The life insurance executive makes it her policy to chart her own path
By Katrina Brown Hunt
In 2008, after Eileen McDonnell had stepped out of corporate life for three years to adopt her daughter and tend to her family, one might think she would have to jump through hoops to get back into the C-suite in the insurance industry.
But taking a break from corporate life wasn’t about to stall McDonnell’s career. During her time away, she had started her own consulting firm, taught at the American College, and even penned a marketing textbook. She was ready to get back on the corporate ladder, but she wasn’t willing to trade in her newfound freedom and flexibility.
“Coming here and interviewing with the then CEO, I was pretty clear—at 40-some-odd years old and having gone halfway around the world to adopt—that I wasn’t going to enter a situation that would not let me be the authentic me,” says McDonnell, who is now chairman, president, and CEO of Penn Mutual. “I told them I would give them my all, but it might not look traditional.”
That meant, she says, being able to see her daughter in the morning before school and having dinner with her most nights. “I still have to answer to a board, but I laid out those expectations,” she says. “You have to let people know what you want.”
That commitment to doing things her own way is one reason that McDonnell, author of Marketing Financial Services to Women, wants to broaden and diversify the playing fields of the insurance industry, in terms of both its workforce and its consumer base. Diversity Woman spoke with McDonnell about weathering the recession, the notion of a glass ceiling, and how playing a different game—literally—might help grow your business.
McDonnell has received an honorary doctor of laws degree from her alma mater, Molloy College, and earned her MBA in finance and investments from Adelphi University. She is a former member of the Master of Science in Management faculty at the American College, where she held the newly endowed chair for Women and Financial Services.
Diversity Woman: You come from a big family. How did that shape you?
Eileen McDonnell: I grew up in Rockville Centre, on Long Island. My mother had six children in eight years, and I fell right smack in the middle, which honed my diplomacy skills. I learned to see the unique abilities and strengths of each individual. We were all raised by the same parents, but each of us possessed unique abilities, and I still use that. I also learned that you have to play nice in the sandbox.
DW: What was your original career goal?
EM: I entered college as a nursing student, but after sophomore year, I realized I didn’t want to be a nurse. My imagination was captured by the introduction of personal computers—back when they used floppy disks. I could see that these new computers would make a huge impact on the business world and in personal lives, so I switched my major to computer science.
DW: After a few years in the computer industry, at Wang, you transitioned into insurance. What appealed to you about that industry?
EM: It was actually like nursing; service, helping others. Insurance does great work to help people make sure that their loved ones or businesses are protected, but more important, it has actual living benefits—accumulation products that help you make the most of your life. I took out insurance at 27 to lock in my insurability and begin saving in a permanent policy for any future needs. And I borrowed money from that policy to launch a consulting firm and supplement my income during my hiatus from corporate life.
DW: How did your company weather the recession?
EM: We don’t have stockholders, so we are able to operate conservatively, because we don’t have the pressure of increasing earnings. So coming into the crisis, we were strong to begin with. I came here in 2008 as chief marketing officer, and we made the conscious decision to keep moving forward—we just were not going to participate in the recession. There were so many variables that people got bogged down with back then. Even now, I can’t get too upset about what Janet Yellen will do with interest rates—I can’t control that. My sense is if you focus on what you can control, you can do something about it. And I control what I do with my business.
DW: How has the landscape for life insurance changed?
EM: Our company is 168 years old. It was built on men selling to men—heads of households, business owners. Fast-forward, and you see that the demographics have shifted. We need to look like the American demographic, so here in our home office, we have a diverse population. Over 40 percent of our C-suites and board are women, so we are walking the walk in terms of both gender and ethnic diversity.
If you are on a path that is not going well for you, it’s up to you to change.
DW: How are you reaching out to that wider consumer audience?
EM: We have a couple of things in place. We have a program called My Worth, which was designed to help women—in particular, stay-at-home moms—assess their value as chauffeur, cook, babysitter: if you had to replace me, what would that cost? I think women often underestimate the transferable skills and insights from their roles of wife, daughter, and mother.
DW: It sounds as if you might hire those moms.
EM: When I’m interviewing a woman for a job who has been a stay-at-home mom, she’ll make excuses, asking for forgiveness for straying from the workplace. I say, Look at all you’ve done! You see a smile come across her face. I always say, Don’t sell yourself short.
DW: How are you working to expand your advisor base in terms of diversity—and age?
EM: The average age of an advisor in this industry is late 50s—we are an aging industry. Recently we took on the title sponsorship of the Collegiate Rugby Championship, and we partnered with NBC. You might say, Why rugby? It’s an untapped market and the fastest-growing team sport in the US. In 2016, it will be reintroduced in the Olympics, and it’s played on all major college campuses. Rugby was strategically identified to get us favorable exposure on college campuses, so we could recruit from that millennial population.
DW: You’ve been quoted as saying you’ve never experienced the glass ceiling in your career. What do you say to colleagues who have bumped against it?
EM: I say—to men or women—that if you are on a path that is not going well for you, it’s up to you to change that path. I have not played the victim, but there have been points in my career when I have had to change my job or company because someone was in my way. That will happen. You have to take ownership and accountability.
DW: What leadership lessons did you learn the hard way?
EM: I was a midlevel supervisor and I had aspirations to grow in the organization. I was meeting with the CEO, and I kind of fluffed the answer to one of his questions. He gave me the best response: “Eileen, we have a hundred other people who know the answer. I’d rather you tell me you don’t know or go find out.” As a leader, you’re not expected to know everything, but you need to be in tune with everyone’s abilities.
DW: Are there any books you’ve read recently that have inspired you?
EM: Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life by Stewart D. Friedman. It looks at folks like Springsteen, people who have done a good job both at work and at home—it’s an interesting read. Otherwise, some of my best reading is at bedtime with my daughter. Recently we read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—there are many life lessons embedded in these children’s stories. DW