• Laura Hay, Leadership |

While women in the financial sector sometimes find themselves alone in a crowd of men, that wasn’t the case for Alessa Quane. During our recent conversation, the Executive Vice President and Chief Risk Officer with AIG recalled how she was surrounded by women studying math and actuarial science. In fact, she pointed out how she began her career in a meritocracy where she never felt any challenge due to her gender.

However, when I asked Alessa how she found a way to stand out among her peers, she replied that she won the attention of senior management when she demonstrated her own distinct leadership style.

During our discussion, Alessa recounted the day when her efforts paid off: “I was working in Europe, so I was surprised when someone in New York recommended me to enhance the risk management department. They said, ‘The kind of person we need is Alessa.’ Apparently, others who had worked with me on a recent project concurred, saying, ‘It’s a big move but she can do it.’”

Alessa pointed out the irony that the assignment that earned her this promotion was, “a project that fell on my desk and I really had not felt equipped to do. But, with the support of my team, we got the job done and it put me on the radar of people at the home office in New York.”

Authentic leadership builds team loyalty, and results

Alessa’s story made me wonder how she created the necessary team dynamics to plough through such a difficult challenge. When I asked her about her work style, she replied that, “I think my leadership style helped form a very loyal team in which everyone wanted the project to succeed,” She added that, “You have to be yourself and be very authentic. There’s nothing more powerful than sometimes sharing the bitter truth with people and telling them, ‘This is what we have to do, and we’ve got to do it together.’”

Alessa emphasized that she avoids a dictatorial leadership style: “I’m a person who listens to everyone in the room, to get the full diversity of opinions before finalizing a decision. I might have my own view about the direction I think we should go, but I can be moved by the input of others, and they really appreciate being heard.” 

Alessa also pointed out that being authentic involves being open about what matters most to you, alluding to the often-difficult matter of work/life balance. “I think your people need you to say, ‘Here’s what I care about and it’s okay for you to do the same.’ In my case, I work a long day, so I decided that, when I get home, I am not checking my email every half hour. I think my people see this and realize that they also can find ways that work for them to manage their own commitments.” 

Today Alessa is dedicated to helping other women reach success as they define it, and in their own style. She outlines some of the advice she offers to her workplace mentees:

- For anyone early in your career, you sometimes need to take a job to get in the door, so focus on doing it well and keep your next step in mind. 

- Take the time to analyze what you like and don’t like about each job, to help you identify the roles that will make you happy in the future.

- Be open to making lateral career moves that broaden your experience and network.

- As you progress in your career, learn effective strategies to speak up with your supervisor about issues that are bothering you, to develop solutions.

- Find ways to balance your work and personal time that match your own priorities. Your choices don’t have to mirror those of others around you.

- Develop your own support network, including peers, friends and family. Make sure you have the right team at work and at home.

- Lead by example, to really motivate your team and model the culture and values you want them to take to heart.

For me, Alessa’s story is a great example of a woman who found a way to stand out in the crowd by applying both her professional and technical skills and a very natural leadership style, which helped her earn team buy-in and complete challenging assignments. It seems to me that, historically, women sometimes felt the need to emulate the men’s tougher management style to get ahead. For Alessa, by applying her own authentic self, including emotional intelligence about the needs of others, she’s earned respect and loyalty, and propelled herself to her spot at the top.

More about Alessa Quane: Alessa has served as the Executive Vice President and Chief Risk Officer of American International Group (AIG) since 2016 and heads the Global Enterprise Risk Management function, with responsibility for all aspects of risk management across the firm. More than 20 years with AIG, Alessa has held increasingly senior positions within risk and actuarial, including Chief Corporate Actuary and head of Global Actuarial and Value Management. She spent 13 years in Europe and the UK, before moving to New York to launch the enterprise risk management function for the international property-casualty business. Alessa began her career with another North American property-casualty firm after graduating from Drake University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration with a major in Actuarial Science.

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