Taking a 'build-your-own-adventure' approach to crafting an insurance career

"Don't worry if you feel like you don't have all the answers”

Taking a 'build-your-own-adventure' approach to crafting an insurance career

Diversity & Inclusion

By Mia Wallace

The 20-20 vision of hindsight is often touted and admired but if you could go back in time and deliver a message to your younger self, what would you say? The response from Susie Cook, VP of Underwriting Initiatives at Allied World, will likely resonate with many – “be braver and don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have all the answers.”

Ahead of the upcoming Women in Insurance Summit in London, Cook spoke with Insurance Business to discuss the power of taking a creative and courageous approach to building a career in insurance. Looking back, she noted that the real evolution has not been how she took a ‘build-your-own-adventure’ approach to her career but rather her acceptance that this is an approach that should be celebrated.

“When I started out in my early 20s, all the different development programmes and performance reviews were centred around that question of “where do you want to be in five years’ time?”,” she said. “I think it’s amazing that there are people who leave school and university and have structured career goals and plans, but I’ve never been one of those people.

“I used to worry that maybe I wasn’t ambitious enough, maybe I lacked direction – and as a young professional, it was easy to take that negatively. But now I do think there is more of an understanding that choosing your own adventure and having variety in your career is actually quite empowering.”

Cooked noted that it’s great to look across the market now and see the evolution away from a one-size-fits-all approach to building an insurance career. When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to fret if you don’t know exactly where you fit in the ecosystem, she said, but there is increasing recognition that if you’re able to demonstrate transferable skills and capability across a wide range of disciplines, then the world really is your oyster.

“My message is not to panic if you don’t know where you fit in because very often, doors you never knew existed will start to open if you demonstrate that you’re capable, that you’ve got the energy, the enthusiasm, the drive and the right personality to succeed,” Cook said. “You can always learn the technical bits but passion comes from within.

“Use those early years to explore, be curious to try different things and to find what works for you. Just because you started somewhere doesn’t mean you will stay there. And the other thing is, you don’t have to be the best at everything. I’ve learned that recognising your weaknesses is in itself a strength.”

That recognition is essential to being a great team worker, she said, because it means you’re more aware of the strengths and capabilities of the people around you. All too often, women tend to hold quite self-limiting beliefs that they shouldn’t try something if they’re not going to be best at it but to build a meaningful and fulfilling career takes bravery – it takes expanding your comfort zone and with that, your understanding of your own potential.

Firmly attesting to her long-held belief that a career in insurance can be an adventure, Cook looked back on the rather untraditional trajectory she has enjoyed to date. Taking the road less travelled has allowed her to work in areas of the insurance market she would never have been able to access if she’d taken a more linear approach, she said, and that feeds right through to the role she has today.

Being a new role for Allied World there was opportunity to shape that ‘blank sheet of paper’ and get involved in parts of the business that might otherwise have been out of reach, Cook said. The culture of trust and empowerment at Allied World presents an environment that she welcomes, as the interplay of personal motivation and internal openness and support is integral to building a rewarding and satisfying career, and keeping it fresh.

“Because of that alignment,” she said “I’m now in a role that ticks all the boxes of what motivates me, keeps me learning, and one that is definitely an adventure. Cheesy as it sounds, I do believe an insurance career can be an adventure but it’s a two-way street. The culture of your company and vision of those around you creates the opportunity, but you need to have the self-confidence and belief to seize that opportunity.”

In much the same way that lacking confidence in yourself can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, making the effort to build up your self-confidence can lead to tremendous outcomes. That’s what it takes to tear down the barriers between you and the place you want to get to, she said, and what’s amazing to see is how this mindset can benefit your personal life as well.

“As an example,” she said, “I have a geniune fear of heights, I’ve had it ever since I was a youngster but one of my hobbies is mountaineering – and you wouldn’t think those two go hand in hand! But it got to the point where I realised that I wanted to be out there on the mountains and if I didn’t get over my fear, then I wasn’t going to realise that ambition and that just isn’t an option for me.

“So, I started to upskill myself, I went on courses, I built up my tolerance gradually by starting small and in that way, I developed my experience and my confidence. I learned to manage my fear. And I use the same tactics at work because once you realise you can do something, you realise you can do a lot more.”

The advice she would give her younger self is exactly the same as that which she gives her colleagues and her young niece and nephew who are just embarking on the early steps of insurance careers.

“Don’t panic, you have time but use it. Just keep nudging at the door of opportunity,” she said. “Keep pushing your boundaries and keep pushing your comfort zone. I know I’m still doing that today and that won’t change. Because that’s what stops you from getting stuck in a rut and complacent, and from losing your energy and your motivation. Be comfortable with being a little bit uncomfortable because not necessarily knowing what the next chapter will bring is what keeps the adventure going”.

Allied World is a gold sponsor of the upcoming Women in Insurance Summit in London. Registration is now open and you can book your tickets today.

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