Building purpose-led businesses: An interview with Ingrid Johnson

Ingrid Johnson has worked in international insurance and financial-services industries for more than 25 years. In that time, she has developed a purpose-driven approach to leadership that empowers teams and keeps clients’ best interests in mind. Now, Johnson is bringing that mindset to Sun Life Asia as its president. McKinsey recently spoke with Johnson about uniting teams and stakeholders under a common goal, adapting during challenging times, and finding opportunities in the insurance industry.

McKinsey: Throughout your career, you’ve built purpose-led businesses in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and, most recently, Asia. What have you learned is necessary for success?

Ingrid Johnson: Building client-driven, sustainable, profitable businesses begins with understanding the context within which you are seeking to transform a business and what success looks like both within the organization and relative to formidable competitors. The context informs and inspires strategic goals; success is then dependent on having both a compelling plan and a capable, motivated team.

Succeeding and learning coexist. I have led large-scale change in a variety of situations, from sustaining the success of a leading corporate bank to reimagining and repositioning a competitively challenged retail bank. I have learned to expect that well-laid plans will not always go well, and agility is needed to pivot or adapt as the unexpected unfolds.

Ultimately, the differentiator is creating a team of people who believe in the vision and innovate as they work toward accomplishing it—but it takes time to build. Initially, it is often difficult to secure buy-in for an exciting new future, which requires constant communication and celebration of short-term wins. I have found this stage to be the most challenging time for a new leader because it also requires ensuring the right people are on the bus in the right seats for the journey ahead. I have also learned to be realistic about the achievable rate and pace of large-scale change, which is an iterative process, while also driving near-term business performance.

I believe in Professor John Kotter’s eight-step methodology for leading change, which aims to engage the hearts and minds of teams by aligning the focus of the culture with strategic change. The hardware—systems, processes, and practices—and the software—people, behaviors, norms, and culture—need to be aligned to achieve big goals. Doing this is challenging, but I have seen the effect it has, and it’s extraordinary.

Finally, I’ve learned it’s important to have the courage to make strategic choices that may be at odds with competitive practices but are right for the company, its clients, and other stakeholders in the long run.

I’ve learned it’s important to have the courage to make strategic choices that may be at odds with competitive practices but are right for the company, its clients, and other stakeholders in the long run.

McKinsey: How do you think insurance can help make societies in Africa and Asia more resilient?

Ingrid Johnson: My wish is to see that everyone in society can have their financial and health needs met, irrespective of how they started in life or how much wealth they have. The insurance industry needs to create products that are affordable and accessible and that resonate with individuals and their priorities. Insurers have a tremendous role to play in building prosperity and financial security in emerging markets and supporting the development of a strong insurance industry that provides employment opportunities and invests in local economies.

Our opportunity to make an impact is twofold. One is fulfilling client needs and delivering good outcomes for our clients and distribution partners while ensuring sustainable and profitable growth. The second is touching millions of lives through the beneficiaries of our products or the communities we serve through philanthropic and sustainability initiatives. Together, these opportunities create a virtuous circle of impact that lifts society and builds a future generation of clients and advisers. It’s important to take a long-term view. We are focused on building a future in which our business, clients, partners, and communities thrive for generations to come.

Fortunately, there is great opportunity. Sun Life currently has 24 million clients in Asia in an addressable market of 1.4 billion. By 2030, there will be 3.5 billion people in Asia, and the region will account for half of global GDP. Yet there is an $83 trillion mortality protection gap in Asia–Pacific and a pensions savings gap of $3.8 trillion per year in emerging Asian markets. But financial literacy and affordability are barriers. Education and quality financial advice is fundamental to building the understanding, trust, and confidence required to make important financial decisions. There is also the added complexity that between 60 to 70 percent of wealth is concentrated in the top 10 percent of the population.

So success is about more than just being present in fast-growth markets. We need to have a clear purpose and understanding of the impact we wish to have. At Sun Life, we have a clear purpose that resonates with the needs of Asian society: to help clients achieve lifetime financial security and live healthier lives. We try to be more client-led than product-led to understand clients’ needs and how they translate into products or distribution. Harnessing digital can help further this connection and in time serve as an additional distribution channel.

Success is about more than just being present in fast-growth markets. We need to have a clear purpose and understanding of the impact we wish to have.

McKinsey: How do you instill an entrepreneurial spirit while working in a traditionally conservative industry like insurance? And how do you personally feel about being an entrepreneur within a corporate context?

Ingrid Johnson: This question ignites joy in me because I have observed that through constraint comes the greatest creativity. In a corporate environment, we have clients, capital, cash, and return criteria. When we infuse these factors with creativity and a compelling client-centered vision, we can achieve something extraordinary. For me, it starts with recognizing the societal opportunity. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me energized.

Successful entrepreneurs take calculated risks by innovating based on a clear understanding of their clients’ needs. They can unlock a source of distinctiveness by starting with the client and using digital and omnichannel thinking to make their vision a reality. For instance, financial literacy, affordability, and accessibility are some reasons why there is not deep insurance penetration in emerging markets. We should challenge ourselves to be creative in how we meet that client need based on the size of their wallet and understand why this should be a priority.

McKinsey: How do you connect a global enterprise like Sun Life Asia with local expertise?

Ingrid Johnson: Asia is rich in its diversity. Its countries span different cultures and languages and have a wide spectrum of needs. Sun Life Asia embraces the distinctiveness of each market with a unique plan to scale and sustain growth while remaining aligned with our enterprise vision and strategies. We aim to leverage regional and global expertise rather than re-creating it locally when it is not permanently needed. Our market CEOs are empowered to drive their unique programs by bringing together relevant global or regional capabilities with their country expertise and client knowledge. More is gained by having the right people “on the field” in each market at the right time and bringing relevant competencies to the job to be done.

McKinsey: How do partnerships help accelerate growth in insurance?

Ingrid Johnson: Partnerships are essential to our growth and are a significant distribution channel in Asia, where bancassurance is often up to 50 percent of life insurance sales. We now have more than 20 bancassurance partnerships in seven markets across Asia to extend our reach and rapidly scale our business. We are already seeing the benefits: in our ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] markets, our individual insurance sales from bancassurance grew by 21 percent last year.

Success lies in nurturing partnerships with respected, quality businesses that share our vision and values. Our successful partnerships have four common attributes. First, there is collaboration from senior leadership to set the tone and direction of the opportunities we wish to target. Second, there is continual communication about designing distinctive client value propositions and the most compelling digitally led client solutions. Third, we empower teams to work in an agile way while providing clear expectations for success and business performance. And fourth, we create value for our partners’ business through the wide global expertise in Sun Life.

Partnerships are essential to our growth and are a significant distribution channel in Asia, where bancassurance is often up to 50 percent of life insurance sales.

McKinsey: How did you manage your energy and grit during your transition to Hong Kong and in the complex context of COVID-19?

Ingrid Johnson: Managing my energy and grit meant keeping perspective on the situation and aspects in my control. I had to respond only to what I could control and adapt continuously. Every transition is different and brings new challenges. I have developed some timeless practices that form the foundations of my life throughout different situations.

First, I separate who I am from what I do. Who I am is anchored in my faith and helps propel me to fulfill my unique purpose in what I do. Second, I develop a weekly rhythm. That helps maximize my impact at work and creates capacity for personal renewal to reenergize. Third, I intentionally integrate important aspects of my life into my routine, including healthy food, fitness, my family and friends, my faith, and managing my personal finances. Fourth, I proactively build relationships with new colleagues and broader stakeholders to develop a better understanding of the new context and cultures. And fifth, I surround myself with good, skillful people who support our endeavors and inspire me to grow.

My recent transition to my current role revealed my steely determination to overcome unexpected complexities for a greater cause: to positively impact millions of people in Asia and help our clients achieve lifetime financial security and live healthier lives. This is Sun Life’s purpose, and I am privileged to be part of the team that seeks to fulfill this compelling vision.

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