Driving business impact through customer centricity and digital agility

Sun Life US focused on the client experience and aligned IT with the business to drive a transformation in its technological capabilities.
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Driving business impact through customer centricity and digital agility

When Sun Life US wanted to improve how it onboarded insurance clients and managed the data transfers, it saw a client-experience issue not a technology one. That orientation was the cornerstone of a transformation in how Sun Life US worked, and it provided the glue that brought, and kept, IT and the business together. This new model allowed Sun Life US to deliver its new technology capability to market in less than five months—and immediately start to win new business. Keys to the team’s success included a deeper embrace of agile, the use of minimum viable products (MVPs), and leadership that empowered their teams and encouraged them to make and learn from mistakes. Sun Life US’s Kevin Krzeminski, senior vice president of national accounts, and Paula Bartgis, senior vice president and CIO, shared their insights about the team’s success with McKinsey’s Santiago Comella-Dorda and Barr Seitz. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

Bringing the business and IT together

Kevin Krzeminski
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Kevin Krzeminski: Within Sun Life, we focus our decision process on keeping the client at the center of everything we do. But we felt we needed a bigger, deeper transformation.

When we decided to embark on this initiative, the client journey was key to it. We wanted to make sure we could leverage our insights on the products and services we deliver. Getting client insights directly to identify their needs, their pain points, and how we might be able to solve for them—and having the client participate—has made a significant difference in how we’ve approached this initiative.

At the at the end of 2019, we made the decision to develop what we call our client accelerator team, which blends a diverse group of resources from both the business and the IT organization. That combination proved to be a very powerful way to approach technical problems and deliver solutions in a different way.

Aligning customer journeys with technology solutions

Paula Bartgis
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Paula Bartgis: One of the focuses of where we’re going is taking our client journeys and tying them to our technology solutions and capabilities.

We have to pivot away from project execution toward a product-delivery mindset. We need to be thinking on the technology side around our baseline, our run costs, our growth, and our transformation goals, and we have to align our teams and empower them to support that work and allow them to innovate and focus.

So we are taking our client journeys, aligning them to our technology capabilities, and asking ourselves where we want to be in the future from an overall digital standpoint. But you have to make sure you have the right investments and the right teams aligned to the technology organization.

As we’re asking those questions around the work we’re doing, that’s where MVP discussions come into play. Because we don’t need the perfect solution right away. We need to be thinking about what we can deliver in terms of value for our clients. It doesn’t matter if we think it’s cool and sexy. If our clients don’t, then it doesn’t matter.

Breaking through hierarchical barriers

Paula Bartgis: When we first started, the team members were timid. They were fearful that if they didn’t have all the answers or if they didn’t ask the questions in the right way, there would be repercussions. Now, we actively have conversations. One of my proudest moments happened when somebody who was very uncomfortable at the very beginning of the accelerator presented to our senior leader forum and was natural and articulate and just so comfortable in that space.

Kevin Krzeminski: I dramatically underestimated the intimidation effect that I, as a member of the senior leadership team of Sun Life US, had on individuals from the business and IT areas whom I had never interacted with personally. Early on, you could see the anxiety when I walked into the workroom—and this is pre-COVID, and we would meet and talk, just check in—and I could sense that feeling of, “Why is he here?”

I finally just had to be super transparent with the team and say, “Listen, I want to learn just as much as you do. I want to solve client problems just as much as you do. And I’m here to help you, as you’re going to help me.”

Using personas and MVPs to pick up the pace

Kevin Krzeminski: One of the first things we did that ultimately helped accelerate pace was to focus on creating client personas. We have a really deep understanding of our clients through the products and services we provide, and we could have used that understanding to make the assumption that we know what they need. But instead of doing that, we took the time to create very detailed personas through direct client interactions, which has enabled us to really feel the acceleration within the team.

The second thing that helped speed up the pace is the MVP concept. And MVP doesn’t mean small. In fact, to me, it means a product that not only is achievable but also creates real value. Continuously making bite-sized efforts at product development really accelerated delivery. We’ve seen our delivery times come down dramatically over what would have occurred through a more traditional waterfall approach.

Thirdly, I think what’s really important around acceleration and pace are the agile-development ceremonies. I participate in the biweekly sprint reviews, and it’s a great environment for the team to provide an update on their accomplishments. It allows them to bring forward obstacles or blockers, which helps inform me and others on ways we can help.

Learning from setbacks

Paula Bartgis: All transformations have their setbacks. In my opinion, it’s the reflection on those challenges and what we do with the learnings that help us win. There were many important decisions we made and will continue to make, but the one that I’ll highlight is when we realized early on that we hadn’t set the team up for success in terms of some of the key skills, capabilities, mindsets, and behaviors that we required of them.

So we applied our core principles to the problem: we asked people to stretch in their roles, tested and learned, provided coaching, listened to the team, and remained engaged while empowering the teams to make decisions, and not seeking perfection.

Non-negotiables were mindset and behavior. We knew these were key to the team’s success early on, and we were relentless in holding the team accountable for demonstrating those attributes.

Creating value for current clients while attracting new ones

Kevin Krzeminski: We’ve already had some really positive outcomes. We’ve been able to expose the products we’ve built to not only existing clients but also several prospective ones, which has resulted in a material impact on new-sales results much more quickly than I anticipated.

It’s really been rewarding and fulfilling for our digital team to feel that success through their interactions with both the client and our sales teams. Hearing that we’ve secured a new client and that the products they’ve built were a key contributor to that success makes them want to go even faster.

So we’re looking at that—how we should think about this differently going forward in order to make more new products available. Because we’re definitely seeing positive results from what we’ve built so far.

Paula Bartgis: As Kevin mentioned, not only is there significant business value from our US business and excitement in the market, but it’s also had an incredible impact on our people. We’ve seen tremendous growth in our people. Where the team is now compared to a year ago is just remarkable.

Training, coaching, and mentoring talent

Paula Bartgis: Talent is our foundation. It’s the most important thing. So as we’re thinking about our client journeys, as well as our own journey transitioning to a digital enterprise, we’re asking ourselves which roles we need to be successful. How do we take our existing talent and train, coach, and mentor them through the transition? Where do we need to supplement some of that talent? Where do we need to bring expertise in to help teach back to the organization?

The organization has a passion around wanting to learn. We just need to make sure that we are clear on what are the new skills and capabilities needed, as well as the new mindset and behaviors, and that we give our people the opportunities to learn new skills and be patient with the process.

That goes back again to the desire of the organization to move faster. I think we have to be very mindful and deliberate relative to how we do that, because we need to make sure that our people are given opportunities to grow and stretch their skills and capabilities.

Scaling learnings throughout the organization

Kevin Krzeminski: For the whole organization to benefit, we needed this team to identify best practices, key learnings, mistakes, and challenges, and then document those to create a playbook for Sun Life to deploy more broadly.

We’ve seen the progress, the speed, and the positive impact on direct new-sales results. So as we look at our planning process right now, we’re talking about standing up a couple more teams.

We’re excited about potentially bringing some of the road map for the end of 2021 and into 2022 forward more quickly so that we can drive increased sales results earlier than we anticipated. Because the return on this investment has been extremely positive, we want to take advantage of it more broadly, if we can.

This is such a critical initiative, not just for us here in the United States, but for the company globally. There’s just such tremendous focus on it from our CEO, his executive team, and down through our company that it’s going to be the way we live and breathe going forward.

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