“There is no doubt that as a woman, I’ve had to work harder to prove myself in the workplace – but that has made my achievements that much more rewarding.”

~ Marianne Harrison, President & CEO, John Hancock
The U.S. division of Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corporation

“There is no doubt that as a woman, I’ve had to work harder to prove myself in the workplace – but that has made my achievements that much more rewarding.”

~ Marianne Harrison, President & CEO, John Hancock
The U.S. division of Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corporation

CEO Lounge:  May 2020


Marianne Harrison

President & Chief Executive Officer, John Hancock

The U.S. division of Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corporation

Interviewed by: Larry Gulko, Brand Architect & Strategist

LG: You are originally from Canada and came to the U.S. in 2008 to take the helm at John Hancock, just as the financial crisis was unfolding. Describe your first year at John Hancock and how the industry has changed since the financial crisis.

MH: In 2008 I had been at Manulife, John Hancock’s parent company, for five years and got a call one day from the President of John Hancock, asking me if I’d consider running a business. He was talking about John Hancock’s Long Term Care insurance business – located in Boston. 

I needed to build muscles I never used before — sales, marketing, operations, technology, etc. We all migrate toward what we are good at, so I made a conscious effort to steer clear of finances for a while and get out of my comfort zone. 

With the financial crisis, I got to try out a number of new management techniques that I didn’t even know existed. Taking that risk definitely paid off and helped me get where I am today. I believe that being a strong leader means not only taking on the challenge, but truly loving the challenge and the opportunities it represents. 

LG:  How have you navigated the male-dominated financial services industry to become John Hancock’s first female CEO?

MH: When I first took the role, I didn’t realize that I was the first female CEO. I have to admit that I wasn’t shooting to be a CEO. I always focused on being the best I could be in the roles that I had.

I certainly didn’t get here without some obstacles. The financial services industry has traditionally been male-dominated. I spent 12 years in public accounting, and I remember clearly after my second child that one of the partners took me aside and said to me that if I had any more children it would impact my ability to progress within the organization.

There is no doubt that as a woman, I’ve had to work harder to prove myself in the workplace – but that has made my achievements that much more rewarding.
I think our message to any woman looking to navigate and continue changing a male-dominated industry should be:

  • You don’t need to choose between having a family and a successful career – you can have it all.
  • Be open-minded – don’t try to plan your entire career early on. If you do, you may put yourself in a box and miss out on unique opportunities.
  • Take risks. Step out of your comfort zone and take chances.

LG:  Share with us your business lens…how do you see John Hancock transforming its brand and business in the next 3-5 years? What innovations and disruptive plans have you created and what do you see happening on the horizon?

MH:  Insurance, and financial services more broadly, still evokes words like “slow,” “complicated,” “confusing,” and “impersonal” – and at the same time, technology has been moving forward quickly and consumers are looking for us to find ways to make it easier to do business with our industry. As a result, I knew we needed to pivot. 

When I first arrived my team and I began an intensive strategy review to define our business model of the future and help meet a new promise we’ve made for our customers: decisions made easier, lives made better. To do that, we boldly outlined our ambition to become a digital, customer-centric leader and use technology to change the customer experience.

We see our strategy as two engines: 

  • The first will help us focus our business to become more efficient, faster and competitive. This includes:
    • Using technology to transform our protection business.
    • Improving retirement retention rates by engaging retirement plan participants digitally and earning their loyalty across all our products.
    • Aggressively growing our wealth and asset management business. 
  • Our second engine will bring us into the future and focus on making bold moves to transform John Hancock by:
    • Creating a dedicated focus on behavioral insurance; and,
    • Leading the market in creating a holistic advice offering across wealth and protection.

I’m happy to say that in the past year we have made significant progress toward these goals across our businesses. 

  • We announced that all John Hancock life insurance offerings now have Vitality, a tech-enabled wellness program that provides rewards and savings to customers for adopting healthy behaviors that lead to a long and healthy life. 
  • We took Vitality to the next level with the launch of John Hancock Aspire, the first and only life insurance designed for the more than 30 million Americans living with diabetes. 
  • We’re leveraging robotics to simplify our processes.  
  • Within our retirement plan business, our new Alexa Skill allows participants to access personalized information through their Alexa-enabled devices.

LG:  John Hancock is changing the way people think about life insurance, including making it fun through its new Vitality program. What is the purpose of this program and what was the defining moment that led you to create this concept?

MH: We initially launched John Hancock Vitality in 2015. It is an engaging tech-based wellness platform offered with all John Hancock Life Insurance policies that offers clients rewards and savings for the everyday things they do to live longer, healthier lives. 

We believe the life insurance industry is uniquely positioned to help address some of society’s greatest challenges and have a positive impact on the lives of Americans. It is the ultimate “Shared Value” industry – because by helping improve health, extend life and reverse chronic diseases, we have the ability to generate economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges

John Hancock believes improving the lives of customers through our products is the right thing to do for customers, our business, and society—and that it is the only way forward for the industry.

LG:   Tell us about your leadership style to ensure your employees are inspired to believe in the brand purpose and are amazing brand ambassadors who ‘live and breathe” the John Hancock brand.

MH: I have a collaborative leadership style. My approach is about listening to people, getting their views and not making unilateral decisions without the benefit of diversity of thought.  I also don’t hesitate to make decisions, so to me it is about finding that balance. 

It is my job as a leader to foster a sense of excitement around the possibilities that come with trying things differently. We knew we needed to build a culture that not only accepts change but thrives on it. I believe that being open and honest is important in culture change—and I am a firm believer in transparency at the top. Being an authentic leader is important to me. 

Our first step in this evolution was launching a set of refreshed values, guiding principles that are helping us embrace the big changes that will enable us to transform our company, and in turn, our industry. One way we did this was through John Hancock Signature Series, a company-wide speaker series created to encourage employees to share big ideas, personal experiences and unique perspectives.

LG:  For over 35 years, John Hancock has been the major sponsor of the Boston Marathon. Why is this iconic event important to the company and can you tell us about the decision to postpone the Marathon until September due to COVID-19?

MH: Boston is the marathon that needs no introduction, but deserves one, nonetheless. It’s the oldest, toughest and most iconic race in the world, drawing a million spectators and spurring millions in charitable donations annually. The Boston Marathon is the pride of our city and company, and we’re honored to be its principal sponsor for a 35th year. It’s one of the many ways we as a company are focused on building up the community around us.

This year, tough decisions had to be made due to the coronavirus pandemic. The health and wellness of Boston Marathon runners, the community and our employees are always our top priority. In light of the State of Emergency declared and following direction from the City of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts to safeguard the health of the public, the 124th Boston Marathon was postponed until Monday, September 14, 2020.

LG:  Tell us something we don’t know about Marianne.

MH: I love the outdoors and thoroughly enjoy all four seasons. There is nothing better than skiing in the winter or skating on the pond, fishing and boating in the summertime and even just hiking in order to enjoy the autumn colors.  And I especially enjoy doing all this with my family…nothing beats family!