Black History Month Spotlight
What advice would you give yourself just starting out in the insurance industry?
Barry: There are so many things! If I had to pick one, it would be to focus on being a better communicator, both written and verbal. So much of our success depends on how well we communicate with peers, our leaders, business partners and customers. The ability to speak comfortably in front of groups is also important.
Bonnie: I would tell my younger self to be more strategic and watch the politics. I never had a sponsor and that is key. To have someone speak up for you in the room when you are not around. To recommend you for new opportunities, etc.
Holli: Own your career and be prepared to advocate for yourself. I know that it’s easier said than done but my mother always said a closed mouth won’t get fed. Track your wins, accomplishments, successful projects, positive feedback – some days you need to remind yourself that you’re in your role for a reason and other days you need to remind others. Practice gratitude – you should want to go as far up the career ladder as your ambition and aptitude will take you. However, it’s so important to find space to appreciate where you are in the moment. When I make space for gratitude, it helps me stay grounded, resilient, and hopeful. Be prepared to be a lifelong learner. One of the exciting parts of being in the insurance industry is that there is always something new to learn. Challenge yourself to learn something that not absolutely necessary but makes you more valuable – a new language, Excel, something that makes you the go-to subject matter expert. Perfection is an allusion. If you’ve made the best decision you can with the information you were given/have, that’s the most anyone can expect of you.
Abel: Advice that I would give my younger self is to be unapologetic about your goals, and ambitions in the Insurance Industry. While this is a great industry, in order to meet your ultimate goals you must continue to develop professionally and technically in your field. Don’t wait until later in your career to make an impact in the industry, which is broader than the needs of your organization as its critically important to focus on providing value to your company, but the industry at large.
If you were starting today, as a young African American professional would that advice change? If so, how?
Barry: The advice wouldn’t change, but I would add the need to build a network of people as a support system. Seek out role models that look like you, and some that don’t. Make your village as diverse as possible, make genuine connections with people and learn their stories. Lastly, be of service to others because you get as much as you give in the process.
Bonnie: Yes, you must have allies, and as I said a sponsor. The sponsor does not have to be a person of color, but someone that you trust, has integrity and you respect. I think the younger people of today have senior executives they can use to assist them (like myself), and networking organizations. It’s important to have a plan and ask for what you want. You must follow through and get things in writing.
Holli: I would still give the same advice. However, I would also say to start building your network early and nurture it because at some point, it’s no longer entirely about what you know but who you know. You want the right people to say your name in the rooms you’re not in yet – the advocates, allies, and activators. We also need others to cheer for you and give you wise counsel, and for whom you can return the favor.
Abel: No, I don’t believe the advice would change. Now more than ever, there is a gap, and a need for talented Black professionals in the executive leadership ranks across all levels of Insurance. I believe this isn’t necessarily a problem that can be solved without intentional efforts from organizations across the insurance industry. Intentional recruiting of young talent, developing of all individuals, and promoting into positions of leadership. I truly believe that once people see leaders that resemble themselves in the executive ranks, they can aspire with optimism to lead organizations and add value in ways that support to the customers of this great industry.
How has the insurance industry embraced diversity, equity, belonging, and inclusion? What challenges still exist?
Barry: The industry is starting to embrace these concepts, but progress has been slow. This is true despite the business case for diversity being made evident years ago. The killing of George Floyd was a galvanizing event for the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) community and it has put a spotlight on corporate America. Our industry, at all levels of its organizations, should reflect the communities and customers we serve. In order to be successful, organizations need to ensure they have a comprehensive strategy that engages all stakeholders. It can’t be another “flavor of the month” program, it has to be woven into the fabric of the organization.
Organizations need to look at DE&I as who we are instead of something we do. We need to continue to recruit diverse candidates and look for ways to retain and develop those employees. Organizations need to commit to partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) to develop talent pipelines.
Bonnie: We still are not in decision making roles and on boards (in abundance), and running profit centers. On the brokerage side there are few AA producers because we don’t have the board room contacts. Diversity of thought makes good economic sense.
We don’t receive the support that our fellow colleagues receive. We talk about generational wealth, but in our business we don’t get the opportunities of inheriting books of business or get opportunities to run offices. Always act with integrity, no matter who you are; client , CEO, underwriter, receptionist, claims person, actuary… you get my drift!
Holli: I believe that the insurance industry has been strongly compelled to embrace diversity, equity, belonging, and inclusion and we’re seeing evidence of that. Frankly there was no choice. If the industry is to thrive we have to cast a wider net for talent. Smart leaders that welcome diverse talent and multiple perspectives know that they will benefit from the creativity and energy that comes with that and thus, remain profitable. However, different organizations are definitely in different places along their journey. I work for Helmsman Management Services, a wholly-owned entity of Liberty Mutual. Nearly 10 years ago, we brought a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Dawn Frazier-Bohnert, and you can feel the shift in our organization. She’ll be the first to tell you it’s hard work, requires significant collaboration, and takes more time than many of believe it should. You have to set measurable goals, hold leadership accountable, and be fully transparent regarding what you’re doing well and where things need work. I’m seeing more of that happening in various organization including my own. I’m beginning to see far more people who look like me in spaces that I did not even know existed and at higher levels. The talent was always there but we’re now making a more concerted effort to make sure they are given an opportunity to compete for the roles for which they qualify.
There are certainly challenges. There will always be people in positions of power who say that they embrace DEI and in fact, do not. They demonstrate this by focusing on symbolic gestures and not substantive action and by limiting the amount of time and resources they’re willing to invest in DEI initiatives. I really believe that we need to start much earlier to attract diverse talent and we need to go to places we normally would not to find them and allow them to discover all that the insurance industry can offer. I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of high school students and many of them had no idea that working in insurance was an option and some were genuinely intrigued by the idea.
Abel: While efforts have been made in the insurance industry to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion I believe there is still a long way to go. While I don’t only want to focus on the Black Community, a Reuters study in 2020 confirmed that only 3 of 168 senior executives a the top 10 insurers are black. Among 119 board members, only 16 are black at the same companies. This is a bleak outlook, and the numbers aren’t much better when you assess gender, differently abled, and other aspects of diversity and inclusion. This fact makes it challenging when it comes to hiring into executive ranks because its been well documented that people tend to hire and promote those that resemble themselves. I believe inclusion training only helps to a certain degree, but its even more critical to measure and provide a level of accountability within decision makers to improve DEI across insurance. We work for a great industry, and I truly believe with the right intentions, we can recognize positive gains over the coming years.
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