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Advice for women in insurance: Take more risks

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NEW YORK — Women tend to outpace men in engaging others in the workplace and putting their best selves forward, but tend to fall behind when it comes to knowing their business and understanding overall financial strategies, according to a leadership expert.

That lack of knowledge and understanding represents the “missing 33%” needed for workplace advancement, and it’s what’s holding women back, according to Kelly Lockwood Primus, senior vice president of strategic client solutions at Rincon, Puerto Rico-based Leading Women, a consulting firm that helps companies bring women into leadership roles. 

Ms. Primus spoke to a roomful of Business Insurance Women to Watch conference attendees at a preconference workshop Tuesday organized by The Alliance of Women in Workers’ Compensation. The goal, she said, is to move women away from the traditional advice of how to get ahead and to look at what research shows is needed to advance. She leaned on several reports and studies, including a 10-yearHarvard University study. 

“All this stuff we’ve been told for 40 years lands you right here,” said Ms. Primus, as the screen behind her displayed a graphic showing a path from entry-level to middle management to high-level management, with an arrow barely within the area of middle management. 

Her advice? Take on the risk of getting to know the business, she said. 

“Learn the business of your business … Act like you own the company … Start looking at the way things are done, talk to people, ask questions,” she said, ticking off her key strategies. If the company is expanding or introducing something new, get in on it, she said. “Hold strategic, line and international jobs,” she added.

Honing in on the need to understand “business, strategic and financial acumen” is something most women don’t focus on, she said. Instead, she said, the focus tends to be on perfection, engaging teams, being assertive and setting career goals — elements research shows are not what C-level executive are looking for in deciding who to advance, she said. 

“Many of you may have these skills, but what you don’t realize is you don’t demonstrate them,” she said. “What does the story tell on your quarterly earnings report? Until you can demonstrate these three things, you are not going to be seen as a business partner ... If you don’t demonstrate that you understand the business — sorry, you’ll never make it in the succession line.” 

Ms. Primus referred to this as “executive presence” and joked that is had little to do with the right hair and clothing. 

“Speak in terms of financial, strategic and business acumen … Open up your annual report and read what’s there. When you don’t understand (it), make notes and go see your (chief financial officer) and have him explain it to you.”
 
As a follow-up to Ms. Primus’ presentation, three former Women to Watch awardees led a panel discussion on some of these same principles. 

Carol Arendell, vice president of safety and risk for U.S. Foods and among the 2007 Women to Watch, relayed an anecdote from a time early in her career when she was in a meeting and couldn’t answer all the questions posed by a superior. 

“(My advice is) don’t go into the meeting if you don’t know your stuff,” she said of what she referred to as one of her most humbling and worthwhile experiences in business.