Are strong technical skills enough for a woman to succeed in financial services? In my conversations with female executives – women with considerable expertise in their fields – they often credit their ‘other skills’ for helping them stand-out.
That’s certainly the case with Sofia Belmar, the Senior Vice President and Country Manager for MetLife Mexico. Although Sofia started her career as an actuary, a very technical career path, she quickly learned to apply the communication skills and mental discipline she gleaned from her other passions, namely the arts and playing ‘futbol’ amidst Mexico’s male-dominated soccer culture.
Sofia realized the value of her ‘softer skills’ during her first insurance assignment, helping roll-out a highly-technical incentive plan to a sales force. She recounted how, “I had to be the translator between the actuaries and the sales agents so they could understand the program in very clear terms.”
To do so, she applied her background in the arts. Having studied music from a young age, she decided to, “Add a bit of art to make it simple for the agents and help them know what they had to achieve.” Sofia reflected on how, “I learned that, while facts are facts – and they must be accurate – sometimes 90 percent of the task is the way you communicate things to people if you want to have the right impact.”
Although Sofia’s balance of soft and technical capabilities helped her stand out, her visibility also drew some opposition in an era when few Mexican women held managerial positions.
She recalls an incident years ago when she attended a strategy meeting with a group of male regional sales directors. As the meeting convened, one senior executive pointed at Sofia and asked the group loudly, “Is she going to stay for the discussion?”
Sofia credits the company’s executive vice president, a trusted and open-minded mentor, for defending her. He retorted with fury, “She’s my right hand in strategy and will stay in all discussions that I need to have.”
While her executive showed his impatience with sexist comments, Sofia controlled her own response in the moment, describing how, “I ignored the comment and stayed like a rock, showing no reaction or negative feelings. I knew that I had to remain self-confident in myself and my position at the table. While men could get upset, I had to be more mature than them.”
Sofia’s calm but strong demeanor likely comes from her other personal passion, soccer. She told me how, her mother encouraged her to pursue her childhood love of ‘the beautiful game’, or any activity that was not typically a girl’s pursuit.
This sport, which she still plays four times a week, taught her teamwork, discipline and respect for other players. And today, she instills those traits in her younger team-mates, many of whom come from rural communities or struggle with economic and social barriers. “We are like a family and I tell them that, despite their difficulties, we must have rules of engagement on the field, including discipline and respect for each other. I let them know that 90 percent of their results will come from their attitude and behavior.”
While Sofia mentors her team-mates to help them overcome formidable challenges, she is optimistic about the progression of Mexican society: “Mexico is still very traditional but I think it’s transforming to be a much more open and gender equity-driven society.” She notes that she joined MetLife in part because of its pro-diversity stance, where a woman led the company, and today all types of diversity are welcome.
That said, Sofia feels strongly that, for diversity to spread more widely, people should not let traditional thinking impact how they treat others. That means parents should not impose gender biases on their children – and executives should not make assumptions about a woman’s abilities, priorities or ambition.
She adds that, “This doesn’t mean getting stuck on gender issues, but rather ‘respect everyone’, to help them develop their thinking. That’s what I did in that strategy meeting long ago – I knew those men needed to be educated since they weren’t used to working with women. Instead of showing negative feelings towards the man who made the comment, I decided to teach him respect for women, by demonstrating my professionalism and skills.”
As a long-time soccer player and coach myself, I absolutely agree with Sofia’s analogy that individual growth, and positive change, come from understanding and respecting others, and refining your unique skills. As Sofia summed up, “You really have to outperform or have something that differentiates you from the rest. To over-achieve, you must be visible, and stand with confidence, to build your career path.”
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.
With more than 28 years’ experience in the insurance industry, Sofia is Country Manager of MetLife Mexico, a leading Mexican insurance company offering life and medical coverage to more than 12 million customers. Sofia joined MetLife in 2010 as Vice President of Marketing and also held the role of Senior Vice President of Business Development and Distribution. Prior to joining MetLife, Sofia worked at GNP Seguros, a Mexican provider of property & casualty insurance, where she held roles including Executive Director of Marketing and Director of Market Analysis with GNP. Sofia holds a bachelor’s degree in Actuarial Science for the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, a master’s degree in Administration from the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico and completed a Business Leadership Program at Harvard University. In 2018, Sofia was invited to join the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) initiative as a spokesperson for the private sector and a leader of private sector SDG efforts.