Community//

Deanna M. Mulligan of Guardian Life Insurance: “A true leader is a mentor who nurtures talent, promotes constant learning, and helps make it easier for people to do their best work”

Don’t manage. Listen and lead by example. A true leader is a mentor who nurtures talent, promotes constant learning, and helps make it easier for people to do their best work and live full lives outside as well as inside work. You succeed by clearing the path to success for others and remembering workers first […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

Don’t manage. Listen and lead by example. A true leader is a mentor who nurtures talent, promotes constant learning, and helps make it easier for people to do their best work and live full lives outside as well as inside work. You succeed by clearing the path to success for others and remembering workers first and foremost are people. They aren’t there to make you look good. They are parents, spouses, community members, and citizens. The best leaders take into consideration financial performance and the health and happiness of the people who make performance possible. Above all, be willing to invest in workers for the long term. Achieving immediate gains is nice but it isn’t a path to sustainable growth.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deanna M. Mulligan, Chief Executive Officer of Guardian Life Insurance Co. She is the author of the just-published “Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap,” available via Amazon and deannamulligan.com.

Ms. Mulligan was named CEO of Guardian in July 2011 after serving as President and Chief Operating Officer since 2010. She joined Guardian in 2008 as Executive Vice President to lead the company’s Individual Life & Disability business. With a background in strategy consulting and operational management. Ms. Mulligan was a Principal at McKinsey & Company and held senior positions at AXA Financial and New York Life Insurance Company. She also serves as a trustee on the Board of Directors for The Vanguard Group, one of the largest investment companies in the world.

Active in the community as well as across the industry, Ms. Mulligan is a Board member of the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), the New York Department of Financial Services State Insurance Advisory Board, the Partnership for New York City, the Economic Club of New York, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT. Ms. Mulligan was appointed to, and served on, the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans from 2014 to 2015, and was Chair of the Board of the ACLI from 2015 to 2016. She is currently a member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council, and served as Director on the Board of Arch Capital, a publicly held Bermuda-based re-insurer.

In 2019, Fortune once again named her one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” and Crain’s New York Business recognized her as one of “The 50 Most Powerful Women in New York” for the fifth time since 2011.

Ms. Mulligan graduated from the University of Nebraska with High Distinction and holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A combination of disasters — on a global and on a personal scale — drove home for me the true value of insurance. Like many others, I lost friends in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. I was 41. My career was on the rise. But these tragedies convinced me to step back and reexamine my life. I left my job. I thought a lot about purpose. My original career was insurance. I decided that I really loved it. It’s meaningful. We’re here for people at their worst moments. Insurers are naturally purpose driven. Having a career with a purpose matters.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In late October 2012 millions in the eastern United States braced for what shaped up to become the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. I got a call that New York City was in the bull’s eye. Guardian Life has thousands of employees in New York, and tens of thousands of policyholders in the tri-state area. As the city prepared to evacuate, my husband and I drove toward the storm with more than a little urgency. While en route, I spoke with our team, including the IT department, which busily worked to flip our systems from a data center in New York to our data center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

It would become one of the most defining moments of my early tenure as CEO of Guardian. I was not standing in a conference room or sitting in a corner office. Instead, I was huddled under a desk, arms wrapped around my dog, praying the pair of us wouldn’t get flattened by a falling tree. I was worried about Guardian employees. Were they and their families safe? Because the phone and internet were down, it was a question without an answer. Instead of worrying, I started planning.

During that devastating week, power, phone and internet outages were widespread, yet our team got on their feet (and their bikes) to find Wi-Fi where they could communicate with policyholders. Our goal was to ensure they could receive the disability insurance and other payments they relied upon. A manager in our finance group cycled past store after store to find the nearest power source, a coffee shop, to charge his phone and upload data to connect to our systems and close the quarterly books on time.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes Guardian stand out is the service we provide. We give people the financial security to live without fear. What empowers us to do this is financial strength. That strength is supported by over 160 years of prudent investing and underwriting. One underlying source of that strength is that as a mutual insurer, we have no conflicts of interest. Our customers — our policyholders — are our owners. We don’t have stockholders focused on buying low and selling high. We serve only one master — our policyholders. That is not the case for stock-owned insurers.

Here’s just one example of how we make a difference in people’s lives. A Guardian policyholder had just undergone surgery and had filed a short-term disability claim, when unexpectedly she lost her husband. She called Guardian sobbing. She now needed help with a life insurance claim. A customer service person could not find the claim in the system, but asked if she could hold a minute and went back into the mailroom, where she found the newly arrived claim. Our people’s dedication to serving this customer is a defining feature of the Guardian culture.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are focused on retraining for the jobs of the future — the subject of my book, “Hire Purpose,” which just came out this fall. At Guardian, we are focused on being flexible in the wake of the pandemic in terms of where people need to be to do their jobs. We are focused on making sure our coverages meet the actual needs of our customers. We’ll be helping people if we design products that meet their needs. If our products and services do that, our company will thrive. It doesn’t work to start with a return-on-investment target to design a product and then try to sell it. The client has to be the focus — not the ROI or ROE.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be yourself. Don’t strive to be someone you’re not. Most important is to keep your team focused on doing well doing good. That’s at the heart of the insurance business. It has been since its earliest days. The concept applies to all industries. Whatever you’re working on, make sure it contributes to making the world a better place. The concept is the same for men and women alike.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Don’t manage. Listen and lead by example. A true leader is a mentor who nurtures talent, promotes constant learning, and helps make it easier for people to do their best work and live full lives outside as well as inside work. You succeed by clearing the path to success for others and remembering workers first and foremost are people. They aren’t there to make you look good. They are parents, spouses, community members, and citizens. The best leaders take into consideration financial performance and the health and happiness of the people who make performance possible. Above all, be willing to invest in workers for the long term. Achieving immediate gains is nice but it isn’t a path to sustainable growth.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve had the privilege of leading a company in an industry — life insurance — that is based on the concept of serving a social good and doing it sustainably. In the process of growing and strengthening Guardian Life’s ability to provide financial well-being and protection, I’ve been able to extend the pursuit of my own purpose beyond running a company built to be here for people when they are most in need. I joined the boards of several non-profit organizations to actively support their missions to make the world a better place in ways that I’m passionate about.

One of those organizations is Catalyst, a global nonprofit that works with over 800 companies around the world to accelerate women into leadership. Another is Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose — a CEO-led coalition that represents more than 200 of the world’s largest companies and believes a company’s social strategy determines its success. I work closely with these organizations and believe together we are making a positive difference for society.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve said it before and will keep saying because I’ve seen proof it works: Pursue purpose and profits will follow. It’s worth repeating that a company’s social purpose determines success — not the reverse.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On my website at: deannamulligan.com.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

Great Possibilities for Women Are Coming Out of the Crisis

by Andrea Simon
Community//

Social Impact Heroes: How Chris Soukup is helping to provide products, programs, and services that create opportunities for deaf people to succeed

by Yitzi Weiner
Community//

“Speak up; Too often, women hold back or wait to contribute to a discussion until it’s too late” with Penny Bauder & Angela Bauer

by Penny Bauder, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.