Written by: Susan Deakins | Penn Mutual
I recently had the pleasure of participating on a panel at the “Women in Insurance” symposium, presented by the Academy of Risk Management and Insurance at Saint Joseph’s University. The panel brought together senior women professionals in the insurance industry to talk about their careers, obstacles, and successes. Over 150 people (including a number of men) were in the audience.
We didn’t address the big “glass ceiling” issues of getting women on Boards and into the C Suite. The focus, rather, was a sharing of stories by successful women working in different segments of the insurance industry, how they achieved success, the challenges they faced, and the advice they had for women starting out in their own careers.
It was a wide-ranging discussion, but I came away with a list of eight lessons learned, culled from the comments made by both panelists and the audience. They say there is wisdom in crowds, and I hope you find these suggestions useful, even if you are neither a woman nor working in the insurance industry.
1. Build your network inside your company. It’s easy and it’s comfortable to “just keep your head down and do your job,” but that won’t necessarily position you for career advancement. Get to know people outside of your department. Having a network throughout the company can help you do your current job better, and it might open doors you never expected.
2. Build your network in your industry and the wider community. Financial professionals tend to be more introverted, so it may be uncomfortable to attend networking events, but all the panelists stressed the importance of getting out and getting involved. If it makes you uncomfortable to press the flesh in a large group setting, then volunteer to be on the board of your local industry association. That way, people not only get to know you, they get to see how you work.
3. Technical skills are important, but it’s the people skills that make the difference. Technical skills probably figure most prominently at the beginning of your career, but, as you take on more responsibility, success will depend more on being able to motivate or guide others in achieving group goals.
4. Make yourself visible. If you don’t get noticed, you won’t get promoted. Prove yourself on various projects or various avenues with other folks, so that when your name comes up on for promotion, people have worked with you and they have an opinion.
5. Believe in yourself. Have the self-confidence to believe in yourself and take risks when the opportunity arises, something that’s out of your comfort zone. There were a number of stories shared by women who tried something a little bit different and, looking back, they said it was the best career move they ever made.
6. Surround yourself with good support at home. This is especially important for women with young children. Support at home is critical. What are the most important things for you to do yourself, and what things can be left for others to do? Find somebody to clean your house, for example.
Childcare is another area where good support is essential. Develop a network of relatives, friends, or daycare providers you can rely on and who can step in on childcare when needed.
7. Surround yourself with good support at work. Along those same lines, your work environment should support you as well. With technology today, it’s a lot easier to work from home, so if you have to go to a doctor’s appointment or to an event at school, you don’t have to take the whole day off. Companies are realizing that this can make for a more productive work environment, but not every company is so supportive.
A number of the panelists, working for larger companies, shared that often the issue isn’t the company but rather the immediate leader. Sometimes it’s worthwhile having a conversation with your leader, but sometimes you may simply have to move within the company to a setting that is more supportive of your needs.
8. Having a mentor is important, but it’s got to be the right connection. There was a lot of talk about whether the panelists had a mentor. We discussed the pros and cons having male or female mentors, although the general consensus offered that gender didn’t matter. For several panelists, they didn’t necessarily have a mentor, but their immediate leader had been instrumental in a key period in of their career. If you have that right leader, he or she really can provide you with career guidance and coaching that we come to associate with mentors. Most people felt that it wasn’t necessary to establish a formal mentor relationship, that is was better to let it happen more organically.
We spoke as well on whether the workplace has become more supportive of women over the past 20 years. The general consensus was that there had been changes for the better, but it was amazing how much the same questions were still coming up: How do I ask to work from home? How do I ask for a part-time schedule? What’s the perception going to be if I ask for that?
For me — and I feel very strongly about this — everybody has to do what’s right for them, whether it’s working part-time, working full-time, taking time off, or whatever. You can’t judge other people’s choices. You need to do what’s right for you.
In summary, I think there were two key things I took away from the symposium. First, build your network and make yourself visible. Second, take responsibility for making sure you’re in the right environment. Reshape it to your needs, or move on if a different company or opportunity can provide a more supportive environment.
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