“Whenever there is a vacuum of leadership it gets filled, like it or not”

“Whenever there is a vacuum of leadership it gets filled, like it or not” | Insurance Business

“Whenever there is a vacuum of leadership it gets filled, like it or not”

While Erin Hamrick‘s interest in insurance started at quite an early age, there was one incident that made her realize the importance and the greater purpose of the industry not just for individuals but also for businesses - when a fire hit one of the buildings at her father’s company.

After graduating with an Economics degree at Villanova University, Hamrick went straight into a training program at the Hartford. After several years on the broking side, she ventured into the executive search operations at Heidrick & Struggles, where she helped clients find the right talent for their unique value propositions. While working in the Wall Street office of Heidrick & Struggles, Hamrick witnessed how the September 11, 2001 events unfolded. This was one of the turning points of her life and the reason why she accepted an invitation from the Department of Defense for her to join in the rehabilitation of Iraq.

In 2011, Hamrick co-founded her own executive search group, Sterling James. In her role as a partner for the firm, Hamrick worked with board members, CEOs, and other senior executives across the sectors comprising the insurance industry, from property, to life and reinsurance.

Insurance Business reached out to Hamrick to get to know more about her company and how it challenges the way the industry players approach headhunting.

Tell us briefly about your company and its role in the insurance industry. What makes it different from other companies in the same space? 

Insurance is all that we do and we love what we do! We feel it is our responsibility to keep a thumb on the pulse of the market at all times and sort out “the real story” behind people’s reputations both good and bad.  I often tell clients that you can get a good or a bad reference on just about anyone in the (re)insurance industry as it is all about perspective. Take a CEO and a CUO in the same company.  Was the goal to drive premium growth? If so, we know how that story ends unless they quickly sold the company and made money for the investors. In that case, is underwriting expertise really important? Doubtful. The CEO will be praised by the investors and the CUO will have a reputation as writing business at all costs.  In order to recruit someone who will make a real difference for both the company and enhance their career, you need to understand a company’s business strategy, goals and what is important culturally. The “fit” at the end of the day is the key to any successful hire.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome so far as an insurance professional? What did you do to conquer it? 

One of the biggest challenges has been carving out our niche. The industry is clustered in male dominated relationships. Men typically help men and like to hire their friends. Experience and suitability for the role often doesn’t matter. I call it the “He’s a great guy” hire. Women typically do not help other women as they are too busy trying to fit in with the men.  Hence, we had to create our own space and we no longer had the big brand name in executive search behind us. We decided to focus on being true consultants and business partners by leveraging our industry knowledge and expertise. Ever so gently, we would always question and/or probe an opinion in order to guide a more thoughtful discussion. If you do this often enough you gain a reputation. I’ve been told we have a reputation of being “honest brokers.” We tell it like it is. Additionally, we will turn down business if we don’t believe in the company’s strategy and won’t represent a project unless we feel we can be successful.

What do you think are the most challenging issues facing the insurance industry today?

The pool of talent for understanding how an insurance business makes money is shrinking - sounds a bit old fashioned I know. Given technology and this need for deep expertise we’ve siloed people.  We’ve become an industry of an inch wide and a mile deep. Property people only know property and gasp when managing casualty, “How many years of exposure!” Casualty people start managing the property folks and, “That’s millions not billions right?” The reinsurance people don’t have exposure to the primary side and the admitted side has no exposure to E&S. Now you need a CEO to manage it all and as an industry we wonder why it’s so difficult to find great talent! One last thought, if the (re)insurance industry can’t fill this void of leadership for the future, someone from outside the industry will no doubt lead the way.  One of my favorite sayings is, “Whenever there is a vacuum of leadership it gets filled, like it or not.”

Do you believe that a glass ceiling exists and hinders women from getting opportunities in the insurance space? What should women do to break through? 

I don’t know that there is a “glass ceiling” per se but I do know that women are in the minority at the top — just a matter of math as there are not enough women on the business side. Add to that being included in the real dialogue of a situation as there’s safety in numbers. If two men want to go to dinner to discuss business they can and they don’t think twice. It’s different if you’re the only woman and you’re asking a man to dinner or vice versa… lunch and breakfast are OK but time constrained by schedules. Ours is still a relationship business. Dinners, drinks and the golf course are where relationships are made and deals get done. Given I’m on the board of the LPGA Foundation, I’m working hard to get companies to recognize that “one thing you can do” from an inclusion perspective is get your women playing golf. The LPGA has a great program to get women “scramble ready.” We have to get women to be included in the discussions where decisions get made and anyone in (re)insurance knows that this is an industry that plays golf!  The more we see women included in anything (such as golf outings as well as panel discussions) the more it will be recognized as the “new normal!”

What advice can you share for those wanting to join the insurance industry? 

Insurance makes the world go, always has and always will since 1688. Insurance as an intangible product in some form or fashion will never go away. How we buy it or use it or how it is created is definitely going to change. The opportunity to be part of an industry that is ripe for disruption is a great place to start a career.

Please share with us your experience when you were asked to join the Department of Defense after the 9/11 incident. How important was this experience to you? 

Arguably this was the most important experience of my life both personally and professionally.  Witnessing 9/11 changes your view on everything in life. You gain a whole new respect for just about everything we take for granted in life. It was a former client that had called me and asked if I would come join his team in the defense department. My first thought was “I can’t do that, I don’t have the right experience!” A VERY female response by the way!  To my husband’s credit he told me that if my former client felt I could help, why was I questioning myself? So personally and professionally “I jumped in the deep end,” as they say, and the result is an even greater level of confidence. I don’t know that I would have the level of success with Sterling James without that experience.

If you were not working in the insurance space, what would you be doing now? 

Great question! In another life… I would have loved to be the Commissioner of the LPGA.  

What are your passions or hobbies outside insurance? 

Well you can tell I’m passionate about golf! Playing with the boys is high school set the stage for my career as it made me resilient at facing fear. Golf is such a fabulous sport and a sport that is great for professional reasons and something you can do for a lifetime. I’m quite the gardener too. You name it and we grow it from flowers to vegetables. We make our own pesto, tomato sauces, etc. There is something cathartic about gardening. At the end of the day, my biggest passion is my family. Going back to 9/11, you recognize how precious life is and how important it is to not take anything for granted.

What would you name the autobiography of your life? 

Climb Every Mountain Until You Find Your Dream.