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The Enterprise Lab

The Enterprise Lab: Cultivating New Capabilities Through Human Centered Design and Rapid Experimentation

  • 05 June 2020
  • Leadership Culture

Driven by a passion to enable the investment process for mission-driven organizations, Melanie Pickett came to Northern Trust with the idea to create a new business devoted to developing a transformative digital + service offering for these clients. Now as Executive Vice President, Head of Northern Trust’s Front Office Solutions, Melanie leads a team focused on pushing organizational boundaries, leveraging emerging technology, and innovating with a clear focus on consumer engagement.

In this session, Melanie shares how an entrepreneur’s mentality has guided her career, how Northern Trust is investing in technology to bridge generational gaps in financial services, and how enterprise organizations can effectively build an internal culture of experimentation.

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Speaker

Melanie Pickett, Practice Executive, Head of Front Office Solutions, Northern Trust

(00:01:30.07)

Melanie:
Resilience. I was really excited when I learned that was the theme for this Forward Summit, because resilience is a word that makes you feel good. In fact, I usually talk about resilience in the same way that I talk about grit because, to me, these two go hand-in-hand in ensuring that someone or something will be successful. I say these words together often because these are the things that I try to be really deliberate about and hope and pray for in my children. So it makes perfect sense that might also be the way that we think about growing and running great companies. Little did I know that sitting down this weekend to prepare these notes for this talk would require some resilience and grit of my own

Y'all, this weekend in America was one that I know I am not likely to ever forget. Amidst the backdrop of the global pandemic, as if that weren't enough, we had simultaneously one of the most exhilaratingly inspiring and empowering feats of engineering where you saw diversity, teamwork, and collaboration more so than you've seen in this country in a long time in the NASA and SpaceX crew Dragon launch. Yet, at the same time we had one of the most disturbing, heartbreaking, soul-crushing crescendos of systemic repression and racial tension and revolution all across this country. I know the range of emotions I felt this weekend and continue to feel this week is indescribably heavy. Here's the thing about resilience and grit though, you're not born with it, you can't buy them, you can't hire consultants to learn how to prepare them, you can't read books on how to teach them to your children.

You have to earn resilience and grit. It's not easy, it's not glamorous, it's not linear, or typically ever even very satisfying at the time, and can feel very lonely to do the hard work required to build something really meaningful. Only when you look in the rear-view mirror do you know if you got it right. Yet, at the same time, we know it's really critical for people and for companies to do that over and over so that they can succeed in the times like this. This weekend I was reminded of a clip I saw recently of Elon Musk in his earliest days at SpaceX, when a reporter asked him how he felt about his heroes not backing his mission and his idea to launch commercial space travel. I'll share this clip with you now.

(00:05:15.08)

Melanie:
That video sat with me all weekend because you can see and hear the pain that the media were causing him, and yet you can tell how much passion and persistence he felt in his dream and his mission at the same time. Thanks for the backdrop.

I believe that the greatest lessons in life and leadership come when you're willing to be bold and vulnerable, and still get hurt, and you can tell that that was one of those moments for Elon Musk. Launching crew Dragon into space this weekend, that took resilience and tremendous grit. Yet, that moment of pain was likely one of the many things conserved to help fill up his reserves to continue on.

What does resilience mean for business? Is it possible to build it without pain? These are two things I'll focus on in the next few minutes that we have together in the context of a recent project I launched at Northern Trust called Front Office Solutions.

First, how do I define resilience? For me, resilience is an outcome of remaining focus on what matters most, even in the face of great pain and adversity. Resilience is only possible when you have reserves available. There's no resilience without capacity for time and intentional thought, self-reflection, vulnerability, and change. These important activities require your time and your energy in quantities far greater than just continuing the status quo. Resilience is being passion-lead and having confidence in your new-found agility and eventual success because you've done the work on number one and number two above. Like teary Elon Musk said, I'd have to be dead or completely incapacitated to give up. How powerful is that? What are the things that matter most that we must focus on in order to build resilience in the market?


 

(00:07:00.09)

Melanie:
Let me talk to you a little bit about what Front Office Solutions is at Northern Trust and set the stage of it for my viewpoints. Front Office Solutions is a shared digital in-service offering for asset owners with dedicated in-house investment teams who have very complex multi-asset class investment portfolios. We serve endowments, foundations, family offices, and pensions, and we provide them with great technology and data-management services that empower their investment process, so that they can, in return, increase the risk-adjusted performance of their institution's portfolio. More money for these mission-driven organizations means more money for college scholarships, medical research, grants, charitable endeavors, and the healthy retirement of millions of pensioners in this country.

We built Front Office Solutions in a very different way at Northern Trust than most products. We started by building a cross-functional, dedicated, and agile team of product, marketing, sales, operations, development, design, architect, dev-ops professionals, that are a part of the business and lead by the business. In partnership with Northern's client and partner experience lab, we utilized a really rigorous, human-centered research and design process to get off the ground, not just for our UI/UX design, but also for our service design. We are different because we're Northern Trust's first client facing in-public cloud application. Cloud native, stand-alone software product that is agnostic to whether or not a client does other banking business with us. We did all of that in thirteen months from our first capital dollar to our launch date, and we still have so much to do and so much to learn but we're off to a great start.

How did we create that resilience within ourselves, and how are we helping the broader enterprise create resilience? A lot of risk organizations think resiliency is about the ability to do what you have always done day in and day out, no matter what comes your way. I don't think that's the case at all. In fact, I think that being resilient means that you can pivot, you can change, you can adapt, you're creating the internal engine required to completely change what you do and how you do it, and you're okay with that because you're confident in your people, in your processes, and your purpose.


 

(00:09:09.09)

Melanie:
How do I think about resilience? First, resilience is an outcome of remaining focused on what matters most even in the face of great change and adversity. What matters most to us? First, the people. The people matter the most. With the war for talent and becoming an employer at choice for the type of talent that you want to attract in the future is going to make a difference in your ability to lead on this front. For us, diversity and inclusion really matters. It's been really important to create a diverse team, a connected team, a happy team. Not just diversity in race, gender, and sexuality, although those are really important, but diversity of thought across many different lenses. Socioeconomic background, industry experience, role, age, combining legacy Northern Trust employees with college grads and experienced hires from outside the base.

Each person on our team has been a really important ingredient in the way that we've learned and grown, and I hope that's because they know that we value them, we value their backgrounds, their experiences, and their voices. We try to engage people at many different levels, both work related and totally unrelated to work. Our pet channel on Slack is my absolute favorite. We share recipes, we share blogs, podcasts, news items between each other as a constant community that we worship day in and day out so that we can stay connected as a team. I am confident that that's what has helped us remain productive, almost more productive, in the times of COVID and quarantine. At the end of the day, I hope more than anything that my team knows that we fiercely care about them as people, and that we know that our business will only be successful if we give back.

Next, engineering and design thinking really matters. I say it often to people, even though it sounds ridiculous and really basic: engineering matters. Design thinking about your customer's needs and solving their pain points, and not yours, really matters. It's not just about the tech or the tool set that you're using, it's about creating an environment where talented technologists and designers feel comfortable, liberated, listened to, and supported in their work. If you want the best talent, it's up to you to create an environment where they can succeed on your behalf. You must empower them with a tool set that works for them, not just one that meets your needs for simplicity or control. This is a developer's world, the tools we use, the policies we create, the practices we follow. Sure they all need to be risk-controlled and commercially viable, but if you want to succeed, both your tool set and your mindset must be developer friendly.

I think this is one thing that's really tough for enterprise institutions who outsource to large off-shore development organizations, or institutions that have valued control and consistency over change and experimentation. Cloud-native development can absolutely provide the same, or higher, levels of security than what you have today; but on top of that, it can give you lower costs, faster speed to market, and a significant competitive advantage. Any firm that's still ignoring that is doing so at their own peril and their ability to build an agile and resilient organization over time.


 

(00:12:06.05)

Melanie:
Last but not least, purpose. Remembering why we do what we do is our purpose. Creating purpose matters. We like to say we're on a mission to empower asset owners. Our clients are mission-driven organizations. With purpose, they do great things in this world. They are the universities we rely upon to educate our children and develop the next vaccine, they are hospitals and charities that we rely upon in our time of greatest need, and they are the paychecks that our parents and grandparents rely upon after a career and dedication to their employer.

Our purpose is to empower them to make better investment decisions, and that's really important to us. In fact, it's a part of how we recruit employees to work in financial services who might not have otherwise found the industry attractive or fulfilling. It's how we connect to the work that we do even on the most challenging and most mundane days. It's really hard to ignore it, both in the way that we engage our clients on their feedback and their input and how we're growing our product, but also in the way that we know we're doing the right thing.

Step two, resilience is only possible when you have reserves available. I don't think there's an ability to build resilience if you don't have time or capacity for thought, self-reflection, vulnerability, connection, change. All of these important activities require time and energy in quantities far greater than just managing the status quo. I think we've all been clients of great consultants over time, who have helped us focus on capacity management, and many of us worked for public companies where cost-cutting is a constant expectation. Those are really important, obviously. But resilience comes from actually having time and reserves in your back pocket. This can be excess capacity in some of your best strategic thinkers so that they can hop on an idea or a project when you need them to. This might be the difference between giving your most passionate people time to do research and thought leadership during a crisis, such as the one that we're in, so that you can stay better connected with your clients. This might be the difference between taking the time to be really deliberate about talent management and leadership training for your employees, versus only leaving enough time for it to be an outsourced or clinical afterthought. This is about giving your leaders and managers enough time in their day to listen and learn, and build emotional reserves in themselves so that they can deal with burnout and things like that that happen on top of whatever market commissions that you're also trying to conquer.

I can't say that we've done this perfectly by any stretch, but I know this to be more true than ever. If you don't have time to think, and write, and connect, and rest, and breathe, and learn, and plan, if you can't think about the mental health and well-being of your employees, you won't have the capacity to build resilience in the moments that matter most. I had a professor at Wharton who used to say you need manager time and maker time, and those can't happen in 30 minute bursts throughout the day. You need dedicated time and thought to really make change happen.


 

(00:12:06.05)

Melanie:
Last but not least, purpose. Remembering why we do what we do is our purpose. Creating purpose matters. We like to say we're on a mission to empower asset owners. Our clients are mission-driven organizations. With purpose, they do great things in this world. They are the universities we rely upon to educate our children and develop the next vaccine, they are hospitals and charities that we rely upon in our time of greatest need, and they are the paychecks that our parents and grandparents rely upon after a career and dedication to their employer.

Our purpose is to empower them to make better investment decisions, and that's really important to us. In fact, it's a part of how we recruit employees to work in financial services who might not have otherwise found the industry attractive or fulfilling. It's how we connect to the work that we do even on the most challenging and most mundane days. It's really hard to ignore it, both in the way that we engage our clients on their feedback and their input and how we're growing our product, but also in the way that we know we're doing the right thing.

Step two, resilience is only possible when you have reserves available. I don't think there's an ability to build resilience if you don't have time or capacity for thought, self-reflection, vulnerability, connection, change. All of these important activities require time and energy in quantities far greater than just managing the status quo. I think we've all been clients of great consultants over time, who have helped us focus on capacity management, and many of us worked for public companies where cost-cutting is a constant expectation. Those are really important, obviously. But resilience comes from actually having time and reserves in your back pocket. This can be excess capacity in some of your best strategic thinkers so that they can hop on an idea or a project when you need them to. This might be the difference between giving your most passionate people time to do research and thought leadership during a crisis, such as the one that we're in, so that you can stay better connected with your clients. This might be the difference between taking the time to be really deliberate about talent management and leadership training for your employees, versus only leaving enough time for it to be an outsourced or clinical afterthought. This is about giving your leaders and managers enough time in their day to listen and learn, and build emotional reserves in themselves so that they can deal with burnout and things like that that happen on top of whatever market commissions that you're also trying to conquer.

I can't say that we've done this perfectly by any stretch, but I know this to be more true than ever. If you don't have time to think, and write, and connect, and rest, and breathe, and learn, and plan, if you can't think about the mental health and well-being of your employees, you won't have the capacity to build resilience in the moments that matter most. I had a professor at Wharton who used to say you need manager time and maker time, and those can't happen in 30 minute bursts throughout the day. You need dedicated time and thought to really make change happen.


 

(00:15:02.08)

Melanie:
Finally, I think resilience is being passion-lead and having confidence in this new agility that you've found because you focused on the things that mattered most and you created reserves and capacity and organization to focus on change and a softer side of the qualities that resilience requires. I'd have to be dead or completely incapacitated to give up that purpose-lead passion and that confidence is something that I don't know that all of us can say about our employees when they think about how connected they are to a mission at work.

I feel like if you've invested in the things that matter most, for us it's people, it's great engineering, and if you've given your most passionate people a bit of room and ensure that they have reserves on hand to pivot when your organization needs to pivot, you can build resilience. Resilience is not about your ability to do what you've always done, no matter the weather. It's about building the environment and the capacity and the motivation for change so that you can survive as a business. Thank you, and happy to take questions.

Host:
Thank you, Melanie. So for our first question, this comes from.. Anonymous, actually, "What are some strategies or tactics to foster resiliency and protect agility on your team within a large organization like Northern Trust?"

Melanie:
Yeah. I'm sure there's a Webster definition for agility that I don't have right, but for me, it's about the capacity for change, and the capacity to be able to pivot. I think within our organization, one of the things that we have focused on is establishing a set of guiding principles for how we make decisions and how we think about our product as it advances over time. Once we found alignment on those guiding principles, that has helped our development team and our design team really focus on how to make decisions and how to make decisions efficiently, which is a big part of getting it right in times of change. I think with respect to the broader enterprise it's a work in progress. It's difficult to take a ten- or twenty thousand person organization and then all of a sudden make them agile and make them collaborative and cross-functional. Like I said, all of the work that you do that makes skill and cost work in your organization sometimes defies the ability to really be cross-functional. That's something that we're intentional about and we're hoping that our business is a model for going forward, but it's tough to do it all at once.


 

(00:17:34.02)

Host:
The second question, "How do you approach scaling a culture of resiliency on your team and as it is growing in an enterprise?"

Melanie:
I think for me, I don't have a magic answer, but I think for us it's been kind of blending work and fun and creating that team and that culture where people feel appreciated and they want to come to work and they know that we care about them. That has really helped us. On the days that you need to push your employees harder, on the days that you really need them to put in the extra hours, make a deliverable happen, you've got that commitment and you've got that team spirit that's there. Northern has done an amazing job during this quarantine and global pandemic keeping resiliency and business continuity in our employees. I have no doubt that's because people were willing to work across the globe all day and all night because they knew they had an employer that was looking out for them during this time, and so I know that as a culture we focus on taking care of our people because we know that they'll take care of our clients as a result, and that's just good business as well as being a good practice.

Host:
Thank you so much. I'm going to put you on the spot for one last one, but if there's one thing that you could leave the audience with that you want them to take away from today's talk, what would that be?

Melanie:
You are putting me on the spot. I think it's about passion and purpose, and figuring out how to build a connection between your team and the work that they're doing. I think it's really hard, especially in this generation, to ask that people spend their whole careers logging away at a corporation where they're doing a tiny, discrete function for you. People need to understand the big picture, they need to understand the impact that they're having on your clients and on the industry, and if you can make that magic happen if you can make that connection happen, I think your team will go to great lengths for you.

How can we make it happen for you?

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