Lift as You Climb: A Discussion with Applied Net ‘Women in Leadership’ Panelists
Insurance | Connections Editor | Nov 26 2019
The "Women in Leadership" panel at Applied Net 2019 stirred up a great deal of buzz among attendees. Female leaders from different organizations led an important discussion regarding unbridled ambition and a woman’s journey to the top of her organization’s ladder.
In 2018, Applied Net hosted a session wherein the topic of women in leadership positions arose. Those that attended the session pushed to have a panel dedicated solely to this topic in order to expand their knowledge base on what it means to be a female leader in their respective organizations. Thus, the ‘Women in Leadership’ panel came to be.
Brandy Ferrer, President and CEO of Pathfinder Strategies, Patty Andree, Vice President of Johnson Financial Group, and Mary Lou Charles, Vice President of Business Solutions at Western Financial Group, all sat on the 2019 Applied Net panel and offered varied insight as it pertained to becoming a professional trailblazer.
Throughout the course of the session, the panelists — which also included Gillian Van Kempen, President of Best Buy Insurance Brokers — addressed several hot topics and pertinent questions that became important focal points for those in attendance, many of which related to dealing with stigmatic perceptions of women in the workplace and how to deal with tough personalities.
“Some of the questions included, ‘Do you feel you are treated the same or differently than the men in your industry? Do you have a hard time having men report to you? What can I do personally to help myself get ahead?” said Andree.
Ferrer added, “We had some pre-determined questions, but some of the questions that came up later covered how to handle men who don’t want to listen to you.”
As we make strides toward workplace equality, the professional landscape continues to shift, specifically in the insurance and brokerage industry.
“Inside of Western Financial Group, 80% of our workforce is women,” said Charles. “We have a number of senior executives and senior leaders who are women. I still see it in other companies where that is not the case."
Andree went on to echo a similar sentiment about the insurance industry being ripe with opportunities for women.
“I have a unique experience, because I have not spent my entire career in insurance. Insurance is the only industry I’ve been in where female leadership is everywhere,” said Andree. “This is an industry where there isn’t a career growth ceiling or a limit for women.”
Among other things, the decision to start a family has become a widely recognized internal conflict for rising female professionals, not just in the insurance and brokerage industry, but across the board.
“Something we struggle with as women is that we have these big career goals and then we start a family. We go out on maternity leave or take time off to be with our kids, and our career trajectory changes,” said Ferrer. “Instead of looking at this as a step backwards, it’s important to view it as an opportunity to move laterally. Learn everything that you can. Your career trajectory doesn’t have to be ‘Step 1, Step 2, Step 3’. Your next move might be ‘Step 1a’. We have to stop thinking that we have to make a choice between our careers and our family; we can do both, it just might not be a straight rise to the top.”
According to the panelists, even small decisions made over time can guide a career path toward leadership.
“For me, it has been about being open-minded and willing to take on new challenges and tasks at any moment,” said Charles. “Looking for opportunities to show my value in different ways has been important throughout my career.”
Ferrer added, “We do a lot of waiting. We wait to be offered that promotion, or we wait for the opportunity to become available instead of advocating for what you want proactively. Being your own advocate early on in your career goes a long way.”
The panelists went on to share their own experiences that had the most impact on their career paths and changed the way they viewed leadership.
“Early on in my career when I was in the automotive industry, I had a boss who was extremely hard on women; so that served as an example of what I didn’t want to do. It was a great awakening, because you can’t assume that all women are going to be good, nurturing leaders,” said Andree.
Ferrer said, “I think every time that there is a setback or a failure, those are opportunities. For me, I had a great career and an awesome job back in late 2000. I worked for a company that was impacted by the downturn in the economy, and I quickly found myself without a job. Every time you face adversity you have a choice. You can either wallow in it and let it define you, or you can make the most out of it and let it strengthen your character and resilience.”
Between these fearless leaders, there exists a wide range of success that each has measured over the course of their career.
“I came into insurance not knowing anything,” said Andree. “I joined an insurance company that brought me in to figure out how to do business development. We had a change in leadership, and I stepped up and said, ‘I know I’ve never done this, but I’d like to try and help.’ You have to step up and prove your worth and show your value.”
Charles offered that continuous learning has helped in gauging her own progress and success over the course of her career.
“I’ve always been open to learning,” said Charles. “Any feedback I receive I internalize and move forward. I pay close attention to anything I need to improve on. In order to be an effective leader, you can be kind and friendly, but you also have to hold people accountable to results.”
Ferrer uses two units of measurement when it comes to evaluating her personal growth and success.
“I look at the financial side of it, and then I look at how I feel,” said Ferrer. “Who wants to go to a job that they hate where they’re going to just to punch a clock and collect a paycheck? Who wants to spend their entire career that way? I ask myself if I feel excited and if I’m engaged in the work, and then I ask myself if I’m making money. Happily, over the course of the past seven years, more often than not, the answer has been ‘yes’, so I figure I must be doing the right thing.
Each panelist offered additional insight and advice with regards to rising toward a position of leadership.
Charles said, “After the session, I had someone come to me and say that they were new to management and they wanted to know where to start. The first thing you need to do is establish clear, measurable goals for those around you. If people don’t understand the overall goals, you won’t be successful as a leader. Then, you should have regular one-on-one meetings and communication. You can’t expect people to do their job well if they don’t have ways to communicate with their leader.”
“Understand your industry as a whole,” said Andree. “Learn everything you can about the industry helps you stay relevant. Also, don’t lose sight of the bigger world beyond insurance. There are people outside of our industry who help me every day. You need to understand things about the business world in general to make things happen.”
“Supporting one another is a big one. The expression ‘lift as you climb’ is tremendously important. I think sometimes we tend to look at other women and see them as competition. We have to recognize that where ever our path takes us, we can’t go alone,” said Ferrer.
Reflecting on what they have found to be most rewarding while being a leader, the panelists shared their own unique perspective.
“Helping other people grow,” said Andree. “I have a team of 19 people, and my favorite thing to do is one-on-one’s with them. Every time one of them gets a promotion or gets a better job, that’s when I feel most valuable. Helping people succeed is so fulfilling to me.”
“We work with a lot of clients who call us and say, ‘Our team isn’t engaged and our retention rate is really low.’ We’ll work with our clients to get them to a place of stability. Even the things that seem straightforward make a huge impact. Everyone wants to know that they’re making a difference. We want to know that if we’re giving 40 hours or more of our life a week that it means something. I have that opportunity to help clients get to that point with their team members, and it’s awesome.”
“I love it when someone I’ve mentored gets promoted. When someone who I’ve been helping in their career rises to that next level, I feel the most successful,” said Charles.
At the conclusion of the panel discussion, Andree left the audience with something to remember as they move forward in their careers.
“At the end of panel, I said, ‘I’m sitting here because someone asked me to. But anyone of you can be up here doing what I’m doing.’ said Andree. “We forget that we have the power and ability and skillset to do something. You sometimes need to take a step back and recognize that you do have something to offer.”
Tags: Operations , Applied Net , Leadership , Women