Community//

“Recognize accomplishments” With Marianne Harrison and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

The key here is being able to recognize the value in differing perspectives. It’s not just about diversity, it is about inclusion of thought. If everyone was of the same mindset, we would not be able to appreciate and accept new and innovative ideas or digest different ways of thinking. Having diversity of thought allows […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces 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 though they are reviewed for adherence to our guidelines, they are submitted in their final form to our open platform. Learn more or join us as a community member!

The key here is being able to recognize the value in differing perspectives. It’s not just about diversity, it is about inclusion of thought. If everyone was of the same mindset, we would not be able to appreciate and accept new and innovative ideas or digest different ways of thinking. Having diversity of thought allows us to be more open and view unique perspectives as necessary for the company, and its employees to grow and evolve as our industry and society requires. This oftentimes starts with a diverse executive team.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Marianne Harrison the President and Chief Executive Officer of John Hancock, the U.S. division of Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corporation. Marianne is also a member of Manulife’s Executive Leadership Team and serves as President and Chairman of the Board for John Hancock’s insurance companies, John Hancock Life Insurance Company (U.S.A.) and John Hancock Life Insurance Company of New York. Additionally, Marianne is a Chartered Accountant and was elected in 2016 as a Fellow of the Profession, the highest designation for professional achievement conferred by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Ontario.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Marianne! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

My father was a strong role model for me in my early years, especially as he helped me figure out the career path that would ultimately be the best fit for me. He has been a strong influence on my life and played a major role as a mentor for me both professionally and personally.

During college, I started out as an English major, but I knew that wasn’t necessarily a career for me, so I decided to take a lot of business courses at the same time. It wasn’t until I finished college that I figured out what I really wanted to do, and that’s when I decided to go for my CPA degree.

It was my father who introduced me to someone in a public accounting firm and sparked the idea that I would pursue that career track, which ultimately set me on a path that led me to Manulife and my role as Chief Executive of John Hancock today. I owe a lot of my success to my father, and he has been an anchor point for me in terms of providing guidance and advice over the years.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“You Can Have It All.” You don’t have to choose between a career and family to be successful; you just might need to adjust preconceived societal expectations from time to time as you work through various stages of each. In my work and home life, I’ve needed to be extremely efficient with my time, which in turn has made delegating one of my keys to success. There were times when I worked at 80% capacity or took the summers off to properly balance my dual roles as CEO and Mom, as well as accommodate the life stage where my family was at the time, but I never left the workforce. It’s all about making trade-offs where possible.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Simply put, leadership is about authenticity for me. I believe in being open and honest with my executive team and employees, recognizing the immeasurable value of transparency. Part of this transparency is showing my humanity and “walking the talk.”

From a business operations perspective, I believe in building programs that drive shared value, create sustainable business opportunities and encourage innovation across an organization, which has been my mandate since I took the helm of John Hancock.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I have always enjoyed taking walks. Before the pandemic, I walked to and from work every day. It is the best way to clear my head, think through my to do list and take a break mentally. Now, while working remotely, I have maintained the importance of walking throughout the day. I always make time for it, and I will even tell members of my team that I plan to take a walking meeting sometimes if I need to squeeze it in. I’ve also recently picked up yoga again, after taking a few years off. I’ve found it very helpful during the past several months of change.

The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Over the last few months, Americans have had to adjust their lives in so many ways to navigate the global pandemic. Specifically, the majority of our organization’s workforce have had to make their homes their offices, blurring the lines of professional and personal space. This new dynamic, against the backdrop of current events calling for greater social justice, has created unique opportunities for us to become better individuals. This time has emphasized the importance of listening, learning and discovering ways to become allies for many of the members of my team. Additionally, it has also challenged us to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive environment to keep employees engaged and feeling supported while working remotely.

Looking at the world more broadly, these complex yet necessary shifts are moving forward the conversation of why it’s pivotal to encourage people to share their humanity and proudly showcase what makes them uniquely them. The key to culture change, whether in society or at a company like John Hancock, is to be open and honest, creating a more inclusive environment for everyone. In addition to our company’s objective of developing a diverse workforce, we are equally focused on fostering an environment where all employees can truly thrive and feel a strong sense of belonging and safety in living their authentic lives, personally and in our walls.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

When I first took on my role at John Hancock, there was a spotlight on the fact that I was the first female CEO in the company’s 157-year history. The attention really surprised me and made me wonder whether we had actually come as far along as we had thought and hoped for. Therefore, promoting diversity and inclusion within our workplace has become a top priority for me, and over the last three years, we’ve made great strides in our overall DE&I journey.

For example,we are doing a lot of work on the hiring front. We have implemented procedures and protocols that remove bias from the recruiting process and ensure all capable and talented candidates are considered. We have introduced diverse candidate slates at our officer level and are using technologies like Textio to remove unconscious bias language in our job postings. We are also disseminating an Inclusive Hiring Training to hiring managers to help them think differently about how they approach the entire candidate experience and process.

To help foster an environment of true inclusion, last year we launched the John Hancock Signature Series to give employees the opportunity to share their stories, and openly express who they are with their colleagues. The in-person and virtual event, hosted on September 26, 2019, highlighted ten employees who were willing to share their experiences and stories openly in front of 850+ employees who were able to attend in-person, and hundreds more tuned in virtually. Signature Series provided employees with the opportunity to learn more about the colleagues who they work so closely with but might know little about personally.

I was really proud of the employees who shared their stories — they were all incredibly inspiring and proved to me that we’ve created a safe space for individuals to bring their whole self to work. From an employee who has struggled with her racial identity for her entire life, to a man who dealt with suicidal thoughts, to a Boston Marathon survivor — we were able to tackle big issues as a team and better support each other.

More recently, we hosted educational sessions over a two-day period for company leaders, featuring Dr. Livingston, lecturer of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Dr. Livingston shared his “PROGRESS Model” (an engaging, relatable and unique way to discuss the current state of diversity) with us. The program was both educational and interactive; Dr. Livingston first shared his research and learnings, and then facilitated a case study analysis to help us better understand what actions we can take to enable this cultural change within our own organization. Although we have made good progress, there is still a lot of work ahead of us on our DE&I agenda and we are more committed to moving that forward than ever.

Another internal initiative we pioneered over the past few months was hosting “Understanding Social Identities” workshops in partnership with YW Boston, a local organization helping businesses harness the power of diversity to shift organizational culture. These workshops have allowed us to create a space for employees to have the open, and often difficult conversations that are necessary to better understand social identities such as race, gender and religion.

We also recently announced with our parent company, Manulife, that we are investing more than 3.5 million dollars over the next two years to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and the communities we serve. The goals of these focused investments are three-fold: to increase the representation of diverse talent at all levels in the organization; create greater inclusion across the company through enhanced training; and to support organizations helping Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The key here is being able to recognize the value in differing perspectives. It’s not just about diversity, it is about inclusion of thought. If everyone was of the same mindset, we would not be able to appreciate and accept new and innovative ideas or digest different ways of thinking. Having diversity of thought allows us to be more open and view unique perspectives as necessary for the company, and its employees to grow and evolve as our industry and society requires. This oftentimes starts with a diverse executive team.

Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society?” Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Embrace vulnerability. Seven years into my career as a public accountant, I had just had my second child and was thriving personally and professionally. One of my managers took me aside and told me that having any more children would hurt me from progressing in my career. Two months later, I was pregnant with my third child and now I am the CEO of John Hancock. These types of experiences really stuck with me and reinforce the value of making sure my employees (and really anyone) feel they are in a judgement-free environment and can bring their whole selves to work, or anywhere else.
  2. Recognize accomplishments. It is important that people are recognized for their accomplishments and rewarded as such, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, age, and ability. I would never want someone to credit my gender for my success. I want people to recognize that I got to this position for being me, for working hard and for doing the best that I can.
  3. Create space for diversity of thought. People think differently. That’s a good thing. Being able to recognize the value in different perspectives is key to creating an inclusive environment. Diversity of thought gives us the opportunity to see new and innovative ideas and understand different ways of doing things, and it comes from having people of different races, genders, sexuality, geography, work experiences, etc. at the table.
  4. Join forces with others. At John Hancock, we benefit from having many thoughtful community partners and we participate in industry groups like the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, American Council of Life Insurers and CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. This allows for consensus building beyond our own walls to help drive systemic level changes that are needed.
  5. Listen and learn from experts. We have benefitted greatly from a Guest Speaker Series during our remote work that has brought in third-party voices and experiences to help keep our team engaged. From a NASA astronaut to a presidential historian — listening to and learning from those outside our team is so helpful to broaden our perspective.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Absolutely. As I mentioned, last year at John Hancock, we launched Signature Series with the goal of removing the stigma of “vulnerability” in the workplace and encouraging employees to share their humanity by bringing their whole selves to work. While the event series is small in scale when compared with current global social justice movements, it made room for difficult, yet necessary, conversations at John Hancock. And in turn, this forum created a space for people to share their true selves with each other and think big. I am confident that this type of inclusive environment can be created anywhere, at any scale.

Most recently over the past few months, we’ve partnered with YW Boston, which is a local organization dedicated to helping businesses harness the power of diversity to shift organizational culture and create lasting change. They partnered with us to host several “Understanding Social Identities” workshops, which helped to create a space for open conversations with our employees around social identities like race, gender and religion. This open dialogue gave us a setting to really understanding what these social identities are and how and why we connect or don’t connect with them. Some of these conversations can be uncomfortable and not topics that companies typically want to broach, however, I truly believed it was something important that we needed to do to create an even more open and inclusive culture at John Hancock. Overall, the employee response has been remarkable.

To help maintain the inclusive environment at John Hancock that we’re all proud of, I’m committed to leading by example, and stepping out of my own comfort zone. While working remotely, I have regularly sent emails to the team that feature videos of myself and members of the leadership team discussing the timely, and important topics at hand and sharing a bit about my home life, too.

For example, I’ve shared my family tradition of homemade pizza on Saturday nights, and we’ve hosted a virtual workout class with our partners, the Boston Red Sox. We’ve also launched an effort for employees to submit their own clips where they share good news and silver linings during this time. Additionally, I host biweekly all hands virtual team meetings to provide strategic updates and presentations to all employees, to ensure that they feel informed, engaged and understood, because they are the most important piece of our strategy.

Anything we can do to help maintain a sense of connectivity, engagement and inclusion; we will try it. Thus far, our efforts to increase inclusivity have been very well received and have provided us with positive feedback and new ideas.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially 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 five years ago very suddenly. If I had the opportunity, I would love to hear his inspiring words and stories, to show him all I have accomplished over the last five years and have the chance to say goodbye. He was very influential in many of the decisions I made in my career and I know he would be incredibly proud of me.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn is the best way to follow me online as I frequently post about John Hancock initiatives that bring out the best in employees, like Signature Series, as well as my personal reflections on recent industry and global events. As we continue to keep our workforce at home during COVID-19, I’ve even shared some personal mementos such as photos of a recent virtual workout that we hosted with Boston Red Sox trainer, Eddie Barretto!

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//

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

by Phil La Duke
Community//

“When you have a strong, emotional or values-oriented alignment with what you’re trying to do ,  burnout isn’t really an issue”

by Matt Schmidt
Community//

Women Leading The Finance Industry: “Ask for the job; I never would be in my position if I hadn’t told my managers that I wanted more” With Emily Roland of John Hancock Investment Management

by Jason Hartman

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.