I was so intrigued by McKinsey & Company’s “Women in the Workplace 2018” study that I decided to flip the script for my first column of 2019. From a simple question, “What are opportunities for women in the insurance industry?” came fascinating answers from three female agency leaders. They are at the forefront of addressing issues of inclusion and diversity. They are advocating for change in ways I believe many insurance organizations can learn from.
A Voice That’s Heard
You’d be smart not to say the phrase “women should have a seat at the table” to Barbara Bentley. Twenty years of human resources experience tells her this cliche doesn’t age well. As chief talent officer for Catto & Catto in San Antonio, Bentley focuses on attracting, engaging and developing diverse talent. “It’s more than women just having a voice,” she said. “It’s about women having a voice that’s heard.”
Bentley designed plans for female employees to “move beyond being a believer to becoming a builder.” With a commitment to equality and engagement, the agency’s culture has been forever changed for the better. “Diversity began once we expanded the ways we thought about growth,” she said. “We unlocked a lot of potential.” Bentley spoke about an evolving culture where men and women engage in real-time issues, from setting performance excellence standards to working on a project to change the agency’s management system. “How do you give people opportunities to develop and have leadership?” she asks. “Invite more voices into initiatives.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Then came my conversation with Karla Combs, chief operating officer at Lipscomb & Pitts Insurance in Memphis. After 25 years with the agency, Combs’ perspective on the role of women in the insurance industry doesn’t start and stop with her own leadership journey. She is proud of the diversity within the agency’s sales teams. Lipscomb & Pitts has six very successful female producers across personal lines, commercial lines and employee benefits. Even more notable, four began their careers in account management.
“We approached them about moving from service to sales,” Combs said. “All the credit goes to them for turning the opportunity into a huge success. The part I’m proud of is initially they didn’t necessarily see the potential in themselves, but we did and really wanted to foster their possibilities.”
Having successful women in sales breaks down barriers and stereotypes. “Perception isn’t always reality,” Combs said from watching two of the producers concentrate in male-dominated verticals like construction and trucking to seeing young male producers co-sell with experienced saleswomen. She’s gone as far as to make sure they hire more men in support positions.
Belonging and Mattering
At BKS Partners, two of the original founders are women and female representation exists through all levels of the company. Elizabeth Krystyn, founding partner of BKS Partners, said they could rest on their laurels, but they don’t. “When you look traditional, you have to work harder to be different,” she said. “In BKS’ case, we don’t look traditional and yet still strive for diversity and inclusion. We’re building a colleague-centric, ‘family inside of a larger family’ small group model,” she said.
“Transparency and communication is respect,” a mantra Krystyn said has led to full engagement and productivity for female and male employees. Twice a year, the agency issues a survey of 10 questions categorized around safety, belonging and mattering; topics which she recognizes are important to women. The results provide insight into how well BKS’ culture fosters inclusion. It’s a springboard for employees to share goals and support one another in “Welcome Activities.” One new hire had 50 emails from BKS employees by her first day. “By planting the flag early on for engagement and community [between men and women], we’re making diversity a part of BKS’ everyday language.”
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