Women in Insurance: Ania Caruso, Vice President, Risk Management, The Plexus Groupe

Women in Insurance - December 22 2020

In this interview series, we profile women who are shaping the future of insurance. This week, we’re pleased to connect with Ania Caruso, CPCU, Vice President, Risk Management – Growth & Business Development at The Plexus Groupe. Caruso is active in the insurance community as Co-Chair of the “Dive In Festival” (Diversity & Inclusion in Insurance Industry) and is a Pathbuilders and RIMS mentor. She was recently named to the Business Insurance America Hot 100 2021, an annual list of movers and shakers whose contributions have helped shape the insurance industry. With diverse experience on both the brokerage and carrier side of the industry, Ania shares her career journey in insurance and explains why she is passionate about inclusivity and diversity in insurance leadership.

Ania, you started your career at Marsh. Tell us about your path to insurance. What attracted you to the profession?

Like many people, I did not dream about the industry as a career of choice when I was young, and it has been a journey through various roles and experiences along the way to discover my passion for the insurance industry. I studied international relations and economics while dreaming about working for the European Union or United Nations advocating for others, changing global policies, and negotiating peace agreements.

One evening during my last semester at Syracuse University I found myself at an information session held by Marsh. Attracted to a warm plate of food on a cold Syracuse evening. During the event, a female executive struck up a conversation with me and invited me to a longer discussion which was really an interview the next morning. I recall quite vividly a part of our discussion where she said that even though there are analytics involved the insurance industry is a relationship driven business where the art of negotiations, sometime conflict resolutions and creativity play a big role in being successful. The openness to try new things and test new frontiers that my mother had instilled in me from an early age led me to accepting an offer to be part of the newly started global graduate training program.

Surprisingly, I have learned over the years that the skillset that one would require in the field of international affairs is very useful in our industry. And once you start in our industry, you get pulled in, as it is a very diverse, ever-changing world of insurance that has so much to offer if you choose to embrace the challenge.

What do you find most fulfilling about the work you do?

In my current role, what truly gets me excited is the feeling of being an entrepreneur within my organization. What I mean by this is that my ideas, thought leadership, and contribution to the organization are welcomed. I have the support and trust of leadership to go off and pursue the initiatives to better the overall organization in our path for growth and innovation in our industry. No one wants to be micromanaged no matter how tenured they are. The sense of confidence the team has in me is very important in feeling fulfilled.

On the macro level, when I think about what has kept me in our industry, it’s the client facing and solution focused roles that I’ve had. Our clients, no matter if you are in the carrier or broker side of the business, are leaning on us for expertise, guidance, and support. That support often turns into lifelong friendships with clients and business partners which is one of the most fulfilling things about my work.

The insurance industry is in the midst of massive change. If you had to pick one technology trend that will fundamentally transform insurance over the next 5-10 years, what would it be?

Insurance and innovation have always walked hand in hand. The technological acceleration that our industry has experienced this year is a positive disruption that was long overdue and is highly beneficial for the policyholders and whole insurance ecosystem. The use of predictive analytics in the underwriting process has been evolving and will continue on this path over the next 5-10 years. The ability to predict emerging risks and transform them into new business opportunities so our industry forges on the path of profitability and sustainable growth is essential. It is one thing to identify the exposures, which we have been very good at, but it is something different to capitalize on it. The predictive analytics can push our industry towards deeper exposure quantification for example risk aggregation and provide carriers with information they need to design new insurance products that offer coverage instead of relying on exclusions.

Another technology worth mentioning is the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning in the policy/client servicing and claims management areas. There are a lot of opportunities in streamlining and automation of claims processing both on the personal and commercial side of our business. The speed of processing the massive data that our industry has been collecting has been underutilized – that is another great opportunity to tackle.

The pandemic has disrupted the entire insurance value chain including traditional distribution channels and producers – and some of the changes are likely to be permanent. How are insurance brokers and agents coping with COVID-19, and what will insurance distribution look like post-COVID?

2020 is a year of disruption but also a great opportunity to challenge the status quo and go back to the basics when it comes to helping our clients and prospects. Trust, transparency, and communication are key when doing business. During times of less face to face and more virtual interactions, this has become even more important. While all this stands as truth in any decade, it plays an even more crucial role in helping clients navigate in the current marketplace. Those who focus on quality of service and guidance rather than strictly on cost will benefit in the long-term. “Breaking bread” with a client or prospect has been a big part of the distribution model pre-COVID and will remain an important part of this landscape, especially with the large risk management clients. However, for strategic partnerships or acquisitions, to offer new customer types, new product or service offerings, or new geographies will play a larger part of business plans. The virtual distribution network provides the client with access to the best regardless of geography. Moreover, specialization and an ability to be nimble, understanding that each customer has different needs, will continue to prevail in times post-pandemic.

As I reflect on our team and the successes that we’ve had this year, the brokers and agents that instill knowledge sharing between teams, utilization of technology, and the ability to adapt to change will prevail in the new world. The sales process is not linear and outside-the-box thinking to find channel partners that would not have been considered pre-COVID is key. It might be overused but the ability for teams to adapt, where the brokers and agents no longer trade on their firm brand but also focus on individual brand, is significant.

The insurance industry faces a recruitment challenge with millennials choosing professions they deem to be more progressive, challenging and fun. What can insurers do to entice new talent?

I have always said that insurance industry is a best kept secret, and we all need to share it with the world. There is a lot of misconception by the young generation of what our sector brings to the table, hence more “positive” press is needed to attract talent. There are resources available like Gamma Iota Sigma (GIS) with programs called “One Campus at a Time” that showcase risk management careers to students and inspire them to consider insurance as a career option. I had the pleasure this fall to collaborate with GIS and bring this program to my alma matter Syracuse University, along with my fellow alumni friends, where we shared our professional stories to help students visualize their potential in our industry.

According to a 2017 study, just 12 percent of insurance companiestop corporate officers are women. Why do you think there are so few women in senior leadership roles in the insurance industry?

I would be curious to see what a 2020 study will show us as I sure hope the percentage has increased. Seeing some of my fellow female executives making their way to the decision-making table has been inspiring. I anticipate though that the new numbers are probably not showing us the rate of increase that many including me would like to see.

There are numerous theories to address this question but one that I have witnessed is a correlation between excessive confidence being viewed as sign of leadership. I am generalizing but men exhibit these qualities more than women, more men ascend to the top of leadership ranks and that is not only true in our industry. One reason for the confidence variance that I have experienced is more females than men battle with imposter syndrome. I see highly accomplish women frequently struggle with the feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt about how they reached their positions and that comes to play as well during an opportunity to take on larger roles. One of my mentees who is running a division of Fortune 100 companies has struggled with it, so we worked on this together to, as she put it, “break out of the self-imposed box” that she has contained herself into. Getting support from your mentors or someone that is your ally to gain guidance and motivation is crucial. I practice self-talk to be positive and inspirational to quiet my own negative voice in my head at times. I also believe that it is one of the best motivators for me to over-prepare and deliver on the task at hand.

The Plexus Groupe has been named one of the “Best Places to Work 2020” by Business Insurance magazine and a “Best Practices Agency, 2013-2020” by Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. What programs and initiatives does your company have in place to encourage inclusivity?

It is in the DNA of our company to ensure our associates are treated fairly, feel empowered and can flourish. There are organizations that have great Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) programs which act more like a PR tools for talent sourcing. At the Plexus Groupe, we focus to bring out the best in our associates and putting ourselves in their shoes. When you act inclusively, you respond with empathy, which drives better performance and is a motivator for greater collaboration and diversity of thought. The creation of the safe environment and mental space is very important, especially this year when personal and professional lives become more blended than ever. That psychological safety is one of the hallmarks of inclusion. You want to feel free to express your ideas, test new solutions, and make mistakes without the constant fear of being penalized. We proactively seek to learn from each other and understand different viewpoints while we seek feedback and encourage our associates to share their stories.

You volunteer your time as a Pathbuilders and RIMS mentor. Why is mentorship important, and what recommendations do you have for young female professionals on how to find a mentor?

Having a mentor is invaluable through all stages of your career and not just for young professionals. Some of my mentors were assigned to me via a formal mentorship program but many were self-selected during the course of expanding my network. Finding mentors that you look up to and whose advice you will value while respecting their insights can have a great effect on your career. I would keep in mind that mentors are like seasons – they come and go, hence someone who might have had profound effect on you when you are 25 might not when you are 35.

Personally, I get a “rush” when I can bring out the best self in someone that they might not see in themselves yet… and inspire them to reach new goals or tackle an obstacle.

How to find a new mentor? It is a mindset… It is important to remember that it does not have to be formal process. I have mentors now that I lean on for advice without them knowing they have a title of a mentor. We all are mentors and mentees throughout our lives. Reverse mentoring is important for my own personal growth as a lifelong learner. You basically flip the script where your mentee shares their perspective or expertise with you. Having this insight is very valuable for me as a leader and I always encourage my fellow leaders to find time in their schedules to give back by mentoring. It gives you fresh perspective, breaks generational stereotypes, and enhances your skillset, to name few.

What advice would you give the next generation of women considering a career in insurance?

There are a few pieces of wisdom that transcend gender and can be helpful for the next generations but also that I try to instill in my 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son:

1. Run your own race – Success looks different for everyone so do not spend the energy on looking around you. Leave the envy on the sideline and focus on your goals, motivation, and career trajectory while giving back to your community. It is good to have role models and emulate their behavior or follow their career paths but understand that success is very personal.

2. Networking is about giving first – It is like going to the bank; you do not want to show up at the bank asking to withdraw funds if you have nothing in your account. Networking is no different. Be curious and do not reach out to people only when you want career advice. We all remember those who have helped us so think about ways you can add value to them. Moreover, as our industry is a bit of musical chairs, when people move around, you never know where one of your network friends will land.

3. Be open to new opportunities while leaning on your network for guidance and feedback – Establish your personal board of directors. Make that board as diverse as possible so you can be challenged and grow. You will come across opportunities that will be outside of your comfort zone and having resources to go to and ask for honest feedback is crucial in your career. They will be your cheerleaders, pushing you to take a risk that will always yield better results than being stagnant. As I reflect, my greatest learning opportunities came from leaning outside of my comfort zone.

4. Being underestimated is your superpower – It is truly a gift in my mind. You worry less what others will say and think as you are not on their radar, hence you can focus time and energy on being over-prepared and outperform by going the extra mile.

Ania CarusoAnia Caruso, CPCU is Vice President, Risk Management – Growth & Business Development at The Plexus Groupe. She is an accomplished client-centric and growth-focused insurance executive with nearly 20 years of experience in the commercial property and casualty space. With diverse experience on both the brokerage and carrier side of the industry, Ania has a vibrant industry presence that she showcases via speaking engagements at various industry conferences. Caruso is a graduate of Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and International Relations. She is based in Atlanta where she lives with her husband and two children.

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