No fear: Prudence Chang says participants were open with each other
The building of a network that will be there for years to come has been one of the central experiences for inaugural graduates of a higher education program aimed at developing women in leadership roles.
Prudence Chang, one of 22 participants in the Aspire Women Leaders Program, says the course, conducted over a year with online and in-person learning, was an incredible opportunity shared by like-minded people with diverse perspectives.
“One of the things that was so great about the cohort I was with, is that we were so open,” she tells Insurance News. “There was no fear of talking about your business to a colleague who may actually be a competitor, which allowed us to grow and learn extensively with each other.”
Ms Chang, Executive Manager Business Development and Partners at trade credit specialist NCI, was among more than 80 people who submitted detailed applications for the program.
Aspire was expanded from an internal leadership program at Hollard as the insurer looked to support the broker channel. It focused on diversity and inclusion within the industry. Steadfast came on board and the program was opened to senior women within its network.
Participants received a Certificate in Executive Management and Development from the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales and credits toward a Master of Business Administration.
The course, usually valued at more than $25,000 according to the brochure, was fully subsidised by Hollard Commercial Insurance and Steadfast, while participants’ businesses needed to cover travel costs and be supportive of the time required to attend the course.
Hollard Insurance Chief Executive Paul Fahey says the firm had worked with the Australian Graduate School of Management on its internal leadership program, and the education organisation was responsive in making adjustments for the Aspire course.
“We’ve had awesome feedback from everyone who’s been on the program,” he says. “The biggest challenge was just adapting the program to accommodate the pandemic, as one of the most important aspects is the ability for female brokers to build a network.”
Attendance began online by necessity, and with the typical covid experience of many faces on a screen. As restrictions eased, participants were able to meet on-campus in Sydney and build the type of support network that’s been a key element often missing for women seeking to rise through the ranks.
Mr Fahey says having a program aimed at women is as beneficial for the industry and the businesses supporting participants as it is for the individuals who take part.
“Females are under-represented in management and executive positions and yet we also know that diverse teams lead to better decision-making processes and more creative problem-solving,” he says.
“It’s also a reflection of our customer base. Most insurance companies have more female customers than they do male customers and yet our businesses don’t reflect that. So it was really important to have a program focused on women.”
Mr Fahey says the insurance industry needs to encourage people with all sorts of skill sets and backgrounds to enter the industry and rise up through its ranks.
“I don’t think we’ve done a great job of that over the last few decades. There’s still a bit of an old school way of doing things, and insurance needs to be kind of disrupted from within, by ourselves. Otherwise someone will come along and do it for us,” he says. “Leadership training and exposure to a broader set of problems that you’re trying to solve is really important.”
Steadfast Chief Executive Robert Kelly and Mr Fahey are both members of the Champions of Change Insurance group, which promotes removing barriers and providing opportunities to improve gender equality.
“I firmly believe that you need a diverse team,” Mr Kelly tells Insurance News. “If society is made up of diverse groups of people, we need to encourage them all to be involved. I find a diverse team makes a big difference.”
He says the insurance industry still has few female chief executives among the major companies, but there are signs of change, and programs such as Aspire that encourage women help to remove inequalities.
“The applicants we put through liked the course, there was a wide range of topics and importantly those 22 are now a great cohort of women working in our network who interact with one another,” he says. “They can ring each other up and talk about something and say, How have you handled this?”
Mr Kelly says the plan is to run another Aspire program aimed at women, while further in the future the program may involve an equal gender representation.
The Aspire graduates came to the insurance industry and have built their careers through varied pathways. Ms Chang was recruited from real estate after a suggestion from an NCI sales manager during a house appraisal.
“I really wanted my Saturdays back, and I thought I’ll do it for a year, and I’ve been at NCI now for 16 years,” she says. The roles both draw on some similar skills sets and attributes, and Ms Chang has welcomed opportunities to continue to extend her knowledge.
“Women in leadership often don’t have a large supportive network outside of their own organisation, so I think a course like Aspire allows the opportunity to create that cohort,” she says. “I didn’t realise how fortunate I was to be in the program until I was in it, and you just learned so much.”