Of the various arms of financial services, insurance is the runt of the litter. Perceived to be boring and nerdy, it’s looked down upon by its “cooler” banking and investment brethren. It’s even less cool than accounting. Just imagine that existence…
Which is why it is surprising to find someone like Amanda Blanc, CEO of EMEA for Swiss insurer Zurich, operating in this market. She is rare in financial services, never mind insurance. First of all, she is a woman – famously, there are more CEOs in the UK called Dave than there are female CEOs.
But, more than that, she is not the kind of personality you expect to find operating in an insurance boardroom. There is little, if any, corporate front. She is driven, compassionate, outspoken, funny, challenging and infectious company. Even a bit sweary. And she talks at a mile a minute in her strong Welsh accent, so much so it is often hard to keep up.
Her career, which started 30 years ago in Luton, has always been on an upward trajectory and she has been something of a trailblazer for women in the industry.
She recently became chair of the Association of British Insurers, the first woman to hold that position in the organization’s 33-year history, only the second woman in more than 100 years to have been president of the Chartered Insurance Institute and the only woman to have chaired the Insurance Fraud Bureau. To achieve all of that by the age of 50 while holding down a succession of high-pressure jobs must require a hard-nosed determination to succeed from the outset.
But apparently being a high powered CEO was never part of the plan. In fact, if she’d had her way, she would have been a professional musician but freely admits she wasn’t good enough.
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Adults carry out 109 ‘life admin’ tasks every year, research reveals “When I started working, I had two job offers,” she says. “One for the local council and one for the insurer, Commercial Union in Luton. I didn’t really know what insurance was. All I knew was that if I worked for the council, I would never leave Wales and I wanted to do something different.”
Although she did indeed leave Wales, finally settling in Hampshire, she has made a point of maintaining her roots with regular visits “home”.
“It’s still very important to me. I love Wales and the people there. It is completely grounded. When I go back home, I’m not a chief executive, I am who I’ve always been.”
So how did a working class woman from the Rhondda Valley navigate her way to the top in what is a notoriously cutthroat and unforgiving environment?
Blanc places a lot of the credit for her progress at the feet of some very supportive and encouraging mentors throughout her career, a role she in turn has assumed for others. Although she has never felt that either her gender or background has held her back, she is acutely aware that a lack of diversity in her industry is a problem and that women in particular require greater support and encouragement.
“It’s like there is no room for error for women. I see it in the women I mentor and the women I work with,” she says.
“They’ll see a role they want to go for but if they can only fulfill nine out of the 10 requirements they will go away and create a development plan for that one thing. Only once they can tick that box will they think they can do the job.
“You don’t see men respond in the same way. They think, ‘I can do five out of 10, I’m raring to go!’”
A risk-averse culture within the industry is a major part of the problem, she says, and believes that without change, insurance will continue to be the land of men in dark grey suits and the boring alternative in financial services.
“We need to encourage people to take risks – whether it’s headhunters, regulators, organizations or the women themselves.
It’s like there is no room for error for women … You don’t see men respond in the same way
“We need to work much harder at ensuring people get the opportunity to develop their careers in the way they want as it’s only then we will start to change the culture.”
While she freely admits that changing the culture and the makeup of an organization, never mind an industry, is incredibly difficult, she is adamant that the introduction of greater diversity is vital for the survival of both.
“Any diversity changes things for the better. If you look back to the financial crisis of 2008, one of the main criticisms was, that around the boardrooms, everyone was the same. They indulged in group think.
“The only way you can get away from group think is to introduce greater diversity, whether that is by age, gender, ethnicity or whatever. It doesn’t really matter.
“What matters is having people that will come at things from a different perspective. Once you have that, you need to have an open enough mindset to listen to these individuals and then act on what they are telling you.”
Taking up the industry’s defense, she pushes against the perception that insurance is an old boys’ club cloistered in the heart of London’s financial district and is at pains to highlight the core role it plays in the country’s economy.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people working in insurance across the country, doing a fantastic job every day.
“The country would not function without insurance. Planes would not take off. Schools would not open. Public transport wouldn’t leave the depot. Without insurance, how does the infrastructure of the world operate?” she asks.
It is a compelling defense, but insurance continues to labour under its boring and old-fashioned personality and accusations of poor practice. However, if Blanc can walk the talk and others like her can drive change from within, perhaps insurance can indeed move out of the shadows of its financial services peers and finally get its house in order.
Read the full Independent article here.