Insurance Adviser: Sarah, you say you’ve been in the insurance industry for nearly 25 years now – first in the UK and now in Australia. What do you think makes the insurance industry an interesting career choice?
Sarah Lyons: Like many people I fell into insurance. It wasn’t necessarily the route I’d originally seen for myself but my father worked in insurance and he gave me an honest appraisal of the opportunity, so I’m a second generation insurance person. I actually started working for Provincial Insurance in the UK in the claims department and have never looked back since.
Many people think of insurance as being rather dull and generally behind the times. In reality, it is innovative and dynamic, and you get to experience things outside of your core role remit. At AJG, for example, you are exposed to many parts of the business and gain insights into multiple industry sectors. A ‘day in the life’ of an insurance broker might involve manufacturing risk one day, then the next day a retail risk.
IA: What excites you about your current role?
SL: AJG is a global success story, a great brand and also a business where I feel I can truly influence and be effective as a leader. There’s a real family vibe that exists within this business. At the same time, we have a strong focus on growth and innovation. We’re developing products and solutions that are matching the needs of our clients, we are developing specialisms, and we work hard to maintain our strong reputation for claims advocacy.
I would consider myself as an example of somebody who has forged a successful career in insurance and have progressed into a senior position within an organisation… I firmly believe that I’ve never been held back because of my gender.
For me, driving innovation inside our business is something that I really enjoy. Say we’re developing a new product, I can call on people in the UK, US or Canada, and be able to pool that knowledge and come up with a solution. We also have 140 broking partners worldwide we can call on to partner with on new ventures. That’s a pretty strong advantage and enables us to ‘surprise and delight’ customers at every opportunity, and something that I don’t know I could achieve anywhere else.
IA: What are your ambitions for the business moving forward?
SL: My ambition for Commercial Broking is to be seen as the most admired commercial broking team in Australia. We really want to be admired for our culture, our people and our financial results.
How this translates into ‘business as usual’ execution varies. On one level our aspiration is to build a workplace for the future, one where innovation and entrepreneurship thrives and is part of our DNA. On another, we encourage collaboration and input in the product development process and exploring new business specialisms and tailored solutions for our client base. This is translating into results for the business as we grow our presence in Australia.
IA: Do you think the insurance/ broking industry is a man’s world?
SL: Ten to 20 years ago, I don’t think insurance was seen as an attractive career choice for women. It may be that there was a generally held belief that females wouldn’t have had access to senior leadership positions and the industry was perceived as being male dominated, so they chose not to apply. I think it is a generational thing.
Historically, we might have been a narrow industry where the default choice was to pick from within the business. But I’ve seen a significant change over the past decade, with people coming from outside the industry bringing fresh perspectives and commercial thinking. That has been transformational in many respects. Nowadays, there are fewer boundaries to succeeding if you’ve got the talent, the desire and the aptitude to succeed.
Many large organisations have developed an effective platform to engage future leaders, lobby the business for change, and remove any barriers to progress.
I would consider myself as an example of somebody who has forged a successful career in insurance and have progressed into a senior position within an organisation. I’ve had a variety of roles in my career and I firmly believe that I’ve never been held back because of my gender.
IA: What do you think are the challenges women face with a career in insurance broking?
SL: I think that for anyone joining insurance – or any industry – there will always be challenges.
I think as women we probably put more pressure on ourselves to ensure we have a proper work/life balance. So the challenges might be more self-perceived ones… but I think you could apply that to any industry.
IA: How would you encourage more women into insurance broking?
SL: I think sharing my knowledge and experiences with other women helps. I recently gave a keynote speech at a Women in Leadership conference in Sydney in a room filled with the future leaders across a diverse range of insurance brands, including large ASX-listed organisations. I think sharing that a personal journey is something that other women in the industry are willing to listen to, and to see how I may have overcome challenges in my career might be something that they are able to tap into and take forward in their own career journey. Doing things like that I think helps the next generation to come through.
IA: What is Arthur J. Gallagher doing to encourage more women into the industry, indeed, to leadership roles?
SL: We are quite diverse in the way we operate: a significant percentage of my leadership team are women and there are many high performing female brokers inside our business. I’m also one of two female executives on the Australian leadership team.
The company offers flexible working arrangement for staff – this is definitely making it easier for our employees to juggle home and work commitments more effectively.
As for encouraging women into the industry, sharing my personal experiences with others creates an acceptable platform to showcase what is possible – internally and externally. I also always recommend that people have mentors to help them and guide them through their career.
Many people think of insurance as being rather dull… in reality, it is innovative and dynamic, and you get to experience things outside of your core role remit.
As an industry we also need to look towards the graduate community and engaging potential talent before they are actively seeking their first role. In saying that, it is also important to recruit for the right attitude and the best fit, then match that with technical capability in order to bring the right types of people into the insurance industry. Ultimately, we are creating a culture that provides a level playing field for talented professional to progress their career, irrespective of gender. I think that’s an important point to make.
IA: What can the profession learn from other industries?
SL: There are always things we can learn from other organisations. At AJG, I don’t want us to be insular in the way we look at challenges and opportunities. I’m constantly looking for ways for my team to spend more time outside the confines of the insurance industry, to swap ideas and discuss hot topics and emerging issues within other sectors. I think that by speaking to other industries, you can identify new ways to challenge your thinking and be more creative – and that’s something I’d encourage people to actively explore.
IA: What do you see are the challenges for brokers in the future?
SL: One of the challenges – and opportunities – would be technology.
More and more people are researching online before making a purchase. The sales engagement process comes later in the journey than it did traditionally before we entered the digital age. Customers are looking for ease of doing business and an experience that feels relevant and personable. Being able to purchase simple products online, using a mobile device – I understand why people would want to do that. But when you have more complex risks – for example, if you’ve got a multi-site workforce and a complex business to operate – you need solid advice and have a trusted person on call. That’s where the traditional role of the broker will be enhanced – at the specialist end of the risk spectrum.
The opportunity for insurance brokers here is to use technology to your advantage. Using digital innovation and technology to deal with clients, including for example, how they want to be able to contact you, whether that is phone, email or the web, whatever that might look like, you need to be able to meet that customer need.
However, you really need to be excellent at the human aspect – the technical competence and understanding the risks is one thing, the ability to nurture a long-term client relationship built on trust is where we look for our brokers to make a difference.
IA: What would you say to those thinking about insurance broking as a career?
SL: I’ve not met many people in my career who had an early ambition to work in the insurance industry. But yet, from the many conversations I’ve had over the year, once they’ve joined people generally stay and invest. So I’d say: ‘Give insurance a chance, it is not what it is perceived to be – it is a very innovative, interesting and exciting business to be within.’ There are massive career opportunities for people who are up for rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in. And then there is the range of different departments that you could work in to build your skill set and grow your career. There aren’t many industries you can do that in.
In the words of Pat Gallagher, in the insurance industry we’re putting lives back together. Because we are the people who are there when things go wrong for business, to help them and guide them through it.
Ultimately, our role is to navigate people through a complex process, help them to survive an insurable event and generally be there for them when the unexpected happens. So, you’ve got a technical aspect to your job and also a people aspect to your job. It’s the diversity of thinking and experience that makes a role in insurance an attractive choice.