Networking, sponsorship – and the right partner -key for successful executive women in US insurance.

Networking is the single biggest thing women can do to facilitate their rise up the corporate ladder in the property/casualty insurance industry, according to four women who have done just that – and who shared their experience in a podcast ahead of the Women in Insurance Global Conference which started on June 12 in New York.

During the hour-long podcast, IICF CEO Bill Ross interviewed Pina Albo, president of the reinsurance division at Munich Re-America; Trish Henry, executive vice president, government and industry affairs, ACE Group; Joan Woodward, executive vice president for public policy at Travelers and president of the Travelers Institute; and Seraina Maag, chief executive for XL Insurance North America Property & Casualty. They spoke their own minds, not necessarily the views of their employers.

They shared stories of gender-biased dress codes of 1980s and earlier years that banned pantsuits for women at work, lack of convenient bathrooms for women in corporate offices, being mistaken on the phone for a secretary, and the near-universal experience of often being the only woman in a room during high-level meetings — which they said can be turned into an advantage.

In the course of their discussion, covered by the industry-leading Claims Journal, they offered many insights and recommendations. Here are 7 of their recommendations for women looking to move up and into the insurance industry C-suite:

1. Networking is critical to success.

“A network is one of the most important assets in your career and you have to treat it as an asset, taking the time and the effort to build it,” said Munich Re’s Albo, “Within the industry, the more contacts you have the better it is because our business is still very relationship focused. These contacts are not only present or future business partners and sources of ideas but they also are a source of many career opportunities, not to mention great sounding boards. And when I talk about network, I mean networks both within and outside your organization.”

Henry, of ACE Group, said she thinks the male-dominated informal networks and a lack of networking by women help explain who gets to the executive level and who doesn’t.

“Let’s face it, if the president of a division at any one of the companies on this phone retires or resigns unexpectedly, very quickly five or six names bubble up. It’s not like they go and do a Google search,” said Henry.

“People know who’s in the industry, who has what experience, and I think that type of informal senior placement — which is natural, there’s nothing wrong with that — but that arrangement will continually end up with more men in those positions until we have women more engaged in the informal network. If that doesn’t happen, then you need to force it to happen by going out and finding who those individuals are.”

XL’s Maag agrees networking is important and thinks women need to get better at it.

“Guys network a lot. Women don’t do it that well. We tend to go home after work, especially if we have children, and it is important — it is important both internally as well as externally,” said Maag,

Woodward of Travelers stressed that effective networking takes work.

“I am a firm believer in always reaching out to new people across the industry, outside the industry, in different industries to help you build and rebuild your network to refresh it and always keep it, what I would say, current,” said Woodward.

Travelers is among the insurers that have set up diversity networks that Woodward said are meant to help employees appreciate their differences and help everyone work together across the organization. The diversity network even welcomes men to its ranks.

“We think… for women really to succeed and become corner office occupants in many different areas of our business units, it is the men and others in the organization who have to help them get there,” Woodward said.

2. Push yourself forward; be prepared to take a Risk.

Maag recalled a moment in her early career when she turned down a big promotion because she did not think she was ready for it.

“You need to be willing to take a risk. I really regretted that later because the person who came in was really a bad choice, and was actually gone within six months,” Maag said.

That proved a turning point for the XL Executive.

“Then when the second time the opportunity came up, I took the opportunity and that was a key learning for me, that you have to just have confidence and be willing to take the risk and be willing to be out of your comfort zone.”

Albo has a friend who advises women on “manning up,” which involves women speaking up and letting others know what they want to do.

“I tell people in our organisation don’t be shy, to raise their hand and say, ‘I’d like to lead this project,’ or, ‘I’d like to be a manager one day and I know I can do it.’ Sometimes putting yourself out there involves taking a risk. But you know what they say, no risk, no reward,” said Albo.

Woodward points out that opportunities rarely come to you – they have to be sought out and secured.

“[I]f you feel you’re not getting opportunities, seeking them out on your own, I think, is really welcomed by senior management, both in government and in the private sector,” said Woodward.

Henry agrees:

“I do think it is your responsibility to speak up and say, ‘I’m ready for the next challenge,’ or ‘I’m ready for the challenge, and you tell me what you think I need to do to succeed in that next level. Is there some skill that I’m missing? Is there some substantive knowledge? Should I take a class? Should I get a mentor in a different area?’” the ACE executive said.

3. Get the Right Experience (usually P&L)

For Maag, the key is getting experience with profit and loss responsibility within an organisation.

“There are a lot of women in support functions and other areas but there are not that many women who have P&L responsibility. Unless you have had P&L responsibility, it is really, really difficult to move to that C-suite. That’s one of the things that the industry can do better a job of, making sure that we do have, or give them P&L responsibility early on.”

Beyond that, she said getting exposure to senior management early in a career as she was able to do can help. “They were very impressed with how I handled the investors and the rating agencies at the time, so that time has been instrumental in my career,” she said.

At the same time that women take ownership for their own careers, “companies need to identify, at the mid-level, very high potential women and make sure that they are getting the opportunities and the experiences, and the relationships,” said Henry.

4. Turn ‘Minority Status’ Into an Advantage

Most women in executive positions are familiar with situations where they are the only woman in the room. Henry believes this minority status can turn into an advantage.

“If you’re in that position and you do your homework and you’re prepared and you have the confidence, and you raise your hand or interrupt or speak up, whatever you need to do to get noticed, that we’ve all mentioned, you can be very memorable because you are the only person in there that’s dressed like you,” said Henry.

“Then people start to remember who you are within your company, within the industry. You don’t blend in as much, and if you use that to your advantage, I think it will actually be absolutely a benefit.”

5. Choose your Partner carefully.

All four women said they have had supportive spouses, partners who have been willing to sacrifice their own careers.

“I counsel young women, ‘Choose wisely who you’re going to partner with, and have them understand fully that you are a Type A woman, you are a career woman,’” said Woodward. “Yes, you want a family, or yes, you want to do this in your personal life, but get your priorities straight and making sure everyone in your surrounding area, your radius, understands what your priorities are.”

6. Be Honest about the so-called Work-Life Balance.

Woodward was straight-talking when it came to the ‘issue’ of balancing work with the rest of life:

“I …served on several panels and was very controversial by saying that someone once told me your babies and your young children are never going to remember who changed their diaper in daycare or who picked them up from soccer games or made it to the first couple of soccer games. They just are not going to remember these things. They’re going to remember the highlights and the importance of special times together or vacations when you’re fully dedicated to them,” she said.

 Woodward said women should keep a perspective. “It’s OK not to be there every minute doing laundry. It’s OK not to pick them up at daycare every time. I’ve let myself off the hook in terms of feeling guilty about those things, maybe after the third child,” she said.

“It’s all about scale, and trying to find just what deserves my attention at this time,” said Alba. “Sometimes work requires more of my time, but I don’t beat myself up over it because at the end of the day I know there are going to be other times when my private life is going to take priority and more of my focus and my time. Really the challenge, if you want to call it that, is basically finding that balance and keeping organized, both on the work and the home front.”

Henry has also followed this path.

“What you need to do, in my opinion, is when it’s a lull in work, when there’s not something that’s so, so critical, take the time then,” said Henry. “Do whatever you can with your spouse, with your kids, exercise more. Take the time when you can, and don’t feel guilty about it.”

Henry said she used to feel that she needed to be seen working more hours than everybody else. But she doesn’t believe that’s always necessary.

“You don’t need to always do that 100 percent of the time, as long as you do the important things really, really well. It’s never balanced, but that’s the way that you can sort of ebb it and flow through life and your career,” she said.

7. Get yourself a Sponsor.

Women need other people in the industry to talk them up, take their side and recommend them when opportunities arise. They should make it a point find someone to do this, a sponsor.

“I think that [finding a sponsor] is really important,” said Maag. “There’s a difference between ‘sponsor’ and ‘mentor,’ and you have to remember men get promoted on potential, women get promoted on performance. You always have to have somebody in the organization that is looking out for you.”

Women executives must themselves be willing to act as sponsors.

“We’re senior leaders in the industry and I think we have the responsibility, too. I would say that you have to send the elevator down and bring other young women up with you. Women have to find sponsors themselves but us, who are in senior leadership positions already, we need to look out for young people that are up and coming,” Maag said.

And sponsors don’t have to be other women.

“You can’t just have mentors around the place, you need to have sponsors,” said Woodward. “When you look up, many, many times the sponsors for such women, like myself, are men.”

Commenting on the revelations from C-suite US women executives, Heather White, CEO of UK-based The Non Exec Hub, was struck by just how universal these experiences are.

“Listening to the discussions was quite unerring as they mirror the findings of our recently published NED/Trustee Insight Report. In essence, it’s all about networking, networking and networking – which a sponsor can obviously help with and an understanding partner can support. There really is no substitute to ‘getting out there’ – be it within an organisation or, in the case of NEDs, working the well-worn paths that are proven to bring success. That’s the advice we always give – and it always seem to work.”

Heather White is CEO of Non Exec Hub. To find out more about this online community and unique resource, contact her at [email protected]

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