Jim Morris has found a home in Pacific Life. Throughout his 32 year career at the insurance company, Morris has used his leadership skills to move through the ranks starting as an assistant actuary and working his way up to his current role as Chairman and CEO. Morris shares his professional insight on the unique issues facing business leaders today.
What was your first leadership role? What were some challenges you faced?
Following graduation, I was fortunate to find a company like Pacific Life, where I have spent my entire career. I’ve had terrific mentors and have benefited considerably from the advancement opportunities they found for me. One notable opportunity came in the early 1990s. At the time, I was in charge of product development and pricing (I am an actuary by training) and was offered a role to run one of our most significant third-party distribution relationships. It was a move from an internal quant role to a very external client-facing role that forced me out of my comfort zone. It was really my first role in being responsible for an area where I wasn’t one of the subject matter experts. That experience helped me develop the key leadership skills I continue to use today. I learned a lot from my team, traveled extensively to visit clients, and gained extremely valuable insights about product and service characteristics that lead clients to select us … or not.
What’s the biggest challenge facing leaders today?
There’s a trendy acronym that can be used to describe today’s business environment: VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity). These characteristics are making it more difficult to find the right balance between focusing on today’s imperatives and planning and preparing for future needs. Economic volatility, demographic shifts, and regulatory change will significantly affect the types of products and services companies offer, how they sell those products and services, and even how they provide customer service. Because of generational differences and how each generation uses technology, tomorrow’s customers are going to be quite different from those of today.
As companies face an evolving business environment and workforce, it is especially important to operate under a set of common values, to communicate strategic direction, and to embrace change as an opportunity instead of a challenge.
How does your organization foster innovation and surface great ideas?
Organizationally, we are decentralized for customer facing functions. There is a great benefit in having business decisions made close to the customer. Product development, customer service, and technology innovation are embedded within each of our divisions and subsidiaries, enabling faster feedback and implementation. The current industry and economic environments are also conducive to innovation. In our industry, we must innovate to provide different product features, service qualities, and distribution methods to stay competitive and maintain category leadership. The volatile economic conditions of the last decade have created challenges and uncertainties for customers, therefore driving us to innovate to help address those issues.
While innovation is imperative to the future success of a company, it is vitally important to define the financial and operating boundaries within which the innovation occurs.
For Pacific Life, innovation helps us create products and services that stand the test of time, which is critical for an organization that is helping to provide lifetime financial security to families. It is also important to encourage a culture where ideas are internally shared across divisions and teams. A few years ago, we organized a team with members from across the organization. The team was called GIG (Growth & Innovation Group), and its purpose was to surface ideas that either were outside of current focus or required enterprise collaboration. A lot of good thinking came from that effort, and it provided great exposure to other areas of the organization for the team members.
How does your organization manage change?
True success never comes from standing still. In order to stay competitive with companies much larger than we are, we have to embrace change, be nimble, and develop new and necessary skills within our workforce to empower them to lead through change. As we rise to meet the challenges that change often brings, we look to our enterprise-wide aspirations to help us remain focused. These include 1) embracing change and being innovative in seeking opportunities, 2) providing meaningful development opportunities and training for employees, 3) cultivating leadership, and 4) embracing differences of opinion and engaging employees in strategic decisions.
Undergoing change just for change’s sake does not work. Change needs to be thoughtful, meaningful, and strategic, with the best interests of our customers at the core of the change. It is important to communicate change, connect change to strategic direction, listen to what constituents are saying, and make course corrections along the way. Most importantly, as an organization (especially one that is almost 150 years old), we need to find the right balance between embracing necessary change and preserving the characteristics that make us unique and strong.