evaluated on a variety of metrics that included: quality of content, ease of use, and accessibility on smartphones. The eventual partner was chosen after looking at actual program usage, user surveys, and focus groups with participants.

“Our leaders in the field loved having such a wide variety of curated content at their fingertips, from podcasts and webinars to high-quality book summaries from bestselling leadership development authors,” said Holt. “They love that not all of the content requires reading and that the app prompts them to do reflections on what they’re learning. In fact, the pilot offices were upset when we had to press ‘pause’ on the app to actually build out the quarterly coaching plans to launch the program to the entire field.”

 Leadership Ascent: Quarterly Micro-Coaching Plans for the Win

The Leadership Ascent program consists of eight, 12-week sprints on specific topics and skills contributing to leadership development. The first micro-learning and coaching sprint, which ran from the beginning of January to the end of March 2021, was centered on Diversity and Inclusion. Participants learned about and reflected on topics like:

  1. Taking inventory of and confronting unconscious biases
  2. Cultural intelligence and raising cultural quotient
  3. Fostering open-mindedness within teams and running inclusive meetings

Steve Gross, managing partner in St. Louis, stated the program is helping them create the culture and environment they want in their network office. Steve said, “Leadership is needed in everything we do – using the content from this program helps each of us grow personally in our family life and the community, and professionally in our careers.”

The beauty of the Leadership Ascent model, Holt says, is that people can opt in every quarter rather than needing to wait two years for the program to start over to join. “The first quarter of content for the person that started in Q1 of January 2021 was on diversity and inclusion,” explained Holt. “But if someone started in Q2 of 2021, their first quarter of content was on self-talk, emotional intelligence, and growth mindset, and their last quarter of content will be D&I because the program operates on a two-year cycle.”

What’s more, when you’re going through quarterly coaching plan content, thousands of your colleagues across the nation are working through it at the same time. This allows participants to include the program content in their study group discussions with people in a similar role at other offices across the United States.

Solidifying Learning through Relationship-Building

Learning at Northwestern Mutual isn’t just a solo process. In addition to the self-paced content, participants get together in their local network offices each month, and guided by a local program facilitator, they review what they’ve learned and how they’re applying it on the job. The Leadership Ascent program team equips each facilitator with a toolkit to help make each meeting impactful and enjoyable for the participants. The facilitators get to choose the resources they believe will work best for their office’s specific culture. The monthly in-person conversations help to overcome the “knowing-doing gap” and create new habits. And in talking about what they’re learning and experiencing, people have the opportunity to shine in new ways.

Paul Dodd, managing partner in Syracuse, NY, shared, “This program is allowing us to cast a wider net for leadership development, more than we’ve ever done in the past.”  That makes Holt happy, and she said, “I told the leaders in the field when we started rolling this out that my goal for them was to build their talent pipeline for leadership roles and to expose those shining stars.”

How It Started vs. How It’s Going

Northwestern Mutual rolled out the Leadership Ascent program in waves. In Q1 2021, 1,400 people went live within the platform. Going into Q2, that number increased to 2,000 across 66 field offices. While most online content libraries and learning management systems only see 10% usage each month, according to Holt, over 30% of Northwestern Mutual’s Leadership Ascent participants completed all 12 weeks of the D&I coaching plan in Q1, and 73% are using the app every month. Additionally, participants consistently rank the quality of the micro-learning content as 4 out of 5 stars.

Above all else, one of Northwestern Mutual’s critical outcomes for the Leadership Ascent program was to get more people interested in leadership roles, especially women and diverse talent. “Leaders are telling us that, yes, you are helping us build our talent pipeline for leadership roles, and that’s a huge win,” said Holt.

Kevin Kruse is the Founder + CEO of LEADx and is a New York Times bestselling author of  Great Leaders Have No Rules, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, and Employee Engagement 2.0.

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