• Laura Hay, Leadership |

With so much going on in our busy lives, it’s sometimes hard to find time to think of things in a different way. That means we don’t get the chance to reimagine a persistent work problem, question our biases about others, or even rethink how we perceive ourselves.

That’s why I’m a huge fan of International Women’s Day, since each year on March 8th, everyone - not just women - have the chance to both celebrate women’s achievements and also think about, and rally for, a world without bias, stereotypes and discrimination.

Leading up to this day, I had the chance to converse with Annemarie Mijer and have precisely this kind of dialogue. During my chat with the Chief Risk Officer (CRO) of Dutch pension and life insurer Athora Netherlands, she discussed the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘equity’, the importance of seeing an individual’s potential (versus just their achievements), the power of ‘being vulnerable’, and the notion that women must be modest as they seek career advancement.

Managing risk by connecting people

With an actuarial background myself, one of the topics I enjoyed hashing out with Annemarie was the myth that ‘numbers’ people can’t also be great ‘people’ leaders. She disproved this idea over the course of her career with ING Group, Delta Lloyd Group, ABN AMRO and in her current position with Athora.

Annemarie told me how, “I started as one of the junior number crunchers in the actuarial department of ING, but increasingly I exposed myself more to the management side of quantitative thinking, including processes and people, and how they influence each other. When you start looking at the big picture, you need to connect both data and people with different knowledge, expertise and experience to get this vision and lead the company forward.”

A self-admitted ‘math-y’ person, Annemarie recognized that she had to learn to apply her people-side more often on the job: “Since I understood financial risks, I could work readily with the finance content people, but I also wanted to connect others for the complete business picture, and create groups of diverse people to take on challenges together.”

Annemarie really grasped the value of her people management practices when she became CRO at Delta Lloyd Group: “I realized on my first day in the office that I could not rely on existing networks I had built for the past 20 years within ING.”

Quickly setting out to build those new people connections, Annemarie explained how, “You first have to connect with people, not only to understand the numbers and processes, but also to know authentically who they are and where they are coming from, before you can lead.”

She later repeated this approach when she joined ABN AMRO, a Dutch bank with a very different business and culture than Annemarie was familiar with. “With no existing leadership relationships and only the second ever actuary at the Bank, you can connect with people if you are real and open, and show a true interest,” says Annemarie. “By letting everyone be their authentic selves, that’s where you build teamwork, empowerment and inspiration. It works whether you’re trying to close a big commercial deal or you’re leading a company through a challenging moment, like a global financial crisis or a pandemic.” The latter was especially true when she joined Athora in July 2020: leading a company, under new ownership in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown, really tested her people-leadership capabilities.

Embrace equity to make a real impact

On the topic of leaders empowering their people, Annemarie’s focus on connecting people segues nicely into the “#Embrace Equity” theme of International Women’s Day. “To embrace equity, it starts with you seeing the potential of a human being, whoever they are, and thinking about what resources or opportunities they need to get to the next level and reach the same outcome. That’s the difference between everyone being equal versus embracing ways to create true equity,” notes Annemarie. “At Athora, we bring “embracing equity” to life in the combination of our core values: we ‘Dare to be different’ and ‘Do the right thing’ which allows and challenges everyone to show their potential. ‘Care’ is also one the core Athora values: we care about the customer and society but also have an eye for each other and consider it important to be inclusive; everyone should feel free to show their true colors. Becoming the best version of ourselves is a process, something we do together. A company is not the structure, the name or the buildings in which we work. It is the people together that make an organization like Athora. Our ideas, the things we do, the values we share and how we treat each other and the outside world. "

Her comments complement IWD’s description of the Embrace Equity theme. IWD explains that, “Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities.” In contrast, “Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances, and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.”
Towards the latter model, Annemarie says that, by getting to know people, and encouraging them to be their authentic selves, “I can help connect them with others, and sometimes I see more talent in them than they see in themselves. By doing so more often, leaders can manage their people around each individual’s potential, rather than just on their proven results.”

To achieve this, Annemarie recommends that women, “Find career sponsors who see your potential and speak up on your behalf to help you reach what you want. That’s so helpful as your potential has to be explicitly recognized in a wider audience, to become an eligible candidate in somewhat more homogeneous companies.

Redefine ‘vulnerability’:

At the same time, Annemarie urges more women to believe in their own potential, rather than modestly playing down their readiness for a promotion or new challenge: “I believe that sometimes when women talk about a new opportunity, they may say, ‘I haven’t done this before’ and that makes them feel - and appear - smaller. Instead, women could say, ‘Here’s what I have done, here’s how it is relevant, here’s my potential and here’s what I want to do.’ That is powerful and it makes you connect to the current job at hand.”

She points out how this aligns with the au courant management practice of ‘Showing your vulnerability’: “Being vulnerable isn’t about making yourself smaller, but rather it’s about being confident in being open and honest with others.”

To wrap-up a truly perception-shifting conversation, Annemarie summed it up for women building their careers: “Trust yourself and be yourself. This is so powerful in the financial services industry, since it’s all about people - not spreadsheets or systems. Make these connections with people, whether it’s a colleague, team or sponsor, for the biggest success.”

More about Annemarie Mijer: Annemarie is Chief Risk Officer with Athora Netherlands, a major pension and life insurance company in the Dutch market, operating under the Zwitserleven and Reaal brands. Since joining Athora in 2020, she serves on the Executive Board and is responsible for Sustainability, Actuarial Risk, Risk, Risk Models, Analytics & Change and Legal & Compliance. Prior to her appointment at Athora, in 2019, she was appointed as member of the Supervisory Board and Chairman of the Audit Committee at Klaverblad Verzekeringen. Previously, she was Head of Central Risk Management at ABM AMRO and was Chief Risk Officer and a member of the Executive Board at Delta Lloyd Group. In addition, over a 20-year tenure, Annemarie held various senior leadership positions in ING Group and Nationale-Nederlanden, starting out as a Risk Manager with the Group Actuarial and Risk Control department. Annemarie is a Certified Actuary of the Dutch Society of Actuaries and holds professional qualifications in Investment Analysis. Annemarie holds a Master’s Degree in Actuarial Mathematics from the University of Amsterdam.

*The views and opinions of external contributors expressed herein are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG International Limited or any KPMG member firm.

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