A conversation with Lisa Buckingham of Lincoln Financial Group

chro recruiters

Lisa Buckingham
Kim Shanahan – CEO of accelHRate
HRO Magazine

Many HR leaders often contemplate expanding their roles beyond HR. Many do not proactively seek these expanded responsibilities but are asked to take them on. How does an HR executive get there and how does he/she juggle the highly diverse responsibilities?

Lisa Buckingham, Head of HR for financial services company Lincoln Financial Group, has not only taken on new responsibilities but has flourished. She is currently responsible for HR, Brand & Enterprise Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility activities for Lincoln Financial. She shares her experiences, the value she places on her team and what she looks for, and how her expanded role has impacted her view of the HR function.

Headquartered in the Philadelphia region, Lincoln Financial Group is a Fortune 500 company with over 9,000 employees. With a strong focus on four core business areas — life insurance, annuities, retirement plan services, and group protection — the business is built around supporting, preserving, and enhancing customers’ lifestyles and providing better retirement outcomes.
Describe Lincoln Financial, market conditions when you joined and conditions today.


It’s hard to believe that it’s been over six years since I made the decision to come to Lincoln Financial. When I joined the company in late 2008, we were deep in the midst of the financial crisis. The insurance industry was under tremendous scrutiny and our primary focus was navigating through the crisis while keeping our policy holders, shareholders, employees and affiliates at the forefront of our minds. Today, we are still facing some challenging macroeconomic conditions, but I really think that the tumultuous times we experienced during the crisis period pushed Lincoln forward. In a time of such uncertainty, we were fortunate to have incredible leaders who focused on strategies that have made Lincoln strong, agile and innovative.

Today, Lincoln Financial has over 10,000 employees who provide retirement, insurance and wealth protection expertise to help our clients address their lifestyle, savings and income goals, as well as to guard against long-term care expenses…we believe that what we do empowers our clients to take charge of their financial lives with confidence and optimism.

Lincoln Financial is #232 on the 2014 Fortune 500 list by revenue and #26 by assets. As of September 30, 2014, Lincoln reported assets under management of $215 billion.

What experiences have had the largest impact on your career?


Different Companies: I have worked in large corporations as well as a private equity startup company. I have worked for Lincoln Financial, Thomson Reuters, BT GInns (now part of Corporate Express), MarketSwitch (now part of Experian) and Woodward & Lothrop/John Wanamaker.

Key Roles:
• Director of Human Resources – BT Ginns
• Chief Talent Officer and President, International Operations – MarketSwitch
• VP, Retention & Recruiting – Thomson
• SVP, Human Resources – Thomson Learning
• SVP, Human Resources – Thomson Corporate – seconded to lead the Finance & Technology transformation
• SVP, Global Talent – Thomson Reuters
• EVP, Chief Human Resources Officer – Lincoln Financial

Career Highlights:
• Successfully led a Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiating very early in my career at BT Ginns.
• Led the design and execution of the first internal and external online job site for Thomson, now Thomson Reuters before technology was essential!
• Led the launch of the Campus Recruiting efforts for Thomson
• Led successful outsourcing of payroll / benefits administration at Thomson before it was proven
• Led the Global appointments process for the Thomson Reuters transaction.
• Worked in several line HR roles that provided me the opportunity to learn and love the businesses in which I have supported
• Transformed the HR function at Lincoln Financial and implemented continuous improvement to continue to evolve HR as the business evolves
• Compensation & Benefits design, especially during TARP period in 2009
• Exceptional Employee Engagement Results at Lincoln Financial over the past several years, even during the toughest times in the industry.
• Leading Corporate Marketing and Human Resources with the ability to leverage branding as a key strategic driver internally and externally.
• Built very successful HR and Marketing teams to be impactful for our clients, businesses and employees.

You have a very broad role at Lincoln Financial today – beyond HR – and inherited this additional responsibility during an interesting time. Why were you selected and what advice would you give others who want to expand their roles?


There’s a great story here. When I came to Lincoln Financial, I was hired as the CHRO in late 2008. Early on, when I joined, our CEO, Dennis Glass, asked me to lead our Foundation and over the next few months, the Corporate Social Responsibility area was formed.

In late 2009, we had a leadership change in the centralized marketing function and my CEO, Dennis Glass, asked me to lead a strategic project in partnership with an external consulting firm, to look at our overall marketing and communications model. We partnered with the business unit presidents and our overall Senior Management Committee.

Through that six-month project, we looked at external models, internal analysis, surveys, etc., and determined we would decentralize our marketing function(s) into our businesses. We knew that it made the best sense to keep the corporate brand, enterprise communications and advertising at the corporate level. As I was sitting in a planning session with the business unit presidents, we were developing the suggested operating model and organization design for review with the CEO.

We knew we needed to recruit and appoint CMO’s for the key businesses and corporate functions. When we were sitting there looking at the corporate functions, I looked around the room and said to the team, “What are your thoughts and recommendations here?” Ironically, there was a giggle and unilaterally, my colleagues pointed at me and said “You. You need to lead it.” It was game changing for me, has taken me out of my comfort zone. Let me just say, I love it.

Has this additional responsibility enhanced or altered your view on the HR function or how you lead the function?


I would say that the additional responsibility has enhanced my view of the HR function from the perspective that ‘people’ are core to all strategies and functions. If we look through a very small lens and think about HR in the simplest sense, you lose the power of what amazing talent can provide to all functions.

Additionally, growing up in HR, I always knew I had to understand the business inside and out to be successful, but quite frankly, I don’t think that I ever took the time to walk in other domain functions’ shoes. It’s very eye opening and once you take the time to understand all the interdependencies, it makes for a much more powerful organization.

You have to get your HR deliverables right. Benefits, recruiting, engagement (culture), learning and development, strategic communications, etc.

As I step back today, over the past several years, I have made a deep effort to ensure connectivity across all functions. Actually, when you think about it, everything we do in HR for our employees needs to be branded. I also have been passionate about ensuring that the various programs have leadership support and participation. That whatever we are working on, may be branded HR, but our deliverables SUPPORT our business and talent goals. We all own it – that’s the bottom line.

When you think through the partnership of HR and marketing, it’s just so easy to get it right now. We have 10,000+ brand ambassadors…so we darn well better get it right. We also want the employee experience to be consistent from when they are recruited into the organization throughout their career at our organization. I truly pride myself on ensuring that we are building consistency for our employees, customers and shareholders.

You have held executive-level HR roles in very different industries, market conditions and geographies. What has been the most difficult transition? Why?


December 2008 to December 2009 is still a blur. I came into an organization that was focused on our customers, shareholders and employees during one of the most challenging markets. It was, as we called it, “One of the greatest global economic meltdowns in history.”

I recall, when I was leaving Thomson Reuters, the now CEO, Jim Smith, said to me, “Lisa, make sure you focus your energies on learning the businesses and don’t get too corporate-focused. Your early days are important to your assimilation.” That was AMAZING advice, and trust me, I took it to heart…and figured out how to meet all my objectives.

The most difficult part of my transition to Lincoln was that I had not worked at an insurance company before. The learning curve of the business, how we earn money, and the simple language that folks just throw around was challenging. I remember writing down acronyms and late into the night I would do research on what was being discussed.

I was also very, very lucky to have a CEO and management team who took the time to help ground me in the “Lincoln language and business” so I could be most effective. I also worked diligently on my personal learning curve. There were many late nights in the office – and that commitment has paid off for me.
Lincoln Financial received TARP funds in 2009. How have you and the executive team turned the company around?


We successfully navigated an 11-month TARP period. As the crisis was pushing us every day to ensure we were protecting our customers, shareholders, employees and affiliates, we knew what we needed to do. There was amazing leadership from our Board and CEO. We focused on getting our business back to our core businesses. (Meaning we divested some businesses.) We were vigilantly protecting our brand and had a deep focus on talent.

One of the big reasons that Lincoln Financial was attractive to me, enough so that I would pick up and leave a company I loved working for, and relocate my family during a period of time that didn’t easily have a bright light at the end, was our CEO, Dennis Glass. When I met Dennis, during each interview, he truly focused on investing in a talent strategy so that Lincoln would be EVEN stronger after the market crisis.

When other companies were closing off any investment in their people, we made investments in our talent and learning and development framework. The talent agenda was core to our focus. We weren’t going to lose our talent without a fight. We luckily had very little regrettable turnover during that period of time. This situation was a gift of learning and a test of leadership, for both myself and our senior team. We all grew exponentially.

What do you look for in HR team-members? Why?


I look for individuals who are willing to contribute meaningfully, be honest, be fair, be a great team member, and have the courage to speak up for the good of the company. I don’t ever want lone wolves on my team. I find them very damaging to what you are building when you build a team. None of us have all the answers. What a dull life we would be leading if we didn’t have intellectual curiosity. I want folks who want to learn and grow and will move around the organization.

I’m always interested in having team members who know a lot more than I do and that we can all learn from one another. I also enjoy bringing in folks that have little to no experience…and if they are as good as I think they are…seeing them flourish.

I pride myself on the fact that, over time, I have successfully built some really great teams. As I reflect on this question, I think about the many LONG term friendships that I have as a result of teams I have built over the past two decades.

Everyone thinks they have the best team. Well, let me just say with absolute pride, that is the team I have today. We work hard, we have fun, we laugh and we work every day to exceed all expectations of our client groups, leadership and shareholders.
What does your CEO understand that you would want to impart on other CEOs who don’t understand the power of the HR function?


I believe Dennis would say that having an HR executive that you can trust and have on your senior leadership team is an absolute. The CEO and CHRO should also share some of the same guiding principles when it comes to leadership, people and business. If you don’t have that relationship, you should make a change.
I also think Dennis would say that my contributions help drive the business. He allowed me to come in and transform our organization by focusing on things that would help improve the productivity, culture and engagement of our organization.

What is the best advice you have received in your career? Why?


I was preparing for a Collective Bargaining meeting in my office and my CEO was there. (This was the era before cell phones.) My assistant came in the office to tell me that a family member was on the phone. I said very abruptly and almost embarrassed, “I will call them back.” At that moment, the CEO said, “You know, Lisa, sometimes you need to wear your job like a jacket. Take that jacket off once in a while, and remember, you can replace your job, but you can’t replace your family.” From that day forward, even if it’s a one-second call, I try my best to remember that advice.

Early days at Lincoln I prepared a presentation for our CEO. He commented immediately that the proposal could be for any company. He asked for it to be “Lincolnized,” as well as centered with simplicity for implementation. Keep it simple, centered in the business with measurable deliverables. This has translated into everything across my HR and Marketing roles – how we deal with the Board, senior management, and employees. Details are important from an execution perspective but it has served us well to keep all messaging high level, simple and strategic. People can only take in so much information at once.
What have been the 2 or 3 most challenging obstacles you have faced taking Lincoln Financial through significant change?


1. Workforce Reduction – Management Delayering – I led an effort which was going to affect many individual’s careers at Lincoln. The strategy and deliverable were sound, but I never lost sight of the important fact that we were impacting people. I focused on ensuring an efficient process, treating individuals fairly, ensuring the right outplacement and strong communications strategies were in place. I also am a huge believer in networking and I personally helped any affected employee if they wanted my help. Working with a strong management team, getting the process right so the hard decisions could be made appropriately.

2. TARP – I must say, when we learned we would be a TARP recipient, it was still very early days. Treasury’s Interim Rule on the guidance of how to compensate executives hadn’t been released. I had to ensure that we abided all the Interim rules, keep our workforce focused and ensure our top compensated individuals didn’t leave. We worked very hard with outside counsel, great consultants and figured it out. However, when you walk into a deliverable that has lots of grey, you have to get it right. That was challenging. I must say upon reflection, what I learned during this experience was so gratifying. I also learned that there are many wonderful HR professionals out there that were willing to talk about their situations and learnings. We succeeded, we retained our key talent and we came out a stronger company.

3. Employee Engagement – Believe it or not, our engagement scores have been incredibly high the past two cycles and WAY above the average for financial services. What’s difficult about that you ask? Well, ensuring you are making the very important case that we should continue to raise the bar each year…and just because we had a great result, doesn’t mean we don’t need further investment. So the difficulty is ensuring we are continually focused on how to make our HR services very connected to our business. I believe our engagement results are a direct result of the things we invest in for our people, across the company.
You have been quite a champion of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Why is this important and how have you been successful driving the strategy?

Diversity & Inclusion is near and dear to my heart. When I first came to Lincoln, I me
Diversity & Inclusion is near and dear to my heart. When I first came to Lincoln, I met with every senior leader to see what was on their mind from an “HR” point of view. D&I was discussed in every meeting. Each executive felt that we could do more. When I dug into what had been done in the Company, there were a lot of efforts under the D&I banner.

First, we needed to make a decision, as a Leadership team. What were we trying to focus on? Was it our workforce? Was it market place, and/or community efforts? Each area is important to Lincoln, and we felt there was work to be done in all areas.

• Our leadership team is involved in local and national community efforts.
• Our business is growing and being relevant to all markets is important to our success, and having an inclusive workforce that’s reflective of the markets we serve and want to attract is necessary.

We determined that D&I was a business and people strategy. Today, we have an amazing Chief Diversity Officer, Allison Green. We have a D&I Council which represents business leaders from across all business units and functions. We engage our workforce through Business Resource Groups (BRG). Our BRGs provide incredible insight into potential markets and opportunities to build relationships with external diversity and financial services organizations.

We have spent a considerable amount of time through our actions ensuring diversity and inclusion remains front and center internally for our employees, and externally through our advertising efforts as well as investing in business partnerships. We recently received the results from our Employee Engagement Survey and Diversity and Inclusion was one of the top five highest scores with 87% agreeing diversity and inclusion is important, workforce feels respected, and that managers respect and leverage differences.

Lisa Buckingham offers three pieces of advice for HR leaders who want to expand their roles or who are going through change efforts

1. HR leaders going through change efforts – You cannot do this from an island. Communicate, communicate, and communicate more. I am a believer that change cannot be simply HR led. You may ‘own’ the responsibility, but it’s your responsibility to bring the other leaders along to ensure they are helping and driving the change. Clear, simple, honest communications are table stakes in change efforts. Be as consistent and transparent as you can be. People want to help lead change. If it’s ”done to them” it will fail. Change needs to be grounded in the business and have goals and objectives with measurable results.

2. Career management – We counsel people every day on their careers. Do you ever take a step back, assess how you are doing, are you doing what you want to do? Do you want more? I’m quoted as saying is “It’s your career dammit,” and if you don’t help navigate your career, it’s your fault. I always find it refreshing to speak with individuals early in their career – as well as later – and ask them what’s on their mind. I know I speak constantly to my CEO about my career. It’s a fluid thing…not an annual thing. We should be the exemplars of best-in-class career management.

3. Build the right team – I think you must be the leader you ask other leaders to be. Hiring great talent IS your job for your team, too. Don’t accept sub-standard contributions. I find that recruiting quality talent is one of the MOST important jobs we do for our company and our function. Don’t settle. Coach and train, but don’t settle.

Executive Vice President Lisa Buckingham is the Chief Human Resources Officer for Lincoln Financial Group, responsible for all Human Resources practices and policies for the organization. She is also responsible for overseeing the corporation’s Brand & Enterprise Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility activities. She reports to the President and Chief Executive Officer, Dennis R. Glass.

Buckingham has more than 25 years of experience in all aspects of human resources management. Buckingham earned her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. Her professional areas of deep interest include organizational development, total rewards strategies, change management and talent management.

She is an active member of the HR Policy Association, the Personnel Roundtable, and the new American Health Policy Institute.

Buckingham was named 2012 Pennsylvania Woman of the Year by the Pennsylvania Diversity Council. She also serves on the board of the Eagles Youth Partnership and chairs the Lincoln Foundation.