How a very special leadership program for women is making a difference

By Wendy Pugh

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.”

‘Thinking outside the box’

Tanu Arora-Sopori, a director of Perth-based Imperium Insurance, says Aspire encourages “thinking outside the box”.

The Aspire course was her first enrolment of its type at an Australian university and its practical approach resonated. Previously, Ms Arora-Sopori attended university in India and has completed other insurance-related studies locally.

“This course was meant for entrepreneurs,” she says. “I would say [it is] meant for people in the role that they’re performing, and it was very tailor-made to our industry as well.”

Ms Arora-Sopori and her husband both worked for other firms before setting up their own brokerage, which is an authorised representative of Insurance House.

Encouragement to expand her ideas has led to an exploration of offshoring opportunities for the business, while a focus on management skills has assisted in dealing with difficult or challenging situations.

“I personally think I’ve grown in so many ways. I’ve learned to deal with objections better, I just don’t get upset. So, this is probably the biggest thing – it’s taught me a lot of resilience,” she says.

Ms Arora-Sopori was uncertain about applying for Aspire, given the juggle of business and family commitments and the travel between Perth and Sydney. But her husband encouraged her to take up the opportunity, and she advises others to do the same if a chance arises.

“In a heartbeat I would say yes, go for it,” she says. “You learn so many new things and it just opens up new horizons.”

‘The conversation continued’

Resilium General Manager Broking Angela O’Neil was new in her current role when she applied and committed to a unique opportunity to learn with a group of women she now describes as “extraordinary”.

She had expected Aspire to centre on lectures and note-taking, but it proved a more rewarding experience as participants from around the country spent time at the UNSW campus and accommodation and learned as much from each other as they did from the facilitators.

“We’ve all gone to leadership or insurance training days, but the opportunity to have it taken to an entirely new level was absolutely amazing,” she says. 

“It was such an open, friendly, warm group of people who were willing to share and willing to learn from other people, as well as teach other people. At breakfast, lunch and dinner the conversation continued.” 

Ms O’Neil says the course pushed her out of her comfort zone, changed the way she communicates and will help her to assist others in an industry that does not sit still.

“Change management is something that I think the whole of insurance really needs to focus on because it’s changing so quickly and so regularly.”

‘Close-knit community’

Entering the Aspire course was something of a leap into the unknown for participants including Gold Coast-based Kirsty Macleod, who threw her hat into the ring after weighing up the one-year commitment.

“Being the first, you didn’t really have anyone to bounce ideas off,” she says. “As the first cab off the rank we didn’t really know what was involved.”

Ms Macleod, General Manager at Knightsbridge Insurance Group, entered insurance after completing a work placement as part of a Bachelor of Business majoring in marketing and management. Time at an international brokerage then led to permanent employment, continuing a family tradition.

“My father’s an insurance broker and my grandmother was an underwriter, so probably I had been absorbing insurance knowledge at a young age without even knowing,” she says.

The Aspire program covered areas including finance, marketing, management and leadership. The course will ultimately benefit the participants’ businesses and clients, while the graduates continues to keep in touch and have a WhatsApp group, she says.

Ms Macleod says the industry remains male-dominated and having a program recognising women and building an ongoing network is welcome.

“They could not have picked a better group. We were all so fortunate to be with each other and going on this journey together. It’s become like a very close-knit community where we all are supportive of each other.”