Whenever I meet a seemingly fearless female executive, it impresses me when she admits to a vulnerability she overcame. These honest comments provide a strong message to other women - that it’s natural to have self-doubts and even top leaders must continue to work on their individual challenges to succeed at them.
That was the case with Guadalupe Huerta, Chief Financial Officer of Mexico City-based insurer Seguros Monterrey New York Life. I was surprised when this much-admired executive told me that, despite her career-long ambitions to take on larger roles and contribute to her company’s bigger picture, she had some doubt when accepting new challenges.
However, in the same breath, Guadalupe explains how she overcomes those self-doubts, with a sensible ‘pep talk’ to put the risks and rewards in perspective.
During our recent chat, Guadalupe described how her ambitions surfaced early in her career. Although her post-graduation plans were to work in insurance “to learn for one year,” that changed when she saw the chance to apply her actuarial skills to many short- and longer-term projects, work with different operational groups and support senior decision-making.
With each promotion she was offered, she asked to take on activities beyond her actuarial mandate such as business planning duties. In fact, when she was sent to New York to present the company’s position, the appointed CEO was surprised by the scope of Guadalupe’s insights. He asked her pointedly, “Are you sure you are just the actuary?”
While Guadalupe is proud of her career ascent, she recognized that, “This doesn’t mean that I don’t have doubts. There is always some concern, perhaps because I am a woman, dealing with an unfamiliar challenge, or that I didn’t feel 100 percent prepared on the topic.”
To overcome these doubts, Guadalupe told herself in the moment that no decision she made would be irreversible: “I would remind myself of my goals and that this was an opportunity to move my career to where I wanted it to be and to learn from my successes and failures.”
Throughout her career, she has taken a moment to remind herself of her end goals, to push any fear aside. She recalls her early days as CFO when she was the only woman attending a financial committee of 35 industry leaders. Remembering that, “Back then, the Mexican financial services industry was more of a ‘man’s world’,” Guadalupe says they bombarded her with questions including, ‘Who are you?’ ‘Do you have the CFO title?’ and ‘What happened to your previous boss?’
While she replied calmly to the interrogation, she notes that, “In my mind, I kept telling myself ‘I need to remain self-confident’, ‘I am here to represent the company and add my knowledge’, and ‘the most important thing is to help accomplish the company’s goals and matters for the insurance sector.’”
This approach worked, since she earned the respect of the male executives and a few years later she was appointed president of that same industry committee. Today, a handful of female peers have joined her at the table.
Through her practical thought process, Guadalupe moved forward with purpose in the decisions she had to make. She explains that, “It’s normal for a woman to want to have 100 percent of the skills required for a new job, but that will never happen. I just told myself that I will keep learning and I’ll have the support of a huge team, so I can draw upon their skills.”
She also describes how developing your softer skills, and leadership savvy, can make up for specific technical expertise: “If you want to move forward, you need to develop communication skills, particularly your ability to listen to and understand others. The technical skills are actually easier to learn, but it’s the leadership skills that are more difficult and really make a difference for you.”
Guadalupe adds that her ‘team’ is inclusive by having a balance between women and men - who can support each other around the table. “Don’t assume that males are the enemy, they can be a very good ally,” she insists, noting that one of her strongest career supporters was a male who became a good friend and mentor.
Observing that her own employer has achieved a near balance of male and female executives, Guadalupe points out that, “Women should also collaborate, rather than going against each other. If we all have the same goal, then everybody will win.”
As I concluded my conversation with Guadalupe, I realized how important it is for up-and-coming women to hear that they are not the only ones to feel fear. It’s helpful for nervous presenters to know that many veteran actors still get stage fright, and the same applies for women and men climbing the financial services ranks.
Even industry veterans like Guadalupe have felt the fear and overcame them. And young women can learn from her strategy of staying focused on your end goal, put the risks in perspective and learn from them, and build the skills to grow your confidence.
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.Kpmg/mindthegap.
Since 2014, Guadalupe has been the Chief Financial Officer of Seguros Monterrey New York Life, where she provides her extensive experience in negotiation, financial risk, enterprise risk management and corporate finance. She has spent the past 12 years with this Mexico City-based provider of life and health protection, recognized for its more than 75-year history and its integration with New York Life Insurance in 2000. Previously, Guadalupe served as the organization’s Chief Actuary from 2006 to 2014, in addition to other progressively senior roles. She graduated from the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico and holds a Master of Business Administration and Finance degree from that institution and a Master of Business Administration degree in senior management from IPADE Business School.