For anyone, the road to the corner office can be a tough journey. For women in the insurance industry, it can provide some additional challenges. A 2015 study by Saint Joseph’s University Academy of Risk Management & Insurance showed that out of 100 insurance companies that participated in its survey, 78 percent had no females in “C-Level” positions. That number may seem daunting, but things are getting better. The figure is down from 85 percent in the Academy’s 2013 survey, so progress is being made.

Regardless, becoming a female CEO in the insurance industry takes expertise, courage, and perseverance.  Becoming one in the traditionally conventional fraternal system takes even more. In a diversity workshop at its May, 2017 Spring Symposium in Chicago, which was moderated by Denise McCauley, Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer for WoodmenLife, the members of the American Fraternal Alliance were lucky enough to hear from two highly respected women who hold top posts at their societies. Teresa Rasmussen, President of Thrivent Financial and Cynthia Tidwell, CEO & President of Royal Neighbors of America, shared their experiences and provided advice to future leaders. Interestingly, as both pointed out at different times during their conversation, their advice is equally applicable to both men and women seeking the path to leadership. Most of their advice fell into seven basic categories that offer some outstanding lessons in leadership.

1. Specialize

Neither Tidwell nor Rasmussen initially began their careers in the insurance industry. Both started in health care fields, and both stressed that the specialization of skills in certain, in-demand, areas played a strong role in their success.

Tidwell, whose first job out of college was in cardio rehabilitation, soon found that most leadership positions in medical were reserved only for doctors. She subsequently moved into the insurance industry for the State Farm claims department. Her familiarity with health care gave her an advantage, and she was able to rise through the ranks there and then at several other companies, including Chubb, Xerox and Fireman’s Fund. Through this process, Tidwell became known as a turn-around expert, and it changed the trajectory of her career. She was recognized as someone who could move from department to department and company to company solving problems, realigning staff, improving bottom lines and transforming troubled divisions into profit centers.

Rasmussen began her career as a dental hygienist and moved on to study accounting, finally becoming an attorney and working as an in-house counsel for American Express in financial services and asset management. She explains that during the early 1990s, many companies were experiencing turmoil. As a low-level attorney for AMEX, Rasmussen found her stepping stone to leadership in the bankruptcy code. When given an opportunity to dig into this complicated topic, she quickly became an expert and helped the company develop a strategy for using the code to enhance their bottom line. Rasmussen soon developed a reputation as someone who was not afraid to speak about her specialty to upper management and this, in turn, led to further opportunities.

Put simply, the message from both women is: Create your value, use it as a competitive advantage, and opportunities will come along.

2.     Don’t be afraid to fail

The risk of failure is uncomfortable for everyone, and women can sometimes shy away from taking chances. But both women noted the need to learn to embrace that risk and jump at new opportunities. Rasmussen explained that you need to ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that can happen?  “Growing and developing is uncomfortable, but you need to just let it happen. In order to grow, we all need to be able to jump in and get outside of our comfort zones.”

Tidwell echoed the sentiment, explaining that she “loves risk” and noting “people just need to go for it. We never know what we are capable of until we try.” She also advises that as you take on new projects and responsibilities, you need to continually learn about your organization and specifically, how it makes money. Keep that knowledge in mind as you approach new challenges, and it will help you make better decisions in your role as a leader.  

3.     You need mentors and sponsors

Organizations need to provide their people with opportunities for both mentorship and sponsorship. Both Tidwell and Rasmussen noted, however, that while mentors or sponsors played a role in their career success, they were wary of official corporate programs that assign mentors.

According to Tidwell, “Mentors who are assigned to a person do not work well. Finding a mentor needs to be organic; the relationship must be a safe place to brainstorm, share ideas and receive advice.“  She also spoke to the idea that mentoring alone is not enough for success. “You need to have sponsors as well. Sponsorship is when someone in your company on a level above you sees your potential and gives you an opportunity to succeed.” Rasmussen recalled that while she had never had a formal mentor, she had a lot of sponsors over the course of her career.

 4.     Raise your hand!

Rasmussen spoke to the power of making yourself available to take on new opportunities. “Raise your hand when upper management is seeking a volunteer. It will help you to gather expertise and build your reputation.” She related a story about how even agreeing to dine with a senior colleague that she didn’t know well while on a business trip led to a fruitful relationship and new contacts that helped her build her career.

Tidwell agreed about looking for opportunity, but cautioned that saying yes is not always the correct answer. She spoke about an opportunity she was offered at one insurance company that she felt was not different enough from her current position. She wanted a fresh challenge, so she turned the offer down and referred a candidate who she thought would be a good fit. A few months later, after hiring the person that she had recommended, the same company offered Tidwell a top position that began an exciting new phase of her career.

 5.     Don’t just find problems

“Many people are good at identifying problems, but aspiring leaders need to offer solutions,” says Rasmussen.  “We look for people who make change by translating their ideas into good business. Become a solution-generating employee, and you’ll increase your value to your management and to the company. According to Tidwell, when focusing on finding solutions to problems, it helps to create a structure that identifies challenges, develops a plan to stabilize the situation and retains focus on how to monetize or create value for the company.

 6.     Control destiny through your choices

Each person’s career journey is made up of choices that we make for ourselves. “We control our choices and life is full of them,” said Tidwell. “If you don’t like what you are doing, then change it. Make the choices and then fulfill the consequences of those choices.” She also added some advice directed specifically at women.  “We should all strive to live with integrity,” said Tidwell, but women must be extra vigilant about “not crossing certain lines that will result in a loss of respect.”

 7.     Be passionate and mindful

“Be passionate about what you do every day,” advised Tidwell. “Life is too short. You must have a passion for what you do.” Rasmussen agreed and spoke about the practice of mindfulness. She embraces this technique for herself and her teams. “Mindfulness enables you to make better decisions.” Mindfulness has helped her bring people together to create new visions and plans. “In business today, we are moving everyone’s cheese all the time. Mindfulness helps us bring cultures together and break down silos to move the team and the business forward.”

Both women are eager to share their passion and recruit talent to the sector. “The fraternal system includes some of the best and brightest women, and we need to give them the opportunity to be catalysts for change which is needed in our industry,” says Tidwell. “Fraternals take care of the whole person,” said Rasmussen. “We provide both financial piece of mind and an emotional fulfillment that gets to a member’s sense of purpose. It’s the coolest charter on the face of the planet.”