Women In Insurance Roundtable

Five senior women insurance executives detail what factors contributed to their rise to the top in our special roundtable discussion.

Women are becoming a force to be reckoned with as the number of women in leadership positions in the insurance industry continues to rise. In fact, Canadian women in financial services have advanced into executive roles more rapidly than in any other industry in the past two years, according to a recent study.

The 2010 Catalyst Consensus found that women in insurance and financial services held 24.3% of senior officer positions at Financial Post 500 companies in 2010, an increase from 21.8% in 2008. This rate outpaces the average for all companies surveyed, where 17.7% of women held senior officer positions in 2010, up from 16.9% in 2008.

However, according to Deborah Gillis, senior vice president, membership and global operations at Catalyst, Canadian companies are still underutilizing talented women.

“Catalyst research indicates that companies with more women senior officers on average outperform those with fewer,” says Gillis. “Time is up for ‘give it time.’ Organizations must commit to accelerating the advancement of women or risk losing top talent. In light of increasingly fierce global competition, corporate Canada has nothing to lose and much to gain by choosing leaders from its full deck of talent—women and men.”

So for those women in insurance that want to advance in their careers, how do you work your way up and become successful?

Canadian Insurance Top Broker held a roundtable discussion on September 12, 2011, with several female industry leaders to answer just that. Editor Daryl Angier moderated the roundtable. These well-known women that have created legacies for themselves are:

  • Christine Lithgow, president of Aon Risk Solutions
  • Sharon Ludlow, president and CEO of Swiss Re
  • Ellen Moore, president of Chubb
  • Lynn Oldfield, president and CEO of Chartis Insurance Company of Canada;
  • and Eileen Greene, vice president and partner at HKMB HUB International.

During the discussion, the participants detailed their career paths and offered insight on leadership, culture and diversity. Each agreed they wouldn’t have been able to rise to the top without building strong relationships with their peers and having mentors. Other keys to their success included plain old hard work, dedication and never saying “no” to an opportunity.

A common reflection among these leaders was that not one had their eyes on an executive chair when they first started their career. Now, each agreed they would tell up-and-coming women in the industry to set their sights high and volunteer for assignments in order to move up.

Our special Women In Insurance coverage also includes profiles of several other prominent women leaders in the industry.

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Daryl Angier: What factors contributed to your success in achieving leadership positions?

Lynn Oldfield: I spent the time to get an undergrad, get a CIP, an FCIP, pursued my MBA, and became a student of the business. I spent a decade teaching for the Insurance Institute—mentors were an enormous part of the formative stage of my career. Also, I’m not shy. I put my hand up for some interesting assignments throughout my career. I was always quick to volunteer.

Sharon Ludlow: Similar to Lynn, one of the factors that contributes to my success is embracing the unknown. I was approached several times through my career to start something different. When I was getting my CA, I was seconded on an international assignment for a year. When I was in the life insurance industry, I was seconded to work on a high profile project for a couple of years.

Eileen Greene: I had a leader who was very supportive when I first started out. As I progressed through various roles, I learned how to excel at customer service and how best to manage the relationship with the client and the insurance company. For me, it was about never saying no, always putting my hand up and being eager to learn.

Ellen Moore: One of the biggest things that lets you get the visibility for those next assignments is your ability to develop talent. Personally, I measure my success by the successes of those that work with me and have been promoted through the organization. The most important job I have is promoting staff engagement and development. Helping people enjoy and excel at their careers is very rewarding.

Daryl Angier: That’s sort of the old sports analogy about not just looking out for yourself and your own stats, but being a good team member.

Ellen Moore: You can’t do it without the team. I’m sure everybody would agree.

Daryl Angier: Christine, maybe you can discuss the ability to physically relocate.

Christine Lithgow: I moved to Western Canada [from Scotland] in the early 1980s. I’ve been a broker, account manager, worked in claims, managed a branch and managed a region. Along the way there were so many colleagues and friends that have helped me. I’ve even had clients that helped drive me forward, because you cannot do this alone. So much of success is about surrendering yourself and building relationships with people that help you get there.

Daryl Angier: How would you describe your leadership style?

Christine Lithgow: It’s about building confidence in the team. I’ve seen so many different aspects of our business that I don’t think there’s anything that ruffles me anymore. We can work together through any challenge; there is always a way through it. You have to keep your ability to remain calm and see the answer.

Ellen Moore: I’m struck by what Christine says, because it is in your own confidence that you show confidence in the team. One of the toughest parts of the CEO job is that the buck stops with you. You have to set a clear and consistent course so employees know what is expected of them. There needs to be compromise certainty and flexibility needed for adjustments along the journey.  But, as leaders we need to show the confidence we believe in the direction taken and be ready to make the tough decisions.

Lynn Oldfield: Leaders have to lead, and leaders have to be courageous in leading. It’s not always clear, simple and concise. I got a good piece of advice from someone who was describing their own leadership style, and he said, “I listen. I take input. It’s a democracy until it’s required to be a dictatorship.” I always thought that was a great analogy because leaders need to listen as much as speak.

Eileen Greene: I agree. One of the biggest factors in any business is actually listening; not sitting on your BlackBerry or getting distracted, but truly staying focused and having outcomes after meetings. At HUB, we use meetings as a forum to focus our joint efforts. We leave our meetings ready to execute on what was discussed.

Daryl Angier: How is your leadership style similar and different from others that you’ve worked with? What are some things you’ve liked and disliked in leaders you’ve worked for?

Eileen Greene: Similar to many who entered this industry at the same time as I did—it was very male-dominated. One of the greatest things I was told was don’t lose your femininity—that sense of gentleness and ability to listen. I am privileged to work on a very collaborative team where dictatorship is not an issue. It’s a problem when you have one voice making all the decisions. That can be destructive to the team-based environment needed to succeed.

Ellen Moore: You have to be available. How many times have we had a knock on the door and somebody says, “do you have a minute,” and you know you don’t. You’re at negative minutes. Women may be more inclined to say come on in. Perhaps it is part of our nurturing character.

Christine Lithgow: And I think that’s key; being the type of person that others want to work with. You  have to have a sense of humour. We all want to be with people that inspire us and make us feel good.

Daryl Angier: How would you describe your approach to sales and business development?

Christine Lithgow: My job is to make sure we’re doing the best for our existing clients, developing new clients, and attracting and retaining staff. So it’s a sales job on many levels. You need to build a firm that people want to work for and do business with.

Eileen Greene: The most important thing for me is to be in front of the client. I am in constant touch with my clients, so I am top of mind when it comes to insurance. Also, having tremendous experts and resources when you need them makes a big difference. Our leadership team is ready to support any one of us and leverage off each other’s experience and expertise to land and keep an account.

Daryl Angier: Once you’ve got the clients, what do you do to retain them?

Sharon Ludlow: I have two rules of thumb. If I go to an event I must meet someone new, and for those I know I must come away with at least one more tidbit about them that I didn’t know before. Once you know something personal about someone, for example, their child is starting university, or they really like tennis, then I’m there with a call before their child goes off to university or with Rogers Cup tickets.

Christine Lithgow: I think the relationship helps, but I think they have to view you as a trusted advisor. I’ve had clients call and speak to me before they make an acquisition. You become part of their team and they don’t think of you as somebody that works for an outside consultant.

Eileen Greene: One of my key successes has been going to my existing client base and asking them for referrals. Rarely do you hear no when you’ve done a good job for your client.

Ellen Moore: Making sure that our reputation is appropriate and precedes us is critical, and you can’t do what you’ve just described, Eileen, without having a good reputation. To Lynn’s credit, her personal reputation during negative press her company received in 2008 was hugely important to their sustainability.

Lynn Oldfield: Thank you for that, Ellen. Someone recently asked me, “After all of that, what could possibly be challenging now?” I said, “You have no idea how simplistic leadership was in a true crisis.” It’s an adrenaline-fueled environment, and you’re faced with a thousand issues every day. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, but it was so simple. I just asked myself, “Will that save the company? Yes or no?” I got up every morning and said, “What are we going to do today? Save the company.” I went home every night and said, “I hope we saved the company.”

Daryl Angier: The next topic of discussion is about role models you’ve had as you moved up in your careers.

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Copyright 2011 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the November 2011 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

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Transcontinental Media G.P.