The Invisible Obstacle: What’s Keeping Women from Insurance Leadership Roles

Too many female executives risk falling behind if they don't brush up on their business acumen, and the insurance industry, for one, can ill-afford to fall short in talent development.
By: | January 27, 2020

What will it take to see more women advance into the ranks of senior executives? The answer might lie in promoting business acumen.


Susan Colantuono, author, speaker and founder of Leading Women and A Career that Soars!, says women receive lots of input in some areas of professional development, namely fostering personal growth and engaging others, but not enough in business acumen, even though her research shows that business acumen accounts for at least 50% of what the C-Suite seeks in potential executives.

Mentoring for women has traditionally not promoted business acumen, she said.

“Women don’t get the same kind of mentoring that men do,” Colantuono said. “Male executives who do mentoring want to mentor women around confidence building and goal setting, because conventional wisdom says that women lack those,” she said.

In contrast, men tend to mentor other men around business acumen through informal conversations, meetings with clients and going on business meetings. They also tend to guide men into core business areas such as sales or operations.

The Importance of Business Acumen

Faye Cook, senior vice president, head of global engagement & key accounts, Allied World

Faye Cook, senior vice president, head of global engagement & key accounts at Allied World, agrees that business acumen is crucial to success.

“I’ve known leaders who have other strengths and were successful in their own way, but for me, the importance of business acumen — which I define as being quick to connect dots and understand a business situation, being a positive and creative thinker to develop solutions, and being well-connected to execute those solutions — is key, alongside other leadership qualities,” she said.

For any employee looking to advance, understanding their own organization is the first step.

“Let’s call that being organizationally savvy,” Cook said. “It’s important to know what functions the company has, the high-level purpose of the function and who is responsible for what. That gives you the lay of the land in which you’re operating, and greatly assists in your day-to-day decisions.”

She added that excelling in the fundamentals is key.

“I’d recommend firstly doing your current job, and doing it well,” she said.

“Closely understand your boss’s goals and help deliver on them. Do not get distracted by other organizational on-goings or jump at shiny, new toy projects. The most important thing you can do for yourself is to consistently execute on your deliverables.”

After that, Cook recommends looking for ways to expand your knowledge.

“Once you perfect this, then seek out stretch assignments or other projects in which you can do the same for others. And the same rule applies: Ensure you execute well for them. This starts to build trust between you and your peers and/or leadership, and people know they can count on you. Then when another stretch assignment comes up, it’s a no-brainer to get you involved.”

Learning More

Colantuono agrees, but adds that women should also keep their eyes open for ways to stand out.

“If you see a problem, raise your hand to solve it,” she said. “If someone asks you to step into a bigger role say ‘Yes.’ ”

To help its employees understand their company, business, brand and people, Allied World offers a global mentoring program and several internal training programs.

“Our HR division is always working hard in seeking out and deploying on-going, meaningful training classes,” Cook said.

Developing business acumen also should begin at the most junior levels. At Swiss Re, there are several programs designed to foster business acumen and bring women into the industry.

One is the Women in Insurance STEM (WIISTEM) program in Canada. Swiss Re helped launch it in 2019 with six other partners, including Aon, Aviva, Manulife, RBC Insurance, Sun Life Financial and Travelers.

The WIISTEM program offers internship opportunities in Canada to Canadian, female university students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.

Interns rotate among the WIISTEM partners and complete internship placements with two or more of them. Ideally, they will join the companies full-time upon graduation.

All of the interns are assigned a female mentor and training opportunities to help them grow in their technical and behavioral skills.

The program is geared to helping young women see the insurance industry as a place where they can advance.

Monica Ningen, CEO and president, Swiss Re Canada & English Caribbean

“There are an endless number of ways for them to use the skillsets they bring into the industry and even larger avenues to take as they grow in their careers,” said Monica Ningen, president and chief executive officer, Swiss Re Canada & English Caribbean.

Colantuono agrees that developing business acumen should start early and that women also need to be not just working for their silo, but the whole business.

Development of female employees is a priority at Arthur J. Gallagher, said Maria King, area president, Los Angeles.

One of her most rewarding professional development opportunities was participating in a training session called Financial Strategy for Growth, which was facilitated by the company’s vice president of corporate finance and divisional CFOs.

“The training focused on gaining strategic financial knowledge and on-the-job decision making skills to identify and address opportunities to grow the bottom line,” King said.

“By the end of the training, we were able to create a plan, communicate and execute the vision, and manage the change related to achieving a financial goal. It was by far the most beneficial training for my role as branch manager.”

King said the training also allowed her to interact with Gallagher’s board of directors and executive team.

Standing Out to Those that Matter

While networking and building relationships certainly have their place, Cook added it’s important to let your business acumen shine through hard work, participating in training and paying attention to the company’s goals.


“Showcasing and exercising business acumen isn’t necessarily about being known by the masses,” Cook said. “Think smart and showcase your skills to those that matter.”

Colantuono has some other recommendations for companies.

“Have a leadership model and related components — including performance reviews, leadership development, and assessments — that are equally focused on the people side and the business side,” she said.

She also advises instituting training in gender dynamics for managers “so they can understand how their beliefs about women, men, leadership and business impact the type of mentoring they provide.”

Companies that don’t promote business acumen among their female employees are missing out.

“They’re leaving a huge percent of their talent untapped,” Colantuono said. &

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]

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