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.

Digital Insurance - - VOICES - By El­iz­a­beth Boettcher, VP Cus­tomer Con­tact Ser­vices, Sel­man & Co.

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.

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