Women in Insurance Leadership 2019—Mary Beth Eckert, USAA
As USAA’s CIO for property and casualty, Mary Beth Eckert is responsible for managing IT operations for a $21 billion-revenue business. Shes currently overseeing a modernization program, a multi-billion dollar large-scale, digital, end-to-end transformation program. A project on this scale would be daunting to most, but Eckert has a passion for running large teams and large projects and she generates excitement about transformation throughout her organization.
“I’ve taken some pretty big risks along the way to build skills and experience,” she says. “For me, it’s about bringing on change and enabling the future through technology.”
Eckert came to USAA in late 2017 from Travelers, where she was VP of ebusiness technology after starting as VP of personal insurance business technology. “From that move, I got Dev/Ops experience, Agile and SAFe experience, which were hot skills and allowed me to market myself differently,” she says. “It’s all about understanding what’s hot in the market, what you have a passion for, and what you’re willing to stretch towards.”
Transforming the insurance technology stack for USAA both excites Eckert and keeps her up at night. She says that digital capabilities are especially important to USAA’s policyholders, who are active, retired and honorably separated military personal, as well as officer candidates and adult children or spouses of USAA members. “The younger generation, in particular, wants to be able to do everything on their phone and only contact us if they need to. And deployed troops can’t call, so they need the ability to do everything digitally,” she points out.
The people advantage
She may be leading digital transformation at USAA, but Eckert is most proud of the people aspects of her job. “I love surrounding myself with really good people, nurturing them and taking them to new levels they didn’t realize they could get to,” she explains. “I want people on my team to love to come to work every day and I want them to be inspired.”
When she got to USAA, Eckert found a high-performing team already in place, so she was able to get to work quickly. “It was the best gift I’ve ever been given,” she says. “It’s all about the relationships with the team. Across both the technology teams and business teams, these are some of the most fantastic people I’ve worked with. We have an amazing amount of respect for one another, so we have healthy debates that lead to collaborative problem-solving.”
Eckert strives to be an authentic collaborative and empathetic leader, and has learned from many different leaders that have crossed her path. She explains that Jay Fishman, who was chairman and CEO at The Travelers Companies, taught her how to engage and deliver messages that inspire people. “He understood that people are the basis of a really great company and it was important to spend time on people. That’s a lesson I won’t forget.”
Eckert mentors quite a few people and many are women. “My message to them is that you must have the confidence to take a risk because if you don’t try, you will never know your true potential, so go for it,” she explains. “You have to try for that new role. You have to know your value proposition and negotiate if you get the offer. You have to expand your skill set. And you have to surround yourself with people you like and who support you. You can’t go it alone. Too many women sit in the back seat and allow others to lead. You’ve got to take the risk to promote your career.
Authenticity and bravery are equally crucial, she concludes. “As a woman in IT, I was second chair for many years of my career. People told me that was where I belonged and I believed them,” she says. “You have to have confidence in yourself to help get to that next level.”