Symetra CEO Addresses Change Management and Female Leadership

Posted by Joseph M. Phillips on Thursday, April 11, 2019 at 8:40 AM PDT


Symetra president and CEO Margaret Meister recently participated in the Albers Executive Speaker Series, sharing her wisdom on change management and being a female business leader.  Meister leads a company with nearly $50 billion in assets, two million customers and 1,700 employees.

Meister joined Symetra as an actuarial student in 1988, rising through the organization to become chief actuary in 2004, chief financial officer in 2006, and president and CEO in 2018.   As CFO, she played a principal role in Symetra’s initial public offering in 2010, as well as its successful acquisition by Sumitomo Life in 2016. In 2015, she received the Puget Sound Business Journal’s CFO of the Year Leadership Award. Most recently, the Journal recognized her as one of the 2018 Women of Influence.

One of the first questions she responded to was were their important moments in her career that prepared her for the CEO role, or got her thinking in that direction, since being a numbers person does not always open up that path.  She responded that to do accounting or actuarial work really well, it cannot be just about the numbers, but one must also understand what the numbers mean in the business.  She always made sure she understood that, making sure to get out and learn the business by talking with others.  That orientation opened up opportunities and her career trajectory.  Meister also talked about the need to be ambitious, to let people know that you wanted new opportunities, that you were willing to take risks, and that you were not afraid to “get out over your skis.”

The conventional wisdom is that millennials don’t commit to an employer, and move from one to the next.  Would they be better off if they invested in an organization and stayed with one employer, as she had done?  That depends, Meister said.  It depends on whether you find the work intellectually interesting, if you like the people you work with, and you like the culture of the organization.  If not, you need to be moving on to something that is a better match.

Meister described her leadership style as someone willing to get down in the dirt and do whatever it takes to get things done.  She wants to make sure that she understands everyone’s role in a successful outcome so she can show appropriate appreciation for their work.  She’s out to inspire people, but also give people plenty of room to chart the path.  She does not want to micromanage, and she noted several times the need to, “council in private, support in public,” when it came time for identifying opportunities for improvement. :}

Whether it is technology or insurance, there are plenty of male-dominated industries in our economy.  This leads to challenges for women leaders in those sectors, Meister noted, starting with having enough other women to share notes with.  Additionally, women leaders are always going to be compared to male leaders, yet women are likely to lead differently.  She also mentioned that women are more likely to be given a leadership opportunity in a tough situation, and less likely to inherit a role in a healthy organization.   Women should also be themselves, and not pretend to be something else.  And she mentioned a frustration noted by many other women, namely that in a meeting they will throw out an idea, it won’t go anywhere, a male will throw out the same idea later in the meeting, and it will be anointed as a breakthrough strategy.  Don’t let that happen without calling it out, she advised, maybe publicly or later in private depending on the situation.

Meister noted that convenience was becoming a more compelling product characteristic for consumers (just think about Amazon if you don’t believe that), yet insurance company products are cumbersome, partly due to regulatory issues.  So, one of the things she is thinking about a lot these days is how can they bring convenience to their insurance products.  She’s not so much worried about Amazon encroaching on their market, since their asset management function is very difficult and serves as a barrier to entry, but it does look like a situation at risk of disruption by someone at some point!

Since Symetra is now owned by Sumitomo Life, a Japanese life insurance company, she was asked how that is different.  Meister said that what was not different was the core values and competencies of Symetra and its parent firm.  She also noted that the Japanese are very detail-oriented and precise.  They want to see smaller margins for error.

We all know there are not enough women leading major business organizations in our economy, but Margaret Meister is one of them, and her visit to our campus was a great opportunity for our students, especially our female students!