Rising To The Challenges Of Covid

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The pandemic caused huge disruptions for all companies’ finance functions, but it also taught important, and lasting, lessons, says Betsy Ward, CFO of MassMutual.
Betsy Ward, CFO, MassMutual

Just as Covid hit, MassMutual was finishing up a digital transformation, including within its finance function. That made balancing the huge demands and uncertainty of business during the pandemic difficult—but it also provided tools to help handle the challenges, says Betsy Ward, CFO of the Springfield, Massachusetts-based life insurance company.

Ward spoke with StrategicCFO360 about how enhanced analytical tools helped her team be more flexible, why the ability to shift your mindset is critical and where the insurance and finance industries are at when it comes to advancing women.

How has the pandemic reshaped your business priorities, financial strategy and outlook for the future at MassMutual? 

From a financial strategy perspective, the pandemic prompted us to be more nimble in our strategic planning. We were just finishing our corporate finance transformation, which cut run-rate costs 30 percent and added capacity and analytical capabilities. We were building capabilities and systems as part of this transformation and completing the sale of a business.

Despite supporting the sale and being in the middle of developing a new forecasting model, we had to put our skills and experience to work to quickly analyze potential paths that the pandemic could take, so that we could put in place or recommend management actions. This involved careful planning and leadership, connecting our financial planning, investment, actuarial and business colleagues to put new estimates of business impacts due to the Covid pandemic.

Have you spearheaded any new initiatives in response to this change?

We not only needed to keep pace with the emerging technology itself, but more importantly, it required different mindsets and behaviors to adapt, including collaboration, agility and resiliency. Before the pandemic, we never did a financial close entirely remotely, so the pandemic tested our technological capabilities and caused us to think more comprehensively.

Fortunately, we were already in the process of automating and outsourcing many of our processes and so documentation and controls were in much better shape—and the remote close went smoothly. So this experience has enabled greater mobility among our organization, helping us work more effectively and makes us more attractive as a company for our customers and employees.

What are the top challenges and opportunities today’s CFOs need to navigate emerging from the pandemic?

One of the top challenges is organizing, cleaning and overseeing, or governing data and making it more readily accessible across the company. Especially emerging from the pandemic with the rapid, relentless pace of change, prioritizing data access is key to improving reporting and analyses.

As part of transforming the finance function at MassMutual to help us create more time to add analytical and creative value, access to clean and organized data is key. Overall, I think this continues to be an opportunity for finance organizations so they can be more efficient and make informed recommendations leveraging data and technology.

Another opportunity emerging from the pandemic is the shift toward increased flexibility around how we work. The sudden experiment in working from home caused us all to really challenge our thinking about where and when people work. It made clear that there are benefits to both in-office and remote work.

In MassMutual’s return-to-office strategy, we’ve moved toward a much broader view of how we provide flexibility and balance across the company, with most of our workforce likely having a hybrid schedule, which will look very different team to team, and sometimes even among teams. It’s going to take some iteration, but I think that this will overall result in a workforce that is more efficient and creative. This is because people will have the ability to work in ways that take their needs—and the needs of the business and our customers—into account.

Knowing there has been an increased focus on DEI over the last year and a half, how have you been able to use MassMutual’s finance function to help advance the company’s DEI goals? 

MassMutual has been on a journey to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace for more than a decade because we know that bringing together diverse perspectives and creating inclusive environments leads to a more vibrant, innovative workplace and drives better decision-making and outcomes for our employees and customers. As part of that, we ensure that we have diverse candidate slates as well as a diverse, cross functional panel of interviewers with different skill sets to create a more transparent and objective selection process.

I also believe that taking the time during the recruiting process to be more thoughtful and clear with the types of skills you’re looking for goes a long way and can help mitigate unconscious bias. Additionally, the finance organization holds systemic racism discussions and participates in annual DEI training, alongside other educational opportunities via Speakers Series events, Brave Space sessions and more.

As a woman in the industry, what are your personal viewpoints on this growing shift? What lasting changes do you think this movement may have on the future of the CFO function, and what advice would you offer your peers in navigating the space?

I don’t think there is a shift toward women in insurance or finance yet. And, based on what I hear from several female students, I think we have work to do to attract more young women into STEM careers. That being said, there are several studies that prove that women are rising to the moment and doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Women are more likely to practice allyship.

So, there is an opportunity to build and grow on the DEI journey and the finance industry has much more room to grow, including adding and creating diverse talent across all levels. As we continuously work to become even more open-minded and self-aware, I think making connections and networking outside of your core team or day-to-day colleagues can help constitute lasting changes and open new doors for people as they look to build successful careers.

My advice for other CFOs navigating this space would be to ensure their recruiting strategy has practices in place to not only attract top talent but also create a diverse, fair and inclusive workplace. This includes where you source talent and who is involved in decision making. And, to drive shared accountability, I would recommend establishing workforce diversity measures and to tie those to annual company goals. MassMutual established this measure in 2017, making us a leader in this space.

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