Ellen Cooper, President and CEO of Lincoln Financial Group, has her eyes on the future. Through a combination of formal strategy planning via a new Chief Strategy Office and crowd sourcing new innovation opportunities from Lincoln employees, Cooper is surfacing and advocating the ideas that will shape Lincoln in the years ahead. But even while she looks forward, Cooper recognizes the value of relationships and has prioritized maintaining and growing the rapport she established with stakeholders across her 10 years at Lincoln.
Read on to learn more about Cooper’s plans for meeting the long-term needs of Lincoln’s customers, the pride she has in Lincoln’s world-class distribution talent, and how a mentor at Temple University helped her make the leap from pursuing a career on Broadway to a career in our industry.
You were named CEO-elect of Lincoln Financial Group in August of 2021. In May of 2022, you fully stepped into the leadership seat. How did you evolve your leadership style across the nine months? In what ways is the Ellen Cooper of May 2022 different than the Ellen Cooper of August 2021?
Our CEO transition process at Lincoln was incredibly thorough. I had been part of the senior management team here for 10 years and had very strong, established relationships with my predecessor and the entire leadership team. Together, we focused on ensuring a seamless transition for our employees, partners, customers, and shareholders. Given my tenure at Lincoln, I had been a co-architect of our enterprise strategy for years and was able to smoothly take on leadership of all things related to the continued execution of our near-term strategy as I also began to build our leadership structure for the future and think about shaping the business of tomorrow.
During that transition time, I also focused on my personal development as a new CEO. I attended a CEO bootcamp, engaged a coach, attended several CEO forums and events, and more. And while I already had very strong internal and external relationships, I spent a lot of time continuing to grow those critical connections with our Board, our distribution partners, our employees, and of course the investment community. So, when May 27 arrived, I felt incredibly prepared and ready to make it official!
We work in an industry that is focused on the long-term needs of our customers but that must also be deeply attuned to ever-changing market forces. Expertly timed innovation is what allows us to thread that needle so that we surpass customer expectations while navigating short-term shifts. How is Lincoln thinking about innovating and continually enhancing the value you deliver to your customers?
Lincoln has eight leadership expectations that guide our core values and drive our culture, and innovation is one of them. We are consistently developing new products and services to meet our customers’ evolving needs, expanding into new channels, markets, and demographic sectors – and we will continue to identify opportunities to drive growth.
One example is what we call our “Spark Initiative” – an enterprise-wide program designed to enrich the customer and employee experiences we offer by enhancing our technology, improving our operational processes, and placing increased focus on both daily and large-scale innovation. During the first phase of this program, we invited all of our employees to share their ideas, and we received more than 2,000 submissions!
Another vehicle for ongoing, sustained innovation is our Chief Strategy Office, which I put in place after being named CEO. This new team is dedicated to looking forward and thinking about how we can capture new opportunities. Of course, we have always done strategic planning at Lincoln, but now we’ve formalized a team, a process, and an infrastructure to ensure we are laser-focused on not just executing our near-term strategies today but also building for the business of tomorrow.
As companies seek to build more diverse, inclusive workforces, the topic of sponsorship is coming up as a means of retaining and growing top talent. What role has sponsorship played in your professional journey and why is it so critical for companies to encourage it in their own ranks?
Sponsorship and mentorship can be powerful accelerators in developing talent, and I’m a huge believer in the importance of leaders reaching back and bringing others forward. I am so grateful for the sponsors and mentors who helped me in my own career journey. Early on, when I was in consulting, I had a manager who really guided me in how to build my own book of business and pushed me to expand my strategic capabilities. And that is just one example. Several amazing mentors have supported me along the way.
Now, I strive to pay those opportunities forward by opening doors for others whenever I can – and encouraging those I mentor to run through those doors. This mindset of mentorship and supporting others is part of Lincoln’s culture. And it’s critical to building an increasingly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce.
In addition to encouraging mentorship and sponsorship – particularly for women and people of color – we have taken strong action at Lincoln by tying compensation to our diversity, equity and inclusion expectations in all aspects of leaders’ behavior, including recruiting and retention efforts, to create an added layer of accountability.
Distribution talent is critical to the success of our businesses. Can you talk about your perspectives on distribution and how you see it evolving to meet future customer demands?
We pride ourselves on several foundational strengths: our innovative and agile product manufacturing, industry-leading risk management capabilities, and world-class distribution. Distribution is a unique differentiator for Lincoln, and it is truly a career track for us – which helps us attract and retain the best talent.
One thing I consistently hear as I’m out listening and getting feedback from external parties is the strength of our distribution organization and the deep relationships we have with our long-standing partners. As the world changes, the importance of relationships remains. We will continue to invest in distribution and always look to meet our partners and customers where they need us.
You made a significant pivot early in your career, changing your major from dance to actuarial science at Temple University. What did that change of direction teach you about how to approach critical decisions impacting your career and what advice would you offer to others considering a professional pivot?
This pivot taught me a few great lessons early on – the importance of having mentors, taking risks, and not being afraid of mistakes.
Though I had Broadway dreams, I quickly realized my strongest talents weren’t necessarily in the performing arts. And it was a professor in the Actuarial Science department at Temple University who helped me successfully make that big pivot. Her guidance helped give me the confidence I needed to take the risk. It is so important to find people around you that you can learn from and then nurture those relationships. And when you see the door open, go for it – even if it’s just cracked open a little bit. Be brave and be bold in trying new things. You might not always succeed, but you will always learn.
Looking back at what might have been, I can confidently say that where I’ve landed – leading this remarkable organization with such a deep history and meaningful mission – is certainly better than any Broadway dream I ever had!