In a conversation with the incoming students of Columbia’s Insurance Management master’s program, Nicole Bennett, SVP and Chief of Staff at C&F, shared the story of her unorthodox career path and emphasized the importance of challenging, diverse experiences as some of the best learning opportunities for building a successful career in insurance management.
Nicole Bennett, Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff at C&F, delivered remarks on the concluding orientation day of Columbia University’s new Insurance Management master’s program in August, emphasizing the importance of agility, curiosity and emotional intelligence as qualities that “high potential” professionals should harness to add long-term, sustainable value to a business. Students engaged in direct conversations with Bennett, John Doyle, CEO of Marsh and other respected industry leaders and faculty during the two-day virtual orientation. Students also discussed the disruptive factors shaping the insurance world and the importance of strategically deploying technology in its transformation.
“Embrace the pivot” and take on the challenges that emerge when you “get out of your silo,” Bennett told students. Serving as the Chief Information Officer for 10 years and currently as the Chief of Staff for C&F, Bennett has developed an eye for identifying “high potential” professionals, a distinction she says can be as valuable to a business than traditional high performers. The subtle distinction between the two is the ability to generate a bigger impact in the future; through self-awareness and curiosity, high potentials contribute to an organization’s success through their high emotional intelligence, dynamic sensing and out-of-the-box thinking that actively engages leadership and drives long-term success. Identifying each of these groups is key to building a strong and innovative company culture – and it’s what Nicole has been working to normalize as the Chief of Staff at C&F.
With a personal touch and depth of insight, Bennett led a lively conversation with the incoming students about her winding career path, the wide range of her experiences that led her to the role she is in today and her passion for technology innovation. Nicole’s early interest in math was the driving factor behind her decision to venture into the insurance and actuarial world. Born and raised in Canada, she deliberately chose to pursue a career in insurance out of pure interest. Thanks to a hands-on co-op program in college, Nicole was able to enrich her academic knowledge through term-long actuarial co-op terms at Fairfax Financial Holdings.
And the co-op terms between the academic terms were, in fact, the most rewarding learning experience for Nicole. From the very beginning, she was handed challenging projects that required proactivity, perseverance and a strong desire to go above and beyond what’s required. Among these challenging projects that shaped her to be the professional she is today was also the assignment to build a personal lines claims system. Even though computer science was not her principal area of study, the experience encouraged her to push herself beyond her boundaries and develop a deep understanding of the value of technology.
Nicole’s career path was far from orthodox: through highlighting the benefits of choosing non-linear career paths – ones resembling a “jungle gym” – and what major learning opportunities they can offer in the long run. Over the course of a long career in the insurance industry, she has built her own version of a career “jungle gym” by taking on special projects affecting major changes in scope, transitioning between large and small companies and initiating innovative new processes in the larger organizations she has been part of.
At C&F, Bennett has consistently been a vocal spokeswoman for innovation and technological transformation – an especially important challenge for a company in an industry as complex as insurance. She places value on decentralization, pushing the company to become more agile and moving the decision-making process as close to the customers as possible. These adjustments, she says, help to keep long-standing businesses competitive and ahead of the curve.
Bennett ended her keynote with her vision of the skills that will become integral to future insurance leaders and then opened the session for an interactive conversation with the students. While some skills will always remain irreplaceable – such as data literacy and proficiency in numbers – the distinguishing quality of a leader will be the understanding of the role and value of technology in the changing landscape in the insurance industry, along with the ability to pivot, move job to job and volunteer for new and impactful projects.