The HR Entrepreneur

Matthew Geis

Greatest Challenge: Streamlining the HR function at LFG and its subsidiary, Lincoln Financial Network.

Greatest Achievement: Helping the company's HR generalists achieve their potential to be true business partners.

This article accompanies Meet Some Future CHROs.

By Andrew McIlvaine

Matthew Geis knows business. His firsthand knowledge comes from running his own company and knowing full well the consequences should he fail to collect fees and make payroll.

"Being on the front lines and having to deal with sales development, hiring folks and training them quickly, and worrying about money coming in -- you can't replicate that experience," says Geis, who co-owned a successful executive-search firm before joining Bank of America and then his current employer, Radnor, Pa.-based Lincoln Financial Group. "It gives me a different perspective on how we support our internal customers here."

As senior vice president of HR, Geis oversees HR for Lincoln Financial Network, a 550-employee division (with a network of an additional 8,000 or so agents and advisers). LFN and its parent company are operating in a brave new era of increased government scrutiny, uncertain financial markets and stiff competition from bigger and better-known companies. Geis wants the business leaders at LFN to be free to help the company thrive in such an environment -- and not worry about whether functions such as compensation planning, payroll and recruiting are being taken care of as effectively and efficiently as possible.

It's why he worked closely with his direct reports in HR to turn them into business partners and hand their transactional work over to the "centers of expertise" at Lincoln Financial Group.

Before that, LFN's business leaders would turn to the HR generalists to help them resolve payroll issues or address benefits-related questions. The generalists happily complied -- after all, it was their job. However, Geis found they were merely replicating work that could be done more efficiently by Lincoln Financial's COEs, and limiting their own development, to boot.

The business leaders were an easy sell for this shared-services model, he says. The HR generalists? Not so much.

"If you can bring additional services to a business leader, they'll love it," says Geis. "The hardest part was helping the generalists understand that they needed to act like consultants now, and give up things they'd gotten accustomed to doing every day."

Geis' work at LFN was made possible by his accomplishments at Lincoln Financial, where he spent four years in recruiting and staffing roles prior to assuming his current job in 2010. At the parent company, he led efforts to consolidate and streamline LFG's staffing function, which had previously been distributed among the company's various business units.

Geis' boss, Chief HR Officer Lisa Buckingham, credits him with helping to make the HR function more strategic.

"He's taken the HR business-partner role to the next level from the standpoint of, it's not all about the HR policies, but it's about the business needs plus the people needs," she says.

At LFN, Geis encouraged the HR generalists to accept their new roles by profiling their successful colleagues.

"One of the women who used to do recruiting is now redesigning leadership-development frameworks for the entire business and is doing a great job," he says.

"The business is doing backflips, she's doing backflips -- and we talk about it across all of HR."

Geis' job is complicated by the fact that many of the people who generate much of LFN's business are not regular, full-time employees of the company: They're so-called "statutory" employees, who sign a contract to sell Lincoln Financial products.

High-performing agents are permitted to "buy into" a health plan LFN offers exclusively for them. Unfortunately, due to a number of demographic factors, the costs for this plan were skyrocketing and were reflected in the agents' premiums, which made the plan less attractive and sparked complaints.

Geis partnered with the benefits team at LFG to pinpoint cost drivers, identify best practices, encourage healthy behaviors and increase funding from the company to lessen the cost burden on the agents. As a result, premium increases for the agents have been zero-to-minimal for the past two years, says Buckingham.

What does Geis' future hold? Buckingham doesn't hesitate to answer: He's a future CHRO -- that is, unless one of the business units grabs him first.

"In HR, if you're good at what you do and know the business, then the business partners want you," she says.

As for Geis, he advises his HR colleagues to focus on the big picture.

"I encourage other HR people to think of themselves as business people who happen to specialize in HR," he says. "You can't be too steeped in the technical aspects of your job."

That's not to say he doesn't appreciate detail. A lifelong hunter, one of Geis' hobbies is carving wooden decoy ducks -- he's so good at it, in fact, that his work was featured in the 2007 book Decoys: Sixty Living and Outstanding North American Carvers, by Loy S. Harrell. (Google "Matt Geis" and "decoys" to see some samples.)

Much of his spare time is devoted to coaching a traveling softball team for 13-year old girls, one of whom is his daughter. Geis, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, N.J., still lives there today with his wife and child.

Despite the long hours that coaching requires, Geis says he wouldn't trade it for anything.

"I can't tell you how humbling it is to see these girls play their hearts out and perform so well and yet, sometimes, they still lose and they have to come to terms with it," he says. "These kids learn so much from playing sports that we just can't teach them in the classroom."

Jul 17, 2012
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