Seraina Maag likes a challenge. "It's very satisfying if you can solve problems and look back on your achievements and leave your mark on an organization as well," she says. The chief executive of North America Property & Casualty at XL Group, Insurance has certainly done so.
Maag's career began in banking, which is what she always thought she wanted. She began at Brown Brothers Harriman while obtaining her undergraduate degree. When a recruiting firm contacted her, asking her to participate an interview process at Swiss Re, she was hesitant. "I didn't want to be in insurance or reinsurance, although I had heard about Swiss Re being a very reputable organization, it was kind of considered blue blood in Switzerland at the time, in the early 1990s."
But, the job was in underwriting for trade credit and surety, which Maag says was akin to banking. So, never one to back down from a challenge, Maag successfully navigated an exhaustive interview process and was offered the position.
"It was a tremendous opportunity for a young female at the time and Swiss Re didn't have a lot of women," she says. Maag held a number of positions in her 10 years with the company, selecting carefully by evaluating each position and taking into consideration her potential supervisors. "My bosses were always very supportive. Swiss Re invested a lot in their people and provided opportunities. It was a great start in insurance and I realized I liked insurance."
Her roles with Swiss Re took her to Israel, Turkey, Asia, Europe, South Africa and ultimately to living in Australia while obtaining her MBA from Monash Mt. Eliza Business School and working toward becoming a chartered financial analyst. But by 2000 Maag was ready for a change. She became a founding partner and financial analyst for the investment bank Neue Zuercher Bank, where she covered Zurich Financial Services.
After two years, she discovered she didn't like investment banking and was approached by Zurich to run its investment relations department. Happy to get back into insurance, Maag took on the position and was soon promoted to president of Zurich North America Commercial's Specialties business unit, which required Maag, then seven-months pregnant, to move her two young daughters to New York.
Two and a half years later, in 2010, she was presented with yet another challenge (i.e. opportunity), this time with XL. "The organization had just come through a difficult patch; XL had its own financial difficulties in 2008 and it reminded me of what Zurich had gone through and how much fun and how interesting it was actually building an organization after they had gone through a crisis. It almost felt like a startup organization when I looked at the opportunities, but with the benefit of being part of a large global organization that has great brand recognition."
Maag is responsible for a team of more than 700 professionals, driving profitable growth and increasing market share. Under her leadership, XL introduced 24 new products in 2011 and the insurer's North America P&C unit showed significant top-line growth, with more than a 30-percent increase in gross written premium by September 2011, accomplishments WIL judges deemed worthy of recognition.
Looking back, Maag is proud of these many accomplishments, but most proud of the connections she's made, the talent she's recruited and the women she's helped succeed. To do this, Maag believes leaders, men or women, have to accept that there isn't just one way to lead. "I believe in genuine leadership and having the courage to be yourself," she says. "When I first got promoted into the large leadership role, I kind of had that preconceived notion of how a leader needs to be."
Maag soon established her own leadership and management style: collaborative. Her office has three walls; the door-or wall, rather-is always open. In fact, when an XL underwriter recently approached her about setting up a women's network at XL, Maag set the wheels in motion and efforts are underway for a formal program.
"I'm very teamwork oriented and that's one of the things I brought to XL. It's not about the individual, it's about the team, and we can be much more successful if we work together collectively. Diversity also leads to better outcomes. While women and men have a lot of the same qualities, I think they have different approaches to solving problems. Combining the two of them really can get you good outcomes."
Number of years in the industry: 20
Number of direct reports: 17
XL Group's gross written premium: $1.3 billion
Nominated by: FirstBest Systems and P&C Insurance Systems
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