Alice Thomas, the chief digital technology officer of Sun Life Financial, says workforce diversity is a key underpinning for digital transformation. And the company has developed a number of strategies and tactics for developing that diversity.
(Also see part one of this interview, covering the opportunities and challenges involved in the company’s digital transformation, including how agile development leads to innovations.)
Connected Futures: You put an emphasis on attracting top talent and attracting a diverse workforce, trying to encourage more women to join STEM careers. How do you go about pursuing those goals?
Alice Thomas: First of all, I think Sun Life has to be known in the industry as a digital leader. It’s important for us to tell the story to prospective employees that want to join us. We’re competing with not just our traditional competitors that are traditional in the insurance industry, we’re competing with Google. We’re competing with startups. We’re competing with AI companies in Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo. So, there’s a lot of competition out there.
To attract top talent, first of all, we get very close to universities, to academic institutions. We have forged relationships with almost all top universities in the locations that we’re in. That helps us to get a pipeline of students.
We have an amazing recruitment program for our co-op students. We bring in quite a lot of students and we put them on the innovation program. What I like about that approach is these students come in, they get to work on innovation ideas, and when they go back to university, they’re our ambassadors. And they want to come back and work for us again. By the time they graduate, they’ve spent a bit of time with us. They’ve seen a lot of interesting technology, and it makes them feel like they’re joining another tech company because they’re seeing such technology.
We also get involved with the community. We host events. You might be familiar with WomenHack. We host events to attract women into tech, and I will go and speak at these events. We have a number of female leaders that will speak at these events to show women that there are role models in technology at Sun Life, that there are opportunities available to everyone. (Editor's note — also see Challenge to CIOs: Bring Diversity to STEM Education.)
We also go out and participate [in other programs]. There’s an event coming up here in Toronto, the event is called Developer 30 Under 30, highlighting and celebrating the top developers in Canada. We partnered with the organization and its founder on this, and we’re sponsoring it. We speak at these events, so that we’re positioning Sun Life as a company that is appealing to a diverse workforce.
And how are these efforts working?
It’s been amazing because our track record has been very good.
Back in the day, when I joined the company about ten years ago, I think we were about 20 percent women. We’re about 40 percent now. It’s very, very compelling to come into technology at Sun Life because you see such a diverse workforce – not only women, but diversity across the board. And for us, diversity of our team is a reflection of our client base. When you’re producing digital solutions, you’re thinking of the broad, diverse group of people that you’re building for.
When you’re producing digital solutions, you’re thinking of the broad, diverse group of people that you’re building for.And who better to build it than a diverse team? Especially if we get further on into artificial intelligence solutions where biases can come in, if you’ve only got certain people coding, it’s important to have a diverse workforce.
It sounds like you are saying this effort to build a diverse workforce relates to your innovation and digital transformation journey.
Oh, absolutely. It has to. It has to because if we didn’t have diversity on our teams, we wouldn’t have diverse solutions.
I’ll give you a very interesting anecdote. We were working on Google Home, the [voice-activated] application [to help Sun Life’s clients to locate health services]. And it’s all natural language processing. Algorithms have to be written. And it was a really great diverse team of young men and women working on it. You could see the different perspectives that each would bring to the table in terms of designing the conversation flow. A woman might have a slightly different expectation about conversation, versus a male, versus a younger person, or an older person.
So, when you brought the team together, and you could see that in action, it was quite powerful.
And from your leadership position, you can look at that and connect that to business value.
Absolutely, absolutely – because our clients are diverse, right? In Canada, in particular, 50 percent of financial services decisions are made by women. So, I mean, that itself is a marker.
The other thing on talent is that millennials are becoming a bigger generation in the workforce. They’re going to be almost 50 percent by 2020. We have to be ready for that, not only in our workforce, but also for our clients.
So, one of the things that we’ve done is to [work] a little bit on culture, giving people flexibility in terms of their dress code.
Typical financial services companies, you would expect button-down suits. But last year, we announced a “dress for your day” program where we just went out and told people, “Look, dress the way you would want to, depending on who you’re meeting.”
If you’re meeting with clients, naturally, you’d be all buttoned up. But for most of the people here in the innovation studio, you’ll see them in jeans and T-shirts. And it’s perfectly cool for them, which is a big change for our company.
Something like 'dress for your day' gives employees the flexibility and choice to dress based on their client and partner interactions, schedules, and what they want to accomplish, and it kind of makes them feel like they have a lot of freedom when they come to the office. And it helps me attract talent because they walk in here, and they see people that look like them, are dressed very comfortably.
They feel like they’re part of a startup, and I think that’s important for us because we’re competing with those startups.
We have to try to look like them in some ways, but of course, bring in some of the great things about working at Sun Life there as well.