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 WIL 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.


POsT WHeN NaMeD Wil WiN­Ner (2010): HEAD OF IN­SUR­ANCE AND DIS­TRIB­UTED SER­VICES IT, ING U.S. IN­SUR­ANCE 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.”


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?'”


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.”


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.”

sal­lie graves

shohreh abedi

kath­leen el­lis

el­iz­a­beth heck

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