Imagine you are newly-hired, ready to learn and make your mark. Sadly, your ambitions are thwarted by colleagues who provide patronizing answers to your earnest questions. Or, even worse, they won’t deal with you at all “because you’re a woman.”
While such incidents have occasionally mottled the career of Ann Sommer, the President of a Swedish non-life Insurance company; Ann told me how, “I didn’t take it to heart. I tried to relax and tell myself ‘It’s just a job and I have to work around the problem.’” Ann then applied her natural curiosity and charm to find common ground, get men to answer her questions, and negotiate deals as equals.
Ann recounted for me how she developed this knack early in her career, while leading the clean-up of a reinsurance firm’s chaotic accounting department: “I discovered that I am a very curious person. If there is something I don’t understand – like a loose thread I see – I start pulling that thread and things happen.”
As Ann made it her mission to learn everything about the insurance business, she recalled how, “When I started asking questions, the men around me would say, ‘Well, it’s always been like that’, or ‘It’s supposed to be that way.’”
Realizing that, “Men liked me, but they also stopped me,” Ann devised a strategy. “I had to get them to let their guard down. So, I would always be very friendly and try to change the subject,” she explained. “Then, I would slowly get back to why I was really there. This worked, because the men were not used to dealing with someone like me. I found they are usually more scared than you are.”
Ann’s charisma was put to the test later when, as a 33-year-old insurance CEO, she raced to London’s prestigious Savoy Grill for urgent negotiations with a prominent reinsurance executive. Upon learning that Ann’s male chairman could not attend the meeting, her dinner guest declared, “I’m not here to meet a woman, so I’m leaving.”
Ann described how, “I was devastated, but I put on my charm and said, ‘Well sir, I’m sorry my boss can’t attend, but could you at least have dinner with me before you go home?’ After persuading him to stay, she learned that they shared a love of the Devon countryside. “I knew all the rocks and parks, so we got to be really good friends and it ended up being a very good deal.”
When I asked Ann how she would bounce back so quickly from those gender-based rebuffs, she explained that, “I guess I was never really interested in the position or title itself. Rather, I cared about what I can do to solve problems my company faced. I tried to take a more relaxed attitude and remind myself that ‘You are there to get something done, and you just have to find the best way to do it.’”
Ann added that, “I decided early in my career that I’m not going to change – including wearing dresses and having my hair long – and this helped me not take things personally.”
During our conversation, Ann admitted that such confidence and negotiating skills don’t always come naturally, so women should try to build these strengths early. “Being a boss requires practice, every day. Sometimes we see that women wait until they’ve had their children before they decide to become a boss – and the challenge gets too hard when you have children. In contrast, men don’t stop because they have a family, but they continue to get many more years of practice.”
She pointed out to me that, “The hardest job is not being a CEO – the most difficult job is being a team manager, especially when you manage people who work with the customer. If you have training in that area, you’ve learned how to handle really hard situations and anything else will be easier.”
And how can women manage those difficult situations, whether it’s juggling customer and staff demands, asking tough questions, or negotiating with defiant parties? With a smile, Ann concludes that, “My advice to women is be happy, pragmatic and don’t take it to heart.”
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.
More about Ann Sommer: Ann is the President of a Swedish group of 23 customer-owned insurance companies and a banking operation. During her more than 20 years of service to the organization, she rose from the Deputy Managing Director to senior posts including Executive Vice President. Previously, Ann held the positions of CEO and CFO at WASA International AB, a Stockholm-based reinsurance firm. Ann studied economics at Stockholm University before beginning her financial services career in the accounting profession. Today, she also serves as Chairwoman of AGRIA AB and is a Director of various subsidiaries and SOS International.