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The art of networking

Research has proven that women who have a strong network of other females are more likely to achieve senior leadership positions.

“Networking is core to leadership advancement and relationship-building,” said Margaret Resce Milkint, managing partner at The Jacobson Group. “It is instrumental for women to have a community of thought-leaders who can challenge them and help them advance or expose them to new opportunities. I believe that networking is a skill that needs to be nurtured and worked on in a very specific way.”

There is an art to networking, according to Milkint. When meeting new contacts at a meeting or business event, she advises women to prepare to tell a short, compelling story of who they are and how they can be a useful resource.

“I believe that story-telling and networking go hand in hand,” she said. “It is really about service and collaboration. Let the contact know what you can do for them.”

When attending an event with a large crowd, aim to make a handful of meaningful introductions, rather then trying to meet everyone in the room. Look for connection points and try to get to know people by asking questions.

“You are aiming to make a genuine, human connection with someone and start to build a relationship,” said Milkint. “I look at my network as a community that is living and breathing. You have to cultivate it and take care of it,” she added.

Taking time to do research prior to an event to find out who will be in attendance, can be extremely beneficial.

“Set up an advance meeting with someone you are hoping to meet or connect on LinkedIn ahead of the event,” suggested Milkint.

Carry business cards at all times and follow up with your new connections after the event or meeting, Milkint advises.

“Networking is not just the act of being there in the room. Take the time to follow up, connect on LinkedIn and deliver on promises,” she said. “If you have a positive connection with someone, ask that person for a card and set up a call at another time. Be mindful about having a strategic plan.”

Based in Chicago, Milkint co-founded the Women’s Insurance Networking Group (WING), a platform for networking and career development among the insurance industry’s female and enlightened male professionals. The Jacobson Group is a leading provider of insurance talent.

Battling unconscious gender bias

While traditionally male-dominated industries have made considerable headway in tackling blatant gender-based discrimination, there is still a degree of unconscious gender bias inherent in the traditions and cultural expectations of many businesses which can hold women back.

Women are still under-represented in the C-suite levels and on the majority of executive boards, and many feel they have to work harder to be offered the same opportunities and to achieve the same recognition as a male counterpart.

While diversity training can be beneficial, it is not a quick fix, according to Kim Waller, EVP at Chicago-based Willis Towers Watson.

“The first step towards gender equality is for businesses to explicitly stand up and say that it is an important issue to them, but change requires constant reinforcement,” she said. “Most major companies have made some statement around commitment to diversity and many have initiated training, but what’s vital is how leaders reinforce that in the way they show up and manage people every day, and the methods they use to eradicate that bias.

“Just because we’ve had awareness training that may have lasted a couple of hours, it doesn’t mean we will automatically reframe how we think about things,” she added. “Changing our behaviour and our pattern of thought is difficult and it takes time.”

Widening the pool for selection of talent is key, in order to open doors to women and other diverse groups. Businesses will also benefit from having a range of perspectives and backgrounds in decision-making positions.

“It really comes down to being able to have the best talent at the table,” said Waller. “If you always go to your standard cohort of people within your trusted circle, that circle may not be diverse.

“The challenges of today are not going to be the challenges of tomorrow and companies are often blindsided because they don’t have the right leaders at the table to give a balanced perspective,” she added.

Waller advises women to develop a personal set of trusted advisors, and be sure to include other females in that set. Having a sponsor to recommend you for opportunities is vital but women also need to be their own advocates.

“Some of the obstacles lie in the narratives that women say to themselves,” said Waller. “We need to challenge ourselves to overcome that self-doubt and speak up.”

Willis Towers Watson helps firms build relationships with minority and women-owned business enterprises.

Social media helps women’s push for parity in insurance

We can’t be what we can’t see. If female employees never see other women in executive, supervisory or mentorship roles, it becomes much harder for them to envisage and walk down the path to leadership. It also reduces their commitment to their respective companies because it either looks like these companies haven’t been able to retain women long enough to support them and promote them into leadership roles, or it looks like they simply don’t care. Either way, women are leaving the insurance industry because of this.

These are the findings of Ericka Fang, associate attorney at Kaufman Borgest & Ryan LLP, and speaker at Insurance Business’s upcoming Women in Insurance New York event on September 17. Fang recently co-authored an article with a female employee at MetLife about women of colour in the legal and insurance industries. Together, they found that a lot of women are leaving those industries, and their motivations boil down to four key areas: assignments, opportunities, compensation and promotion, and mentoring.

“If women don’t feel like they’re getting equal opportunities in those four key areas, they’re leaving to join other companies or industries where they see women in managerial, supervisory and executive roles. They want to work in companies and industries where they see women thriving,” Fang told Insurance Business.

“The one area that’s really important with regards to women is compensation and promotion. We spoke to a lot of women who shared similar experiences where they have not received a promotion when a male colleague has, despite maybe being with the company for longer and working more hours. We can’t decipher why a company would promote a man over a woman, or employee A over employee B, but we do know those things are happening.”

There’s been a large push in recent years around compensation parity between men and women. In New York, a law has been passed which bars employers from asking prospective employees about their salary history during the interview process. The intention of the law is to make employers offer fair compensation based on the requirements of the role.

“Social media has played an important role in the push for fair compensation,” Fang added. “Women are becoming much more transparent with each other about what their salaries are and what compensations are offered at their companies. A couple of years ago, people were not doing that. Now they’re discussing it because they’re wanting to make sure they’re getting fairly compensated for the work that they’re doing and their level of experience. If they find out other people who have less experience are getting paid more than them, it’s a problem.

“Women want fair compensation and a fair and transparent promotion structure where they can know what’s expected of them and whether they meet the mark or not. Whether companies want to be transparent or not, employees are much more transparent in the age of social media, which is going to force companies to make changes.”

Ericka Fang will be sharing insights on this topic and more at the upcoming Women in Insurance New York on September 17, also road showing in Chicago on September 10, San Francisco on October 03 and London UK on October 10. See further information or book now.

D&I in insurance has to come from the top

Engagement and support from company leadership is critical in achieving true diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the insurance sector. Awareness of D&I in the insurance workplace is the highest it has ever been, but, in order for that awareness to filter down into organizational practices, meaningful and decisive action needs to be taken by business leaders.

“D&I is not something that leaders can delegate to others. No matter the size of the organization, whether it’s a large national corporation or a small insurance agency, D&I has to come from the top in order for it to be successful,” said Sha`Ron James (pictured), partner, Berger Singerman, and speaker at the upcoming Women in Insurance Chicago conference on September 10.

“There’s been a lot of buzz around D&I in the past few years. It has now gone beyond buzz into action, not only in terms of gender D&I, but I’ve also seen a shift in terms of racial and other types of D&I. I think all of us who work in this area realizes there’s still more work to do, but we’re very hopeful and grateful that D&I is shifting from a concept into reality.”

Turning D&I awareness into action is one of the main objectives of the Women in Insurance Roadshow, touring Chicago, New York and San Francisco in the fall. Industry experts and female thought leaders will be engaging in speaker sessions, panel discussions and networking to both men and women to learn lessons, forge strategies and tackle the biggest issues that women in insurance encounter on a daily basis.

One D&I initiative that James recommends is to allow women to have formally recognized affinity groups within their organization where they can come together to share information and experiences, and where they have a safe space to be open, honest and to support each other. It also encourages relationship-building across the organization and creates a stronger workplace culture, she added.

“At a personal level, I think all individuals within an organization must be willing to include women within the conversation. When we talk about mentors and sponsors, they’re developed through trusting relationships which are built over time. While having affinity groups and D&I initiatives are great, I think the most important thing is for people to come to work every day ready and willing to include everyone at the table,” James told Insurance Business.

“What I’ve seen and experienced it that oftentimes people show unintentional bias or prejudice towards others. We naturally gravitate towards people who we believe are like us, and we support and advocate people who have similarities. In organizations where people want to be elevated because of their merit, it’s important to have someone in the room or at the table advocating for people from ‘different’ backgrounds. That has to be someone who is willing to invest their political capital within the organization for you, and that’s only done through strong relationships built on trust.”

Like many of the speakers and presenters in the upcoming Women in Insurance Roadshow, James is passionate about advocating for women and girls. She supports initiatives at a local community level and said she’s very excited to have a platform to share her thoughts on D&I at a national level.

“In terms of advocating for women and girls, it’s something we should all do,” she commented. “I think that when we change the lives of women, we definitely have an impact on our world. If we’re able to change the role of women in insurance, it will have a positive impact on our industry. I very much look forward to that.”

Sha’Ron James will be sharing insights on this topic and more at the upcoming Women in Insurance Chicagoon September 10, also road showing in New York , on September 17 and San Francisco on October 03. See further information or book now.

Put an end to coffee pot pre-meetings and engage with everyone at the table

Marya Propis (pictured) is a true champion of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in insurance. As a sales and distribution executive at the nation’s largest independent wholesale insurance broker, All Risks Ltd., Propis has gained first-hand confirmation that high-performance teams in the modern insurance workplace need to be comprised of people with diverse skillsets and perspectives.

D&I is something Propis has been talking about for many years. She’s a frequent speaker at industry events on the topics of emerging leadership, talent development, and women in leadership. Her efforts have led to multiple awards and recognitions, including the IICF Global Inclusion Champion Award 2017 and New York City Association of Insurance Women (NYCAIW)’s Insurance Professional of the Year 2019. She has also been recognized in Insurance Business America’s ‘Hot 100’and ‘Elite Women’ lists for her contributions to the industry.

For Propis, who currently serves as SVP and director of distribution & broker partnerships at All Risks, D&I progress in the wider insurance industry has been a bit lukewarm. On the one hand, awareness has certainly increased, but on the other hand, very little meaningful action has resulted in significant progress and change.

“Today, in terms of what company leadership can do, I think it’s less about what they say and more about the way leaders behave on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “Insurance leaders need to elicit as much input from women as they do from men. They need to be as cognisant as possible about the way they approach D&I and the way they elicit equal opportunities and input from a variety of people on their team.

“There’s an old adage that ‘men have their meeting before they actually go into the meeting’. They do it at the coffee pot. In contrast, women show up to the actual meeting with six folders, a long list of to-dos and they’re completely prepared to address all of the topics listed for the meeting. The problem is, the men have already had the pre-meeting and, essentially, the alignment has already been created. Male leaders in the industry need to make a conscious effort to elicit input from women in the workplace, especially because there are fewer women at a management level.”

Prior to her role at All Risks, Propis worked at AIG for 12 years. She joined the insurer in March 2005 and held successive leadership roles at Lexington and AIG, including: head of broker engagement for AIG’s US Commercial group from March 2016 to December 2017; head of distribution management for AIG’s US & Canada Property Group and Lexington Insurance from April 2013 to March 2016; regional industry practice officer from October 2011 to April 2013; and chief operating officer of Risk Specialists Companies Insurance Agency, Inc. (Lexington’s field operations). As a woman of influence in a leadership position, Propis was awarded AIG‘s Global Women’s Leadership award in 2016.

“One quote I’m particularly fond of is: ‘Men and women have been collaborating successfully for more than five billion years because men pay attention to one set of priorities and women pay attention to a different, but equally important, set of priorities.’ We do that in life and we do that in the workplace,” Propis commented. “One thing I like about where the D&I conversation has gone is that companies are starting to recognize that men and women have very different styles. I think there’s a recognition that high-performing teams in the workplace need to be comprised of diverse skillsets and perspectives.

“That dimension has advanced significantly in recent years, but where the insurance industry still falls down is in the execution piece. I still don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of looking for diverse perspectives and skillsets when we’re choosing people for our teams. If you look at the composition of boards in publicly traded companies in the US, the companies with a higher percentage of women on their boards are more profitable. I wish every company could learn from that example. It’s not just a feel-good thing that we need to do. It will make our respective employers and it will make the insurance industry a better, stronger and more financially viable industry if we turn this awareness into action.”

Marya Propis will be sharing insights on this topic and more at the upcoming Women in Insurance New York on September 17, also road showing in Chicago on September 10, San Francisco on October 03 and London UK on October 10. See further information or book now.

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