20 Oct IT Workforce: Culture, proactive talent management elevates women at Northwestern Mutual
Milwaukee, Wis. – With the declining number of young women pursuing STEM careers only beginning to abate, many business organizations have had a convenient excuse for having male-dominated information technology staffs.
Yet in a period where young women have shied away from pursuing careers science, technology, engineering, and math, Northwestern Mutual has actively cultivated its female talent pool in IT and beyond.
The Milwaukee-based life insurance firm has about 1,300 employees in IT, and more than one-third of them are women. More telling, 31 percent of its IT managers are women, and four of the department’s eight direct reports are women, providing the diversity of gender, leadership style, and opinion that adds dimension to its collaborative culture.
This record has caught the attention of Computerworld, which earlier this year ranked Northwestern Mutual among its “Best 100 Places to Work in IT.” The magazine praised the IT department’s resource center model, but it’s a program that is deployed company wide. Part of that approach is to make employees aware of job opportunities outside their respective departments, which is why former accounting professional Maria Avila and former business consultant Martha Valerio are IT managers today.
Traditionally, information technology has been a feeder of talent into the rest of the organization, but CIO Tim Schaefer said IT has made inroads in bringing in individuals from other departments.
Valerio, vice president of information systems, said Northwestern Mutual has a culture that is blind to demographics and beholden to skill. Valerio, who has an MBA and has served with the likes of Deloitte & Touche (now simply Deloitte), did not work in technology until 2000, but she had managed both people and projects – skills that clearly are transferable to IT.
“I think one strength of our company is there are so many opportunities for people to move into different roles,” said Valerio, who noted that project management is a component in almost every professional task.
Maria Avila, director of information systems, has degrees in management information systems and accounting, and developed her managerial skills while advancing in the controller’s department. About eight years ago, she wanted a change, and she jumped at the chance to move to the technology department, which was looking for someone with managerial skills. Those skills were gained in part through management training that honed her decision-making skills in hypothetical situations.
In this case, the company approached Avila, and it wasn’t the only time Northwestern Mutual took the initiative. “In the last three positions I’ve had in the department, I’ve been asked to take them,” Avila said. “That was somewhat of a subtle change. I’m used to changing positions. Even in the controllers’ department, I made it around to most of the positions in that department, but there it was mostly because I wanted to. With the moves here, the last three in particular, almost all have been more because I’ve been asked to.”
Schaefer said the company’s flexible staffing model is enabled by the attention it pays to career development. Individual employees are associated both with a workgroup manager that is more focused on project activity and with a resource manager that concentrates on career development.
“Part of the reason this model exists is so we can move resources around the organization because we are a very project-oriented organization,” Schaefer explained. “The concern we had years ago is that somebody might get lost a bit by moving around and working on different projects throughout the year. Who would really know the total contribution of that individual? Who would be watching out for their career development? That was the genesis for the resource manager’s role.”
Schaefer also believes the focus on career development helps Northwestern Mutual recruit women into IT organization. They know they will have someone to work with on career development, and “that we’re finding the best opportunities for them to match up with the needs of the organization,” he said.
From a training standpoint, the company runs the gamut, Schaefer said, from classroom instruction on interpersonal and leadership skills, to computer-based training that includes various online modules.
The company also uses a web-based job posting system to help employees track new opportunities, which are updated on a weekly basis. Internally, it uses a database in its resource center to track open requests for people to step in to certain roles. Those requests could be for project managers, application engineers, or even certain skill sets.
“IT plays a supporting role,” Schaefer added. “We’re not trying to replace face-to-face conversations with people about career development.”
The resource center is a newer element, but Schaefer said the company long has emphasized work-life balance that appeals to multi-tasking women. The company offers flexible scheduling and flextime for employees, and has begun to research work-at-home options for IT employees. That would require the ability of workers to securely access business applications and have enough high-speed broadband to move large files to their home computers.
“I think it’s the culture of the company that attracts female workers,” Avila said. “It’s the flexible hours, a focus on work-life balance, and our alternative work schedule possibilities.
“Right now, we’re looking at criteria we’d need to have more folks working from home. The technology department is short on space now, and we’re looking at alternatives. Working from home would be an attracter of certain talent – female talent in particular.”
A self-perpetuating benefit of hiring women for leadership positions is the ready supply of role models for up-and-coming female employees. Avila pointed to the female mentoring examples she’s had.
“We’ve always had women working at high levels in the company,” she said. “My peers – we’ve all had examples. Dare I say that some of us are becoming examples for other women in the company?”