Episode 14

Agile is the way: How two life insurance giants excel post-pandemic

The pandemic rocked the life insurance world–our products, processes and people. Principal and Mutual of Omaha thrived.

In this episode of Life Accelerated, Kim Pfiffner, Chief Information Officer at Principal and Brian Poppe, Chief Data Officer at Mutual of Omaha reveal what made them so successful – from agile methodologies and stronger leadership to insurtech partnerships.

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Time Stamps

  • 00:00 Episode background
  • 01:15 Changing perceptions of technology
  • 03:01  Post-pandemic work environment and style
  • 08:25 De-risking and speeding up
  • 12:43 Customer experience in the digital age


No one expected century-old life insurance companies like Principal and Mutual of Omaha to succeed through the pandemic. Yet, they rolled with the punches–and even thrived.

Life Accelerated’s Anthony O'Donnell is joined by Kim Pfiffner, Chief Information Officer at Principal and Brian Poppe, Chief Data Officer at Mutual of Omaha. They revealed their secrets to success and predict future trends in the insurance industry.

Learn why leadership is so important in the age of remote work, how being agile is the solution to go-to-market speed, and why partnerships are the keystone of successful product and marketing strategies.

Key Takeaways:

    • As go-to-market speed has increased, talking to customers and de-risking have become more important.

    • More life insurance companies are partnering with young, nimble insurtech startups to accelerate customer experience in the digital age.

    • Post-pandemic leadership is critical because of the diversity and flexibility of the employee experience.

In our experience, it's hard to wrap people's minds around the fact that innovation is an ongoing thing, right? It's not a one-time project, it's a product or a program that continues on in perpetuity. There's always going to be somebody working on those things, so what are we doing differently from a customer experience perspective? Putting digital at the forefront.

Brian Poppe

Chief Data Officer, Mutual of Omaha

Our Guests

Kim Pfiffner, Chief Information Officer, US Insurance Solutions, Principal, and  Brian Poppe, Chief Data Officer, Mutual of Omaha

LinkedIn LinkedIn

Kim Pfiffner is Vice President and Chief Information Officer of U.S. Insurance Solutions with Principal Financial Group®. Pfiffner has responsibility for the information technology areas that support the U.S. Insurance Solutions division at Principal. She is a Fellow of the Life Management Institute (FLMI). Pfiffner joined Principal® in 1991 in a developer role in Information Technology. She has held many leadership roles, including leading Data Services, Enterprise Architecture, Application Development and Support, Information Services Project Office, Enterprise Data and Applications, and Group Benefits. She assumed her current position in 2020.

Brian Poppe is Chief Data Officer at Mutual of Omaha. In this role, Poppe evaluates and prioritizes tech modernization projects, provides a framework for migrating data and systems to the cloud, and influences IT to help deliver solutions in a way that produces customer value, emphasizes speed and enables analytics. Previously, Poppe led one of the company’s five business units – Departing Well Solutions – where he managed product profitability for final expense life insurance needs. He worked with a cross-functional team to introduce a customer onboarding experience, led a transformational effort within the direct sales team, and increased revenues at a 10% compound annual growth rate for 2017-2019. Poppe joined Mutual of Omaha in 2009 and served in a variety of actuarial roles on both the product side and the corporate side, including starting the innovation practice at Mutual of Omaha. Poppe received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). He has earned the designations of Fellow and Chartered Enterprise Risk Analyst from the Society of Actuaries. He currently serves as the chair of UNL’s College of Business Young Alumni Board and as an advisory board member for the Raikes Program at UNL.


Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell, and this is Life Accelerated. A podcast for life insurers striving to achieve digital transformation. I had the privilege of linking up with two of our past guests in person at the Inure Tech Connect Conference in Vegas just a couple of weeks ago. Brian Poppe, Chief Data Officer at Mutual of Omaha and Kim Pfiffner, CIO of US Insurance Solutions at Principle.

Both Brian and Kim have joined us on the podcast previously to talk about their team's digital transformation endeavors, and in this rare opportunity for the three of us to sit around the same table at the ITC show, I thought I'd focus our discussion a bit differently. Here's my life conversation with Brian.

We were talking about how the conversation would go, and I thought we're over two years from the pandemic or when the pandemic struck, but I think now is a really good time for reflection. It had an important effect on people's careers and it had a big change on how people worked, how they thought about technology, and how they thought about what they could accomplish with technology.

The first question I'd like to ask is, has there been any change in how the senior leadership thinks and talks about technology? Are they more avidly looking at investing rather in new technologies and new inure tech partners? Kim?

Kim Pfiffner: I would say the commitment was already there from senior leadership around innovation and exploring new opportunities.

We have had an innovation program at the enterprise level in place, and then also business unit programs that align to that overall, and that group to me, really helps with. Dealing with the change of the volume of opportunities and where they're coming from. So they help sift through those and really look for where are the places where there's a great inure tech maybe, and then there's a great business problem for that to match up to.

Anthony O'Donnell: Brian, I wonder whether, just like I suggested in my introduction, whether there's a little bit of a change in how the senior leadership sees it and whether there's frankly a little more optimism in getting things done quicker and at lower.

Brian Poppe: Our senior leaders knew that there was kind of the digital revolution coming, right?

But I don't think they knew that it was gonna come as fast as it did thanks to Covid. So things have greatly increased in speed from what customers demand, simply because they were at home for a year, year and a half, whatever. So we have started to see some things accelerated a little bit faster than we otherwise would.

Mutual Omaha launched a technology modernization initiative at the end of 2019. And you could imagine that that was pretty good timing for beginning to accelerate the modernization of our platforms, whether that is the customer experience or whether that's the backend that needs to be transformed as well.

Anthony O'Donnell: Let’s talk about how your organizations, in response to those pressures, how your organizations work differently in general. Because there are a lot of things that happen, people couldn't come into the office, etc. How you run projects in the wake of that experience, and also just considerations of how you work with staff.

Remote working, flexible hours, infrastructure to support.

Kim Pfiffner: Prior to the pandemic, we were already too agile, so we had our Agile teams. Prior to the pandemic, we already had folks that worked remote. I think both of those things, the importance of them just accelerated. You used that word with the pandemic, but I think now post pandemic with the volume of desire for flexibility and not everybody wants to go back to just the way it looked before.

That leader role is really crucial. Is the leader having the right conversation with the employee to understand. Do they want to be full-time remote? Do they want to work hybrid or are they gonna be in the office all the time? I think that has been the really crucial conversation that has had to happen.

From a how projects are run. One of the things that we did do a little bit differently during the pandemic, but I'm not sure that really drove it, was established an enterprise integrated planning committee that was made up of business leadership that had accountability to steward the overall strategic initiatives for the organization as they executed towards the strategy.

I think that has really helped with transparency across the organization. Ensuring that we're putting the money in the right places, and if something's getting off track, how do we bring the right resources to it?

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, Kim just brought us up to a very high level, which it's very interesting. Brian, maybe you can bring us back to the trenches.

Brian Poppe: Similar to most other companies. We went remote like over a weekend and had the tools in place before but had never had to use them. We had the ability to send people remote cause we effectively did it, but we just didn't have the desire maybe to either test that or move it along as quickly as we did.

So from a pure like employee experience standpoint, Mutual of Omaha's committed to being fully hybrid work from where you want when you want. That has been a significant transformation than in the office five days. A. And we've brought some new tools, like I think the actual communication during the. Is more constant than it's been in the past for good and for bad.

Right? The good is that, hey, if I've got a question, I can send somebody a note on Microsoft Teams and get a response relatively quickly rather than sending an email or having to set up a meeting. For bad though, like our usage of gifts has increased kind of exponentially. So there's some jokes that show up in the chat that like, They're very fun and that's probably the way that we're starting to build a new type of culture that we just can't do since we're not all in person all the time.

Anthony O'Donnell: It’s a new way people communicate. It's the way they faw, so why not?

Brian Poppe: Yeah and that's exactly, I think what we found too of like when you can build that sort of team comradery virtually, that's when you know you're on the right path. Mutual of Omaha, 60% of the IT staff that we hired last year, not in Omaha before that, I mean, you're probably talking 10 or less people that were remote.

Yeah. That's a huge change. A huge change.

Anthony O'Donnell: You’re set up for the future if you're willing to accommodate people the way they wanna work. So speaking of the way you wanna work, I wanted to introduce the theme of project methodology. And obviously it wasn't something new, but I wonder whether your team's got a really good workout once they were forced to work remotely and also accomplish some things maybe on a faster timeline then the otherwise would have.

Brian Poppe: It comes back to that either communication and focus maybe, right? Like you don't have quite the number of distractions that you would've previously. Now we've managed to fill some of that time with more meetings. You have to be intentional about the collusions that you may otherwise have in the lunchroom, in the hallway, or whatever.

So the thing that I think we feel like we're missing from the day to day working activities is the either whiteboarding sessions or the, Hey, tell me what you're working on. Oh, that sounds interesting. Have you talked to so and so? Because they're also trying to solve that same problem. So I like what you all did with the group of business execs that are coming together to talk about strategy.

Like, I mean, that is one of the things that we're missing to have that type of dialogue about how are you, what types of things are you working on, and where can we leverage learnings from one group to another?

Anthony O'Donnell: I also like the assumption that there's no division between business and technology, right?

Kim Pfiffner: I believe in that completely.

If I think about what makes our agile teams have the ability to deliver on the outcomes, it's because they are made up of business and it together. And both understanding the business need and also the technology that has to come to that business need to make that actually work. I think about the speed though now with what the teams can actually move is impressive.

One of the examples that I would maybe call out is, We have a benefit design tool that we rolled out that allows small business owners to be able to benchmark their benefits against people like them, right? And we had set kind of an overall, Hey, we wanna have that in third quarter. And the team started coming together.

And not just the product managers and the engineers, but marketing started coming together and saying, What's really the best value that we can deliver first? And they delivered about six months early to get that first out there. To me, that's critical because it shows the ability to start getting insights from that initial, respond to the feedback and then build on top of it.

I think that's the only way we can really get to the speed that's gonna be desired.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah, I mean, I sense that this is a really good topic for this discussion. Because it's a kind of secular change that we've seen. I remember, I don't know, going back roughly 10 years ago, where people started to make what seemed to be extravagant claims about how quickly a given initiative could be delivered.

And now in the past couple of years, it's become routine. You're seeing a new standard emerging, and of course, methodology has a lot to do with that. Also, new technologies has something to do with that. We were discussing last night at dinner about the way projects used to be approached as the Big Bang, as they call it.

I just wonder what your perspectives are on where we've come in terms of de-risking projects, taking financial risks out of projects while at the same time speeding, delivering.

Brian Poppe: Yeah. I won't say we're great at it yet, but we're on that same journey of how do you break this problem down into something that I can deliver.

The shortest amount of time possible. Take some of the learnings and then make a change, and then deliver that again as quickly as we can. We're not all the way there yet, right? It's training on both sides. It's training on the IT side. Hey, this is how we're delivering, so you don't need all the requirements up front.

You need enough to know about the problem that you're solving. And the maybe strategy by which you're going to solve it, but not necessarily all of the details below that. But similarly, on the business side, they seem to think that there's no day two ever coming, and that's like the complete opposite of what you're trying to do with an agile working methodology.

Day two is always there. There's always gonna be another thing. There's a team that's dedicated to making underwriting better or claims better. The application process for customers better, All of those teams are focused on doing that. So you don't need to dump all of the requirements on those teams on day one, give them the minimum required necessary, watch them build, and then it's like, oh, the team is gonna be interested in saying, Well, we learned that customers freeze up on this particular question for whatever reason.

So let's find a way. To either ask that question differently or break it apart into two questions or solve that problem. But you've got a team that's invested in it and you've got the business folks that are invested in it. So it's training on both sides of doing those short iterations of how do I deliver?

And also the business folks of like not dumping all the requirements on the team that's working on it. It's much better to think about 'EM one team together to kind of prelude to your response.

Anthony O'Donnell: When I first got into this industry area, people said, what do you write about? And I said, I write about technology and insurance.

And they would say, could you find two more boring topics? And so my response to them was that, Well, I'm enough of a writer to make those things interesting and engaging and readable. But as I went on in the job, I started to see the real drama. And when you had these big projects and this high rate of failure, People's jobs were on the line and there was a lot of anxiety about how you were going to say as an executive, depending on how this went.

And so it made me think about how not only is it better for the senior technology executives, it must also be a relief for the senior leadership.

Kim Pfiffner: Absolutely. You know, you mentioned taking risk out of the process and that iterative approach definitely does that. I also think we've gotten better about involving the actual customer or distribution partner or internal user in those iterations.

So being willing to say to a distribution partner, Would you be willing to be part of our pilot? As we're rolling this out and getting that early and often versus waiting, and then hope that you know you've managed that risk appropriately, I think it reduces the risk tremendously to the organization and creates a much better customer experience.

Brian Poppe: Well, not only that, but the customers like it, whether it's the customers or the distributors. Right? We were so afraid to ask them questions before, and now you start doing it and they're like, Oh, I would love to help you do that. I would love to have input on whatever it is that you're making. Yeah.

Anthony O'Donnell: I mean, it's good for everybody and at a time when you need to do more and get somewhere faster, it frees up resources to do that.

Kim Pfiffner: Right at principle, you know, we say we're a client first, technology focused financial services company that is making financial security accessible for more those first two things, client and technology. If you're not actively building a conversation between those two or waiting too long to do it, you're gonna miss an opportunity.

I think that's one of the most positive things I've seen come out of.

Anthony O'Donnell: I think for a lot of people, digital is synonymous with the kind of front end customer experience sort of thing. How are you thinking about customer experience differently than say you did in 2019, and especially because of what you feel you can accomplish now?

Kim Pfiffner: I feel like we're in a better position to respond. It gets back to what we talked to earlier is that the evolving customer needs is coming at pace way faster than it did before. And so if you don't have teams positioned well to be listening for that feedback, you're gonna get stale. We talked a little bit last night about gone are the days of doing a project, having it done.

And then going on to the next thing you mentioned, there's always a team going after that experience. I think that's a big difference of how we thought about it probably even three years ago. And the level of commitment to that has probably changed.

Brian Poppe: At least in our experience, it's hard to wrap people's minds around the fact that that's an ongoing thing, right?

It's not a one time project, it's a product or a program that is gonna continue on in perpetuity. There's always gonna be somebody working on those things. The question about what are we doing different from a customer experience, Digital was kind of an afterthought before, right? You've got a small component of folks who either wanna buy direct from us online.

That has obviously grown significantly over the past few years as people are spending more and more in their lives. It's moved up the stack, I suppose, of like, okay, we need an application process. Well, before it was maybe half paper, half digital. It's like, well now we've gotta accommodate the paper folks rather than digital folks.

So the default choice has flipped for us.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, I think we'll call to close here. It's so wonderful to see you guys at itc. Thank you for coming and I look forward to many more conversations. Thanks for listen. It was a great pleasure to meet with Brian and Kim in person. After having each of them on the show for our discussion.

I took the starting point of looking at ITC 2022 as the real comeback year. 2021 was the first in person Inure Tech connect since the beginning of the pandemic, but it felt tentative provisional, like we don't only just come back. However, this year we had the perspective to see where we had arrived in the insurance industry's digital journey, and also to see a bit more clearly what was.

In our conversation, Brian and Kim talked about how in many ways the industry and insurance company leadership was already committed to digital transformation. However, the pandemic was still a surprise, and it led to interesting insights about how much progress could be made and at what pace. I think Brian and Kim's comments demonstrate not just a very high level of competence, but also vision and determination to succeed, which in turn inspired their teams to achieve so much under challenging circumstances.

I look forward to keeping in touch with them and to linking up at future ITC conferences for years to come. Thank you for joining us for the Life Accelerated Podcast. For more relevant content to help you achieve digital transformation, visit equisoft.com/life accelerated.


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