CEO on “the most meaningful industry I’ve ever worked in”

CEO on “the most meaningful industry I’ve ever worked in”

CEO on “the most meaningful industry I’ve ever worked in” | Insurance Business New Zealand

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CEO on “the most meaningful industry I’ve ever worked in”

Aon New Zealand chief executive Melissa Cantell shares her reasons for staying

Insurance News

Terry Gangcuangco

“I don’t think I’ll ever leave now that I’m here.”

Those were the words of Aon New Zealand chief executive Melissa Cantell (pictured) when she sat down with Insurance Business to talk about not only her new role but also her reasons for staying after joining the industry in 2015.

Perception versus reality

Recalling her foray into insurance, Cantell said: “I’ve sort of developed a career along the way of working on business transformations, so helping organisations work out where they want to be in the future and then helping them get from wherever they are to wherever that is. And it’s different, depending on the business and the industry.

“I joined insurance because I was offered an opportunity to help in the insurance transformation for a particular insurer, and I thought that that sounded really interesting. It struck me as quite an old-fashioned industry that was brave and putting up its hand saying, ‘We think we need to do something different’, and that felt like a big challenge to get involved in.”

The former Bell Gully senior associate, whose pre-insurance credentials include time spent at Coca-Cola Amatil and Fonterra, conceded that she thought insurance itself didn’t sound as interesting as the transformation remit she was to undertake at the time.

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“The external perception of insurance and the internal reality is so different,” Cantell told Insurance Business. “That’s what I discovered when I got on the inside, is that this is the most meaningful industry I’ve ever worked in. I’ve had lots of great jobs and fun jobs in fun industries, but I have never done anything that feels like it serves a greater purpose like insurance does.”

The ex-Fidelity Life CEO highlighted: “As part of my first insurance role with IAG, I was leading their transformational programme but also, as chief operating officer, I was looking after a range of insurance operations, including claims.

“When I started leading the claims team and working closely with our claims handlers, listening to the customer experience and the loss that people were going through, I realised the help that we provided as an industry, it was actually quite overwhelming for me what we were doing. I fell in love with it, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave now that I’m here.”

Shared purpose with a challenge

For Cantell, the overriding reason for her decision to stay in insurance is the industry’s purpose.

“There’s not that many industries where you get to say that every day you go to work to help people,” she said. “You can attach that concept really easily to things like being a doctor or a nurse, but it’s not what you think about with insurance.

“To be able to provide that support and to help people or businesses in some of the toughest times that they go through – it’s just very special, and I feel grateful that I get to do that every day. Connected to that purpose are two other things, which I think round it out.

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“The second thing I love about the industry is the people, and I think we’re an industry that attracts people who are connected to that purpose. We’ve all joined for different reasons and we’ve ended up here in different ways, but everyone is connected by that strong desire to help, and that makes it a really special business. We’re all so different, but I feel like everyone’s just got this shared goal.”

In the Aon NZ chief’s view, the insurance industry is one “pretty cool family” to call oneself a member of.

“The last thing [I love about insurance] is it’s super challenging,” Cantell continued. “It’s intellectually stimulating, it’s hard, and the problems are complex and the solutions are complex.

“It requires a lot of mental energy and mental gymnastics to work out, ‘What’s the right solution? How might we develop that for a client? How can we find a way to help, even if it’s a really challenging circumstance that they’re working through?’

“That combination of amazing people, really challenging content, and all for a pretty special purpose – how could you not love it? I could sell it to anyone.”

Attracting people to insurance

Cantell’s fondness for the sector is something she wants others, especially younger people, to have as well – a certain keenness that the CEO believes begins with a clear understanding of what insurance is all about.

“I’m personally really passionate about trying to attract people to the industry,” she told Insurance Business. “I don’t know that we’ve historically done a great job of that. The stories you hear on the outside about the industry are often negative stories, for understandable reasons.

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“When you are on the inside, you realise how meaningful and purposeful it is, and I think we’ve got a job to do to help attract young people into the industry to help them understand the value of insurance, the purpose behind what we come to work and do every day. I think it’s more about helping people really understand what we do.”

Cantell added: “I started my career as a lawyer. When I was at law school, there were programmes where I could go and work in law firms, and I really understood what it meant to be a lawyer and what my job would look like.

“I’m not sure if people sit in university going, ‘Oh, I understand what it would mean to be an underwriter or a broker’. It’s a bit more intangible. So, I’m interested to see what role Aon can play to help people actually understand what it means to work in this industry, whether that’s through graduate programmes or other ways of sharing what we do.”

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