Episode 27

Leveraging Enterprise Data and AI for Customer-Centric Solutions with Jeff Donaldson, Mutual of America Financial Group

On this episode of Life Accelerated, we dive into the transformative journey of Mutual of America Financial Group. Our guest, Jeff Donaldson, SEVP and Chief Digital Officer, shares the strategic decisions and initiatives undertaken by the company to embrace digital transformation and meet the evolving needs of their customers.

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Time Stamps

  • 02:54 Why Mutual of America Financial Group is undertaking digital transformation.
  • 04:41 The technologies that Mutual of America Financial Group adapted during their digital transformation.
  • 10:31 Why Jeff Donaldson was the right fit for leading digital transformation for Mutual of America Financial Group.
  • 13:03 Why digital transformation and collaboration needs to happen in all areas of the business.
  • 14:17 The challenges of digital transformation that Mutual of America Financial Group faced.
  • 16:41 The Route 66 plan and the guiding principles around that.
  • 20:26 Mutual of America Financial Group’s 6 principles and why were important.
  • 25:21 What kind of a company Mutual of America Financial Group is today as a result of its digital transformation work.


Jeff Donaldson, SEVP and Chief Digital Officer of Mutual of America Financial Group, is responsible for leading the company's digital strategy and initiatives and he played a crucial role in driving technological innovation and enhancing customer experiences within the organization. Jeff explains how the company adopted the Route 66 strategy, consisting of six IT strategies and six guiding principles, to drive their transformation while emphasizing the need to educate senior leadership, build digital capabilities, and transform culture to support long-term growth and improve customer experience.

Key Takeaways:

    • Digital transformation involves more than just implementing new technology; it requires a focus on culture, people, organization, and products.

    • Through the Route 66 strategy, Mutual of America was able to tackle over 40 different initiatives and make significant changes to their operations.

    • The success of digital transformation relies on getting support from the board and executive leadership.

We embarked on our transformation knowing that, at the end of the day, it would be not only about technology, it's really about our culture, our people, our organization, and of course the product that we deliver.

Jeff Donaldson

Senior Executive Vice President, Head of Technology and Chief Digital Officer, Mutual of America Financial Group

Our Guest

Jeff Donaldson

LinkedIn Website

Jeff Donaldson is responsible for helping to grow the business and enhance the customer experience through digitization, including the employment of new and emerging technologies. A member of the Company’s senior executive team, he oversees the core information technology, information security/cybersecurity and customer experience teams. Donaldson has 33 years of technology management, operations and consulting experience in the financial services industry. He is a graduate of Hartwick College and earned an MBA from Pace University’s Lubin School of Business.


Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell, and this is Life Accelerated, a podcast for life insurers striving to achieve digital transformation. Founded in 1945, Mutual of America Financial Group is a Fortune 1000 company providing annuities and retirement products and services. The company has dedicated itself to helping its customers build and preserve assets, not only with innovative products, but through high touch personalized service.

In 2017, the company embarked on a transformation initiative to scale its high touch service through high-tech. That's where the guest of this episode of Life Accelerated comes in. Jeff Donaldson, executive vice president, head of technology and chief digital officer at Mutual of America shares with us how the company identified four core areas crucial to that transformation. Its core record keeping system, CRM capabilities, new data management capabilities and artificial intelligence to improve both management of risk and customer experience.

Jeff also details Mutual of America's Route 66 strategy, which consists of six vital IT strategies paired with six guiding principles. Here's my conversation with Jeff. Jeff, tell us a little bit about Mutual of America, the company's history, its place in the market today, who the company's customers are and how the company has traditionally marketed and distributed its products.

Jeff Donaldson: Well, thank you Anthony, and thank you for the opportunity to join you today. Mutual of America, it's a leading provider of retirement services and investments to almost 6000 employers here in the United States and more than half a million plan participants. We deliver that through our 401K and 403B plans. We were founded 78 years ago back in 1945.

Our roots are in the nonprofit sector, though our client base is growing significantly among small to medium-sized for profit businesses. We've got about 30 billion in assets under administration. As I mentioned, we are here in the United States primarily with about 60 offices nationwide. And our 1000 employees are dedicated to providing high touch personal service to help our customers build and preserve assets for their financially secure futures.

Anthony O'Donnell: So I gather service is a tradition at Mutual of America, and it's always been a high touch kind of company. So we need to talk about what's changing when we address the digital transformation moment at the company. Why are you undertaking digital transformation? What are the company's plans and what is driving them?

Jeff Donaldson: Well, absolutely. As you mentioned, we are a high-tech, very personalized service-based company, and as we look at the next cycle of our growth and service, marrying high-tech to high touch or delivering our capabilities at scale is really where we're focused. And we took a look back in 2017 at really what the digital economy meant to us, our clients, to this industry.

And we started to create some awareness and education amongst our senior team with respect to how is it that we could be impacted or impact our products and services with respect to our long-term growth goals, maintaining those high levels of customer satisfaction and of course managing risk. So this all became part of our overall transformation. We embarked on that transformation knowing at the end of the day it would be not only about technology, it's really about our culture, our people, our organization, and of course the product that we deliver.

So I would say that for us doing this started probably six years ago at this point, what is true for us is that innovation has always been a guiding principle of the companies. And as long as we have been delivering these products and services, we have used technology in new and different ways. And we certainly said that we have to continue that part of our DNA and that part of our value proposition as part of our digital transformation.

Anthony O'Donnell: Jeff, let me bring you back to what you just said about an overall transformation. And we've spoken before, and we'll speak more today about the combination of technology and culture, but you're talking about an overall transformation of which technology is an important part. I think that generally, CIOs and other senior officers are talking about how you can never look at a technology transformation as such. It's also got to be a business transformation. So let's just get the context of the transformation and technologies placed within it.

Jeff Donaldson: Yeah, absolutely. So again, when we looked at our long-term strategy and we looked at growth and we looked at improving our customer experience and we looked at managing risk, we said to ourselves, we need to do this. We need to do it at scale, and we need to do this in a way that again, we preserve that caring for our customers, caring for our employees that we're noted for.

And it was really to say, what digital capabilities do we need to build? What new leadership capabilities do we need to build and what playbook do we need to build in order to support those goals to scale, to deliver that high touch? And I think that again, from an innovation perspective, we had to link it to the idea that what got us here today, what got us to this level of our client base, of assets under administration, served us well, but wouldn't necessarily serve us well going forward. So we needed to stop and rethink our process. We needed to rethink our product. We needed to rethink culturally how we do business. And again, we had to do that while preserving who we are and how it is that we service our customers.

Anthony O'Donnell: So we're preserving the perennial value proposition of Mutual of America, but in such a way that it can be scaled to a larger customer base?

Jeff Donaldson: Correct. Absolutely. And so we thought about building digital capabilities that really would lead to more compelling customer experiences. For example, both for our sponsors as well as our participants, and even our individual contract holders. We had to think a little bit about how we were going to leverage our core operations in marketing and corporate communications and our middle and back office and technical services. We had to think about enhancing our business model. Those were all the digital capabilities that we had to consider as we scoped our own digital transformation journey.

Anthony O'Donnell: So when look at this overall transformation, we're also talking about a complete reset of technology?

Jeff Donaldson: Correct. And for us, that really meant four core areas that we needed to address. And again, looking at it from a business perspective, first, our customer relationship management capability, what new tech, what new platforms, what new integrations, what new data would we require to satisfy that? Our core record keeping platform, which we had historically built and maintained in house for decades, what capacity, what capability would be needed? What would we need to accelerate modernization of that platform and how would we scale that efficiently?

We looked at enterprise data, how are we going to unlock that data which had existed to some degree in silos and really view that as a strategic asset? How are we going to deliver business intelligence and advanced analytic capabilities across the company? And then finally, our core four and fourth and final effort was to employ artificial intelligence specifically in the service area, but ultimately how we're going to improve that customer experience, how we're going to manage risk with respect to growth, how we're going to drive efficiencies.

And we started to look at machine learning, cognitive computing, natural language processing. So these four business-led IT initiatives really became the underpin to all of our technology investment. And I think like many insurance and financial services companies, we carried a certain amount of technical debt related to legacy systems. And so we had a significant decision to make and we asked ourselves, did we want to be a technology company that happened to deliver retirement products and services, or are we a retirement products and services company that employs and leverages technology?

And that led us to make some very significant changes in our environment that basically put us into the hybrid cloud computing world. That meant we were no longer going to exclusively build and maintain our own record keeping platform and technologies. It meant that we had to look at enterprise data and artificial intelligence in combination with third parties and partners. So this really was significant, significant culturally for us as well in terms of how we work together.

Anthony O'Donnell: It's kind of like a buy versus build conversation when all is said and done. And so the decision that you made was you're a retirement company, you're not a tech company, and you're relying on partners to do that.

Jeff Donaldson: Correct. But in doing that, to understand that we do have a shared responsibility model, at the end of the day, we are responsible to our clients, to our participants. And so very much vetting our partners and understanding their process and how we were going to work together to achieve that became something that was sort of part of that new playbook I mentioned.

Anthony O'Donnell: And you have multiple partners and the unity of how all this comes together is under your management, not theirs. But this is one of the classical questions that we've seen over the past couple of decades, and it's refreshing and encouraging to see a company say, no, our core competence is insurance, our core competence is retirement products rather than technology, while taking technology as the fundamental key to the transformation along with culture.

So that kind of raises the question of who you are and how you're the right guy that Mutual of America called upon to lead this digital transformation. So how did your career experience make you the right man for the job and how has your role developed since you arrived?

Jeff Donaldson: It's always great to start with a great team, and certainly I joined a great team. I think what I brought to the table was over 33 years of consulting, technology management, operations experience in financial services. And in doing so, I had an opportunity to be part of and/or consult to dozens of companies, which gave me a really great perspective on how they interacted with their customers, how they transacted with their customers, how they maintain those relationships and what worked quite honestly as a result.

And so taking that experience and being able to bring it to a company like Mutual of America provided some of that external input to help inform the process and to give some sense of, again, what was proven. And in doing so, I think clearly while my role was new for the company as a chief digital officer, the message was clearly what the company had been seeing and experiencing. And I think from that perspective, right time, right place to collaborate together. So very fortunate to have had this opportunity.

Anthony O'Donnell: When you arrived, you were chief digital officer. Maybe you can contrast your original responsibilities with where you sit today as a leader at the company.

Jeff Donaldson: Absolutely. So chief digital officer ostensibly looking for opportunities to grow the business and enhance the customer experience through digitization, obviously through the employment of new and emerging technologies. And that was very true and continues to be true. But in the process of collaborating, we worked basically to understand again, all those new digital capabilities that we needed to put in place and what kind of playbook we would need to run and how we would run it and work together.

And in that process over time, I became responsibility for our core information technology team and our information security group. We stood up new teams such as our customer experience team. And so my remit today really encompasses all of those areas. And in working of course with the rest of our senior executive team, I think what we have been able to model is just a new way of working together where a lot of the silos have been taken down between the business and technology.

Anthony O'Donnell: Maybe you could elaborate on that a little bit. We used to talk about the need to align business and technology, and today the conventional wisdom is that they need to be entirely integrated.

Jeff Donaldson: I would say that from that perspective in finding new ways to work together, obviously trust, understanding, prioritization, transparency, all of that had to come into play. And for us, that really meant looking at agile and making that full transformation to a shared business technology agile process. And from there starting to form product teams and a product management capability and getting away from that traditional project management thinking.

And so we went through substantive training, which involved all of our senior executive team on down to our newer associates. And frankly as we went through that and learned together and went through those exercises to appreciate old and new and what the deltas were, it became a fairly natural pivot. And I would say once we got to our product management overlay, it almost seemed like we had always been working together in this manner. So not without time, not without effort, but clearly those two things, agile product management allowed us to work in new and different ways.

Anthony O'Donnell: As we're speaking about your arrival and the evolution of your role and now the way you work between business and technology, you could say that we've glossed over one of the most daunting questions that are faced by Life Accelerated podcast listeners, which is how do you start a digital transformation? So maybe you could talk a little bit in the abstract first about how you were thinking before you arrived or once you knew you had the opportunity. And then talk a little bit about the particulars of the challenges of digital transformation at Mutual.

Jeff Donaldson: I think everybody comes to the table with a point of view of perspective, and I think the first thing that you need to do is both challenge your own and challenge others. And so for us, it was really a journey that started with education and awareness. And again, as I mentioned at the beginning of the show, we really started with our senior leadership teams understanding of the impact of digital economy on us in terms of our business model, our financials, our customer experiences, our operations and technology.

And from there, we then began to say, well, again, how could we build digital capabilities in support of our long-term plan and leadership capabilities alongside that, all fine and well, but then you need to sell that to the board, and that's what we needed to do. And so I will say, because we started with this educational and awareness step, our CEO was probably our biggest cheerleader with respect to the need to do this and what it would take.

And I think that as I look back on this, there was a board meeting back in 2017 where he and I presented over what seemed to be a very long dinner. It seemed to be almost 20 courses by the time that I had finished my speech. But it's very clear that getting the support of the board of executive leadership is paramount to the amount of success, tantamount to the amount of success that you're going to have here.

But once we had that capability as we imagined again about thinking of our customers and how we were going to deliver this, then we had to get into those conversations around culture and behaviors and norms. And that is something that again, has to start from the top, but also needs to be modeled and demonstrated, and I think that's where we took a significant amount of time with our team to sort of reorient what that experience would look like.

Anthony O'Donnell: So, let's jump ahead into the work that you've done and talk about your Route 66 plan and the guiding principles that came with that.

Jeff Donaldson: Yeah, absolutely. So you have to have a catchy phrase with any roadmap and for us, that roadmap was Route 66 and as you mentioned, so six IT strategies that we pursued and six primary principles that we wanted to ensure that was threaded throughout our effort. Starting with the strategies, really first thing that we thought of was modernizing our core platform.

I mentioned our record keeping platform and associated applications, and then how we could extend and integrate those supporting applications. The second one we thought about was rationalizing and integrating non-record keeping applications. And I would say that while there was a significant amount of work here, it didn't always mean upending or throwing the baby out with the bath water. The third, IT service delivery excellence, of course excellence in everything that we did defining, implementing, measuring and improving our IT service processes.

Our fourth, standardizing infrastructure. We had one of everything, which of course in terms of consolidating and refreshing and standardizing presents a significant challenge. But of course, we did begin that journey into the cloud and managed services and clearly have gotten some of the benefits associated with it. Sixth and final strategy that we employed was really unlocking enterprise data. I mentioned enterprise data management as one of the core four initiatives we pursued.

We wanted to support and drive digitalization, automation and analytics driven business strategies. This is how we were going to do it by unlocking our enterprise data. So those six led to a number of initiatives, well over 40 different initiatives that we have tackled over the past several years.

Anthony O'Donnell: I wanted to raise a moment that you told me about in a previous conversation. You said, when it comes to rationalizing the record keeping core platform, you said it didn't always mean throwing the baby out with the bath water, but it sometimes did.

Jeff Donaldson: Correct. So I think when we had to make determinations, we put it up against a set of criteria, and of course one, as I mentioned before, whether or not this was really differentiating us, did we need to be in that business of building our own, supporting our own, maintaining our own? So that certainly became one of those criteria and filters as we looked at it, how much technology debt that we had associated with this, how secure of an environment of an application, of a system where we're talking about did we already have some measure of containerization, did we already have some measure of microservices associated with this?

Putting it through the funnel ultimately allowed us to be fairly judicious about what we wanted to retain and build around or extend or incorporate and what we felt that we absolutely needed to move away from. I can tell you that at the end of the day in replacing our record keeping platform and our associated supporting applications, we basically put the mainframe on alert that its days were numbered.

I have never participated in a party that included pushing the mainframe off of the loading dock onto a truck, but I'm proud to say that I have now attended that party and we thanked the mainframe for its service and I think it retired well again, in terms of how we got here and how we serviced our customers at this asset level. I will say the mainframe was a tremendous partner, but again, looking at what we're facing today, the challenges, the changes, and I think we have made the right determinations and of course that compute and that storage and that network power for us all resides in the cloud now.

Anthony O'Donnell: I almost picture rather than a loading dock, the side of an aircraft carrier and a 21 gun salute as you dump it into the ocean. Anyway, let me bring you back then to the principles. You've talked about the six IT strategies. Now please talk to us about those six primary principles and why they were an important compliment to the strategies.

Jeff Donaldson: The first of the six was a no-brainer for us really, and that was to be customer driven, so we would be laser focused on all the key drivers and needs of the customer and how we, IT could drive results across these initiatives through closer business alignment, as I talked to you before, through certainly agile and product teams. Our second principle, we wanted to be an enterprise enabler.

I think that many organizations look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves, am I a trusted business partner? Am I an enabler of key initiatives and goals in the enterprise? We certainly want to be viewed that way. We certainly want to be viewed as a core asset. I think there's always the question of can someone take what you're doing and deliver on it better, faster, cheaper? And we wanted to prove that we did provide a competitive advantage.

Our third was being capable, performing to high standards, measuring our value, communicating that. We wanted to be a high performing team. To do that, we also needed to be nimble, and that was our fourth guiding principle. So how could we, from a process perspective, from a people perspective, and importantly from an IT platform perspective, be flexible and react to the changing needs of the company.

I don't think that at any other time in our company's history have we seen so much change. Incidentally, I just wanted to share Anthony, I think it's fun to talk about transformations when you're in the middle of a global pandemic, which is where we found ourselves not too long ago. So trying to achieve these principles took on a whole new meaning as we were working remotely and in new and different ways. Our fifth was being transparent. We wanted a realistic view of IT performance and plans.

We wanted to make sure we understood how they impacted the company, and we wanted to make sure we were all in a collective understanding and agreement of where we were headed. And of course, our final guiding principle, I've mentioned a few times at this point, which is to be innovative, to have that as part of our DNA to continually test, learn and ultimately be able to meet those key business initiatives through industry leading solutions that frankly only can be done if we're constantly in a process of evaluating new and emerging technology. And for us, that is now too, part of our DNA. These

Anthony O'Donnell: Principles are quite inspiring, and this is great content from my perspective as an editor, but they also make one wonder about how the company went from one side of the transformation to the other. In terms of output, how does today's IT delivery compare with the past? You've spoken a lot about methodology, transparency, high performance.

Jeff Donaldson: It's much more predictable. I can certainly say that. I would also say that there are fewer false starts because we are better aligned at the beginning and at the end. The work product more closely mirrors the most critical features and functions as we put together in our user stories day one than it ever has.

I think that clearly we have less rework to do as a result, and we have some insights, I think some data driven insights that we did not have before. And so in terms of our efficiency, our effectiveness, our ability to measure the value, we have a whole new set of data points and metrics that we can use to communicate with each other. And so we've got a fairly regular or continuous feedback loop, which I think does differentiate us from where we work.

Anthony O'Donnell: A lot of people talk about having a more industrialized output and they talk about the information economy as being a new industrial revolution. It really sounds like that you've achieved that kind of an approach, repeatability, predictability, consistency.

Jeff Donaldson: And I think with most journeys, we recognize too, that we've reached a milestone, but certainly we haven't reached the end of the journey. And for us now, it's about maturing those capabilities. And I think, of course, at the end of the day, that's going to be measured by our clients. They're going to be the arbiters of how we're delivering our products and services. And so to that end too, this isn't just an internal view of performance, it's really engaging our customers in new and different ways, both directly and indirectly in terms of gathering that feedback, utilizing that feedback.

Our customer advisory panel, for example, which is relatively new, really had an out sized say in how we were going to basically present ourselves to them through our portals. And so I'm happy to report that that too is a maturing capability that we are significantly measuring and what's old is new, but everything from customer net promoter score to other forms of measurement of customer interactions and satisfaction's really driving our service blueprint, really helping us say, what's the next epic? What is the next set of user stories in that epic and what is most important to our clients?

Anthony O'Donnell: As a concluding observation, maybe you could talk about what kind of a company Mutual of America is today as a result of the digital transformation work.

Jeff Donaldson: I'd like to think that Mutual of America is poised to become an even better version of itself. We have long been a leader in the retirement services and investment space. Again, almost 80 years. We've had this reputation providing high quality innovative products, high-tech personalized, high touch personalized service, one that's rooted in our values, integrity and prudence, and reliability and excellence and social responsibilities.

And these new technology investments, these new process and people and cultural investments, I think for us is going to put us into a whole new light of what we can deliver, what we can do for our clients, for our participants, again, to help them secure that financial future.

Anthony O'Donnell: Something I especially enjoyed during this episode was Jeff's answer to one of the big questions our listeners have, how do you start a digital transformation? He was also emphatic on the importance of technology as a tool for business transformation and how any efforts to leverage technology successfully come down to the culture of an organization.

That principle was reflected in how Jeff described the influence of the sixth guiding principle of the Route 66 strategy, which is to make innovation part of the company's DNA. By doing that, he says, Mutual of America will stay competitive by constantly evaluating new and innovative technology. Thank you for joining us for the Life Accelerated podcast. For more relevant content to help you achieve digital transformation, visit equisoft.com/lifeaccelerated.


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