Whenever I meet female executives who have made it to the peak of success, I love to ask them if they ever imagined they would get there. Interestingly, women often tell me that, rather than ‘dreaming big’, they simply worked hard without knowing exactly where it would lead.
I recently learned that even one of the first female CEOs of a global financial services company, Dame Inga Beale, had modest career ambitions. While chatting with the former CEO of Lloyd’s of London, the legendary insurance and reinsurance market, Inga told me that, “I never imagined I would become a CEO. It wasn’t my goal. I just kept saying ‘yes’ to each opportunity, until one day I said to myself, ‘Gosh, look what I just did.”
Battling male behaviors
It’s no wonder that Inga had humble aspirations following a bumpy start as a trainee underwriter. She recalled that, “I fell into insurance after studying mathematics… I just got hooked and I never looked back.” This, despite the male-dominated culture she experienced at her first job with a British reinsurer, working in an open-concept office alongside 34 men.
Unfortunately, while Inga adopted some of the “very male behaviors,” to fit in with the lads, she learned that she had not been accepted as an equal. One Monday morning, Inga found her desk wrapped in posters of bikini-clad women – decorations from a recent Caribbean-themed office party. Mortified by the insulting prank, Inga immediately left the office and told them, “I wasn’t going to work in insurance ever again.”
Even after she returned to the industry a year later, Inga admits that she maintained an, “I’m just not good enough” mindset when offered new assignments. “I was like many women who I still see today. Somebody has to really persuade them that they’re good enough, since they don’t think they have all the skills.”
Breaking down the barriers
After taking a week-long ‘assertiveness for women’ course to build her self-confidence, Inga began to accept the scariest assignments: “I saw how men around me got all the amazing opportunities while I kept my head down and did all the work. Women are often overlooked because others have an unconscious bias about our career goals, so we have to speak up and let people know what we want.”
Inga also developed a knack for confronting the bad behaviors that can fester in a workplace, including the subtle, exclusive cliques that can form around board room tables. In a previous leadership role, she convened an offsite meeting of her executive committee to address a culture clash that persisted between old guard and newly hired executives.
She recounts how, “I planned a role-play exercise in which everyone was asked to act out their rivals’ point-of-view. Everyone cringed, but I said, ‘No, we’re going to act out the scene and confront the elephant in the room.’ By helping people realize how others saw them, we broke down the barriers on a very serious issue, while having a bit of fun.”
Get in character
Inga has also found that “getting into character” can be necessary for women executives, since there is “a constant battle for female leaders to get people to accept their leadership style.”
For example, Inga recalls how she was once told by a superior to adopt a more forceful and dogmatic style. She replied that, “You hired me for me, and that isn’t me. I’m not going to conform to your way of leadership.”
Inga explains that, because of this common bias about the character traits of a successful CEO, “I learned to get into character when the moment requires it, like a chameleon that adapts to its surroundings. I believe women should be their authentic selves, however sometimes you must play a different version of yourself for a specific purpose. I think women can relax a little and play the part, as long as you are true to yourself at the end of the day.”
Inspiring women to dream big
Although it’s not easy for the trailblazers in any field, Inga and I agreed during our conversation that the early female leaders in financial services have improved the prospects for other women to pursue senior roles. For example, as more women like Inga reach the CEO’s office - and prove that there isn’t a single leadership style suited for the job - women will gain greater acceptance at the top.
Inga concludes that while, “I’m not sure that I ever consciously thought ‘I can do this – I want that,’” she hopes that more women will start to picture themselves at the top and dream big.
In the meantime, Inga will continue to persuade women to say ‘yes’ to the big jobs, because, in her words, “If something seems like the scariest opportunity, that’s the one to take, because it will be the best.”
Leadership, Global Head of Insurance