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Marianne Harrison: “You Need to Take Risks to be Successful”

An Interview with Phil La Duke Make your Wishes Known. At one point I was working for an accounting firm in London, Ontario and I heard there was an opening in the Toronto office to head up the firm’s largest audit client. I remember meeting with a manager in Toronto and casually talking about the role — I […]


An Interview with Phil La Duke

Make your Wishes Known. At one point I was working for an accounting firm in London, Ontario and I heard there was an opening in the Toronto office to head up the firm’s largest audit client. I remember meeting with a manager in Toronto and casually talking about the role — I asked if I would ever be considered. His response was absolutely — they wanted to ask me but assumed that since I had 3 children (at the time) and my husband owned a business in London, that I wouldn’t consider moving. It was a great learning for me … if you don’t tell people what you want, they don’t factor you into their decisions.

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As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marianne Harrison, President and Chief Executive Officer of John Hancock, the U.S. division of Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corporation. She is the first female chief executive in John Hancock’s 150+ year history. Ms. Harrison has responsibility across all of John Hancock’s operations. One of the largest life insurers and fastest growing asset managers in the U.S., John Hancock supports approximately 10 million Americans with a broad range of financial products, including life insurance, annuities, investments, 401(k) plans, and college savings plans.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Marianne! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Throughout my career, I’ve embraced non-linear paths. In school, I majored in English, but I always knew I was good at numbers and assumed I would eventually go into finance. Thanks to my father’s guidance, upon graduation I became a CPA and embarked on a 12-year public accounting career.

Then, life happened, and I left the accounting industry for an in-house role at a Canadian bank. While I never envisioned myself working in insurance, one thing that stood out to me through each experience was how much I enjoy helping people live better lives through my work.

I really love my job. I know that sounds cliché, but one of the constants throughout my career is that I have to love what I’m doing. Helping people make important financial decisions has always been a passion of mine. Although working for a financial services company may not sound very glamorous, we play a significant role in people’s lives.

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

Community involvement has been a very interesting side of my job at John Hancock. Our principal sponsorship of The Boston Marathon is one of the many ways we’re focused on supporting the community around us — with the race bringing nearly $200 million in spending impact to the region and raising $38.7M for 297 non-profit organizations in 2019 alone. This year, I had the honor of holding the finish line tape for the men’s race. After 26 miles the top two finishers were neck in neck until the very last second. Witnessing an amazing feat of endurance like that first hand is something I never expected to have the opportunity to do and is certainly a moment I will never forget.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

I have to admit that I wasn’t shooting to be a CEO. I just always focused on being the best I could be in the roles that I had and once I conquered the current role I was always looking for the next new challenge. That ended up bringing me to the CEO job. What I like about the position is the breadth that I have in the role and the fact that I can see all aspects of the customer journey from distribution to customer servicing.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

I say that I don’t actually “do” anything. I am rarely the originator of the work, but I do play an important role in the business in terms of setting the strategy, monitoring the execution of our vision and getting barriers out of the way to ensure success of goals and objectives. My team is also key to the success of our strategy; energizing, motivating and coaching the team are a critical part of the role.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I really enjoy the challenge and the breadth of things that I am focused on in any given day. I love a good challenge — it keeps me energized and a big part of my role is helping to resolve issues and eliminate barriers. Also, seeing the difference we make in our customer’s lives is very rewarding.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

When you get to this level it is because you are very committed and have a large capacity for work, as a result, sometimes it is hard to turn it off.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

It is not all fun and exciting. We have to make tough choices and I rarely turn myself off from work. My devices are always within reach which makes it harder to truly get away from work. Having said that, it is a choice I made, and I wouldn’t change it.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The financial services industry has traditionally been male-dominated. I spent 12 years in public accounting and I remember clearly after my second child that one of the partners took me aside and told me that if I had any more children that it would impact my ability to progress within the organization. I am now a mother of four!

It has often been a challenge to combat the perception that having a family signals a lack of commitment to your job. There is no doubt that as a woman, I’ve had to work harder to prove myself in the workplace — but that has made my achievements that much more rewarding.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

The biggest surprise about my job has been the community and media engagements that come along with being the face of a company like John Hancock. When I accepted the position, I was primarily thinking about the impact I could have on the strategic direction of the company, the industry, and the satisfaction of the employees. I’ve come to learn that our commitment to the community is something that employees are extremely proud of and one of the many reasons they love working at John Hancock. Additionally, leveraging opportunities with the media and external speaking engagements enables us to share our story with a broader consumer base as we seek to shift the outdated perception of the financial services industry.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I think to be a successful executive you need to be really committed to your work. You also need to be able to handle a number of different situations coming at you at once and knowing where to prioritize and where not. You also need very strong leadership skills because your team will be your most important asset. You need to have confidence in your team to execute on the strategy because you cannot do it all yourself.

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

I firmly believe that to be successful in today’s business world, you have to “do change well.” We’ve all been affected by a number of major trends and disruptors that threatened to make our companies less relevant and successful unless we took bold action. True leaders not only embrace change, they champion it and lead it. I believe that being a strong leader means not only taking on the challenge, but truly loving a challenge and the opportunities it represents.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I never had a formal mentor — many people and resources that I surround myself with have helped me tremendously along the way. However, my parents were an inspiration from the very start. My father was a successful businessman, so he played a significant role in guiding my career choices. My mother was a stay-at-home mom with six children she always taught me to be the best I could be and the importance of being self-sufficient. My parents worked hard to help set me up for success.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My focus at John Hancock has been on bringing the financial services industry out of the dark ages by building solutions that fit into the modern customers’ whole lives — with easily accessible products that reflect their values, their approach to wellness, and their holistic well-being.

For example, John Hancock’s Vitality is an engaging tech-based wellness platform offered with all John Hancock Life Insurance programs that give clients rewards and savings for the everyday things they do to live longer, healthier lives. We believe the life insurance industry is uniquely positioned to help address some of society’s greatest challenges and have a positive impact on the lives of Americans. It is the ultimate “Shared Value” industry — because by helping improve health, extend life and reverse chronic diseases, we have the ability to generate economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges.

We have also developed new direct to consumer products like COIN, allowing customers the ability to do good with their dollars by helping them align their personal values with investments, and Twine, empowering users to collaboratively save and invest toward goals.

I’ve also made it a priority of mine to foster diversity of thought around the senior leadership table; I believe diverse thinking drives tangible business results. I hired a head of diversity and inclusion, Sofia Teixeira, to help drive progress in this space at John Hancock and currently 40% percent of our leadership team is diverse across race, disabilities, and gender.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Be Open-Minded. When you are first starting out in your career you think you have to plan out everything and know exactly where you’re going, and I’m a firm believer that you don’t. Always be flexible. Don’t think in terms of a well-defined plan that gets you from A to B because you can miss a lot of opportunities along the way.
  2. Make your Wishes Known. At one point I was working for an accounting firm in London, Ontario and I heard there was an opening in the Toronto office to head up the firm’s largest audit client. I remember meeting with a manager in Toronto and casually talking about the role — I asked if I would ever be considered. His response was absolutely — they wanted to ask me but assumed that since I had 3 children (at the time) and my husband owned a business in London, that I wouldn’t consider moving. It was a great learning for me … if you don’t tell people what you want, they don’t factor you into their decisions.
  3. Don’t Let Other People Impose Limitations on you. I remember clearly after my second child that someone at work took me aside and told me that if I had any more children, it would impact my ability to progress within the organization. Well, two months later I was pregnant with my third child…sometimes think I had the third child to spite him. But my point is to not let the assumptions of others impede what you want to do in your career — and your life. These are decisions you make — and you’re entitled to make them and still pursue whatever path you wish.
  4. You Need to Take Risks to be Successful. In 2008 I had been at Manulife, John Hancock’s parent company in Canada for five years and got a call one day from the President of John Hancock, asking me if I’d consider running a business. He was talking about JH’s Long Term Care insurance business — located in Boston. I had four kids at the time, with the eldest going into his senior year of high school and the thought of heading south of the border with my husband, my four kids and our dog seemed overwhelming. And to run a business — something I’d never done before. And yet, when I stopped thinking about the barriers, and sat back and looked at it, it was everything I wanted to do from a career perspective. Taking that job felt like a huge risk but it also felt like the right thing to do. So, after talking to my family, I accepted the job and we moved to Boston at the beginning of 2008. And at the end of that year the recession hit, interest rates plummeted and the business had to make drastic changes. I got to try out a whole bunch of new management techniques that I didn’t even know existed. But I loved it! It was a great job — very challenging, really interesting and something that I enjoyed and learned from. Taking that risk definitely paid off and helped me get where I am today.
  5. Work/Life Balance is Possible. You don’t need to choose between having a family and a successful career — you can have it all. There will be times when you may need to take a step back at work because your family needs you, but it doesn’t mean your career has to suffer. Since my kids were born, outside of work all I focus on is my kids. When my first child was born I outsourced all the things that would take time away from my children — housekeeping, laundry, cooking, etc. So, when I came home my children got my undivided attention and when I was at work my work got my undivided attention.

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

“You Can Have it All”. You don’t have to choose between a career and family, you just may need to adjust from time to time as you work through various stages of both. There were times when I worked 80% or took summers off to accommodate where my family was at the time. But, I never left the workforce. It’s about making some trade-offs. Since my kids were born — outside of work they are my focus. In my work and home life, I’ve had to be extremely efficient and a key piece of my success has been delegating.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

If I could have breakfast or lunch with anyone, it would be my father. Of course, this is not possible, as he passed away four years ago. He died suddenly, and I really would love to have the chance to say goodbye and to show him all I have accomplished over the last four years. He was very influential in many of the decisions I made in my career and I know he would be incredibly proud of me.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About the author:

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