During COVID-19, Allianz Partners' Elena Edwards stepped up

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Elena Edwards, Allianz
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Serendipity introduced Elena Edwards to insurance 18 years ago and she’s never looked back. Educated as a mechanical engineer, Edwards held several leadership positions in GE’s Aerospace and Plastics industrial divisions until she was tapped by the corporation’s financial division to pilot various insurance-related units.

“At that time, GE’s culture encouraged trying new and different things, even if they were outside your comfort zone,” says Edwards, now CEO of Allianz Partners USA. “I knew nothing about insurance previously, but I fell in love with the industry for protecting people and being there during the moments of truth when our customers need us the most.”

Eventually, Edwards decided to pursue new challenges and became Allianz’s General Manager in January 2019. Her original charge was spearheading an organizational transformation, from the traditional siloed approach to becoming a collaborative and cross-functional culture that uses Agile principles and methodologies. As the transformation continued, she also directed a complex upgrade of the company’s CRM platform.

“My approach focused on empowering transformation team members to take the lead, making them responsible and giving them ownership,” says Edwards. “I supplied guidance and support, including identifying and engaging with reluctant individuals in the company so I could effectively address their concerns and minimize organizational roadblocks.”

The combined cultural realignment and technology modernization resulted in a five point surge in the company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) as well as an increased project completion rate of about 70 percent, which accelerated speed to market and facilitated a 15 percent profitability boost for 2019. As the U.S. business unit was the first to complete this Agile transformation, it’s now considered an example for other regions.

Stepping up during the pandemic
Last spring, within weeks of helping shepherd the company’s COVID-19 transition to a work from home (WFH) model in mid-March, the CEO position opened up. Edwards took the reins in June and immediately tasked the company with doubling down to take care of clients, customers, partners and team members. Despite absorbing significant short-term revenue losses, Edwards' strategy enabled Allianz Partners to project confidence, which was reflected in a three-point year-over-year gain in the firm’s closely watched employee engagement index.

“We concentrated on figuring out what accommodations our customers and partners needed and then how to communicate those accommodations,” she says. “This included interacting with multiple external parties, including regulators.”

Next, Edwards charted a course that prioritizes ongoing innovation to create competitive advantages when travel returns. “Being prepared for what’s next goes beyond technology and process improvements,” says Edwards. “We’re also investigating how the pandemic is shaping traveler needs and developing relevant solutions to ensure we’re in sync with new market expectations.”

Simultaneously, Edwards is using digitalization benefits to enhance the front lines. “Whether it’s AI, cloud or RPA [robotic process automation], it’s always about taking the resulting savings and investing it wherever high-touch human interactions occur,” Edwards says. “It’s those human interactions that ultimately differentiate your company and set it apart from the rest.”

Early lessons become guideposts
To navigate such seismic change, Edwards draws on lessons learned early. In her first post-college leadership position, she was appointed to helm a previously self-directed GE machine shop. It produced parts for guidance systems, armored vehicles and other military applications.

“My all-male team was at least two decades older than I,” she says. “During my first team meeting a senior machinist asked ‘how many of these machines do you know how to run?’”

Quick-witted and ceaselessly enthusiastic, Edwards replied none of them. “You’re the experts on the machines,” she told them. “My job is to improve our overall efficiency, thereby helping you bring more work into the shop.”

Over the next 10 months Edwards worked to gain her new team’s trust. “I knew I’d finally succeeded when that same machinist, who was extremely well-regarded, came into my office and said ‘if the executives don’t pull the rug out from under you, you’re going to go far,’” she recalls.

“Thinking back on it,” she adds, “they taught me fundamental lessons about capitalizing on people’s strengths, ensuring everyone’s needs are met and taking difficult action when necessary. I rely on those lessons to this day.”

Innately passionate, collaborative and laser-focused on achieving any given initiative’s goals, Edwards also credits her success to exceptional mentors, starting with her parents.

“My Dad contributed the high intellectual standards, always nudging me to improve academically by saying I was smart enough to do better,” she explains. “My Mom provided the unconditional support, praise, and coaching that helped me get beyond my nervousness when faced with a new challenge, like giving a speech or trying out for the track and field team.”

Both parents also encouraged her to pursue whatever she wanted, regardless of her gender. “Although I was self-conscious and unsure of myself growing up, my parents’ mentoring helped my confidence blossom in college and beyond,” Edwards says.

Setting the bar high
Moving forward, Edwards foresees further investments in people, technologies and processes, including expanding her company’s use of data and analytics. “To drive us into the future successfully it’s critical we have the right data at our fingertips,” she says. “This requires the right resources, whether its data scientists or analytics engines, to enable making informed decisions fast.”

Edwards also plans to keep evolving personally by incorporating new lessons to support taking bold action. “For example, I leverage the concepts inThe Next Level, by Scott Eblin,” she says. “In particular, it’s critical to force yourself to move on to fresh ways of thinking and acting, rather than continuing to do what you’ve done before.”

“Like becoming CEO during a pandemic,” Edwards adds with her trademark humility and infectious grin. “It definitely necessitated doing things differently than when I was General Manager.”

Through it all, you can count on Edwards continuing to apply the relentlessly positive, expectation-oriented leadership style that’s served her well. “I need to be accountable for focusing on the big rocks, and moving them out of our way, while allowing our people to be responsible for getting things done,” she says. “Most importantly, especially in these times, I need to keep people at the center, strive to make everyone feel valued, and ensure we all we have fun along the way.”

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