Most insurance technology executives will tell you that navigating their way to the executive suite is, at the least, a rewarding experience. This adage is true for men and women, but in the male-dominated insurance industry, women tend to relish the ride.
Not unlike their male counterparts, women in today's insurance technology marketplace have much in common: They pursue growth, seek challenge, take initiative, refuse to be bored and love the industry. And like their male peers, women understand what's required to accomplish professional excellence. They also hold as a primary career objective the goal of extending their influence by bringing others, especially other women, up through ranks.
This attitude seems to permeate the industry, and contradict one finding of a recent study of women across vertical markets conducted by Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Women in Technology International and Compel Ltd., a Charlotte, N.C., management consulting and research firm. According to the "Women in Technology 2007" study, while 75% of today's women in technology roles would advise a young woman starting her career to enter a technology-related field, only 52% of the study's respondents report that their organizations offer "favorable climates" for women.
In our second annual "Women in Insurance" report, the profiles of six women from the executive suite (see p. 23) tend to dispute that notion. These female insurance executives embody business acumen, professional integrity, a passion for excellence and a true dedication to helping their organizations create a "favorable climate" for others. Additionally, their efforts transcend their organizations and are helping to shape the industry at large.
Yet, the successful efforts of the women featured in this issue, as well as those in executive positions throughout the industry, are not without certain challenges.
"Traditionally, the insurance industry has had its own heritage of being a male-dominated market," says Kimberly Harris-Ferrante, research vice president with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., "and men get into it and stay there. But there have been a lot of changes during the last 10 years," she says.
Harris-Ferrante points to two elements fueling change: the evolution of traditional business and technology roles, and consumerism, which is opening the door to even more opportunities for women to excel.
"Business and technology used to be separate, and IT people were not necessarily required to have a lot of business knowledge," she says.
Those roles that were traditionally siloed are now coming together, and the integration of these roles-of people needing to know IT and the business-reflects the future, according to Harris-Ferrante.
"Women are adept at pulling these two roles together, which has resulted in more women coming into powerful, more influential positions," she adds.
Harris-Ferrante believes that sphere of influence will play forward to women of other industries as insurance companies face the reality of multi-channel integration.
"Consumers are beginning to use different channels, and insurers must be able to provide constant branding, top-notch customer service and the technology to fuel those efforts across all those channels," she says. "This customer-centricity is causing carriers to investigate talent from other industries, such as retail. This increases the opportunity for women to extend that sphere of influence even further."
In a special follow-up segment, next month INN presents the views of women who have served the insurance industry from both sides of the street, as technology and business professionals from both the insurance and vendor communities.
CEO, eSolutions Group
Aon Risk Services Americas
Kathy Burns began her journey to the top of Aon Corp. at the bottom. In the late 1980s, Burns was part of the first college intern program for the Chicago-based company. Two decades and one detour later, Burns is CEO of Aon Risk Services Americas eSolutions Group.
During her time as an intern, a rotational program exposed Burns to various facets of Aon's business. She quickly determined that she was more interested in data and technology than in the traditional insurance brokerage service that Aon offered. "Risk management and insurance were very paper-driven," she says. "People didn't have access to electronic tools to improve their processes, or good electronic data with which to make decisions. It quickly became an interest of mine."
The decision to focus her career on technology was a fortuitous one. When Burns entered client technology 20 years ago, it was a new and growing area and much less institutionalized than other parts of the insurance industry. Burns says she encountered very little gender bias in the forward-thinking, jeans-and-t-shirt culture of technology. "I became involved very early on and now have a fantastic opportunity to continue to grow," she says. "I feel very blessed to have had the opportunities I've had here."
Five years ago, Burns left Aon to join a competitor. She spent three and one-half years as a senior executive at the CS STARS business unit of New York-based Marsh Inc. Burns says she felt the need to experience working at another organization with a different corporate culture and another set of product offerings. "It was a fantastic experience to have the background I had at Aon, work somewhere else, learn another organization and all the things you do when you have new experiences."
In April 2006, Burns was asked to come back to Aon to lead the client technology organization. A Chicago native and mother of three young children, Burns says she finds Aon a good fit both personally and professionally. "It's a culture where innovation is encouraged and rewarded."
MAKING BETTER DECISIONS
Burns says her current focus is on client technology and creating tools to help clients increase efficiency and make better decisions. To further this goal, Aon acquired San Ramon, Calif.-based Valley Oak Systems Inc. in March. Valley Oak now operates as an independent subsidiary of the eSolutions Group. Burns is especially excited about the advent of browser-based solutions, which, eliminating the issues inherent with the installation of software in multiple locations, enable the company to make an impact quickly and globally, she says.
Despite her considerable career accomplishments, Burns says she is most proud of the balance she has been able to achieve between her professional and personal life. "I've had a successful and rewarding career and yet been able to maintain a strong focus on balance and family."
Burns says she has had many mentors during her career, and advises others to constantly seek out new mentors as their careers progress. She also says she would offer women entering IT field the same advice as she would men.
"There's always a risk in technology of falling in love with technology itself and losing sight of what the technology is designed to do. Always focus on the client and on driving value for the client," she says.
Vice President of Protection Technology
Allstate Insurance Co.
Lifelong employees are hard to find. But Patricia Coffey, who found a home at Allstate in 1982 seeking to take advantage of the company's tuition reimbursement program, managed to find the perfect fit. And personal fit, for Coffey, is one of the most important issues she feels has contributed to having such a successful career.
"You have to focus on results, and focus on what you want," Coffey says. "You have to fit your job with personal goals. Allstate and insurance is really about taking care of people, and that fits for me."
The fit is so ideal that she has grown within the Northbrook, Ill.-based company to lead Allstate's Protection Technology organization-the division of Allstate that provides personal protection products such as auto insurance and homeowners insurance. There, she is responsible for about 1,200 resources, including employees, contractors and additional outsourced resources.
Coffey's team supports distribution, marketing and shared services and provides and maintains solutions for marketing programs, sales force tools, general ledger, accounting and financial applications, Internet applications, billing and payment systems, payroll and commission, etc.
In addition, Coffey and her team are responsible for developing the award-winning www.accessallstate.com Web services solution, which integrates five policy management systems and extends functionality for Web-based access by Allstate's countrywide producer network. Also, in 2004, she received Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders Award for exceptional IT leadership.
Taking care of people is one of the responsibilities in which Coffey excels. Called upon not only to develop and grow her employees, she is forced to balance this leadership role with providing results for the business, which she feels is one of her greatest accomplishments.
"Particularly in my present senior leadership role, there are two things that I focus on-the business and the people side," she says. "From a business result standpoint, there have been a handful of times when I've been involved in, or led, teams that were able to use technology to make an impact on the business.
"It's the same thing on the people side," she adds. "Our job as leaders is about developing people, so when you see someone who's struggling who you can help blossom and grow, or when you've created the right opportunities and most appropriate environment for people to do their best work, that is the most rewarding part of the job. It makes me proud to see someone really grow."
Continually challenging people and setting high expectations is another of Coffey's leadership traits. When she encourages someone to produce, given the proper tools, training and support, they tend to succeed.
WOMEN IN MANAGEMENT
One advantage Coffey feels she has, as a woman, is her understanding of the precarious balance of work and home life, both for herself and for her people.
"I'm a bit sensitive to work and family balance, and understand this better than many others," she says. "There are days when my husband and I both work and wonder what it would be like for both of us to have a wife who stays home and takes care of things. It forces us to think of ways of being flexible. So I may be more tolerant of trying to create those kinds of opportunities for folks."
Coffey's openness and empathy for her staff's personal and professional concerns led her to host regular luncheons every six weeks to bring together employees from across the team to discuss issues important to them. She also meets regularly, one-on-one with employees who are having problems or require coaching.
In the end, Coffey feels that, when a person lines up their skill set with a company's culture and business objectives, they will succeed. But, when the individual and company are out of sync, they don't do well. "It's all about your purpose and what fits for you," she says.
Vice President of IT
Fireman's Fund Insurance Co.
"I'm very proud of our underwriting system. The team delivered this large undertaking ahead of schedule and under budget. That's something to be proud of in the IT world, where missed budgets and dates are pretty common." Years ago, Diane Comer, vice president of the IT transformation projects at Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., Novato, Calif., did not expect to make this kind of comment.
During her high school years, Comer attended ballet class six days a week and received scholarships to the San Francisco Ballet school. Believing ballet was her calling, Comer dedicated her time to rigorous training and was invited to perform in the "Waltz of the Flowers" and snow scenes in the "Nutcracker." "I was good enough to understudy parts but not good enough to get a paying job at a company," Comer says. "That's how I exited my artistic career and began my professional career."
Comer's intensity and dedication to the task at hand stayed with her as she began data entry work at Decimus Computer Leasing Corp., a company previously owned by Bank of America Corp., and found interest in the concrete data elements that were entered into the system.
Comer moved on to Bank of America for a few years, where she learned about data analysis and database modeling and design. And 20 years ago, her experience with data helped her in her move to Fireman's Fund. But working with data, she found out, is different in the insurance industry. Just as in banking, the data collected includes customer information and a bit about what they're buying, she says. "But an insurance company collects much more data-for example, soil content, whether you're in a wind zone, how far your house is from a fire hydrant, etc."
Comer moved up the management ranks, which gave her the chance to support all areas of the business. "I've really had an opportunity to learn a lot about how insurance works," Comer says.
Now, as vice president of IT transformation projects, Comer is responsible for two programs-delivering new technology in support of underwriting and implementing a new policy administration system.
The underwriting project, which Comer considers one of her most important accomplishments in her position at Fireman's Fund, was a technology success and, more important, she says, a business success.
Comer is confident that she and her team can deliver their next project-replacing two policy administration systems and integrating the new ones with approximately 20 legacy systems-on time and on budget. She credits her team members, who she says deserves just as much respect as executives in the company.
"Everyone gets out of bed in the morning and makes a contribution at work," she says. "When you're an executive and you make strategic decisions or changes in plans, it's important to communicate why you're making those changes. That's part of my job-to set the direction and explain it, be available to answer questions and clarify it if needed-because people come to work and spend their lives working on our company's behalf."
A good team isn't the only ingredient necessary for a woman executive to be successful, Comer says. "If you're going to have a family and be a successful executive, you need support," she says, "whether that's from your mother or daycare, a husband, a full-time nanny. Nobody wants to hear you say, 'I have to go home to take care of a sick child,' that often, but sometimes you need to."
Comer is glad supervisors no longer ask women when they are having their next baby, and now respect a woman's position in business, though it is still sometimes difficult. Men and women are physically different, she says.
"Because of our culture, it's more natural to see a 6-foot-2-inch white male with an aggressive communication style as a leader. A 5-foot-4-inch woman has to overcome the challenge of being physically smaller and speaking in a softer voice," she says. "You have to speak with confidence and you have to be direct and back your position up with facts and be open to changing it if the facts change."
Senior Vice President and
Chief Information Officer, XL Re XL Global Services
Financial Lines & Capital Investment Partners
Recognizing she would not win every battle, Ursuline Foley learned to instead focus on what is most important. Raised and educated in Ireland, Foley found herself on a career trajectory that propelled her across oceans and into upper management-a future she never imagined after completing a master's degree in computer science.
Like many in insurance technology management, Foley honed her skills working in development, progressing to project leader, onto manager of application development and ultimately to the role of CIO at NAC Reinsurance Corp. When NAC was acquired in 2000 by XL Capital Ltd., she accepted the role of CIO for the company's reinsurance line of business.
While Stamford, Conn.-based XL Capital provides insurance and reinsurance coverage globally through 90 operating subsidiaries, Foley concentrates on the reinsurance side of the business.
"Insurance seemed less exciting, highly regulated and less creatively interesting," Foley says, "whereas reinsurance risk management, due to unforeseen economic, environmental or life events, is typically more complex and ever-changing."
Foley's management style doesn't include playing politics; rather, it's a focus on results. Having observed poor management earlier in her career, she resolved never to emulate this style. "Open communication builds trust and leads to providing value to the business," she says.
Leading the information infrastructure for a globally distributed division comprised of more than 500 employees in 11 countries puts her focus on results, and her communication skills, to the test. Foley says 90% of her projects have been on a global scale. In 2007, her team rolled out successful reinsurance platforms in France and Singapore.
And by virtue of having lived abroad for 20 years, Foley is highly tuned to differences in personalities, work styles and cultural norms.
"Success requires having an understanding of differences," Foley says, and advises others to avoid "building cookie-cutter teams in which everyone has the same style and way of looking at problems."
Building diverse teams, however, is a challenge. For every 50 CV's received, less than 6% represent female technology professionals, Foley notes. In fact, of 11 direct reports, only two are women. While acknowledging that childcare issues sometimes distract career progression, she strongly believes a broader perspective would be gained with a more balanced team.
Several years ago, Foley was one of three CIOs asked to contribute to the company's strategy as part of a 50-person executive management group comprised of all lines of business. She credits XL Capital's senior leadership for fostering a collaborative culture between line of business and IT.
"It confirms that there is significant partnership between IT and line of business," she says. "IT is not considered just a back-office function."
Having improved both the hard and soft skills necessary to advance her career, she now mentors those with the right skill set and leadership potential. "A key skill for those seeking to move into management is the ability to influence and partner with line-of-business executives," she notes.
Her membership in professional associations such as ACORD keeps Foley on top of best practices and empowers her to share this knowledge internally. As recently as May 2007, she participated in a CIO roundtable at an insurance systems forum sponsored by ACORD and LOMA.
Having surpassed her career goals, Foley is unsure what opportunities or professional challenges await her. However, for those seeking to advance their careers, she shares these nuggets of wisdom: Focus on delivering value to the business. Always enjoy every role and try to be the best at it. Have candid conversations with someone you trust for peer-to-peer brainstorming. Encourage people to be open about issues or mistakes to rapidly resolve problems. Share the praise as part of influencing people.
2nd Vice President -
The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, New York, N.Y.
Insurance is in Shelley McIntyre's blood. Exposed since childhood to the world of insurance, she was educated about the value of insurance to people and families early on. "I grew up in a household that was focused on insurance," McIntyre says. "My dad was a general agent who sold health, dental and life group policies, so he instilled in us the importance of those products from a protection and accumulation standpoint."
This experience made such a lasting impression that, after college and starting a family, McIntyre searched for a job with determination-and the singular purpose of getting into the insurance industry.
And, while her path diverged from many technology executives, she feels she benefited greatly by beginning her career on the business and operational side of the industry with a third-party administrator, which, in turn, fostered her appreciation for the technology side.
"I spent about nine years (working on the business side)-three of those nine years were actually building an operation from the ground up, and it was really at that point that I began loving technology and saw what technology could do for my operation," she explains.
Today, McIntyre is as determined as ever, devoted to leading her team, and growing and developing the next generation of leaders. It is this nurturing process that she believes is key to her team successfully delivering solutions that help build sales and improve service for Guardian's business partners.
"People-it's all about my ability to hire, retain and grow people into leaders," she says. "I believe it's the most critical factor. We can't be successful without our people. It's really easy at Guardian to have that as one of your achievements because the company is so focused on people-from the programs it offers, to its training, to its leadership programs."
PASSION LEADS TO RESULTS
McIntyre also believes that passion and delivering on commitments are crucial for both women and men to succeed in insurance technology management. In her experience, she feels passion leads to results, and results lead to fun, which is one of the most important aspects of her workday attitude. This is particularly apparent on McIntyre's team-when they feel proud about what they have delivered, their business partners are happy as well.
McIntyre feels that many of her management skills take root in being a woman. "I'm not only a woman, but I'm a mother of five children, and I do believe that there are inherent skills that a woman brings, and skills gained, by being a mom and a homemaker that do apply to the workplace," she says. "I have to have common sense, and that's one of my strong points: knowing how to break apart problems to make them simple so I can solve them easily, and I do think that comes from inherent skills, but also household skills and children skills."
For women seeking to enter the insurance technology field, McIntyre holds that relationship building and understanding the business side of industry are critical.
"Make sure you're passionate about customer service. IT, whether you're part of the corporate environment or not, is a lot about customer service, and a lot about relationship building and teams," she advises.
"It's critical that you know the business. Starting out the way I did is certainly one path, and you're going to learn the business inside and out if you're on the operations side, but even if you come up the technology path, understanding how you get that business knowledge is going to be absolutely critical to your success."
Embracing and exuding dedication, passion, strength of character and business savvy, has led McIntyre, a self-described expected cancer survivor, to the level of success she has reached today.
Vice President and Senior IT Department Manager
Chubb Insurance Corp.
Merrily Riesebeck knows what it feels like to stand out. In her 27 years in the IT business, there have been many instances at meetings or presentations where she was the only woman in the room.
"While that happens less frequently now, it still does happen," Riesebeck says.
At Chubb Insurance Corp., the reason it's happening less frequently is due in no small part to the efforts of Riesebeck, who has filled a variety of roles during her career, including developer, business analyst and manager. Although she has spent most of her career in application development, and is very proud of her instrumental role in several significant technology initiatives, she also relishes several years spent in a role that focused on the communication and strategy necessary to create a program for developing IT professionals.
She found the role to be very rewarding and, after returning to application development, maintained her focus on developing people, both within her business unit and in the larger organization.
Riesebeck is frank when discussing the implications of gender on IT careers, hers included. "It has been a different experience based on my gender," she says.
Early in her career, Riesebeck says she wasn't as aware of the barriers women faced to reaching their potential. While most senior leaders in IT were male, she anticipated that this would quickly evolve and women would soon occupy many senior leadership positions. Over time, she began to question why so few women broke through to senior positions. What's more, IT professionals in general seemed to hold fewer titles than their counterparts in business units. Thus, women in IT were at a double disadvantage.
"I've had occasion to offer a suggestion or idea and not get a response until a male colleague repeats it and gets traction with it. While this is frustrating to me, it also forced me to look at the way I'm communicating."
Such instances led Riesebeck and others to gather in an effort to raise awareness levels in the organization. Riesebeck recalls that in the mid-1990s, when the most senior-level women in Chubb's IT department gathered to discuss the possibility of a glass ceiling, it didn't require a large room.
"There were just 18 of us," she recalls.
Today, things have changed, and Riesebeck is active in two different, internal organizations.
She currently chairs Chubb's 16-member Women's Development Council, which takes a strategic view and focuses on developing and advancing women to senior leadership positions.
Conversely, the Chubb Partnership of Women (CPOW) takes a more grassroots approach and stresses mentoring. CPOW, which Riesebeck co-founded six years ago, has 600 members, primarily on Chubb's Warren, N.J., campus. CPOW provides women a chance to network, practice skills in a safe environment, and receive reinforcement and encouragement.
"We've seen a lot of success stories," she says.
Riesebeck says the biggest lesson she has learned is the need to have courage to stand up for her beliefs. Women in IT require the same elements for success as do their male counterparts.
"Constant learning is key; and not just the latest, greatest technology," she says. "We need to be good business people. Knowing the technology without knowing the business limits your ability to contribute."
Riesebeck says women have to be confident in their abilities and speak up-for both their own sake and that of the organization.
"Better decisions are a result of diversity of thought. That's why we need everyone to participate fully," she says. "I believe the more lasting impact that I've had on the organization has been to create a more inclusive environment that will enable Chubb to leverage the talent of every employee."
That said, Riesebeck seems to have struck the perfect balance in her own career.
"It has been a great career for me, because I've been able to remain involved in the analytical and problem-solving aspects. I enjoy helping our business partners be successful through the use of technology."
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