From teen mom to the c-suite, Jeanette Ward sees her own win over imposter syndrome as inspiration for others and a call for employers to be even more thoughtful in inclusion initiatives.
The modern workforce must be inclusive, and it should challenge the stigmas and prejudices that make it difficult for people to advance their careers. Employees should feel like they are in a welcoming environment where they can not only belong but thrive.
Advancing inclusion in the workplace holds a special place for me. Becoming a mother at 17, I battled imposter syndrome for years. Individuals suffering from imposter syndrome doubt themselves and often feel they do not deserve to be where they are. I hid my authentic self from the workplace until I finally came to understand it was not only okay to have a different background than my colleagues, but it was important. People with diverse backgrounds, with different life and cultural experiences, bring unique talents and experience to the workplace that can contribute to a more inspired and empowered workforce as well as to company profitability and overall success.
It was 1993 when I began my career as a receptionist at Texas Mutual. I had a young child at home and a liberal arts degree I wasn’t sure how to use in the insurance industry. I was a diligent worker and quickly moved into financial services, accounting and then to the claims department. Even as I advanced in my career throughout the company, which I needed to do to support my daughter, I still didn’t really believe in myself or that I belonged.
Many of us have this notion that to be successful, we have to be “normal” – part of a household with a successful male, successful wife and 2.5 children. As a young, single mother, I was embarrassed. I was not the “normal” I thought my co-workers and managers would accept.
For years, I continued to put my head down and do my job well. Eventually, I was promoted to a senior vice president position overseeing the entire claims, safety services, company call center and marketing departments. I was fortunate to have advocates and mentors along the way who helped guide me and lift me up. Their support was invaluable.
Texas Mutual hired an executive coach to work with me and others at the company during this time. This was a real turning point for me. Working with that coach, I learned to believe in myself. I realized everything I had to bring to the table was valuable. Acknowledging this and freeing myself of the imposter syndrome that had plagued me for so long gave me the confidence to grow into the c-suite – and acknowledge that I deserved to be there.
In May 2018, I was named chief operating officer at Texas Mutual. That year, I was asked to speak at a diversity and inclusion focused event hosted by the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation. It was there that I shared my story before a large group for the first time. Getting up and telling my story in front of 600 industry professionals left me with the most incredible feeling. Afterwards, many different members of the audience, men and women, told me they felt inspired. One woman, with tears in her eyes, said my story was her story. Professional diversity and inclusion events like IICF’s Inclusion in Insurance Forum are invaluable for helping people understand that everyone belongs at the table in the workplace.
Today, I am a passionate advocate for others. I want employers to understand it’s not just diversity that is important, inclusion must also be a focus. I see a new, broader definition of inclusion for the future. Inclusion that means involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people are recognized.
For employees, inclusion will invite them to bring their best selves to work, to feel comfortable and to enjoy a sense of belonging. There are so many people from different circumstances and backgrounds. How many of our coworkers are holding back because they feel like they are not going to fit in? That they don’t fit some notion of a “normal” mold?
For employers in insurance – and across all industries – the world is moving quickly. As it advances, so do consumers’ expectations of what they want and need from a business, as well as how they want to interact. Focusing on inclusion and having diverse experience and people from a variety of backgrounds driving the decision making in a company will set that firm up for future success. Why? Because customers appreciate working with people who understand them and share similar experiences as them.
To embrace this change, better serve their employees and realize that future success, company leadership must look at themselves and see how they can truly understand their employees and appreciate the unique experience and talents each individual contributes to the workforce. One key to reaching this understanding and appreciation is being willing to be vulnerable. At new employee orientations and in other public venues, I make it a point to share my personal stories. To help employees feel more included, leaders can hold forums and encourage employees to talk and explain what they might need. At the same time, leaders will need to listen, but it all starts with a leader who can be vulnerable and authentic.
Now is the perfect time to make everyone at the table feel welcome. We need to get better as employers at creating an inclusive environment where we can truly connect with our newly hired and existing workforce. We have to understand their backgrounds and be honest and vulnerable about our own fears, experiences and how we’ve overcome challenges. That’s one important way that I believe we can advance, together.
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