Pacific Life Insurance Company: Ensuring Effective Education

Founded in 1868, California-based Pacific Life Insurance Company provides life and health insurance products, individual annuities, mutual funds and group employee benefits, as well as pension plans and various investment products and services for individuals and businesses. While there are many centralized functions at the company like human resources and legal, there are four line divisions that run almost as separate businesses.

Pacific Life Academy, the company’s corporate university, has as its mission to help these divisions meet their business goals, according to Justine Milberg, assistant vice president, Pacific Life Academy. The Academy provides most of the company’s technology training, professional development, including hard and soft skills training, and compliance training, while the divisions have division colleges that are responsible for division-specific product, sales and hard-skill training.

As a financial services company, Pacific Life faces some unique learning challenges. Milberg explained that because the company is services-oriented, the Academy’s success is more difficult and subjective to measure. In addition, the workforce is made up of financially savvy, analytical professionals who have different learning styles and expectations, according to Greg Cleveland, Academy program director. He added that it takes longer to get new hires up to speed. Whereas new hires in retail can get up to speed in less than a month’s time, he explained that new hires at Pacific Life can take as much as six months just to learn the basics.

Pacific Life Academy has historically been a bricks-and-mortar corporate university, providing classroom-based training for employees working in Orange County, Calif., who make up most of the workforce, said Milberg. “The initial challenges had to do more with the cultural differences among the divisions, the fact that we were looking at a workforce that for the most part has very low turnover, but in some areas has high turnover,” she said.

One way Pacific Life connects its workers in various divisions is through its Business School, which not only paints the big picture of Pacific Life’s business to hand-picked learners, but also serves as a leader identification program for the company. Stephen Lamoureux, senior academy program coordinator, has been instrumental to the success of the Business School. The action-learning component he introduced requires groups of no more than 20 people to work on an actual consulting project for the company for 17 weeks, meeting once or twice a week. “Ultimately, they make the presentation in front of senior officers of the company, and it’s something that has a life long after school’s out,” said Lamoureux.

Business School begins with a two-day financial course, which helps learners turn finance into a conversational language. Then each division brings in senior management to give an overview of the division, talking about structure, products, distribution systems and financial goals, said Milberg. The initial financial training provides the background employees need to understand the division overviews. “One of the great things about this company is that every Pacific Life employee is eligible for bonus payment based on company and individual performance,” said Milberg. “And the company performance is based on certain financial measures: ROE (return on equity), expense recover ratios.” The first two days of training help employees understand the terminology and the measures used to gauge company success. “When the divisions come in to do their overviews, they’re talking in terms of their ROE goals and ERR goals, and the folks know what they’re talking about,” Milberg explained.

Many employees have been promoted after going through the program, and they get exposure to high-level executives that they would not otherwise experience. The company benefits by seeing how well its workers function in high-pressure situations and in cross-functional teams. “A leader needs to be able to work across all those boundaries,” said Cleveland.

In addition, changes have come about as a result of the consulting projects begun at Business School. “The first consulting project that the Business School tackled a few years ago was about disaster recovery,” said Cleveland. “Well, there are now a whole series of initiatives and projects going on in the company that all grew out of that initial project.”

Overall, Pacific Life Academy serves as a recruiting and retention tool for the company. “One of the most expensive things a company can do is lose an employee, especially one that has a lot of knowledge,” Milberg said. By adding a learning management system, Milberg said the company will be able to create learning plans and individual development plans for its workforce, enhancing the connection between learning and career advancement.

While Milberg said the company does not measure the return on its investments in learning, it does run the Academy on a business model. “We charge for our services here, whether it’s a consulting or coaching assignment or a class,” she said. Managers must authorize expenditures on training, Milberg said, and if they are willing to pay for Pacific Life Academy’s services, it must be worth it. “There’s probably nothing harder to do than to get people to spend money on training if they feel it’s not worthwhile,” she said.