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Since 2006, more than 100 women have been honored with a Women in Insurance Leadership award. These women share many common characteristics; they are strategic regarding their professional growth paths, they seek challenge, they want to directly influence positive outcomes for their organizations and they are risk-takers — when they see the right opportunity, they go for it. Many winners have continued to advance their careers. Digital Insurance recently caught up with four previous honorees to find out what new challenges they’ve taken on.

Sallie Graves
Post when named WIL winner (2010): head of insurance and distributed services IT, ING U.S.
Post held today: CIO, MagMutual

Thanks to her career strategy, Sallie Graves has learned how to affect positive change within companies of all sizes. These include huge, global conglomerates as well as her present company, Atlanta’s MagMutual Insurance, a subsidiary of MagMutual Group and a medical malpractice mutual company, where she is responsible for designing and leading enterprise IT strategy.

When last we caught up with Graves, she was in the middle of her six-year tenure at ING, supporting ING’s ERP efforts and the business analysis and technical teams that supported the HR and financial areas for the Americas. From there she moved into ING’s retail life insurance area and remained there through the company’s S-1 filing as it became Voya Group.

“I was part of the ‘steady state’ waiting for the IPO, and I’m not a ‘steady state’ person, so I decided to evaluate other opportunities,” she says.

It didn’t take long for her to receive job offers from both Coca-Cola and MagMutual. Although Graves liked what she heard about MagMutual, the idea of being able to contribute to and learn from an iconic company like Coca-Cola influenced her decision.

She spent the next two and a half years as Coke’s senior global director of IT, leading methodology improvements in efficiency and effectiveness for solution delivery. During that time, Graves traveled the world, overseeing IT teams in the United States, Latin America, Brussels, Istanbul and other areas.

So when she received a call back from MagMutual, her interest was piqued. “It was exciting to see what they had done in a little less than three years, and learn what their growth plans were in insurance and financial services, where IT is so important to the company,” she says. And, with two young children at home, “I also had to look at the time I spent traveling and my role as a mother.”

Any concerns about a lack of challenges and growth opportunities related to joining a smaller organization were quickly allayed as Graves, now MagMutual’s CIO, assumed responsibility for revamping the insurer’s technology platform, including security, infrastructure and more.

“I wanted to be part of something not publicly traded, where I could influence long-term views and strategy,” she says. “Here I have a seat at the executive table, and we work as a true leadership team.”

The differences between a large global company and a mutual firm hold challenges of their own, notes Graves, who, at ING, had responsibility for 187 employees and 250 contractors, versus 30 employees and about 30 contractors at MagMutual.

“How do I adjust in order to complete a transformational project successfully?” she asks, rhetorically. “I have to get creative, look at partnerships and different ways of getting things done.”

So far, the challenges before Graves have not disappointed. Following the roadmap now in place, the company implemented Workday (replacing six systems), expanded use of Salesforce and its website, expanded outdated portals with new functionality from a sales and self-services perspective, and is in the midst of a policy administration implementation.

“It’s a bit like changing the tire on your car while driving 100 miles per hour,” she says. “I also have responsibility for process, ensuring the business processes from an operational perspective are streamlined and supported, and leveraging the technologies we are putting in place.”

Graves describes MagMutual’s culture as very collaborative and supportive, and within this business environment, Graves’s leadership style as a team builder is particularly effective. “You need to listen; sometimes leaders are not great at that, but great leaders are,” she says. “It’s also important to focus on the bigger picture, the long-term vision, because if you get lost in issues of the day, you will not be successful in the longer term.”

Those efforts appear to be paying off. “The company is growing organically,” she says. “And in five years I want to be able to say that I’ve helped this company grow.”

As for travel, Graves says being a global jet-setter is something to look forward to once again after her children graduate. “I’m happy to be professionally challenged while being the mom I want to be,” she says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Shohreh Abedi
Post when named WIL winner (2011): SVP and CIO, Farmers Insurance Group
Post held today: EVP, Chief Operations and Technology Officer, The Auto Club Group

Shohreh Abedi actively seeks out challenges as her career continues. When recognized in 2011 as a Women in Insurance Leadership honoree, Abedi was busy settling into the role of SVP and CIO at Farmers Insurance Group, where she helped the company update and transform its entire IT strategy development in alignment with business objectives and enterprise corporate strategy, from the company’s organizational structure to data center, network, billing, mobile, self-service and more. For about five years, this role suited Abedi, a self-described “change agent,” until she felt that Farmers was well along on its journey.

“I’m usually not satisfied with just watching things go by,” she says, “and what moves me is when I can have a transformational impact and can help evolve things.”

When a former colleague at Farmers, who happened to be the incoming CEO of the Auto Club Group (ACG), called her about a more challenging opportunity, she hesitated: “I thought, not big enough…and Michigan?”

But 14 months later, as chief operations and technology officer of the second largest AAA club in North America, Abedi is “ecstatic” about the career choice she made.

Abedi’s role encompassed responsibility for a larger portion of the organization, initially overseeing all of IT, including cyber, data research and back-end processing. Soon after, she assumed P&L responsibility for the company’s travel, membership, call centers and marketing enterprise.

“When you see companies with a long history such as Farmers and ACG, you realize they have grown up with legacy, and all woke up at the same time recognizing that they need to do something, because lots of disruptors are competing for their lunch. These transformations are like a playbook for me.”

Abedi kicked off ACG’s IT transformation playbook with a roadmap.

“I’ve learned that it’s very different when you own the P&L because it opens up a lot of ‘ah ha’ moments,” says Abedi. “If you are strictly IT, you are delivery focused and think, ‘What is wrong with them, it’s what we need to do.’ When you get the P&L you have a three- or five-year strategy, an annual commitment, services and people to worry about, not to mention business growth. These are issues that an IT person would not be familiar with or care about.”

Taking ACG from a legacy environment to a platform for the future meant communicating and directing big change. “Let’s just say from the first few months they thought I was from Mars,” she says. “I may have been the first one to say, ‘You’ve done this for 115 successful years, but to be here another 115 we have to change because it’s good for the company and the members we serve.’”

As in 2011, Abedi maintains that at ACG, like at Farmers, having an open-door policy helps at all levels, and her 15 direct reports function as a team. But since joining the company, Abedi’s communication style has evolved.

“Now my communication style depends on the situation. Overall, I try to facilitate more collaborative teaming. But since coming here I’ve changed direction, which requires visionary style and the ability to describe in a way that people can see why we are going this way. And when you are IT and facing off with lines of business you must be collaborative, allowing the team to feel safe enough to share opinions and input. But when you are talking about meeting performance goals, you must be pace-setting in your style. In a disaster, I’m in command and there’s no time to ask, ‘How do you feel about this?’”

Kathleen Ellis
Post when named WIL winner (2014): SVP, Chubb & Son Inc.
Post held today: SVP, CNA International

Sometimes change happens around you, and your response reveals additional opportunities for leadership otherwise missed. Such is the case with Kathleen Ellis, who, over the course of 37 years, moved up in the ranks in a global capacity at the Chubb Group of Companies, and now is responsible for creating a larger international presence for commercial-lines carrier CNA.

Though once she thought she’d never leave Chubb, Ellis felt the time was right when ACE Limited acquired the Chubb Corp., creating the world’s largest publicly traded P&C insurance company that would operate as a different structure under the Chubb name. So, she followed former Chubb chairman Dino Robusto to CNA.

Her new job is not completely unlike her previous one, notes Ellis. “The roles are similar but the company is in different stage of its evolution,” she says. “I can leverage those successes, take advantage of my knowledge and relationships, and use this opportunity to create something new.”

This means creating a new international business landscape that builds on CNA’s existing multinational efforts, creating new teams that integrate with teams already in place and putting them to task to both coordinate existing business and uncover new business. It’s not an easy task. Ellis travels internationally, and commutes from her home in New Jersey to CNA’s corporate office in Chicago every other week. But she is excited at the prospects of raising her teams’ awareness that they can take advantage of a broad view of the company’s potential.

“We are seeing ourselves this way, and it affects every business unit, every segment of the business and every relationship, not just for the country of domicile but as a global organization,” she says.

To accomplish these goals requires direct and frequent interaction with her teams, as well as a better understanding of the company’s culture, which is based on a rich leadership style that includes a commitment to investing in great talent.

“As we come together as a new team, I am amazed at the skills and quality of the business people I work with,” Ellis says. “It’s clear that the company has a commitment to an amalgamation of rich talent coming together to develop the business as a strong global P&C carrier.”

Because of the caliber of talent among the 42 people in her business unit, Ellis describes her management style as “influence management,” one that focuses on engagement and collaboration. Ellis’ commitment to leadership development plays forward in her support for the company’s diversity efforts: She’s working on professional accountability programs for CNA through development efforts, sponsorship, mentorship and internship programs.

Now in her 18th professional position, Ellis describes her career as a series of new beginnings, and models to her colleagues and to her team a mix of high energy, wisdom and a continuous desire for growth. “You can build on strengths and experiences and make something of them,” she says. “I’m still learning every day.”

Elizabeth Heck
Post when named WIL winner (2013): COO, Greater New York Mutual Insurance Company
Post held today: CEO, Greater New York Mutual Insurance Company

The expectations are great for any incoming CEO, and Elizabeth Heck has been facing them head-on since taking the helm in 2014 as CEO of the 100-year-old Greater New York Mutual Insurance Co. But there’s a twist: The person she replaced had a 50-year legacy at the company — her father, Warren Heck.

Like her father, Heck came up through the ranks at GNY, joining the company 16 years ago as controller. “I think my financial background has been an advantage,” she says. “CEOs come into their roles with a variety of backgrounds, but every transaction flows through the financial area, so it’s a great way to get exposure to the whole business. Plus, I worked for other companies before GNY, so I got to see what makes companies successful.”

There are also advantages to working for a mid-sized mutual “Because of the way the company is structured, none of the functional areas operate in silos, so there is a lot of cross-collaboration,” she says. “The functional heads work together and decisions are not made in a vacuum.”

As a super-regional property and casualty carrier, GNY is a unique company with a rich history. Founded as a “habitational writer” by real estate owners, the company was formed by the community it served: New York commercial real estate. Today, the company writes business in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Heck plans to expand to larger geographic markets and other business segments.

“The company has stayed true to its roots all these years,” she says, “but what’s fun about working in the mutual space is that we’ve had an opportunity to take that solid foundation and use it to grow and modernize.”

That means the establishment of a product development department and the acquisition of technology, tools and talent that support the company’s growth path.

Heck notes that in light of her new role and her passion for growing the company, her individual responsibilities have changed little, but how she is approaching GNY’s growth has, and as a result, so has the company’s approach to doing business: “We’ve been embarking on projects throughout the company to make sure our processes make sense, retraining where necessary and making strategic hires.”

To that end, Heck’s leadership style seems a perfect fit. “One of the things I’ve focused on is putting the right people in the right roles,” she says. “If you put people in leadership roles who feel that same passion for the company and for the area for which they are responsible, it’s a win-win.”

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