Like so many other women, Wendy Cook (pictured) came into insurance at a time when she was often the only woman at the table and “was brought up in an environment where I had to hold my own.”
“To see how much the industry has changed since then - now in a meeting it could be that half the table is women - is rewarding,” said Cook, now managing director and Chicago office head – the third largest office for Marsh USA. “But when women open up and you hear they still feel the same way I felt 25 years ago, it shows we aren’t as far along as we could be.”
Last year, the Central Zone Leader, John Newell, set a goal to have 121 conversations with female colleagues within the zone. While not a topic discussed on a day-to-day basis, part of COVID-19’s impact was to encourage everyone to drill down on how people are really feeling, whether it was COVID itself, the Black Lives Matter movement or improving the experience of women in the workplace.
Since the discussions, Cook said they’ve “been on a bit of a roadshow” around the company sharing the findings and discussing what action can be taken to make substantive changes based on what they’ve learned. For Cook, it’s been an exercise in reconciling how far she feels women have come when she looks back to the beginning of her career with the challenges that many women still face today.
“There’s been a shift to being more open with how you talk to people and what you talk about that I learned through this experience that has challenged me to lean in even more,” said Cook, who often looks back with great appreciation on the people who helped bring her along in her career.
“It inspires me to do the same for the next generation. I have three kids and a challenging job and balancing all of that can be overwhelming. The industry loses a lot of women because of it, so I want to communicate that you can be successful across it all.”
As part of her effort to pay it forward, Cook is speaking at the upcoming Women In Insurance Chicago event. Her session, “A guide to proactive problem solving,” explores effective leadership and that’s something Cook has a lot of experience with. Throughout her career, she’s learned it’s one thing to be given the title of manager and another to earn the title of leader: even those who don’t directly report to you need to respond to you. Especially in a collaborative environment, you must build team respect to be successful and that requires dealing effectively with different personalities to bring team members together and motivate them.
A key skill is directness: Cook finds so few people are comfortable having a direct conversation unless it’s positive. A firm believer in recognition and constructive criticism in order to progress in your career, being direct is also necessary with clients. Especially against the backdrop of the years-long hard market, strong communication leads to a better result even when it’s not the result you hoped for, she noted.
It’s also helpful to ask yourself how you want people to think about how you operate. Be decisive, Cook advised, because inaction is worse than the wrong action. Recognize it’s impossible to make everyone happy. All you can do is step back, look at the big picture and act on it. Many leaders don’t move forward in any direction which causes its own frustration, she noted, adding follow through is crucial. After gathering as many facts as possible from stakeholders, make that bold decision. Although people make mistakes at every level all the time, women tend to judge themselves more harshly and therefore are more hesitant to take risks. Don’t be, Cook stressed.
“Making career decisions I’m uncomfortable with has helped me,” she said, adding she’s never hesitated to ask for help whether from a manager, mentor or colleague. “I’ve taken roles I wasn’t ready for and have grown into them. It can be overwhelming but meaningful.”
When she was first recruited, the pitch was that insurance was an exciting industry - and that’s something Cook’s always found to be true. Drawn to the steep learning curve and the fact that you never know what each day will bring, whether in underwriting or on the brokering side, you learn so much about clients’ companies, the business landscape in which they operate and the risk they must evaluate. That’s a challenge Cook still relishes and, in her two decades at Marsh, Cook’s responsibilities changed every few years which kept her on her toes. Her current role is about developing her colleagues and helping them grow within the company, and she said it’s “rewarding to look around and see so many people I’ve influenced.”
“From day one in this industry, I felt I was creating a career: every relationship you create and step you take even in your 20s is helping develop you for the future,” said Cook. “I’m entering the second half of my career and I still look for challenges that continue to develop me. There really is no point in your career that you should stop learning.”
To hear more from Wendy and other female trailblazers in the insurance industry, reserve your spot at the Women in Insurance Chicago event today.