• Laura Hay, Leadership |

Know the phrase, “Is the glass half empty, or half full?” I think the equivalent expression for female professionals is “What skills do I lack, versus what strengths do I possess?”

That twist in thinking can impact women, who may doubt their ability to make a career move. Similarly, employers might judge candidates on skills they don’t have, rather than their readiness to build them.

This came to mind during my recent chat with Amanda Whiting, CEO of New Zealand’s largest general insurer, IAG New Zealand. This optimistic-thinking ‘Aussie’ explained how we can help women build career confidence, increase equity in financial services, and even see ‘the bright side’ when someone re-states your idea minutes later.

Steadily building leadership skills:

You quickly get the sense that Amanda is a positive thinker, when she describes her personal journey from a family farm in Western Australia, to the “big smoke” of Perth. She recounts how she became the 23-year-old people leader at a health insurer: “I was one of the first female branch managers, and what lit me up was seeing my team achieve great things and helping them see their own potential.”

And that ‘people first’ attitude serves her well today as New Zealand recovers from catastrophic flooding. Amanda observes that, “As we face the impacts of climate change, it’s not about providing insurance products, but rather thinking about how we protect New Zealanders as we move through the transition.”

If Amanda sounds like a natural leader, she is emphatic that she had to develop many building blocks along the way. She even credits the three-year period when she and her husband ran a pub in the rugged Australian gold fields: “It was a tiny business, but it helped me build out the breadth of my leadership skills since you have to be everything to everyone, and understand cash flow, HR, tech support, everything.”

That’s Amanda the optimist, who focused on the skills she could gain, not the dust, heat or isolation of Western Australia. More on that career advice later.

Making her voice heard:

Amanda’s leadership learning continued when she returned to the predominantly male insurance sector, and she had to make her voice heard. She told me how, “There were times when I offered an idea in a meeting, and no one paid attention, until 10 minutes later someone else said it and it’s the best thing anyone ever heard! I had to find a way to own my comment, in an authentic manner that wasn’t aggressive or defensive.”

Amanda explains that, “Normally, I will credit the person who repeated my idea, and say ‘Thank you for articulating my point in a different way.’ I take the perspective that this person isn’t trying to steal my thought, but rather the way I said it didn’t land right, so I thank them for their helpful contribution.” (There she goes again with that ‘glass half full’ perspective.)

She also believes in seeking support from male advocates, who, in her experience, typically want to help improve workplace equity. “On occasions when I felt I wasn’t fully valued or I was treated differently, I’ve asked for their help, and I’d be very pointed about that. For example, I might ask them to create space for me in the meeting by saying something like, ‘Amanda has something to say’. That can be very powerful coming from a male advocate.”

See your strengths, build the rest:

Digging deeper on the topic of equity, Amanda urges current leaders, male and female, to strive for that goal, both through formal programs, and individual actions. She notes that, “We need to genuinely focus on women’s strengths, rather than the areas they need to develop. Women can bring great skills to the table, so we should boost their confidence about those, and we can help them build those other capabilities along the way.”

And women themselves must also see the ‘glass half full’. For example, Amanda observes that some women might not pursue a certain opportunity, either because she lacks the prerequisites, or she feels the role doesn’t match her linear, next step up the ladder, ambitions.

“Don’t only think about the role itself, but whether it could allow you to build new capabilities. Consider ‘sideways’ moves if you can grow the skills in your ‘kitbag’ and make you more ready for the dream job that comes along,” says Amanda. “In the meantime, you will build your capabilities, grow your confidence by facing new things, and expand your network – all key things to help your career.”

Speaking of networking, Amanda also encourages women to ‘let themselves’ take time for occasional informal, relationship-building. She feels that often women prioritize their work to-do list, that laundry pile at home, or other seemingly-more important tasks, rather than accept a networking invitation: “I once went to a Friday lunch with a colleague and I realized everyone else in the restaurant were men. It made me think that women should do a little more of this, to be successful in their careers.”

More about Amanda Whiting: In July 2021, Amanda was appointed Chief Executive Officer of IAG New Zealand, New Zealand’s largest general insurer, and part of Insurance Australia Group. Prior to that, Amanda was Acting Group Executive for Direct Insurance Australia. Before being appointed into the acting Direct Insurance role in November 2020, Amanda was Executive General Manager Consumer Distribution in IAG’s Australia Division with responsibility for the distribution of brands including NRMA Insurance, CGU Insurance, SGIO and SGIC across multiple distribution channels. She joined IAG from iiNet in 2008 and has more than 20 years’ experience in the insurance industry in both general and health insurance, having held senior roles in these industries as well as telecommunications.

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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