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Fuel up: Mentoring helps women and people of color propel their careers

Mentors, mentees and coaches share experiences and results from new mentoring program

Building a diverse workforce takes time and consistent dedication. We prioritize doing the work because it helps us better serve our customers, communities, employees and their families.

To support this value with action, Securian Financial launched a year-long pilot mentoring program to help create the conditions for people of color and women to grow professionally and advance in their careers. 

Called “Fuel,” the mentoring program was so successful that a second cohort is underway in 2022. The program focuses on mentorship and sponsorship, with an intentional effort to champion unconventional ideas, reward experimentation and celebrate human connection.  

Program structure 

Mentees’ direct leaders served as coaches throughout the program, providing feedback to enhance professional development. The mentors were the mentees’ skip-level leaders and provided advocacy and guidance for the mentees’ development through monthly one-on-one meetings. 

Throughout the program, mentor-mentee pairs received toolkits for their roles, curated content and workshops to aid the monthly meetings, and regular connections with peers. 

We talked with mentor-mentee-coach teams about their experiences and growth throughout the program, and how Fuel is helping us as an organization bolster an inclusive culture for all dimensions of human diversity. 

Meet Cynthia and Ross 

Cynthia Billingsley-Smart is a customer benefit payments manager at Securian Financial and works from our Macon, Georgia office. Her mentor is Ross Stedman, customer benefit payments senior director, who is based at Securian’s St. Paul, Minnesota headquarters. 

“I thought the program was just amazing,” Cynthia says. “One goal I set was being intentional about connecting myself with some of the leaders in St. Paul. That turned out to be one of the most valuable things — being part of a larger network and being exposed to other leaders inside Securian. It gave me the ability to dialogue with them and bounce ideas off them. Being here in Georgia, in an offsite office, that was really key for me.” 

Cynthia’s experience working at a Securian branch office was immediately valuable as the company began addressing work arrangements during the pandemic. 

“In many respects, Cynthia had been living this hybrid world being at our office in Georgia but working with many people in St. Paul,” Ross explains. “We were able to connect her with some of the teams working on our plans around reimagining how we work, so right out of the gate, this intentional connection created an opportunity that benefitted Cynthia, the Fuel program and the company overall.”  

And, the Fuel program ultimately helped Cynthia achieve a desirable outcome: a promotion. 

“It was so unexpected,” Cynthia says, “but toward the end of the Fuel program some opportunities opened up organically and I was happy to be able to accept a new role. This Fuel program gave Ross insight to my capabilities to lead a larger team and see that I could be a good fit.”  

Ross adds, “The promotion had everything to do with Cynthia’s work and leadership style. She has a track record of delivering outcomes, and being her mentor gave me context and insight into who she is. Her promotion was a great outcome for everybody.” 

“If you’re looking for that upward mobility and you feel like you don’t know where to start other than being the best employee you can be,” Cynthia says, “programs like Fuel can open up your eyes and open up leaderships’ eyes to possibilities for you or give you ideas for where to focus on your career.” 

Meet Krista, Bob and Marianne 

“We had meaningful conversations about our department,” says Krista Bruesehoff, life underwriting consultant at Securian Financial and mentee in the Fuel Mentoring Program. “We talked about the future of underwriting and where it will be in five to 10 years. Each topic we covered and all our conversations had a big impact on my current role, and they also helped to shape some of my longer term career goals.” 

Krista’s mentor, Bob Ehren, senior vice president of Business Services at Securian, says he valued talking with a team member who wasn’t a direct report and gaining a different perspective.  

“Krista was open to having some deep dialogues about what's really happening in our department and at Securian Financial versus what I might hear on a regular basis from my direct team,” he says. “To hear things from her angle and from someone who is passionate about underwriting — something that’s critical to our business — was so helpful.” 

Marianne Cumming is Securian Financial’s chief medical director and Krista’s direct leader. She served as Krista’s coach throughout the program.  

“A formal mentoring program like this allows us to be more deliberate about refining daily roles and responsibilities, challenging them and improving them,” she says. “And then we got to test them out with Bob to help ensure that when we bring people into the company, we’re giving them opportunities to align with the company’s goals.” 

Krista also saw success with a specific career goal to expand her group underwriting knowledge by immersing herself in the individual underwriting space. 

“I knew Bob had a lot of underwriting experience to share, and I also wanted to really learn it, do the work and gain that hands-on experience myself,” Krista says. “In my role on the medical and applied research services team, I knew it would be beneficial to have that experience across all business lines. With Bob and Marianne’s help, I was able complete an actual job rotation on the central underwriting team and gain that valuable exposure.” 

Meet Heng and Mark 

Heng Kong is an information security manager in Securian Financial’s Enterprise Risk Management department, which his mentor, Mark Geldernick, vice president of Affinity Solutions, led at the time. Heng has been developing a new program for the company and says his conversations with Mark helped him work through various opportunities and challenges. 

“I saw the Fuel program as an opportunity to talk with Mark on a monthly basis, explain the issues I was having, propose solutions and get Mark’s feedback as the leader of our department,” Heng says. “I was able to ask him, ‘Is this in alignment with what you would do or with where the department should be going?’” 

Mark says connecting with emerging leaders like Heng, especially during the pandemic, is critical to our organization.  

“Working remotely has made it tough to connect with people, and it’s been really hard to stay connected with people who don’t report to me directly,” he says. “Getting involved with Heng early in his Securian career has been fantastic. Seeing how he develops, takes feedback, thinks through challenging questions and watching him grow — it has become a favorite part of my job.” 

Goal-setting is a core component of the Fuel program, and all participants are responsible for discussing their goals and plans to achieve them. 

“One of the medium-term goals I set was to build the information risk program in order to deliver value to our business stakeholders,” Heng says. “It was easy to be open and honest with Mark and ask him what he thought of my ideas for it.” 

Mark adds, “Goal-setting was a really valuable part of the program. It helped mentees think about what they really wanted to get out of the program and allowed them to drive the conversations. It wasn’t just about imparting wisdom from mentor to mentee. I found tremendous satisfaction in watching Heng grow.” 

Reflecting on his own growth, Heng says he started out as very deliverables-oriented and shifted to gaining broader business awareness. “I was able to gain a business perspective on the technical things I was delivering and see how what I delivered connected with the big picture.” 

Gaining momentum 

The Fuel Mentoring Program is building off the success of its first year, and its second cohort is already seeing positive engagement and results. The next cohort is set to launch in early summer. 

“It’s wonderful to see the investment Securian is making in our talent,” says Elena Imaretska, diversity, equity and inclusion center of excellence consultant at Securian, who leads the program. “I personally have been so impressed with the dedication and brilliance of both our mentees and their mentors and coaches. It is a testament to the power of intention, and how regular, open, deep conversations can have big, positive impact on all parties involved and ultimately to our ability to create a space in which our people thrive and contribute fully their diverse points of view and ideas.” 

Values in action

DEI at Securian Financial is a multi-faceted commitment to our internal and external communities.

Read more about DEI

Cynthia Billingsley-Smart, Ross Stedman, Krista Bruesehoff, Bob Ehren, Marianne Cumming, Heng Kong, Mark Geldernick and Elena Imaretska are Securian Financial employees and therefore have a financial connection to Securian Financial. Their statements were given freely.

DOFU 3-2022