How to nurture leadership skills
Customer service is an area where more women tend to be given leadership roles. A series of interviews reveals the skills and traits that can transfer from that area to other sectors of insurance for women to take charge.
Despite the growth of women in the workforce, they are still underrepresented in executive positions. According to Women in Business 2018, a report from Grant Thornton, the proportion of senior roles held by women has decreased slightly, falling from 25% in 2017 to 24% in 2018. In North America, the proportion is only 21%. And the insurance industry is not performing any better: A recent study from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia shows that women accounted for only 18.7% of insurance board members in 2017, and 15% of insurance companies surveyed had no women in leadership positions. While these numbers are better than they were in 2013, they are still below what could be expected: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 61.3% of all workers employed by insurance carriers and related activities in 2017 were women. This data defines a leadership gap, and that it’s in our collective best interest, as a nation and an industry, to address it. So, how can women effect change at an individual level? To answer that question, we examine a job sector where many women excel: customer service. Roughly 65% of customer service positions are powered by women according to The Boston Globe. Yet, women hold only 25% of executive positions and just six percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles, as cited by Center for American Progress. Many of the capabilities required in customer service mirror the capabilities required in other leadership positions. To delve deeper, we interviewed several female leaders at Selman & Company, an insurance administrator. These women lead teams responsible for all customer contact at SelmanCo, including representatives who take up to 80 calls per day.
Excelling in soft skills
“Women are willing to work collaboratively to achieve a solution for a client. They don’t worry about who gets the credit,” explains Ann Louis, chief administrative officer. Women are also highly trained organizers. “They are the backbone of the household, giving them multitasking skills to be great leaders,” says supervisor Vontriste Bogarty. “They are also very capable of balancing work and life.” But unfortunately, these soft skills don’t always translate to hard promotions. They give women an edge when it comes to dealing with customers and managing teams, but the same skills aren’t always recognized for advancement to leadership roles. Women are often viewed as less assertive than men, although this is a perception that may not be true. A study looked at social media data and found that women use language that is more polite and compassionate, but not less assertive. VP Elizabeth Boettcher adds, “The service industry is shifting to a heavier focus on technology, an area dominated by men. Women must think out of the box, embrace change, learn technology, and find new ways to serve customers to advance.” The women in the SelmanCo team agree that it’s important to be tough without being aggressive and to always demonstrate that you know your worth. An article in Forbes, written by UCLA Lecturer Kim Elsesser, points to multiple studies to show that women are less likely to ask for a raise directly, for example. VP of client management Cheryl Ahmad notes, “Keeping your customers and your team at the forefront of your mind helps position women—and men—for leadership roles. However, these same traits may also cause some women to hold back from advancing in their careers.” Interestingly, women who have never had a female leader may have trouble envisioning themselves in leadership roles. “If your model of leadership has always looked like dominant, extroverted males, you may not see yourself as a potential leader,” Louis explains. That means that mentorships can help women succeed: According to a LinkedIn study, 82% of women think it’s important to have a mentor. Boettcher agrees that mentorship is important. “Asking a senior leader to be your mentor is a great way to get help with personal development,” she says. “Also volunteer to shadow other areas, make recommendations, and add value. Don’t wait to be asked or rely on others to push you through.”
How to take action
We asked the team for advice they would give other women entering the insurance industr. Some of this included: • Say “yes” often – even if you’re not sure you’re ready for a new opportunity. Raise your hand and show a willingness to take on new responsibilities. • Ask for and be open to feedback – especially if it’s constructive. • Know your business. Provide facts and avoid emotion-based arguments. • Never be afraid to say you don’t know. • Embrace technology and change. • Take assignments nobody else wants even if they’re difficult. Even if you fail, you learn something. Don’t take failure personally. • Take credit for your work. • Be a mentor and get a mentor. • Own your advancement. Don’t wait to be asked. Don’t be afraid to succeed. • Put aside the theory that success is a zero-sum game. We can nurture the needs of others and our own. And remember, the future of insurance is gender-diverse. The Credit Suisse Research Institute states that companies where 15% or more of the senior managers are women have 50% higher profitability. Yet, current data illustrates an undeniable gap between women and men in the workforce, and the insurance industry is no exception. However, when we look at the microcosm of customer service, an area dominated by female labor, there’s a lot to learn. The attributes of strong performers in that realm are directly applicable to every aspect of the business of insurance. While large-scale, systemic fixes may not be on the immediate horizon, positive change for women can happen for individuals who translate their success in one sector to other areas of business.