Leadership Through Action
CTDO Magazine

Leadership Through Action

Chief Learning Officer Michael Molinaro is ensuring New York Life employees have easy access to intuitive learning options.

Leadership isn't a role you inhabit—it's a set of actions. That principle has been a driving force behind the work of Michael Molinaro, chief learning officer for New York Life, the largest mutual life insurance company in the United States, according to Fortune.

"People are leaders when they act in a leaderly way," says Molinaro. "We've worked to define the leadership actions that most embody who we are and what we want to be at New York Life and support our leaders in the skillful deployment of those actions."

Molinaro has been with the firm for a decade. Prior to that, he spent 12 years in the United Kingdom as the head of learning for Deutsche Bank and UBS; and over his career, he's held senior learning executive roles at Reuters, AIG, Citibank-Smith Barney, Shearson Lehman Brothers, and Drexel Burnham Lambert.

At the heart of New York Life's values is a commitment to being there for its policyholders—whether today or decades into the future. For the firm's workforce, that means coming to work each day ready to contribute to the financial goals of millions of families and businesses and providing them with peace of mind. The firm has delivered on that promise for 175 years by growing a diversified mix of businesses and remaining true to its mission.

Federated approach to L&D

Fulfilling New York Life's mission is a workforce of more than 11,000 employees and 12,000 agents spread across the United States. Individual agents receive their skill development through the company's New York Life Insurance Company University.

Molinaro and his team of L&D professionals, who are based in the New York City headquarters, as well as key locations around the country, are responsible for the professional development of corporate employees, including those in large service centers and the 120 general offices around the country.

"Skills and knowledge needed by colleagues, no matter what department they work in, come out of my group," says Molinaro. For example, the team is tasked with developing and delivering learning content and programs associated with leadership capabilities, organizational culture, product training, and personal and professional effectiveness.

The team also has a hand in developing the tools and standards of practice for product training and learning support for core industry activities such as underwriting, actuarial sciences, and compliance. However, core content for the employees working in these functions is managed through a federated learning model, whereby L&D professionals are embedded with the various lines of business to develop learning, and the deliverables are made accessible to all employees though a centralized system.

Molinaro explains that learning professionals are embedded in New York Life's various lines of business and areas such as service, risk, marketing, technology, and finance. Those individuals are the domain experts responsible for training employees on the best-in-class knowledge and technical capabilities they need to perform their jobs daily.

He says the embedded teams look at their landscape and decide whether they are focusing on the areas where employees need to grow. "They've got a lot more ability to understand how their own skills need to be enabled and developed. These folks are experts, so they can find and source the learning independently much quicker than a central team could," he adds.

"Activities and content that are directed within a domain expertise, like underwriting, come out of that channel using the standards of practice that are developed centrally," says Molinaro. "For us, that's a more effective model rather than having a fully centralized model."

During quarterly governance meetings, which Molinaro chairs, the various team members review the learning solutions. They consider current and future skills needs and plan how to deliver on those capabilities collectively.

Digital learning ecosystem

Although New York Life follows its federated model, it uses a central digital ecosystem to roll out personalized learning to its corporate employees. Launched in 2017, the upgrade was not just a response to meeting its dispersed workforce's needs. Like many in his position, Molinaro has been dedicated to finding a way to "best use technology to create a state-of-the-art learning environment."

Molinaro is keen to promote the result—a learning platform called the Learning Exchange, which he likens to Netflix. "Our system knows what you are in terms of your job, the business you sit in. It knows who you work for, and it will suggest learning you might be interested in based on other people like you," he explains.

Either with their managers or on their own, employees can access the exchange to find all programs and learning assets related to a specific capability.

Let's say an employee is in marketing but wants to learn about underwriting, or perhaps leadership isn't currently in the individual's skills profile. Using the tool, the employee can access anything from traditional classroom training and e-learning courseware to book summaries and videos.

"All of that is there, available for you to use and learn from," Molinaro notes.

He adds that once employees start to consume that learning, the engine begins to "understand the kinds of things they're interested in and will suggest additional learning aligned to that."

Further, employees can follow the learning that their colleagues access. "If you decide you really admire Lacey as a leader at New York Life and want to follow her, you can. Any learning assets that Lacey accesses then get suggested to you as well."

Molinaro's goal is to make access to learning easy, intuitive, and embedded in the workflow so people can focus on their day-to-day performance and what they want to develop for the future. For example, if a manager is about to have a difficult coaching conversation with a team member, she can search the Learning Exchange for that topic. It will point to some quick learning assets, such as a model for giving feedback or an article she can read before the meeting.

Molinaro notes that employees can access learning assets via a mobile device, and they can complete many of the assets in the exchange in less than eight minutes. The system will likewise share larger, more complex assets the manager may want to access in the future.

"We want managers and employees to have a really rich conversation around development. We don't want them to struggle to find the assets," he states.

Since the 2017 launch, Molinaro says that about 9,500 employees have engaged with the ecosystem, and last year employees consumed 100,000 learner hours.

Modern performance management

Molinaro says that making learning easier to consume and embedding it into the workflow isn't the only way New York Life has changed the way managers and employees manage professional development. Specifically, the company has done away with the annual performance appraisal in favor of a program called Partnering for Success, which promotes a cycle of three less formal check-in meetings.

During those meetings—held at the beginning, middle, and end of the year—managers talk to individual team members about what they've accomplished and how they hope to grow and continue with their work.

They address big milestones on recent projects and discuss what the employee could have done differently. They also discuss why the work was important to New York Life and its policyholders.

"That's the real value that managers and employees are getting from this change. It isn't just listing what I did but why it matters," says Molinaro, who lauds this new approach. Managers and employees have reported they are having richer, more frank conversations because there isn't the same high-stakes sense that comes with the typical year-end appraisal.

More importantly, from his perspective, managers and employees are talking about what people are learning. By pairing the Partnering for Success model with the Learning Exchange, managers and employees can effectively work together to put in place a more comprehensive and organic skills development plan. He finds that employees like it because they are being developed, and managers like it because employees equally drive that development.

"We want managers and employees to use these conversations as opportunities for coaching, growth, development," he says, which is "driving a lot of the adoption in learning."

Homegrown expertise for the future

Every organization struggles with how to prepare its workforce for the future. New York Life is no different.

"We have to continue developing skills so we remain at the top of the game. At the same time, new skills are emerging—not only in the life insurance space but across industries—that are causing us to have to look at skills for our workforce differently," Molinaro explains.

But with the company's long history, Molinaro feels an added weight. He must not only discover and provide learning opportunities for the skills of the future, he also needs to continually consider the question: "How do we ensure we are bringing forward our sense of permanence and legacy while at the same time evolving skills and new ways of working?"

Case in point: data science. New York Life, like all insurance companies, is a data-rich environment. Digital competencies such as machine learning and data science have become emerging capabilities across the business—talent development included.

As Molinaro describes: "I don't need to be a data scientist. However, as head of learning, there's a lot of data available to me. I should understand how to use data science tools that might be available to me."

Experienced and skilled practitioners are difficult to come by in the market. "It's incredibly competitive," says Molinaro. "We thought, ‘Wouldn't it be best if we could actually grow our own data scientists?'"

As a result, he worked with the learning team embedded in the data science domain to develop the Data Science Academy, which launched two years ago. The goal, he explains, is to "convert people who have either aptitude for the field or a traditional statistical or computer programming background into data scientists."

The academy offers a practitioner pathway that involves learning from external partners. For instance, some may complete a Wharton executive education program in business analytics; others go through a complicated certification training with Johns Hopkins University.

The company makes additional learning assets on data science available through the Learning Exchange, and a community of practice encourages learners to share what they learn with others through presentations and events such as lunch seminars.

Study groups that the data science program manager leads brings learners together and has them use real but anonymous data sets from New York Life to practice what they've learned. In addition, a hackathon enables budding scientists to work collectively on real problems as a team.

Recently, employees going through the academy worked with the New York Life Foundation, the firm's charitable arm, to find an opportunity to conduct a data science project in the community. They worked with an after-school program called Classroom Inc., a nonprofit that develops literacy and leadership skills for at-risk middle school students in  the community.

Specifically, fledgling data scientists at New York Life delved into the nonprofit's data to uncover whether its research-based approach to programming directly improved the students' reading skills, critical thinking, and engagement. Ultimately, these employees not only helped Classroom learn about the impact of its programs, they also expanded their own data science skills.

That kind of skills-based volunteering is something Molinaro is extremely proud of. He thinks it's a good example of his efforts to ensure that learning is embedded in real work. The data science project also is a testament to his idea that leadership is based in action.

"It's a great example of how to build a new capability and help an external partner. It's a model example," he says.  "It reflects the kind of organization we are today and will continue to be."

What's more, it demonstrates his belief that there are ample ways and places to learn from, outside of formal programs. With that in mind, he advises fellow learning executives to "pick your head up and stay connected to the world around you. Ask questions to people working outside of learning and development about the kind of things they are doing and consider how that might impact the way you work."

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at rellis@td.org. 

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