Leaders are watched. We all know that leaders are watched, but C-Suite leaders are WATCHED. Everything from a new haircut to a facial expression to a random comment can be fodder for “water cooler” conversation or even a business directive. Be ever mindful that what you say and what you do will have an impact, whether you mean for it to or not.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gina Birchall.
In 2017, Gina Birchall joined LL Global, the parent company of LIMRA, LOMA, and the Secure Retirement Institute® (SRI®), as chief operating officer. In this role, she is responsible for the organization’s Research and Member Benefits, Professional Development, Talent Solutions, and Industry Solutions, as well as the Marketing, Information Technology, Legal, and Accounting departments.
Prior to joining LL Global, she held various positions at The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America — most recently as vice president of strategic initiatives.
Birchall holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mount Holyoke College and a Juris Doctor from the Western New England University School of Law. She also holds Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) and LIMRA Leadership Institute Fellow (LLIF) industry designations.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I like to think of it as a series of happy coincidences. Following law school, I practiced law in a small firm for a couple of years, and but it didn’t feel like the right fit for me. Answering an ad in Lawyers Weekly one day led me to an in-house counsel role with Berkshire Life Insurance Company, which eventually, through a merger, became part of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. After learning the insurance business through defending corporate litigation, the company gave me opportunities to move around and try a number of different roles during my 18+ years there, including management roles in claims, underwriting, project management, and even facilities. Working as chief of staff for the COO also gave me exposure to the workings of the C-Suite and how the Board of Directors functioned. All of these varied roles ended up preparing me for taking on a COO role myself in ways I didn’t foresee at the time.
When I saw the posting for my current role, I was not looking to make a job change. I even pondered the role for over a week before I sent in my resume. It sounded so interesting and like it would be a good fit for me, but I didn’t have all of the qualifications listed on the job description. Fortuitously, I came across an article about how men will apply for any job that sounds interesting even if they don’t have all of the qualifications, while women tend not to apply unless they “check all the boxes.” I wrote and sent my resume in the next day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One thing I learned early in my career was the value of a supportive leader. When I was leading disability underwriting for The Guardian, a male agent was debating the merits of an application with me, looking for a better outcome than what the underwriter had offered. When we did not reach agreement, the agent indicated that he was going to contact my manager, as he was sure that he (my boss) would understand and be more reasonable. I called the agent out for his assumption that my boss was a male, as well as the inference that gender connoted reason. That wasn’t something that was normally done at that time, and things got a little heated. I left the conversation feeling I had not handled it well and maybe I should have just let it go. I contacted my boss to let him know what happened, and he said he’d “take care of it.” That agent did end up calling my boss, who in turn not only supported my business decision but also called the agent out for his bias. Having that kind of support was incredibly affirming, and reflective of the types of leaders that I was privileged to work with and who shaped my own approach to leadership.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Nelson Mandela once said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” I believe something is only a failure of you don’t learn from it. Every time I was offered a new position at The Guardian, I went into it feeling like there was a real chance of failure but, if things didn’t work out, I would come out of it having learned a lot. I try to apply this philosophy in my coaching of others: Try something new, be willing to risk failure, but seize the chance to learn.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T. Phillips was one of the books I read as part of my first formal executive development training program. Lincoln’s style of collaborative decision-making stuck with me, particularly when I was in situations where I was working with a team over whom I did not have direct authority. This was the case in one of the large initiatives I worked on during my final years at Guardian. Building a workplace strategy program with a cross-functional team called for making decisions by consensus. I can think of a few times during that project where I opened the book to refresh myself on how to best persuade rather than coerce others in order to be most effective in my role.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The culture at LL Global is very unique and special. We are a group of just over 300 professionals driven by a mission to support our members in their quest to help consumers achieve financial security and wellness. Despite working remotely for about a year now — with no current date set to return to our offices — it has become even more apparent how much our people care about and support each other, with a strong desire to stay connected while we are physically apart. Here are just a few examples:
- A tradition in one of our offices pre-pandemic, the whole company now has the opportunity to come together for a virtual gathering once a month that includes trivia, information sharing, and a chance to share successes.
- Our newsletter turned into a monthly publication full of employee photos and stories, birthdays and anniversaries.
- Each week, I publish a “Feel Good Friday” email, often with contributions from employees, to send our associates into the weekend on a positive note.
- Putting the health and safety of our employees at the forefront of our decision-making, we instituted “Recharge Fridays” where employees have discretion on how they use their time after 2 p.m. on Fridays; there is no expectation to work.
- Employees lead our two ERGs with a passion and energy that is inspiring, helping us connect in new ways, and have supported our association’s values around inclusion.
- Several areas have maintained their weekly or monthly happy hours, now gathering via video instead of at a local establishment but still getting together for some social connection.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
If there is something about my journey that you can learn from, that’s great — but find your own path. When I graduated from law school, I never dreamed I’d be in a COO role. When I think about how I ended up here, three pieces of advice come to mind:
- First, take the opportunities offered that come your way, especially if they seem like a “stretch;” these will be the experiences that you will learn the most from.
- Second, resist the pressure from others to set a career path in advance; things constantly change (often due to factors outside your control) and you need to be ready to follow the path that unfolds for you.
- Last, don’t set your sights too narrowly; there is a huge world of possibilities that will be available if you are open to them.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
In some cases, what I learned from leaders by watching their behaviors was what NOT to do. When I became a leader, I tried not to repeat the poor behaviors I saw throughout my career.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I would have to say I am:
- Easily bored: After about two to three years in a role, I start to get antsy for something new. I have been fortunate to be given opportunities throughout my career to try new things pretty regularly, whether that be a new role or expansion of a current role.
- Determined: My family might call it stubbornness, but I went into every opportunity determined to make the most of it, whether that be a chance to learn or a chance to make a meaningful difference.
- Resilient: I made it a point in every role that I have had to adapt to whatever happens and keep going. Through changes in leadership above me, shifts in teams andassociates within my organization, business modifications outside of my control, Superstorm Sandy (which happened when I was at the Guardian) and even a pandemic, my goal has been to stay strong, figure out the right course to take, and persevere.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
Along the road to the C-Suite, we have various leadership roles where we think there is a lot of responsibility. It’s when you find yourself in a C-Suite position that you truly realize you have the ultimate responsibility and that “the buck stops here.” There isn’t the same chain of leadership above you anymore, and the futures of others rest on your decisions. Doing the right thing as a leader takes on a whole new level of responsibility.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think for some, they see ascension to a C-Suite position as “arriving” in a cushy position where you’ve got it made and can do whatever you want. It is not like that — at least not in my experience. Yes, there are some perks and, at times, it’s very rewarding, but it is also a lot of work, tough decisions, and times when it’s quite stressful. You don’t just do whatever you want: You have to do what’s right for your organization.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I’ve seen is a leader coming into a new role thinking he or she is an expert and is there to tell others what to do and how to do it. As a result, they disenfranchise team members and colleagues right off the bat by being a “know-it-all.” The best leaders I have seen take the time to learn the culture, get to know their employees and colleagues, listen to what others have to say, and observe how things are done. They then lead from a base of knowledge and understanding. And, they realize that they don’t have to know it all — great team members are the subject matter experts and you are there to support their success.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Communication. I’ve read that it can take sharing a message up to seven times for that message to be fully heard and understood, so it’s better to risk over-communicating than under-communicating. Different people also will respond to different communication mediums, so it’s important to send messages in multiple ways: meetings, emails, videos, intra-company sites. In addition, along with the “what” of the message, share the “why” whenever possible.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Leaders are watched. We all know that leaders are watched, but C-Suite leaders are WATCHED. Everything from a new haircut to a facial expression to a random comment can be fodder for “water cooler” conversation or even a business directive. Be ever mindful that what you say and what you do will have an impact, whether you mean for it to or not.
- Your actions can have an unintended effect. With others watching you, they take cues from what you do. You set a tone, from how many hours people see you working to the energy you project. I learned during the pandemic that my working too much and trying to project positive energy and a “can-do” attitude (even when I wasn’t necessarily feeling it) had the consequence of others feeling they had to, as well — which created a lot of extra and unintended stress on them.
- Take time for self-care. The advice to put on your own oxygen mask first really is true. It’s very easy to work too much, and let the pressures of the role weigh heavily on you — especially in 2020. Blocking out time specifically for your own wellness is not an act of selfishness, but an act of caring for those around you who depend on you being at your best.
- Make time to think. I wish someone had given me the advice to block time on my calendar every week just to sit back and think about my business: where it’s going, what I am doing, and what I can do better. If you are not careful, every minute of the working day will be taken up by someone else who wants your time. This became especially apparent over the last year when I no longer had a daily commute or business trips, which gave me time to think. Be judicious with your time, and ask thesame of those around you. Find the balance between being there for others while also carving out time for yourself and your own work.
- Don’t underestimate the value of your network. The amount of people that you will need to rely on in order to be successful is fairly large! You will want a trusted confidante, someone outside of your company and perhaps outside of your industry, who you can call just to talk to. You will want to surround yourself with a team of people who are smarter and better than you — and who will give candid input and feedback. This includes a top-notch assistant, who is fundamental to making your life easier. You will want to know people who can fill roles in your organization if they open up. You want to know people you can call for special consulting assignments. Finally, yet importantly, you want to know people who will give you good information about your industry, markets, and customers.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
- Show your human side. The best cultures I have worked in were led by people who were authentic, showed themselves as real people, and found ways to interact with employees at all levels.
- Show you care. A company is only as good as its people, and leaders should care about their employees’ overall well-being in addition to their development and career opportunities. Expect your leaders to show they care, too.
- Don’t mess up the good stuff. If you need to make changes within your company, do your best to change what has to be changed without messing up the parts of the culture that your employees value.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Food is such a big component of our health and overall well-being! I am a big believer that fresh, local, and preferably organic food should be accessible to all, no matter what one’s income level is or where they may be located. Fortunately, this is not a movement that needs to be started, but I do think it needs to be broadened and accelerated. A local farm offered to deliver shares to one of our offices to make it easy for employees to participate. This had me thinking: How can we take a program like this one and make it the norm in workplaces everywhere? How can we take this concept and bring it to neighborhoods that have a lack of access to healthy foods?
How can our readers further follow you online?
LinkedIn URL: linkedin.com/in/ginabirchall
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!