SSON Podcast – Episode 61, Jean Milian, Assurant

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Seth Adler

"I do acknowledge and admit it takes a special skillset from a management perspective to be able to manage people in this virtual decentralized location. So when we source our talent from a management perspective that is definitely a skillset high on the value chain that we assess. And we ensure that people coming in to our environment are not only equipped, have experience but are well prepared and aware of the dynamics of a decentralized environment."

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Seth Adler: From Assurant Jean Milian joins us. Welcome to SSON on B2B IQ I'm your host Seth Adler, download episodes on through our app in iTunes, within the iTunes podcast app and Google Play or wherever you currently get your podcasts.

 First word from our on side podcast studio sponsor from SSOW Orlando we share another piece of a conversation I had with Ian Barkin and AJ Hana from Symphony. Following that Jean Milian.

 And we're talking about executive level folks. There's also obviously the talent. Who is aware that this has arrived? So when I say talent what do you think?


Jean Milian: We spend a lot of time now talking about, or addressing the concern about robots are coming for your jobs. And there's just no prospect or hope for us in the future because everything's gonna be done for us. It can be sensationalized but it's also a really relevant topic, especially in the world of shared services. Shared services is about creating opportunities for people, it's about creating strong teams in centralized locations where you nurture talent. You've got them in the door young, you taught them skills in whatever functional area they were in. You taught them how to lead teams as they matured.

 We can't forget that, that shared services and outsourcing is at the heart of it about talent. Automation just allows good people to be their best, it really allows as we always say it allows your best people to do their best work. So we really need to put some more of the spotlight and emphasis back on that. Because I think it'll allay some of the fears that this is just gonna wipe out teams wholesale because it just can't and it just won't.

 It brings us back to a comfort zone too of let's remember how we're developing talent and let's remember the skills that we now need in the future of work which you've got a digital compatriot, that you've got your digital labor, colleagues who are showing up to work in greater numbers now, that are alleviating you from some things you probably didn't enjoy doing and unleashing you to do the things that actually add the value in organizations.


Seth Adler: And if you think about the trend towards a real focus around customer experience it's hard to engage in a real customer experience when you're doing a lot of manual rote repetitive activities. By taking those things off of, and the fact that we're even having the conversation about human associates versus digital associates just talks, it speaks to how far this has come.

 But if you can allow the people who are most talented at what you do to be able to focus on care for the client, care for the customer, as opposed to care for a spreadsheet or care for a system, that's a value that many organizations are just now figuring out is something that they hadn't anticipated from the technology.


Jean Milian: Yeah that's a good point.


Seth Adler: Folks have told you you are soft spoken.


Jean: No. I am-


Seth Adler: Yeah. It's true.


Jean: Okay.


Seth Adler: Now here's what I mean by that. I mean the level of your voice. Yes, let's be clear.


Jean: Thank you. Because you know that is not any feedback I've ever received.


Seth Adler: Not after I told you, I saw your eyes light up as though ...


Jean: Thank you.


Seth Adler: How is it possible that you think that? So Jean thank you so much for giving us a few minutes. I guess Assurant, big organization.


Jean: Yes.


Seth Adler: Right? What is your remit now? It's busy days, so to speak.


Jean: Busy days, absolutely.


Seth Adler: Yeah, so let's find out what today is like for Jean at Assurant.


Jean: Today at Assurant, I lead our finance and accounting shared service center. I am located in Miami, Florida.


Seth Adler: This is terrible already.


Jean: Right? I have a tough life.


Seth Adler: My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew are in Miami as well.


Jean: I hope they're enjoying themselves.


Seth Adler: Palmetto Bay.


Jean: Nice location, nice location.


Seth Adler: Okay so you have this terrible location of Miami. I'm sure that you also work with other parts of the globe.


Jean: Absolutely. Yeah so from a presence we are have a pretty heavy global footprint across the world from our finance and accounting in our shared service center we do have about 100 roles off shored in Noida, India. And then we have multiple locations where our finance and accounting resources are located domestically here.


 So Minnesota, Georgia and Florida, our primary locations. And New York.


Seth Adler: That's a fair amount of domestic operations.


Jean: Yes it is.


Seth Adler: Right? Why have we made that choice?




Jean: So part of it was when we established our shared service center within our organization our first approach was to be as less, or not as disruptive as possible. So we've had operations whether it be on the business side, underwriting or accounting in these major locations. When we first created our shared service center we actually had nine locations where we had resources. So we've over the past five years whittled that down to where we have three primary locations. And where opportunities are allowing and permitting we are even consolidating that even further.


Seth Adler: Even further still.


Jean: Yes.


Seth Adler: Okay.


Jean: Yeah. I think anybody working in a virtual environment recognizes the benefits of virtual environment but at the same time it also poses some challenges. So from a shared service center perspective when you can co-locate your resources your synergies, culture just ability to be agile and mature your strategy has a leg up from that factor.


Seth Adler: Are you saying that in comparison with a virtual workforce. Let me make I understand what you're saying there.


Jean: So I'm comparing it to many organizations historically when they created their shared service center, at least in North America picked a location where they organized all of their transactional type work. When we created our shared service center our approach was those resources were going to stay in whatever location they were at. Right?


Seth Adler: I see. Yes.


Jean: And so it made it a little bit more challenging from a management perspective instead of having 20 people sitting outside your door you have two here in this location, four in this location, and most of them at a staff level.


Seth Adler: So it's decentralized.


Jean: Absolutely.


Seth Adler: And knowingly and wantingly almost.


Jean: Almost. Yes.


Seth Adler: So what advice would you give to other folks that are decentralized and would like some advice from Jean? What are some of the keys here that you're able to ... what value are you gaining? What kind of advantages do you have from being decentralized?


Jean: Great question. So some of the advantages from being decentralized is that you have coverage from a location, right. As we have customers that live across the country and across the globe working in different time zones you can accommodate that with your resources. It's great from a disaster recovery perspective. We down in south Florida have to worry about hurricanes. And so having resources in other cities or states in the US allows us from a disaster recovery perspective.


 It also provides some advantages depending on your demand for talent. Certain skillsets are harder to find in certain regions. So having a presence in multiple regions allows you to be able to tap into the strengths of the talent in that region. So there are advantages to being decentralized.


Seth Adler: What do you say to your colleagues who are like, "Jean this is insane. We need a center of excellence. You don't have one, how are you doing this? You must not be efficient. How could your processes be in any sort of form, let alone being excellent." What would you say to that colleague?


Jean: So I'd first welcome the colleague in to come spend a day in the operations within our shared service center. I do acknowledge and admit it takes a special skillset from a management perspective to be able to manage people in this virtual decentralized location. So when we source our talent from a management perspective that is definitely a skillset high on the value chain that we assess. And we ensure that people coming in to our environment are not only equipped, have experience but are well prepared and aware of the dynamics of a decentralized environment.


Seth Adler: So you talk about management, almost philosophy. As far as the organization, obviously it's got to be all the way up that we understand and appreciate decentralized, right?


Jean: Absolutely.


Seth Adler: So talk about that, talk about managing up and what you hear from the C level folks, how this actually all works at that high level.


Jean: Great question. Even from an organization, our organization, we are also decentralized from the C suite. So that kind of breeds it as part of the culture. At the end of the day it's performance based. So as long as the performance and the delivery and the strategy is there and we are leading and enabling the organization in their strategy in a decentralized environment it's a win-win.


 So it's a good story to tell. If our performance and our inability to meet the business needs and support the strategy was there we'd be having a different conversation.


Seth Adler: And everybody can understand it when you put it in that kind of framework.


Jean: Absolutely. At the end of the day it's about how do you add value to your organization and your customers.


Seth Adler: Right. So you're either that kind of organization or you're not. If you are that kind of organization embrace it.


Jean: Absolutely.


Seth Adler: Have you come across other executives that are in decentralized organizations that are trying to put a circle into a square hole or whatever I'm trying to say there. Trying to fit themselves into a centralized or a federal type of federated system? Have you come across colleagues like that?


Jean: Absolutely.


Seth Adler: What are they telling you?


Jean: Again many people come to the table based on their experience through their careers and their prior organizations. And so they come to the table with this is how I've operated or led organizations throughout my career and this is why they're successful and therefore I think that is a model that would lead us to success as we move forward. I think my response is there's multiple ways of getting there. And if a business, the speed of business and the requirements of agility throughout whatever function you're in, you're open to it.


 So there's nothing wrong with changing your strategy, there's nothing with saying let's give it a try. But first let's make sure we understand how we got here, why we're here. And then where we need to go and what are gonna be some of the benefits and maybe value add as a result of moving that way.


Seth Adler: I wonder if we can go ahead and dovetail that into a conversation about automation, about RPA and really intelligently automating the enterprise. Because most of the time when folks say to me, "This is how we did it, we went ahead and did a proof of concept and then we set up a center of excellence." I would imagine this is not the way that we would want to do it at Assurant.


Jean: Yes maybe no. Again-


Seth Adler: How so?


Jean: It comes to one of the challenges I think we face across business is that they try to be this cookie cutter approach. So there are many factors that feed into what is the best RPA strategy, very similar to what are the factors that feed into what environment is better suited decentralized or centralized.


 You see the same thing as it comes to the approach of RPA in an organization. There are multiple factors that need to be considered as you go down that path and developing that strategy.


Seth Adler: Are you saying though, make sure I understand this, even though we're decentralized it doesn't necessarily mean that that's the approach that we would take with RPA.


Jean: Absolutely. Not, right.


Seth Adler: Look at that.


Jean: You see.


Seth Adler: Now I get it. I didn't quite get it before. You're essentially taking each piece and making sure that we understand what that is and how it fits with us. And maybe it is a centralized kind of thing.


Jean: Absolutely. And I think as we look, move forward in the RPA arena, just from what I've been exposed to and coming to conferences like this, get to hear a little bit more. And speaking with other organizations that are maybe farther down the RPA journey, centralization of that function has been a consistent them. And they've been able to really articulate the advantages of taking that approach.


Seth Adler: Here's a dozen examples of me seeing that this works at at least the scope and scale of organization that I have.


Jean: Absolutely.


Seth Adler: I gotcha. So where are you, it just sounds like you're early on, right?


Jean: We're early on in the RPA journey and strategy, absolutely.


Seth Adler: What are you taking into account as you walk in here, as you begin to run what are some of the things that you're taking account of.


Jean: So I think some of the things that we're really looking forward to is hearing a little bit more in detail some of those examples that you just referenced. I have these 12 organizations that we've done, here's a blueprint, here's how we did it, here was the scope and here's what was successful and what didn't go well. We're really looking to have greater line of sight to some of that.


 And then as well as I bring it back into my shared service center, so when I put it into scope of my world, where is the best place? How do we develop that road map, that journey as we move forward. And partnering in with a centralized function of RPA across the enterprise.


Seth Adler: So you're really being thoughtful about this.


Jean: You have to be. This is a huge investment not only from a cost but a people and a strategy. And so-


Seth Adler: Once you take those things into account even though folks will tell you that it's not too expensive, if I'm going to involve my people I'm going to involve the processes of my organization along with your technology. So let's make sure that we understand why you're so smart. Because it doesn't sound like you're being tricked here. Where did your career begin? Were you always in shared services?


Jean: Oh no, my career began on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.


Seth Adler: Get out. Let's talk about it.


Jean: That's another conversation.


Seth Adler: Okay. It sounds like that's from home.


Jean: That's from home.


Seth Adler: So that's where you were. When did you get into the workforce outside of the farm or off the farm?


Jean: Outside of the farm actually started in college. So started with, always had an aptitude and love of money. So went into the finance and accounting arena out of college. Actually my experience over my career has always been in the accounting arena in some way shape or form. So when our organization made the decision to move into and create a shared service center it was an area I haven't had experience in my career with so I raised my hand and said, "Hey I'm happy to be part of this journey."


Seth Adler: So you in fact are where you've always been type of thing, in just a different type of iteration, is that fair?


Jean: Absolutely.


Seth Adler: What have you learned from being on the front lines in finance? What have you brought from those front lines to your strategic role?


Jean: I think a couple of things, finance and accounting, there is definitely a approach to looking from an accounting perspective, it's more actual, historical. From a finance perspective it's more forward looking. Where we going, making some assumptions and being able to build your strategy as such that you can be agile. So from a leadership perspective I've tapped into both of those.


 I always use the analogy of driving a car. So as you're driving your career of course you want to keep your vision forward and looking forward but you have those rear view mirrors for a reason. You need to take a look and understand where you've been, some of the things that have gotten you to where you are today. But really that finance and forward looking focus as you move forward.


Seth Adler: Do you continue the analogy forward to the side view mirrors which show you what's coming up behind you?


Jean: Absolutely. Yup.


Seth Adler: I gotta ask, okay, because we took lessons from the front lines. We gotta take lessons from the farm, dairy farmer. Because I'm sure there are processes or there's mindset from the farm that you're using today.


Jean: An appreciation.


Seth Adler: What is it, what do you bring from the farm to how you manage everyday?


Jean: I think it's the value of hard work, the value of nurturing life, people, processes. To ultimately deliver on your service or goods.


Seth Adler: What I also find fascinating is that folks like you who are in large organizations and are not entrepreneurial, in other words you are not the CEO of the company that you started. But that farm was a small business and you were part of running that small business. The lessons that you learned from your parents of you gotta get up everyday and you gotta do the job.


Jean: Absolutely. Seven days a week, it was a dairy farm so it's not a choice. Get up make it happen. You put in the work and forethought and due diligence and the right attitude and outcome is generally what you're looking for.


Seth Adler: Is it not easier because you manage people, and you've got colleagues of course. Is it not easier for you who had to get up everyday seven days a week to do the job, than it might have been for someone else who maybe even didn't have a job through college and then all of a sudden went into the workforce, they're doing the thing. Is it almost easier for you because you have known hard work from day one almost.


Jean: I'm not sure if it's necessarily easier. I think there is a fresh perspective that individuals that didn't have this kind of upbringing bring to the workforce as well. I'm a big believer of diversity in school of thought and background and perspective. I don't think that having had the kind of life or upbringing that I've had has either given me an advantage or disadvantage. It really comes down to your investment in your career, in your people, in your strategy, your background or your upbringing isn't necessarily the primary driver of your success going forward.


Seth Adler: Understood. And you're also saying that it's not necessarily an advantage unless you put yourself with that background around a table with folks that do not have that background. Ensure diversity of thought at your roundtable whatever that roundtable is.


Jean: Absolutely.


Seth Adler: That's interesting.


Jean: Right? I love the people side of business.


Seth Adler: I can sense that. I can sense that, you're paying attention to the people.


Jean: You gotta.


Seth Adler: All right. I'm gonna ask you the three final questions. I'll tell you what they are, I'll ask you them in order. What's most surprised you at work? What's most surprised in life? And on the soundtrack of your life one track one song that's gotta be on there. But first thing's first. From the dairy farm to the almost at least presenting to the board, what's most surprised you at work along the way?


Jean: What's most surprised me? That's a great question. I think what's surprised me most is people aren't so different based on where you're from. So coming back to my upbringing, very rural, very small and when you get into large organizations and in a global society you find that whether that person comes to the table with ideas and passion and challenges and hopes and dreams and it doesn't matter whether you sit in the United States or halfway around the world. So it was a pleasant surprise to be able to be in an opportunity where I get to interact with people from all over the world that, just that was a surprise and a pleasant one.


Seth Adler: And that aren't so different after all.


Jean: Absolutely not.


Seth Adler: You and I grew up very differently. I would be very out of place on a farm. But the way that you speak about the value of work from early on, that's something that I had from my parents as well. We weren't on a farm, but it's almost to say I'm sure it's almost the same exact lesson.


Jean: Absolutely, yeah.


Seth Adler: That's a big one, for work. What's most surprised you in life?


Jean: In life. To expect the unexpected from people. So just when you think you figured it out, and you're like ... be prepared that it really isn't that way or there's an element that you just didn't see coming or consider.


Seth Adler: So I pretty know how Dave's gonna react to whatever I say. And then all of a sudden Dave surprises you, is that what we're saying?


Jean: Yeah.


Seth Adler: Can you give us an example of that? Obviously without names but give us an example what you're talking about?


Jean: Let's just take it to managing people. So you have an employee with a performance issue. So you lay it out, you map it out and you outline all these things. So when you begin that dialog, you as a manager sometimes think, you have all the facts but you don't have all the facts. You have the black and white and maybe what's been able to be quantifiable.


Seth Adler: What's informing those facts.


Jean: Exactly. So it's through that exchange and dialog that you find out that, oh, you didn't realize that there was something upstream or you were unaware that this person just lost a close family member. So I think withholding judgment and always being open to there's probably more reasons to why something is happening than just what I've been able to conclude myself.


Seth Adler: Let's find out everything we can possibly find out in this situation before we go ahead and make a call.


Jean: Make a call. Yeah. And that's-


Seth Adler: That's a good one.


Jean: Yeah.


Seth Adler: All right so on the soundtrack of your life Jean?


Jean: Oh that's a tough one.


Seth Adler: I know, one track one song that's gotta be on there. What's the Green Bay Packers fight song?


Jean: I have to remember I'm on the podcast here.


Seth Adler: Sure.


Jean: It's gotta be ... I don't know you put me on the spot here, because there's a whole arena of songs.


Seth Adler: Is there something from back in Wisconsin? Where did you go to college?


Jean: A small private college called Mt. Scenario.


Seth Adler: No way.


Jean: Yes.


Seth Adler: That's where I went to college but it was only in my mindset. Where is that institution?


Jean: It's in a small town called Ladysmith, Wisconsin.


Seth Adler: This is beautiful.


Jean: Isn't it?


Seth Adler: It's gotta be idyllic.


Jean: You cannot buy this anywhere.


Seth Adler: No. But what were we listening to in the dorm rooms there? That's what we'll do.


Jean: We were listening to ... yeah so that's probably not appropriate for on the soundtracks here.


Seth Adler: What kind of music do you listen to Jean?


Jean: It's pretty eclectic here.


Seth Adler: All right. Should we ... how about we go with some Rachmaninoff for you? You know what I mean? Some classical music. Let's do that. Some Brahms. Should we do that?


Jean: Just pick a soundtrack from Sound of Music and it'll be probably-


Seth Adler: There we go. Let's go fly a kite, how about that?


Jean: There you go that's pretty awesome.


Seth Adler: Is that Sound of ... yeah it's Sound of Music.


Jean: No it's not but it's all right.


Seth Adler: It's not, which one is that?


Jean: I'm not quite sure where that one's from.


Seth Adler: Let's go fly a kite from-


Jean: I'm gonna fly a kite.


Seth Adler: I think it's from Sound of Music.


Jean: Is it?


Seth Adler: No, that's Mary Poppins, you're right.


Jean: Thank you.


Seth Adler: Yeah. But it's also Julie Andrews so it's close enough.


Jean: We're into family, that's all that matters. Right?


Seth Adler: Thank you so much Jean.


Jean: I appreciate it.


Seth Adler: And there you have Jean Milian. Very much appreciate her time, very much appreciate Ian Barkin and AJ Hana's time and Symphony's sponsorship of not only the on side podcast studio but this episode. Finally thank you for your time, stay tuned.