What I Wish I Knew: Sean Nicolello

What I Wish I Knew: a series of conversations around first jobs

Welcome to the second installment of our “What I Wish I Knew” series, which taps MetLife colleagues whose unique post-graduate experience might inspire recent grads as they forge their own professional paths. Next up we have Sean Nicolello, Director of Asia Health and Strategy, who has been with MetLife for twelve years.

What is your current role?

Sean Nicolello: I’m a Director of Asia Health & Strategy, which means that I work with countries in the region to create online health solutions for customers, so that they have new and better ways to connect with MetLife.

What is your background?

I grew up on Long Island, New York and I have a B.S. in Business with a concentration in Information Systems and Management from University at Albany. I also have an MBA in Finance and Management from Fordham University and I’m currently finishing a Life Office Management Association (LOMA) course so that I can gain Fellow, Life Management Institute Certification, which is a 10-course professional development program that teaches insurance and financial concepts to build a deeper understanding of the industry.

What did you picture yourself doing after college?

When I started an internship with MetLife during my sophomore year of college, my goals were highly business focused – get a good job out of college at a reputable organization and try to rise through the ranks (to pay down all that student debt!). My long term goal was to be a Chief Information Officer.

What was your first job?

My first job out of college was an I.T. job rotation program — the first of its kind for MetLife at the time. I really appreciated this program because while college prepares you for the industry you want to be in, it doesn’t teach you about the different roles that are available within that industry. So the I.T. rotation program gave me the freedom to navigate four different roles over a two year period and essentially choose my preferred team and role at the end. It really was an incredible opportunity to learn and grow.

What do you wish you knew about career development when you started out?

I wish I understood how important it was to have a diverse skill set — in my earlier years I was focused on moving through the ranks by focusing on one skill set but MetLife’s job rotation program showed me that true career growth only happens when I increase my competencies. Being flexible and open to change even with a set plan is another thing I wish I knew. Being comfortable with ambiguity and understanding the big picture is more important than dated, short-term milestones that are based on assumptions.

What qualities do you most admire in leadership?

The first quality I admire is emotional intelligence. I believe the best leaders are those that can understand the emotional sentiment in a situation and flex their ideas, thoughts and behaviors to maximize a positive result. They never let emotions drive their decision making, do not make rash decisions and can handle any situation thrown their way. They also create positive working environments for diverse teams.

The second is the ability to work hard and have fun. Leaders should make every effort to ensure that work is a fun environment while also pushing associates to achieve great results — the balance of these two things is the key to long term team success.

The last quality is encouraging autonomy. The best leader’s I’ve worked for have encouraged a high degree of autonomy and promoted self-drive. Often times, leaders that micro-manage can stifle creativity and make associates feel like they are without a voice. I believe a good leader can spot self-driven associates and give them autonomy to excel while also acknowledging that some associates may need coaching and more attention to be great.

How do you approach networking and career growth?

I never stop networking — it is the greatest career growth tool. Most future job opportunities come through large, diverse and strong networks of people. As an extrovert, I look forward to new opportunities to meet people. Sometimes it can be difficult to strike up conversations with strangers but I encourage everyone to challenge themselves to set a goal to meet new people as often as possible — you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Career growth is not just vertical — moving horizontally across an organization, across new and challenging roles can lead to faster vertical career growth. This goes back to understanding that future leaders of global organizations are not those with just a single skill set but those with diverse competencies and technical business knowledge.

How do you manage up?

The key to managing up is by identifying the type of manager I’m working with — what is their leadership style, personality type and preferred mode of engagement? By understanding how leaders behave I can anticipate their needs and reactions, which leads to a more effective way of managing up.

How do you ensure you continue to learn and grow professionally?

I proactively explore new and challenging roles or projects at work so that I can get out of my comfort zone and expand my skill set. But learning doesn’t stop when I leave the office, being curious about industry and non-industry related topics, immersing myself in professional speaking and recreation clubs help me enhance my creative thinking.

What are some critical dos and don’ts for starting a career on the right track?

  • Do raise your hand – to gain credibility early. Volunteer to take on new assignments to the extent that you can manage and always ask to take lead or start a new project. This will help you gain visibility and show how driven you are.
  • Be proactive, set ongoing 1-on-1 time with your manager every one to two months to talk about your on-going and upcoming projects. Discuss your career goals and how you plan to achieve them. Don’t wait for performance reviews to have these conversations.
  • Don’t be entitled, it fosters negative behavior. Thinking that you deserve to grow or be a leader without learning the ins and outs of the business is a surefire way to build a bad reputation and lose the respect of your managers and colleagues.
  • And lastly, don’t be afraid to fail, especially in the early days of your career. Learning failure helps you grow and preempt the warning signs that can prevent success in the future.

What do you find here at MetLife that embodies the culture you have looked for?

Most 150 year old companies struggle to stay relevant and shy away from large scale change but MetLife is leading the way by being bold. In the last few years, we’ve shown that our company can embrace change and is willing to push boundaries to stay relevant to our customers. From shifting our core business in the U.S. to building innovation labs and creating venture capital co-investment funds — MetLife is not settling for the status quo.

What styles of leadership do you see at MetLife?

Having had worked across various MetLife organizations in the U.S., Asia and EMEA, I’ve learned that we have an extremely diverse array of leaders. A common characteristic among MetLife leaders is motivational leadership and coaching. Many who I’ve worked with understand the dynamics that motivation plays in the workplace and have tried to lead by coaching and encouraging associates to be the best they can be.

Do you have a mentor or a champion? If so, how has this relationship helped you progress in your career?

Mentors are a critically important part of long-term success. Who better to gain advice from than someone with first-hand experience? I have a mentor that worked at MetLife for several years but recently retired and post-retirement, I continue to connect with him to seek advice. His willingness to support and guide me even into his retirement is a reflection of the compassion that many senior executives at MetLife possess. I highly encourage everyone to have a mentor — identify people you admire for their leadership style and career path and then make a thoughtful selection.

This interview has been condensed and edited.