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Insurance leaders thriving in a changing world


Constant change seems the norm these days across most industries. For startups or new businesses, a fast pace, agility and quick evolution are status quo. For leaders in more mature industries, however, it can be especially difficult to get comfortable with the rate and pace of change in today’s marketplace. It will be increasingly necessary to adapt quickly to compete.

“Navigating change will be the anchor for leadership in 2023,” says a recent article in Entrepreneur magazine. The author asks: “What if instead of simply reacting to disruptions, we turned them into opportunities for innovation and growth?”

The insurance industry explored this question at the 2023 Global Insurance Symposium held in Des Moines from April 18-20. Through the theme “Thriving in a Changing World,” leaders from around the globe explored challenges, opportunities, trends in insurtech, and leading through transformation in a mature industry.

I turned to some top insurance industry leaders who were involved in the Symposium and asked the following question: “What do you consider some of the most important leadership skills needed today to navigate through continued changes in the insurance industry?” 

Jason Gross, vice president and head of platform, ManchesterStory: Make time to “think.” Too often our “thinking time” is in the car, shower, mowing the lawn, etc. Leaders in the insurance industry (like all industries) need to dedicate time for structured thought. I practice “thinking Thursdays” where I make time every week to think about a problem or opportunity.

Susan Hatten, chief marketing officer/shareholder, Holmes Murphy and chief operating officer, BrokerTech Ventures: The insurance industry is going through tremendous change. Between technology integrations, shifts in workforce generations and knowledge transfer, M&A activity and multiples, it’s an exciting time. At the very core of it all, relationships and the people are the heartbeat of our industry. We can’t forget that.

Scott Jean, president and CEO, EMC Insurance Cos.: I am a firm believer in servant leadership which means putting the needs of others over your own. Servant leadership is all about putting the right people in the right places, giving them a vision, and then empowering them to execute.

Tom Swank, president and CEO, American Enterprise Group, Inc.: Adaptability, resilience, communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and the ability to empower others are all key skills leaders need to help navigate change. Rarely does everything go as planned. Leaders need to be flexible, practice active listening, be willing to adjust accordingly, and take appropriate risks. Organizations move forward when leadership embraces change, ambiguity, and an innovative mindset with a fail fast, fail forward approach. This leads to continuous improvement and helps meet customers’ always-evolving needs. Couple that with a culture built on trust, teamwork, and transparency, and you’ll create an environment where high-performing teams thrive.

Insurance leaders offer 10 best practices for navigating change:

  • Lead with vision. Gross suggests that when navigating through change, leaders too often put on a stoic face thinking this will engender trust. “True leaders share their hopes and their fears,” he says, but notes that effective leaders share those emotions along with a vision and confidence in the team to meet those challenges head-on.
  • Communicate frequently and strategically. Swank advises leaders to create a strategic communications plan and a course of action is determined. “Articulate why the change is needed and the plan to address the needs,” he notes, advising that leaders must ensure the entire management team understands and helps reiterate a consistent message throughout the entire organization. “Acknowledge that change can feel uncomfortable. People are going to have to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.” 
  • Foster a culture of innovation. Gross notes that it is important for leaders to inspire their teams to see a vision, giving them space and opportunity to innovate, celebrating success and acknowledging lessons learned when things don’t go as planned. “It means leveraging the interests of your employees beyond their day jobs,” he says. “Tap into your employees’ passions to build engagement and find new opportunities.”
  • Set milestones and measure progress. Report on that progress consistently as part of the communications plan. Focus the key performance indicators (KPIs) on controllable factors and leading indicators of the desired change taking hold. Swank says, “Go for more than you think is possible — stretch!”
  • Commit to mentoring. Hatten points out that much of the knowledge in the insurance industry has come from years of passed-down information transfer, including through formal and informal mentoring. “I believe it is important to mentor those around us, and that mentoring can be full-circle,” she says, noting that when she is mentoring or coaching, she is also benefiting from the knowledge of the other person. 
  • Lean in to inclusion. Hatten notes that historically the insurance industry has been homogeneous. Leaning into diversity creates an opportunity. She notes, “This means leaning in, listening, and understanding how we can welcome new voices with diverse backgrounds to see a future in our industry.” Jean concurs, saying: “Inclusion to me means that everyone feels the freedom to bring their authentic self to work and that they feel valued when doing so.” He says that inclusion has to start from the top by leaders modeling authenticity – both of which build trust.
  • Care. Hatten points out that the insurance industry is built upon the foundation of caring. She says, “Caring for one’s health, wealth, and peace of mind is a part of the promise we offer.” 
  • Listen. “One of the most important leadership skills especially when thinking about servant leadership is listening,” says Jean. He points out that two-way communication is critical since leaders can’t always know what is going on and what team members are experiencing. He notes, “We have to provide opportunities for two-way communication so that we can hear more viewpoints and better understand how we can improve at engaging and inspiring our teams.” 
  • Invest in R&D. “The insurance industry too often lives up to its reputation as a conservative, slow-to-change behemoth,” says Gross, pointing out that on average, tech companies invest 10-15% of their revenue on research and development, and asserts that insurance companies need to do the same, and to commit resources for at least 3-5 years.
  • Stay the course. It’s easy to get distracted when times get tough, says Swank. He encourages leaders to focus on the key performance indicators and says, “Don’t give in to ‘dummying down’ the desired change.” 
  • Recognize and reward. Swank advises leaders to reward people for making the desired changes. He notes, “Treat people like owners and they will act like it.”


Suzanna de Baca

Suzanna de Baca is President and CEO of Business Publications Corp.

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