How Women Can Rise to Executive Level in P/C Insurance Industry

By | May 31, 2013

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 being a sponsor is one of the best things they can do to help other women get ahead in their careers.

In advance of the Women in Insurance Global Conference slated for June 12 in New York, four successful P/C insurance executives discussed critical factors for success for women in the insurance industry in a podcast jointly produced by the event’s sponsor, the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF), and Wells Media Group’s Insurance Journal.

During the hour-long podcast, IICF Women Executive Roundtable: Gender Diversity in the P/C Insurance Industry, 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.

In the hour-long podcast, the executives were also asked their views on what the insurance industry can do to improve gender diversity in its executive ranks and what some of the challenges have been for them.

Pina Albo
Pina Albo

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, they offered many insights and recommendations. Here are just 7 of their recommendations for women looking to move up and into the insurance industry C-suite:

1. Work at Networking

Networking is critical to getting ahead.

“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.”

Joan Woodward
Joan Woodward

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. Don’t Be Shy; Take a Risk

Maag recalled a period early in her career before she joined XL when she declined 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.

For the XL executive, that was an experience to remember.

“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 organization 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.

According to Woodward, opportunities don’t always come knocking; they have to be sought.

“[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 that some of the responsibility is on women themselves.

“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

Experience matters but some experience matters more than others for rising to the top.

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

“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.”

In addition, 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.

But women can’t tackle new experiences if they are not given the opportunity.

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 certainly knows the feeling and recommends turning this minority status 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.”

Henry said women should utilize the element of surprise when it’s available. “Let other people underestimate you at their own peril,” she said.

5. Partner Wisely

No executive is an island.

These four women said they have had the benefit of 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. Work-Life Balance: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Woodward speaks her mind when it comes to 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.

As for the daily grind, Woodward said women should give themselves a break. “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.

There are inevitably times where a work has to be the priority.

“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 adopted a similar strategy.

“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, harder and smarter than everybody else. But she sees it differently now.

“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 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.

“[W]e’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.

Sponsors don’t have to be other women; the industry needs men to also step up as sponsors.

“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.”

For more on the upcoming conference, visit http://womensconference.iicf.org/.

The IICF Women Executive Roundtable may be listened to in its entirety, or in segments as follows:

IICF Women Executive Roundtable: Gender Diversity in P/C Insurance Industry, (Complete Interviews)

IICF Women Executive Roundtable: Critical Factors for Success in P/C Insurance

IICF Women Executive Roundtable: Biggest Challenges They’ve Faced

IICF Women Executive Roundtable: Can Women Have It All?

IICF Women Executive Roundtable: What’s Next for Gender Diversity in Insurance

IICF Women Executive Roundtable: Gender as Negative, Positive Factor in Career

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