• Laura Hay, Leadership |

As we’ve watched the rise of conflict and struggles around the world in the past year, it’s increasingly obvious that real solutions can only come from genuine, two-way dialogue, and prioritizing what matter most to all.

That’s why it was such a pleasure to interview Susan Podlogar on the issue of gender equity and women’s advancement. As MetLife’s Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Susan talks passionately about the role of both women to speak up and make change to meet their needs, and for employers to listen and respond in meaningful ways.

And she’s clear that the pandemic creates an opportunity for individuals and companies to accelerate this important process.

Coping with a changed world:

While Susan has clear thoughts on the two-sided journey to enable women’s advancement, she modestly admits she is still learning the nuances of the sector, having joined the company just three and a half years ago.

“My objective is to understand what challenges women face in financial services and how I can help break down the barriers,” she explains, adding that she chose to join MetLife after a careful review of their “culture and values fit for a woman joining the senior leadership team.”

And her learning curve became steeper, quickly, when the pandemic hit, testing her own ability to juggle work and personal challenges while helping employees adapt. Very quickly, Susan saw how women, racially-diverse front-line workers and youth bore the brunt of the pandemic, based on MetLife’s most recent Employee Benefits Trend Study. At the same time, she felt the pressure personally. “While I worry every day about the health and safety of our 50,000 associates around the world, I was also worrying for the health of my own daughter who was diagnosed with COVID-19 -- all while in the middle of moving my home,” said Susan. She had to remind herself of the words that she often says to others “put your own oxygen mask on first.” Self-care -- with intention and focus -- can create energy, not only for herself, but for others who rely on Susan personally and professionally.

To cope as an individual, Susan points out that, “I focus on keeping my mind, body and energy strong, so I can manage the many roles I play. That means being intentional about carving out time for self-care, including sleep, finding ‘micro-moments’ between meetings for breathwork or meditation, and being disciplined about exercise and diet routines.”

Learning to pivot with change:

Susan also explains how times of crisis like the pandemic are a chance to think differently and express your point of view: “Intentionally take time to ask yourself, ‘What does my business need?’ and ‘How can I contribute to shaping the future?’ Then, bring your voice forward and state your opinion! Now is a beautiful time to experiment with new ways of working and demonstrate your future-forward and agile thinking.”

She notes that MetLife itself is embracing this process by, “pivoting to prioritize what matters most to all the stakeholders who rely on us, while at the same time accelerating the future and re-imagining what we do in a Post-COVID (“PC”) world. Now is the time to break through inertia in the system and harness the benefits of working in this virtual PC world.”

In particular, the company is examining ways to sustain its performance at the very moment when employees are conflicted between priorities in their personal and professional lives. To help employees, Susan believes that companies must better segment and understand employees’ specific needs, ranging from working parents to employees who care for elderly family members.

“The answer, first and foremost, is that companies can provide security through robust benefits, followed by flexible workforce practices, which are encouraged within the workplace culture,” says Susan. “For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, their CEO urged leaders to operate with maximum flexibility so that employees can integrate their work and life as best they can. That signal was so important.”

She describes how this from-the-top directive prompted communications to managers, to support real conversations with employees about their needs. “By building safe and trusting environments where employees feel they can bring forth their needs, you can gain real insights and sometimes uncover some very simple solutions,” says Susan. “For example, when we asked working mothers with school-age kids what would ease their challenges, the simple answer was, ‘Don’t schedule meetings between 2:30-4:30pm, since we are pulled in too many directions during that time.’” But the key is to create the culture of open communication so your input can help identify potential broader solutions for all employees through Human Resources, or a more tailored solution through conversations with your manager.

In addition, Susan points out that the pandemic has reinforced her emphasis on mental health: “This is an area where companies must double down, since the mental health impact is more pervasive than many believe. We talk about mental health, train our leaders and provide platforms for peer-to-peer coaching and support. We are trying our best to support employees during these uneasy times and we want them to know, through our actions, that we care for their total well-being.”

While Susan admits that all the acute demands in this “new normal” can be draining for many, she affirms that, “Now is the time for individuals and employers to build resiliency in ourselves and in our workforce. If women stand up for yourselves, stand for each other, and have your point of view heard, with the help of responsive employers, we can manage and find ways to flourish in these difficult times and gain a competitive advantage.”

For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.

More about Susan Podlogar: Susan is Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at MetLife, a recognized leader in protection planning and retirement and savings solutions around the world. She joined MetLife in July 2017 to oversee its global human resources strategies and practices, particularly focusing on ensuring the readiness of the organization to meet future business needs. She also serves on MetLife Foundation’s Board of Directors. Previously, Susan was the global vice president of human resources for Johnson & Johnson, where she held a series of sector and corporate leadership roles in HR during her 16-year tenure at that organization. She earned an MBA from the University of South Florida, with concentrations in Finance and Management, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, with a double major in Labor and Industrial Relations and Business Administration.