Episode 35

Cultivating High-Performing Teams Through People-Centric Strategies with Mike Mead, CIO at CNO Financial Group

In this episode of Life Accelerated, host Anthony O'Donnell sits down with guest Mike Mead, the Chief Information Officer of CNO Financial Group and an experienced professional at the forefront of digital transformation in the life insurance industry. Through an insightful discussion, Mike shares his expertise on CNO's digital journey, challenges, and strategies to achieve success.

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Time Stamps

  • 00:12 Mike’s diverse career, global leadership, and looking for opportunity
  • 06:00 The importance of learning and listening in the first 90 days
  • 08:07 The challenges with waterfall delivery and departmental segmentation
  • 11:11 Why insurance companies should focus on enhancing customer experience
  • 14:48 How launching myhealthpolicy.com was a big success
  • 18:20 Mike’s big life lesson on accountability
  • 22:47 Implementing AI fluency for future success


Host Anthony O’Donnell is joined by Mike Mead, the Chief Information Officer of CNO Financial Group, in this episode of Life Accelerated. With over 25 years of experience in the insurance and technology industry, Mike has been instrumental in digital transformation initiatives, enabling CNO to adapt and thrive in the rapidly evolving landscape of life insurance and financial services.

Mike shares valuable insights into the role of technology in reshaping the customer experience, streamlining operations, and propelling business growth. The episode delves into CNO's innovative approach to digital transformation, from the intricacies of modernizing customer website tools to the strategic implementation of AI technologies.

Gain valuable perspectives and actionable strategies to navigate the complexities of integrating technology into the heart of your operations as you embark on your own digital transformation journey.

Key Takeaways:

    • Transforming culture is key. Foster accountability, trust, and fluency in AI across the employee base to accelerate technology growth and ensure long-term success in a digital transformation journey.

    • Seamlessly merging direct-to-consumer and agent experiences is crucial for meeting consumer expectations and driving success in the rapidly evolving digital landscape.

    • Prioritize people over process and technology. Building the right team culture and empowering employees fuels technological advancements and shapes the future of life insurance.

If you have the right people in the right roles with clear accountabilities of who's doing what, so you effectively set the environment and the people up for success, it's incredible what they'll deliver on process and technology.

Mike Mead

Chief Information Officer, CNO Financial Group

Our Guest

Mike Mead

LinkedIn Website

Mike Mead is the Chief Information Officer for CNO Financial Group, where he oversees the company's digital transformation initiatives and IT teams. Mike has been immersed in the insurance and technology industries for many years.

With an MBA and a passion for technology, his career led him to play significant roles in software development and infrastructure teams for various companies, including a stint with AIG in Southeast Asia.

Since joining CNO, he has focused on building a culture of accountability, unity, and innovation among his IT teams, emphasizing people-first leadership. Under his leadership, CNO has moved toward modernizing customer experiences and embracing advanced technologies like AI. Mike's unique blend of passion, experience, and leadership style has positioned him as a driving force behind CNO's evolution in the digital era.


Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell and this is Life Accelerated, a podcast for life insurers striving to achieve digital transformation.

CNO Financial Group, formerly Conseco, is the parent company to several insurance companies including Bankers Life, Colonial Penn Life, and Washington National. For almost five decades, CNO's goal has been to secure the future of middle income America by providing life insurance, health insurance, annuities, financial services, and workforce benefit solutions.

I sat down with their Chief Information Officer, Mike Mead, for this episode to explore what digital transformation looks like for CNO. Mike shares his insights into the company's history, products, and distribution strategy. He also delves into his fascinating professional journey, which had huge lessons for understanding culture and how to deliver technology results to the enterprise.

Mike really responded to the phrase, the digital moment. In part, I would wager because he's been through the challenges of legacy silos, big bang projects, and other frustrations familiar to industry veterans. Mike has done his service in the technology trenches and understands the technology evolution that has happened and still must be accomplished.

However, what I find most interesting about his work at CNO is his focus on helping to align his team toward their mission. Here's my conversation with Mike.

Mike, tell us a little bit about CNO, about its history, its place in the market today, the range of products it sells, and its distribution strategy.

Mike Mead: Yeah, sure, Anthony. Well, when I first heard about CNO about six years ago, it was new to me. I found out that CNO for many decades, been around a long time, has been securing the future of middle income America.

And that's what we're about. So our products are life insurance, health insurance, annuities, financial services, workforce benefit solutions. So we cover a lot of different products and we do that through a family of brands. So CNO is our holding company name. And our brands include Bankers Life, which we have over 5,000 agents, 230 branches across the US, Colonial Penn's our direct to consumer, Washington National, Optivise, PMA. We have a lot of different brands through which we sell insurance. We're busy. And we have over 3 million policyholders counting on us to secure that financial future.

Anthony O'Donnell: You know, I just want to say I personally knew a CIO of CNO probably about 15 years ago, so well acquainted with the company.

Let's talk about how you got your current role, beginning with your professional background.

Mike Mead: As I mentioned, I've been insurance IT for basically forever. And that wasn't initially by design. Once I finished graduate school, I got my MBA, did not have technology training, but I knew I wanted to do something with computers.

So I ended up in a software company and I was an account manager, loved it. And after a couple of years, they tapped me to lead a software development project. I had never written the line of code and the developers were less than enthused to have a non technologist leading them. So thankfully we overcame that together.

They were an awesome team. We ended up developing a reporting tool that became the company's top selling product. After that, I realized I found my home in It. I was an IT geek at heart, and after about five years there, I moved on to work for a small insurance company leading their apps and infrastructure teams.

That company was acquired by AIG and I was with AIG for over 20 years. A lot of different roles. Every three or four years, I would move into a different role, typically a turnaround or transform situation, leading IT. And one of the highlights there was in 2014, I volunteered to go to Malaysia with my family to lead the Southeast Asia infrastructure teams for AIG.

What an experience that was both professionally and personally that feel like I grew up a lot in that time period. And once we came back to the US in 2018, I was looking for my next fun opportunity. Thankfully, the CNO position came open and I interviewed. And after the first interview, I realized there was something special about this company. And thankfully CNO hired me and that's where I've been for the last five years.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, I would say your history makes you especially alert or sensitive to cultural matters, and we'll discuss that a little bit later on. The Life Accelerated podcast was created because we're living through a digital moment in the evolution of business and technology in general, and in particular in the life insurance industry.

What are your views about that moment, the challenges it presents and the opportunities it creates?

Mike Mead: I love the phrase you're using, digital moment. What an exciting time to be a technologist in life insurance. This is the, I think, the best time to be a technologist in the insurance space. Really glad to be part of it.

When I think about challenges, there are many. One of them, or a big area, centers around consumer expectations. Interacting with any company, whether it's insurance or really any industry, Consumers have an expectation of that digital experience, but not just our policyholders have expectations. Our employees have expectations.

You know, it's at home. I can do this. Why is it not easier at work? So I think those expectations lead to challenges as an IT organization. And in this multi channel world where you want to interact. in the way that works for you. I think it's easy to say in our business, we're going to meet the customer when and how they want to be met, it's much harder than it sounds to deliver on that.

And especially when dealing with a large footprint of legacy technology. So I think that's one of the big challenges that I see opportunities, I think abound because thankfully with all the tools, all the capabilities coming out in technology or ability to more rapidly advance, we're addressing that, we're getting better at it, but as an industry, I think that just continues to be an issue.

Anthony O'Donnell: I'd like to take a look at how you're living this moment at CNO and certainly I'd like to get a view of where CNO is in its digital transformation journey. I'd certainly like to hear any particulars about initiatives pertaining to be at Bankers Life, Colonial Penn, or Washington National. But I thought we might begin with what you came to do, what your brief was, what your mission was, and some of the issues that you diagnosed early on.

And maybe talk about that early timeline, that first 90 days or so when you came in to get acquainted and to help set the company on a new path.

Mike Mead: When I think back to that first 90 days, it was daunting, exciting, daunting. And I came in, I actually read the book, the first 90 days, and I recommended to anybody going into a new role.

And one of the things I did coming in, it was the second time I had applied some of the concepts from that book. One of the biggest things. And it's really, really hard for me. And that was to try not to make big decisions, try not to change direction, to make fast decisions because there was so much I didn't know, clearly experienced in insurance IT.

I've done a lot in my career, but every company, every situation was different. That was really, it was a listening approach for that first 90 days of where I could, I tried not to make changes or even form solid opinions until I really had more rich information from my teams, from my peers, from the organization.

And what I learned in that process, in that first 90 days, a few key things came out in that process. Big one was our IT team had really low engagement scores, and I was learning that our culture as a team just wasn't where it needed to be. So we put a lot of effort into that. I learned about the technologies, what the big business challenges were, and I discovered a lot of our challenges were quite a bit less about specific technology capability, although there were some, of course, and more about how we were delivering the technology, how we weren't fully and completely partnered with the business. And so a lot of it was more about culture, about team, about one team, how we work with the business, how we were structured, a lot of those types of things.

And less about specific technology challenges.

Anthony O'Donnell: What were some of the downsides of that? How were those things impediments to what you could do as an IT team?

Mike Mead: Some of the big challenges that created for us was at times we would deliver big technology projects at the time we were waterfall in the way we delivered.

So big projects, big bang delivery. Right after I arrived, there was a gigantic project that went live and it was a struggle. So within IT, we were very segmented, very us and them, if you will, between different departments. And that then bled over and impacted how we interface with the business. The clarity of accountability and the understanding that, and we've come so far since then, even if my group delivers a project on time, on budget, if the other groups don't.

It's not a success or even worse, if the business doesn't ultimately succeed understanding that we have actually failed. And so we worked a lot on this one team idea that success is about joint full company success, not just my slice of it. So we put a lot of energy into that. And then we started our Agile journey, that was hugely impactful from a cultural perspective to bringing business and IT together.

Anthony O'Donnell: You must have had a concept of unity within the IT organization, but also a sense of the larger enterprise. And I would imagine it was also very important to be on the same page with your technology partners externally.

Mike Mead: We are heavily outsourced and we definitely had an us and them mentality, really a mentality, a vendor mentality with our partners.

Part of my job in Asia was running the offshore captive delivery. So delivering technology services for the US and other countries. So I'd been on the other side of the fence and interacting and working with an outsource partner. If you use the word partner, you should, when working with your outsource teams, partner really has to be how you interact.

If not, it's a vendor and interacting with them as a vendor is not the formula for success. They are so important to our success. And so we put a ton of energy and continue to because our outsource partners are absolutely critical to our success. They are CNO IT. They are a key arm of it.

Anthony O'Donnell: Alright, well let's talk then about how you began to make the transition and maybe cover some of the details of your digital transformation journey.

Mike Mead: Some of the things we've done really focuses on that customer experience side of things. That's really been developing, expanding like many insurance companies have been doing in the past few years. Putting a lot more energy and again, driven by those consumer expectations, rightfully so, and enhancing that customer experience, since we distribute our products, both through agents and direct to consumer, that combination, we work really hard on the technology side to make that seamless.

So for example, what we see is we'll have consumers that buy direct to consumer products, or they'll buy through an online experience. But many times, as there's a lot of insurance opportunities, and I mentioned our mission earlier to secure the future of middle income America, well, different products or how you structure those products is very individual.

There's a lot of different options that work for people. So when they're going through that buying experience, We have set up and implemented so that if you want to talk with someone, somebody you can trust, then they can seamlessly say, I need some help. I have some questions. And so they can click and then have a person have an agent who is an expert talk to them.

So these lines. are blurring between this online experience and this agent experience. We think it's really important because that trusted agent can be a really important part of that process. So part of what we're doing is modernizing our customer website tools, like myhealthpolicy.com. That's our site for purchasing Medicare, healthcare, life products, things like that, as well as providing enhanced technology for our agents.

So they can interact with their customers as well. Underwriting, accelerated underwriting is another area, speeding that process up either through straight through processing or at least faster decision and putting a ton of effort into that, which has been exciting.

Anthony O'Donnell: I was thinking a little bit prior to the conversation about the different brands through which you sell your products.

I mean, at least one of those I gather is direct to consumer, colonial pen. And yet you're talking right now as if no matter where the customer resides, and I guess conceivably they could have products across those different brands. You're thinking about the experience the same way.

Mike Mead: That's right. We have a lot of different types of insurance.

And so regardless of which insurance is the type that you're looking for, you want to make that process or that experience seamless, that's tricky. We're a legacy insurance company. We grew through acquisition, many acquisitions years ago. And so we have legacy technologies. And so that's a big part of our focus is bringing those technologies together on the front end to make it more seamless for our agents and for our customers.

Anthony O'Donnell: What would you identify as some of your key milestones in the journey so far since you've been there?

Mike Mead: I mentioned myhealthpolicy.com. That was a big deal for us to launch that direct to consumer online capability. That was a few years ago. That was one of our early wins for sure. As well as we've made a lot of progress on our customer hub or our CX hub.

As I mentioned, all those different systems, we've got data all over the place. And so taking that data and bringing together in a way that is usable, that allows us to interact across those different brands, across our full customer tool set, and then bringing some of our newest tools together that allows us to leverage that customer data.

So we've made a lot of progress there, still have a lot more to do. It's pretty exciting. That's some of the big milestones so far.

Anthony O'Donnell: I wonder if you could describe to us how you see your leadership style and maybe flesh it out in a way of saying this is where we were you've described in some detail where you were and what some of the problems were that had to be corrected but talk about how you applied your leadership style what it is and how things are different now.

Mike Mead: I'm a passionate guy. I'm passionate about what I do, the work our team does, and that really comes out that what we do means a lot to me. The job itself, and yes, technology, and I love technology and spinning my propeller, but it's more than that. It's that. What it really means is helping our 3 million policyholders.

We have a lot of people that count on us. So I'm passionate about that and ensuring I and my team understand that what we do. Yes, we do it through technology, but it's actually about people. My leadership styles changed quite a bit since early in my career. Yes. I've always been kind of a passionate guy, but how that passion comes out, how I manage and lead has grown, it's evolved. It used to be much more autocratic, directive, go do this and make it happen. And what I discovered through some hard experience, there's some mentors, there's some great bosses, there's some awful bosses through the years is that if I make the decisions, I've tell everybody what to do, I'm radically sub optimizing outcomes.

I don't know the most. I'm not the expert on everything. I'm not always make the best decisions clearly. So probably the biggest leadership epiphany I had was I was working for a really, really tough boss, like really tough. And I went to them and I had some bad news. My project I was leading was not going well.

And so I went to him and said, Hey, things are behind, but you know, it's really this business group. I've done everything I can and business doesn't know what they should do. Effectively, I didn't use these words, but I basically said, you know, it's really not my fault. My boss looked at me and he said, Oh, okay.

So you're saying it's not your fault. It's like, well, you know, I tried to rephrase it, but he said, no, no, you're saying it's not your fault. He was right. He said, okay, so if it's not your accountability, whose is it? Is there somebody else? You know, who owns this project? I was like, well, I do. It's like, okay, well, if it's not you, it must be me.

And if it's me, I don't need you. He was pretty harsh. He said, so how about I just get rid of you? And of course I didn't like that idea very much at all. I didn't love that. And his delivery and his approach was really, really tough, but his point really woke me up to the importance of accountability and clarity of accountability and being fully accountable.

And so that became, as part of my leadership style, I believe it's so important to have clarity of accountability and to act responsibly. With full accountability, I think that allows successful empowerment can expect success. And actually, when you create an environment where there's clarity of accountability and accountability doesn't just mean, well, my piece of it, but I need to help my business partners succeed.

That's part of my accountability, like, accountability goes for this method of accountability. So that's core to my leadership.

Anthony O'Donnell: I find it interesting that you're talking about how your leadership style has evolved across your career, you know, the one hand you were confronted with the point of your accountability as a leader.

On the other hand, you're describing a more consultative style to get the best out of people and you very much needed to build a spree to core you needed. Build team morale when you came in so that you'd have a well oiled machine to fulfill the mission that you've spoken about so passionately. I wonder how that team building influences not just everyday delivery, but also tackling new technologies that may be relatively untested.

Mike Mead: I think you're getting to something that I think about a lot of times you'll hear technologists talk about three things. It's all about people, process, technology, you hear all the time, people, process, technology. Those are the three things you got to do. I don't think as a leader, as a senior leader, that's the right formula.

It's people, people, people, process and technology follow. So if you have the right people in the right roles with clear accountabilities of who's doing what, so you effectively set the environment and the people up for success, it's incredible what they'll deliver on process and technology. That's where I put a ton of my energy, especially as we were rebuilding our culture and continue to do today is that I'm really my role as a leader now is not to tell it's not to be autocratic as I was earlier in my career. It's much more to be available to get rid of barriers. That is my role. Help them succeed. And if you create an environment where people feel safe and trusted, it's amazing what they can accomplish on the technology side. Technology follows every time.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, we've seen some of the progress you've made at CNO so far. What are some of the next steps and what's your longer term view of, for technology evolution at CNO?

Mike Mead: I mentioned the people side. Now I'm going to start with that again. Can't help it. That's the most important to me.

You never arrive with culture. We have a people, an associate employee led culture. So one of the things we did, I didn't mention earlier, was we asked our teams, what kind of culture you want in your company? What is the. workplace you want to work in. What are the characteristics? And they designed it and said, that's where we want to be.

And we're continuing to strive for that. We've made tons of progress. We've got very high engagement scores, like things are going great, but we're not perfect. We've still got work to do in that space, so still put a lot of energy in that space on the technology side. We haven't talked about AI, we're putting a ton of the energy into the AI.

I think from a company perspective, sure, the technology stuff is changing fast, there's all kinds of opportunities, but in a larger company like ours, the culture, again, and I'm talking company culture, can slow things down or can be an accelerator. And so we're putting a ton of focus on AI fluency across our entire employee base that talked to some peers that are really trying to block and protect and say, we're not ready.

We're not ready. Instead, with the proper guardrails, we're making technology quickly available to our employees. Employees and saying, we want you to be AI fluent because that is the future. So putting a ton of energy into that in addition to experimenting and building models and we're buying some AI technologies But we think AI fluency is actually a secret to our success that is shared with all the listeners.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, thanks for that mike and thank you for being a guest on Life Accelerated.

Mike Mead: Yeah. No, it's been a pleasure, Anthony. Thanks for having me.

Anthony O'Donnell: One of the moments in my conversation with Mike that I found most interesting was his story about a boss awakening him to the need to have full accountability. It was a typical story in the confrontation described, and I suspect most of our listeners think back in gratitude to what we might look at as the tough love of a superior.

But what struck me was that Mike was so willing to be confronted harshly in the interest of achieving excellence, but seemed so unlikely to be as harsh with his own subordinates. I see him as taking a more collaborative and consultative approach, and I see him as more likely to inspire his team to accountability.

People often talk, and quite rightly, about understanding excellence in terms of people, process, and technology. But Mike Mead expresses his approach this way, Think in terms of people, people, people, and the other things will follow.

Thank you for joining in this conversation with us on the Life Accelerated podcast. If you want to know more about driving your own digital transformation, visit equisoft.com/lifeaccelerated.


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