Changemakers: Prudential’s Career Navigation Experience Unlocks Employee Potential

Prudential’s Skills Accelerator platform enables employees to own and drive their personal career journeys with personalized digital career services.

The insurance industry is facing a talent conundrum. A growing number of baby boomer employees are retiring, with the pandemic accelerating many individual retirement timelines. Efforts to recruit new talent are hampered by millennials’ negative of careers in insurance. And employers facing an urgent business imperative to need employees who have comprehensive sets of new skills. All of these forces are coalescing into the one thing the insurance industry hates the most — uncontrolled risk.

How does an industry that is inherently risk-averse and change-resistant navigate these challenges? , one of the largest and most well established and largest insurance companies in the world, is creating a bold path forward.

Prudential is a Fortune 500 company based in the U.S. that provides insurance, investment management, and other financial products and services in the U.S. and more than 40 other countries. With over 50,000 employees, Prudential is addressing the talent conundrum head-on. The company recently joined JFF’s initiative, a coalition of companies responding to the unemployment crisis by urging other businesses to mobilize as Impact Employers and invest in the financial and career well-being of their employees.

Prudential has decided to forgo traditional hiring and promotion processes that focus on educational credentials and past experience and is instead embracing a skills-based approach. Focusing on skills instead of pedigree enables the company to ensure that it will have the talent it needs to remain competitive in a digital world. It also helps Prudential create opportunities for a broader and more diverse pool of both internal and external workers — not just those who have traditional business backgrounds.

, senior strategist at , recently spoke with Wagner Denuzzo, head of capabilities for future of work at Prudential, to find out more.

CO: Your background is different from those of most business executives. Tell us about your journey to becoming a corporate leader.

My background is a little different. I grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where my family did not have wealth or status. Although I was able to earn a college degree — I made women’s clothing during the day to pay for night school — there were no career opportunities for me in Brazil because I was not politically or socially connected. So I migrated to the U.S. at 22 without much money, less than $1,200, or the ability to speak English, which was hard.

When I arrived in the US, I worked as a social worker, helping immigrants with AIDS, while earning my master’s degree in clinical social work. This was in the early ’90s when the AIDS crisis was at its peak, before the current medications were available. So my 20s were all about death, dying, and difficult experiences. As you can imagine, I burned out after a while, but that suffering and awareness of the human condition stayed with me.

I moved to counseling through corporate employee assistance programs (EAP), which put me in touch with the pulse of business culture. From there, I transitioned into HR strategy and eventually started an executive coaching practice, serving global Fortune 500 clients. That led to leadership development and organizational design management roles at IBM and then Prudential.

Social worker to corporate executive is definitely a nontraditional career path. What’s the common thread that ties all of your jobs together?

I’ve always been oriented to helping people who are capable but who do not have access to opportunities. Because I struggled to find work and connect to good jobs early in my life, I always find myself helping others facing a similar struggle. Who I am today is a direct result of the context in which I grew up.

Changemakers like yourself use their influence and positions to mobilize their companies to prioritize employee-centric strategies. How are you using your current position, head of capabilities for future of work, to help capable people who do not have access to opportunities?

I look after Prudential’s Skills Accelerator, which is our digital career services platform that matches talent with work and enables our employees to own and drive their personal career journeys. They can assess and understand their skills, identify potential positions they might be interested in and qualified for based on their skills and interests, and access curated training and education to improve and expand their skill sets.

Skills Accelerator is different from most traditional corporate learning or hiring programs because it focuses on the skills a person needs to be qualified for a job, instead of focusing solely on work experiences and degrees. Traditionally, companies hire based on a person’s pedigree — where they went to school, what degree they earned, where they worked — which can eliminate some workers who may not have followed a traditional career path.

Through the Skills Accelerator, we are changing our mindset to focus on the skills a person has. This opens the door for individuals who are capable of performing a job but who may not have gone to the “right” school or worked for the “right” company. This is a seismic shift in thinking which has significant potential to create more equitable opportunity in the workplace.

That can be difficult to grasp — we are all so conditioned to think someone is qualified for a job based on their pedigree.

Yes, our traditional way of learning and hiring is reversed. The traditional model of requiring someone to have already performed the job for which they are being hired doesn’t make sense, especially now when jobs are rapidly changing.

Careers are no longer linear. People do not stay in one field, company, or job for their lifetime, continuously working toward a higher role. Now, people move around quite a bit — and not just between companies. They are changing fields, jobs, geographies. . . . And jobs are changing as well. Companies cannot continue to hire and promote as if careers are a linear journey while our personal behavior and preferences are changing and business needs are changing.

Prudential is a large company, the largest insurance provider in the United States, with a lot of jobs — more than 50,000. How are you translating all of those job descriptions and tasks into a skills taxonomy?

We began working with every function and department in Prudential a couple of years ago to reimagine how work will be performed over the next three to five years. Our job was to take the visioning work done by the function or department and help them translate that vision into the skills they will need for success. We then encouraged employees to create a skill profile in the Skills Accelerator. It’s a lot of work, but we have been able to use machine learning software and artificial intelligence to accelerate the work. Our employees are also helping us build and improve the skill profiles as they use Skills Accelerator.

For many workers, this is a different way of looking at jobs and thinking about careers. How do you help employees navigate this new skills marketplace?

One of my core beliefs for the future is that everyone has potential and everyone is a leader. We all have to start by leading ourselves. With nonlinear career paths, understanding your skills and aptitudes and committing to continuous learning is essential. This requires a mindset shift for most.

We start by helping employees understand that skills are the new currency of the job market. We work with them to identify the skills they already have and which new skills they might need. We then coach employees on how to present their external self-image on digital platforms like LinkedIn and encourage them to explore new roles internally. Once employees are aware of their skills and understand the skills-based language, they can assess themselves against the jobs they want and the skill qualifications of others.

When employees identify new skills they may need, we provide learning paths and curated education and training resources for them. Because continuous learning is essential, we encourage employees to spend at least four hours each month learning new skills. We are proud that we increased overall employee learning at Prudential by 130 percent in 2020 over 2019.

I understand how Skills Accelerator helps employees gain new skills and understand career opportunities. But how does it specifically address your personal mission — helping people who are capable but who do not have access to opportunities?

The Skills Accelerator removes one of the hardest-to-eliminate barriers to equality — unequal access to information. In the past, people have hoarded information as a way to protect themselves and remain relevant. The Skills Accelerator democratizes data and information about jobs, making it available to everyone.

We are also addressing another big barrier to workplace equality — people’s ability and willingness to take career risks. People need to feel confident and safe before they are comfortable taking risks. Believing in yourself is an essential requirement for success. We all have self-limiting beliefs about ourselves. We need to quiet those voices so we have room to think about what is possible. My team helps people do this through one-on-one career support. Also, the Skills Accelerator lowers the risks of trying different career opportunities through an intentional focus on multiple recommendations and internal apprenticeships, which provide supportive on-the-job training.

Our goal is for the Skills Accelerator platform to become our employees’ career lab where each employee can design and experiment with their personal career journeys. In 2021, we are moving ahead with speed to build the most comprehensive talent marketplace in the industry, which will integrate all the data and personalized opportunities available at Prudential.

Employee support for Skills Accelerator has been strong: 82 percent of employees are currently using Skills Accelerator, and Prudential’s Business Resource Groups, which include all orientations, races, abilities, genders, and life experiences, have been our biggest champions.

That’s fantastic. Employers play such a vital role in supporting career navigation experiences for workers. And for your sector this is kind of radical thinking, not something I would expect from a historic company like Prudential.

I’m not surprised. More traditional employers have become very comfortable with high integrity but low innovation for many years. That approach was successful for quite some time. But, over the past five or so years, customer expectations have dramatically changed. With the digitization of our economy, customers now expect a very different experience when interacting with businesses. Prudential, like other businesses, has to fundamentally change to stay competitive and our leaders were ahead of the curve when they thought of a Future of Work team.

This is such important work today, especially as inequity and inequality in the workforce are remarkably persistent and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think this is the beginning of real change, or just more talk?

I’m hopeful this is real change. We are seeing companies embrace the business reasons why they must align their workforces with their market demographics — they are understanding that a diverse workforce is required to stay in touch with the pulse of customers. They are also internalizing the direct relationship between employee engagement and customer experience. Research shows that clients can easily identify the engagement of the employees who are serving them. [For example, see the Glassdoor report .]

But we need to see more people embracing collective leadership, particularly when solving tough issues. Corporate leaders need to be more inclusive of everyone’s ideas — willing to listen and provide space for others to talk. Current leaders who show up for Zoom calls with a traditional mindset just aren’t there yet.

So I think we are seeing the beginning of real change, but we need to measure results to make sure, which is why workforce analytics are essential. Analytics help us hold ourselves accountable. People have the misperception that unconscious bias can be eliminated. That is not possible. It is unconscious. So we need to be deliberate about our actions, measure results, and adapt based on data. At Prudential, we establish nine commitments with measurable outcomes with transparency, and that’s powerful.

You have a wonderfully optimistic view of how we can change the workplace so it works for everyone. What advice do you have for readers who want to drive similar change in their workplaces?

Be empathetic and remember that there is not change without loss. If someone is resisting change, they may be fighting the loss of something they value, perceived or real. To be empathic, particularly to someone resisting change, you need to know their individual history and context. Without that understanding, you will inevitably go into judgment, and judgment is bad for everyone. It breeds negative thoughts, stress, and anxiety. Resist judgement, and remember that, in the end, we are all just human.

The Changemakers series is produced as part of JFF’s , which features stories of Impact Employers. Visit for more information about Impact Employers. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

JFF (Jobs for the Future) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.