The case for female talent at the top

The case for female talent at the top | Insurance Business

The case for female talent at the top

For Melanie Muise, Chief Operations Officer at Navacord, looking around and seeing other women at the leadership table alongside her is something that’s important to her — and important to the company’s bottom line.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that female leadership makes a difference,” she said. “When I think about Navacord and what we do, we thrive because we do three things well to drive our business objectives.”

The first is decision-making, where the company encourages diversity of thought, avoids group thinking and stimulates discussion around alternative strategies and solutions so that a decision is made more vigorously. Second, around growth, Navacord encourages introspection to really look at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — and “none of those exercises can happen very deeply if everyone in the room looks the same,” Muise noted.

The third and most important thing Navacord does is put effort into broadening its leadership models and including women in a more balanced team.

“Diversity of thought is, in my mind, the most robust way to drive business objectives, capture growth and mitigate risk, and the only way to have diversity of thought is to diversify that team of leaders,” Muise said. “Gender equality just seems like the best place to start.”

Being around women in senior roles has been a key theme running through most of Muise’s life. While pursuing a math degree at university her female professors stood out to her as, along with Muise, they were often the only women in the room.

“I’ve been really lucky in my career — I’ve had a lot of strong female leaders to learn from right from the start,” she said.

Most women say they’ve learned the most important lessons about leadership from other women, and Muise believes life-long mentorship — whether formal or informal, as mentor or mentee — is critical. She believes that senior leaders using their platform and their voice to provide opportunities for younger females to develop their business acumen and learn the skills they need to take on broader leadership roles ensures, “you’re surrounding yourself top down and bottom up,” which is critical when it comes to advancing female talent at the top.

According to a KPMG study on women in leadership, 80% of women believe having access to a female mentor will help advance their career. Mentorship is also Muise’s number one recommendation for what leadership team members, regardless of gender, can do to promote female leadership. But while there’s a lot written about what organizations should be doing to achieve that, there isn’t a lot of guidance on how to get there, but Muise does have tangible examples of things she does personally at Navacord to help women advance.

For example, Muise has an eye for candidate diversity from the start of her hiring process. As much as possible, she wants to ensure that she has both men and women in the candidate pool, as well as the final interview stage. Muise also makes sure she includes men in the conversation about hiring or developing women leaders, which allows everyone to strengthen their “diversity muscles” together.

“When I’m in a room full of men and someone makes a comment about me being the only woman, there’s a huge opportunity to jump on that and say, ‘how can we change that for the next meeting’?” she said. “How about we bring in some key female talent who could use a development opportunity, for example.”

The same KPMG study reveals that 91% of working women indicated it’s important to have a positive role model and 86% reported that if they see a leader that looks like them, they feel they can get there. When it comes to employee development and succession planning, female key talent with aspirations towards leadership should be able to look up and see themselves reflected in those roles and know it’s possible to achieve that kind of career growth — just as Muise was inspired by her female professors that she too could have a seat at the table one day.

She notes that female leadership also matters to clients: women make up over half of society in Canada and contribute to the economy, and their insurance needs follow.

“If you want to maximize ‘know your customer’ initiatives, having your customers reflected in your leadership team will only serve to deepen your value proposition,” said Muise.

Shareholders also benefit, as there’s a very strong correlation between female executive leadership and higher profitability, better ROI and stronger engagement. But even though it makes good business sense to have a balanced leadership team, the reality of executing that dream team is more complicated. Even though the world has made a lot of progress in advancing women, men still make up 90% of C-level executive positions in Canada — “not a great statistic when you think about how most Canadians think of themselves as progressive,” Muise said.

It’s important to move the needle on diversity wherever possible, and while a lot of businesses are at the stage where they recognize they have work to do in this area, that’s not enough of a story. Putting in the work is what’s newsworthy. Changing the mix of the leadership team is what’s newsworthy. Navacord recognizes — and values — female talent at the top and is actively working on initiatives to keep moving in the right direction.

“I’m proud to be part of an organization that has female executives across many of our broker partners’ businesses, and at our head office as well,” Muise said. “And I’m proud to be one of those women.”