CEO in Transition
The profile of the insurance company CEO is evolving as boards seek to balance the need for a steady, experienced hand with the need for tech-savvy diverse leaders adept at transformative change.
- Kate Smith
- July 2018
Today’s insurance leaders appear to fit squarely into the industry stereotype—middle-age Caucasian males in a sector where change, even in the C-suite, happens slowly.
That view, on paper, looks accurate. But it’s not quite complete.
To paint a portrait of an insurance CEO, Best’s Review analyzed the chief executive officers of the top 20 U.S. property/casualty writers, top 20 life/health writers (ranked by A.M. Best) and the top 10 global brokers (based on the magazine’s annual ranking).
On the surface, the profile of insurance leader is rather predictable. Of the 48 company CEOs considered, 96% were men, 94% were white, and most were in their late 50s. But, like a lenticular image, the picture changes with a tilt.
A deeper dive into the statistics and hiring trends shows an industry in transformation.
Nearly 25% of the insurance CEOs reviewed were appointed in the last two years and more than a third (35%) were hired within the last three. Both of the female CEOs in the pool—Tricia Griffith of Progressive and Marianne Harrison of John Hancock—were appointed in the last two years, showing a shift toward diversity that recruiters say is of top priority for boards of directors.
"Many of the leaders who have been industry stalwarts are reaching the retirement stage," Stefan Holzberger, senior managing director and chief rating officer at A.M. Best, said. "We talk to companies about their succession planning, and the better companies and CEOs are training and grooming replacements.
"And yes, the profile of the insurance industry CEO is, by and large, Caucasian, male, and in their late 50s, early 60s. But we’re seeing a trend toward more diversity in organizations, which is a positive."
In terms of leadership demographics, insurance doesn’t lag far behind other sectors. In many regards, the executive pool analyzed by Best’s Review mirrors the leaders of the Fortune 500 and S&P 500. Executive search firm Crist Kolder Associates studied those executives for its annual Volatility Report, and the findings were fairly similar.
The report showed 30% of CEOs are age 60 or older, compared to 35% of insurance CEOs. Half of the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 CEOs, and 51% of insurance CEOs, were appointed at age 50 or younger.
Compared to CEOs across the broader financial services industry, insurance CEOs have a shorter tenure on average. According to the Volatility Report, the average tenure for a financial services CEO is 9.1 years. The CEOs Best’s Review studied have been in their positions for 8.125 years. And if you remove outliers Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and V. Prem Watsa of Fairfax Financial—who have a combined tenure of 81 years at the companies they founded—CEOs at top 20 U.S. property/casualty writers have been in their posts for an average of just five years.
The path to the CEO position is similar across sectors. Nearly half (47.5%) of those studied by Crist Kolder were appointed from the position of president or chief operating officer—in insurance, 49% of CEOs took that route.
And while insurance lacks gender diversity at the highest level, so do other industries. Females comprised 5.8% of the CEO population according to the Volatility Report.
"The C-suite has a diversity problem," Scott Simmons, managing director at Crist Kolder, said. "It’s a broad scoped diversity issue across corporate America. This isn’t just the insurance space by any stretch. But companies are placing a greater emphasis on this now."
Expectations are high for today’s insurance CEOs. Boards want tech-savvy industry veterans who have run profit and loss centers, have track records of innovation and, preferably, are already sitting CEOs of another company.
"In many cases, they want a unicorn," Simmons said.
Mary MacDonald, a principal at Heidrick & Struggles, said companies come into CEO searches with long wish lists.
"What we’re hearing from boards today is that CEOs in the insurance sector need to have leadership skills and vision," MacDonald said.
"They need to be incredibly agile. They need to have the ability to look around corners and anticipate change. They need to be extremely adept at transformative change, both from a strategic and an operational standpoint.
"They need to be very innovative. They need to be resilient, because market dynamics are changing faster than ever. They need to have a global mindset. And they want someone who thinks strategically about new and unique ventures, whether that’s investments in fintech and insurtech, whether it’s alliances with technology platforms, or whether it’s mergers, acquisitions and integrations."
Though it’s rare for an insurance CEO to come out of the chief technology officer or chief digital officer position, leaders must have an eye on innovation.
"Does the CEO have to be a tech expert? No, and they won’t be," Holzberger said. "But they need to embrace it. They need to have a strategy and vision and be able to see the landscape."
Logic may dictate that the focus on technology would result in younger executives rising to the top. The opposite is true. Appointees to the CEO role have gotten older in the past decade.
Experts say the phenomenon is not limited to insurance. Between 2012 and 2017, the average age at hire of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 CEOs rose from 45 to 50, according to the Volatility Report. Insurance hiring trends follow a similar pattern.
Since the financial crisis of 2008-09, the average age of insurance CEOs has increased considerably. In the pool analyzed by Best’s Review, 14 of the 18 CEOs hired before 2010 were under the age of 50 at the time of appointment. Since 2011, only two have been appointed under the age of 50.
"I can only correlate that with the risk aversion of boards of directors having skyrocketed over time," Simmons said. "We’re always asked first by the board to get them a sitting CEO. That request comes from a desire to mitigate risk.
"There’s a sense that if they pick someone who’s been in the chair before, it takes away the risk that this person will have to learn on the job because they’ve been there and done that. It’s not true, though. It doesn’t take away the risk. But when you talk to directors and see how they think, they’re concerned with how to take away the risk when they need to name someone new.
"So I correlate the increase in age to: The older you are, the less of a risk you are because you’ve worked longer and seen more," Crist Kolder’s Simmons said.
A.M. Best’s Holzberger said concerns about risk tolerance, risk culture and governance have been at the forefront of the insurance industry since the financial crisis. That emphasis shows in the corner office.
"We’ve seen an evolution of the type of CEO," Holzberger said. "Before the financial crisis, a lot of banking and investment executives were finding their way into senior positions at insurance companies. They were folks who had maybe a little more tolerance for leverage or generally a greater risk tolerance, and maybe not the underwriting insurance background.
"Since the financial crisis, the profile of the CEO seems to be reverting back to traditional roots in the insurance industry—whether it be an underwriting background or some background in one of the core functions in an insurance company, with a different risk profile. A lot of the board members and investor stakeholders feel like they want an insurance person running the shop here and protecting my investment."
MacDonald at Heidrick & Struggles said 70% of CEOs across life and property/casualty grew up in the industry. "They’re lifers," she said. "They have not spent any time outside of insurance."
Often, insurers don’t even go outside their own company for a CEO. Of the companies Best’s Review studied, 81% appointed internal candidates to the CEO role.
"Internal candidates have less risk to them," MacDonald said. "They’re already a culture fit with the organization, and they already understand how the organization gets things done."
Hiring externally, Simmons said, is like buying a house.
"Until you’ve lived there for a year or two, you’re not sure where the cracks in the walls are or where the shortcomings might be. It’s similar when you go outside for a C-level position. You can never be 100% sure."
Still, companies today almost always conduct an external search when looking for CEO candidates, even if they already have a strong internal candidate.
"Ten or 15 years ago, if there was somebody fingered as the next heir apparent there was no search," Simmons said.
"There is a different mindset now when it comes to these chairs. Companies recognize that, even if someone is next in line, these chairs are way too important to simply hand over. They want to be thorough and entertain internal and external candidates so that they can make an informed decision at the end of the process."
CEO of the Future
While the industry may seem insular in its hiring practices, recruiters say that’s not quite true. Insurers are pushing to attract talent from other sectors, particularly technology.
"We’ve had chief digital officers, chief customer officers, chief marketing officers, and technology executives come in from other industries," said Laurie O’Shea, who leads the insurance practice at human capital consulting firm Korn Ferry. "It’s happening, and it’s beautiful that it’s happening. We’re looking for the answer outside our industry, which is brilliant. A decade from now, as those executives become entrenched in the basics of insurance, there could be a time where their general management skills would allow them to be at the helm of an insurance company."
Diversity—of background, thought, gender, color and age—will be a key to future success and a metric by which CEOs are judged.
"As we look toward who the winners will be, who the best performing companies will be, it will be led by CEOs who can harness diverse talent," MacDonald said. "As insurance continues to broaden into more diverse markets, our clients’ organizations need to reflect their policyholder base. It becomes extremely important that their employee base reflects their policyholder base, all the way up to the board room. Does their board reflect their policyholder base? Does their CEO reflect their policyholder base?"
Diversity has become a high priority at many companies, Simmons said.
"We’ve always shown a diverse slate of candidates, but we have clients now who put a greater emphasis on adding diversity to their C-suite," Simmons said. "But you run into the problem of, the pool is the pool. And the pool is smaller of C-level-ready people. I think you’ll see the pool growing."
O’Shea said insurance companies need to "open the aperture" when evaluating potential leaders.
"As we look at the turnover that will exist in the CEO chair, we need to be very proactive about looking at not just women but all executives to make sure they’re getting the development support they need," O’Shea said. "The organizations we work with are investing in diversity and inclusion. It’s more prevalent now than it ever has been before.
"You have to look at what’s really going on underneath to see how the selection process will change in the next iteration. Those that truly want to compete are investing heavily in the assessment and development of their talent. Testing for learning agility is key. You’re seeing organizations invest in assessment and development at all levels. That’s what’s transformative about the insurance industry now. There is a recognition that we have relied on extraordinary technicians to become our CEOs, and we now want to be much more intentional about identifying those great technicians and creating a road map for them to become general managers so they can lead organizations. That’s the biggest and the correct pivot for our industry."
Top Brokers’ CEOs
Ranking based on total 2017 revenues.
Top P/C Insurers' CEOs
Ranked by 2017 net premiums written.
Ranked by 2017 admitted assets.
Kate Smith is a senior associate editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.