Deborah Aldredge is Chief Administrative Officer for Farmers Group Inc. based in Los Angeles, California. In this role, she oversees all human resources, Farmers agency training and development through the award-winning University of Farmers, leadership development, corporate social responsibility, risk, audit, and corporate real estate.
As a member of the Farmers senior leadership team reporting into the CEO, she is accountable for crafting and implementing the people strategy in alignment with the business vision while ensuring that the necessary governance and controls are in place to support and grow the business. Prior to joining Farmers, Aldredge served as the Human Resource Business Partner to the CEO and senior leadership team of Zurich North America Commercial in Schaumburg, Illinois.
Previous work experience includes more than 30 years of experience in senior leadership roles in human resources and corporate learning at Merrill Lynch, Bank of America’s Private Bank based in Boston, Thomson Financial (now Thomson Reuters), and consulting to several leading Fortune 500 companies (e.g. Morgan Stanley, H&R Block, Oppenheimer Funds, Pfizer, etc.) through her own business.
Aldredge holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa. She also completed her Board Certification at UCLA Anderson School of Management Executive Education Program, and has formerly held Series 7, 63, 24 and Insurance licenses.
Currently, she serves on the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation’s Board of Governors, the Western Division IICF Board, the Eastern Division IICF Board, and the New York/New Jersey St. Bernard’s Project Advisory Board for HR and Talent. She is a founding member of the Farmers Family Fund, an employee funded charitable foundation and actively supports Farmers Charitable Giving initiatives in the local communities and a founding member and leader of the Farmers Women’s Network, with over 2,500 members operating out of 20+ chapters nationwide.
Q. There’s been a sea change in women attaining leadership positions in Financial Services, but according to a recent KPMG study, only 5% of the CEO population in the S&P consists of women. How have things changed in this regard in your estimation?
A. I think there's more awareness than ever before. Boards and customers are dialed into this issue. It would be hard to make the case that we have an ‘awareness’ challenge. I think everyone is aware that we need to attract more women into leadership and board roles. A great deal of research and studies show that a diverse leadership team creates greater diversity of thought, which can translate into increased market share and company performance. The challenge and why we probably haven't seen the type of success that you expect to see given all of the awareness and support, centers around the available labor pool that you're drawing from. Certainly, this is the case in insurance. You have a small group of extremely talented women who may be in play for some of these jobs, and everybody wants them! And there are just not enough candidates to really fill a lot of these opportunities. I don't think any woman out there wants to see somebody get the job just because of gender. Having said that, I do believe that we need to take some risks on women who have the leadership skills and potential but lack the experience. We know that women are more likely to get promoted or considered for the senior C suite jobs and board positions, based on their achievements and not their potential, unlike men. We need to change this mindset. If they do get the top job, we need to help them succeed as well. Will they have the support? Do they have the organizational savvy and awareness of all the subtle stuff that takes place inside of a company for them to succeed? I think a lot of women will say, I am often flying solo and trying to figure out what to do on my own. If they do have the benefit of having a mentor, sponsor or coach, they have a much stronger chance of succeeding. Companies and boards spend a lot of time sourcing and hiring top candidates into these senior roles. Do they spend the same amount of time ensuring that they are effectively onboarded into their new roles, and begin their transition into the role and company with a successful launch? Do boards and senior leaders at companies feel responsible for their success in year 1? My sense is they often don’t feel a sense of ownership, which contributes to the problem. It’s one thing to get women hired, it’s another to help them succeed.
Q. What are the challenges and advantages or disadvantages of being part of a huge global organization? There has to be different rules and different viewpoints, good and bad, but what would you say are the challenges and advantages of being part of a global organization?
A. Well…big global organizations aren’t for everyone. On the plus side, you gain an understanding of how to tackle big, complex problems and challenges on a global scale. You have an opportunity to learn about other countries and how they experience your brand and products. You get to see what is unique about your country, its laws, regulations, customers, etc. and how similar some of these challenges are to tackle. I mean, I always find it fascinating when we come together as a leadership team. You're meeting with CEOs around the globe and we often have similar core challenges or issues that we are addressing, despite our differences. How do we attract customers? How do we deal with new competitors? How are we transforming and integrating new technologies and capabilities? How do we attract new talent? The impact of increased regulation and oversight, all of that. How you execute or address these challenges at the local level within your country is different. Learning how the UK retail market is dealing with disruptive technologies and new entrants can be a fruitful discussion for another region of the world, experiencing similar challenges. It’s often hard to move fast in a big global organization. Trying to innovate is often better served outside of the core business. Sometimes you can get bogged down with a lot of the compliance and legal constraints. I think global organizations need to determine what decisions and functions are best centralized at the core, while enabling the regions or countries to innovate and drive business results locally.
Q. Farmers is an agent-centric culture, and along with your Farmers® experience, you've got extensive experience in building programs, supporting Financial Advisors, particularly at Merrill Lynch. So you've observed and seen advisors and agents for most of your professional career, I think that's fair to say. So I'm curious, what have you observed to be the behavioral characteristics of the great agents and the great advisors? What did they all seem to have in common?
A. I think there are a number of similarities between agency owners and financial advisors. If you aren’t competing on price, you are delivering value at a much higher price point. The agency owner and financial advisor need to educate their customers, deliver products and services to meet their needs while providing a great service experience. In my earlier days supporting financial advisors, customers were not empowered with the Internet and still relied upon a “human” to provide them with knowledge and expertise. Today’s customer is much different. They do a lot of the research on their own before they reach out to a professional (e.g. financial advisor or agency owner). The direct players in insurance have been masterful at convincing the average consumer that price matters and they can shop and bind on their own. Someone shared research with us a while back that said the average consumer will spend more time selecting a hair salon or stylist than they would selecting an insurance agent.
Q. As a young woman who began her career as a Sales Assistant in a Wall Street brokerage firm, you rose quickly into the management ranks. At what point did you begin to think that you were a pretty good manager? Was there a seminal event, maybe the first time you fired somebody or something was thrown at you and you handled it well?
A. Well, first of all, I think I am the last of my kind. The likelihood that you can start as an assistant and work your way up is probably a thing of the past, given the complexity of the work and pace of change. As I look back on my career, there were a number of defining moments…like any manager…your first performance discussion, the first time you had to let someone go, the first time you developed and presented a strategy, the first time you met with your board, the first time you had to ask for more money, more budget, more resources, etc. I know I made my share of mistakes, recovered and learned from them. It’s funny…I remember the misses very clearly…like it was yesterday…the successes, not so much. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a global women’s program for insurance professionals in New York. One of the highlights of the program, was a CEO panel. One of the women was a 36-year-old woman of color who quickly rose through the ranks of her company to move from sales to CEO in a short period of time. She talked about the excitement and challenges of launching and leading a start-up. Now that her company was mature, she needed to make the transition from a start-up CEO to an “operator”…her message to us was…yes, we need to learn to lean in as women but we also need to recognize that there will be times when we need to leave….I was faced with something very similar in my career. New leader, new strategic direction and I didn’t agree with it. After a great deal of soul searching, I made the decision to leave. I simply could not support the team and felt there was no longer an alignment of my principles and values with the company’s. This was a seminal moment for me as a leader.
Q. Any notable business mentors along the way? And what did you learn from them?
A. I have been fortunate to have many mentors and sponsors in my career…there is not one that stands out but many that do. For me, it’s very situational. I believe in the concept of a personal board of directors that changes and evolves with you over time. This board will look very different when you are young and building your career versus a mature stage of your career. Who you have on your personal board is critical. I sought out people who would give me direct and pointed feedback and advice when I needed it. I wasn’t interested in someone who would stroke my ego or heal my wounds. I wanted them to shoot straight and tell me what I needed to hear and not what I wanted to hear from them. For example, when I transitioned from a field sales support role into a corporate role, I needed help in navigating the corporate office, learning how to present in front of large groups, managing the dynamics of a senior leadership team or meeting—my mentors/sponsors were there to help. When I moved into a C-level role, I needed to learn how to support the CEO and his board. This was all uncharted territory for me. As I look back on my career, I probably had more male mentors and sponsors than women. This is largely due to the numbers. There were very few women leaders when I started my career. I had an opportunity to have some really great sponsors who saw something in me that maybe I didn't see in myself at the time and they were willing to stick their neck out and say, ‘I think we should give her a shot at that job, I think she'd be really good at the job’. They saw my potential, even though I didn’t have a track record of achievements to support that particular promotion. I was fortunate to get the support when I was climbing the ladder. As a senior woman, it is now my job, to send the ladder down and help the next generation.
Q. In the context of the organization you run and the markets you serve, what if anything keeps you up at night?
A. I think what worries me most is the pace of the change that we are experiencing in insurance and our ability to transform as an organization while keeping the trains moving. I went through a similar transition in wealth management where stock brokers were replaced by fee-based advisors, individual sales people moved into highly skilled and differentiated teams, and technology served as both a disruptor and enabler. Similar challenges in insurance. These changes will drive a greater divide between the carriers who compete on price and those that compete on value. It will force a natural upgrading of talent in insurance agents, their staff and leadership teams. Can we keep up with these changes? Will our cultures, our risk aversion and legacy systems hold us back? Do we need new “go to market” strategies and operating models to compete effectively and take market share? Will millennials (the fastest growing customer demographic group) value the knowledge of an agent as their needs mature? For agents, they will need to be larger and much more sophisticated in their marketing and product offerings to address a wide range of insurance needs. Finally, property and casualty insurance has often been described as the last bastion of the old boy’s club in financial services. The leadership teams at most carriers are predominately white men in their 50s. How will the carriers become relevant to a diverse talent pool? How will they attract diverse clients? These are the challenges that are keeping me up at night. It’s important to recognize that corporate boards have identified Diversity and Inclusion as a business risk. I fear that companies who fail to take these issues seriously and implement actions that drive meaningful change will not survive.
Q. If Farmers Insurance were to be a car, what make or model would it be?
A. I'd like us to be a Tesla. I love this car. It’s fast, sleek, innovative, loaded with technology and moves from zero to 60 mph in the blink of an eye. If you commute in LA, you appreciate its acceleration power and technology. The Tesla can be our “BHAG or big hairy audacious goal