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Reframing the Story of the Life Insurance Industry

Women in Financial Services

Off the back of recent Deloitte Insights research into female representation in the financial services industry across the world, this article is the third in a series about women in leadership in the New Zealand banking and insurance industries. While Oceania is leading in regard to female representation in senior positions, there is still a way to go yet. This series explores the perspectives of women in executive roles in the New Zealand banking and insurance industries about developing and supporting the workforce experience and strategies that can be employed to foster upwards mobility for upcoming talent. We delve into diversity, equity and inclusion and consider how to facilitate a positive and rewarding working experience for all. 

As the CEO of one of New Zealand’s largest life insurance companies, Melissa Cantell of Fidelity Life is an impressive leader. Her passion for the industry, her staff and customers are clear from the outset when you meet her. But while Melissa says that she has found her home in the insurance industry, her career started in a vastly different setting. Starting out in a law firm as a graduate, Melissa loved the excitement of the legal field and the opportunities within it. But after several years, Melissa jumped at a development opportunity to try new things, accumulating wide-ranging experience in transformation roles at Fonterra and Coca-Cola Amatil. Then, Melissa says, she “fell into insurance.”

“I found a home in an industry I never would’ve chosen earlier in my career. It’s the most meaningful industry I’ve ever worked in, it makes a genuine difference to people and that really matters,” says Melissa. But she is also very aware of the perception of insurance – “the perception of it can be that it’s profit-hungry, but what I found was an industry full of the best customer stories I’d never heard because no one was telling them.”

Melissa talks about the industry and its overarching purpose with passion. The defining moment in her insurance career came after sitting with a claims team and listening in to customer phone calls, hearing their stories and gaining a deeper appreciation for the role of insurers in Kiwis’ lives. “We’re helping people through the hardest things that they can go through, but sometimes it feels like our best kept secret,” says Melissa.

Re-framing the narrative

She believes that the story of insurance needs to be re-framed. For the industry to achieve and maintain equity and diversity, it will need to attract young talent.

“The story we currently tell about what we do could be much more impactful. We haven’t scratched the surface in communicating the depth of meaning in the financial services industry,” reflects Melissa, acknowledging that the narrative, skills and competencies historically associated with insurance skews towards men, unconsciously, to perpetuate a systemic lack of gender diversity, particularly at the senior levels.

If the answer is to build a steady pipeline of talent, starting with development at junior levels to foster mobility and grow capability throughout the entire system, how can employers achieve this? Melissa believes that to capture the minds of the next generation, organisations should break down the meaning behind the work, building a genuine connection to purpose to attract young talent, who are more selective about their employers and increasingly drawn to purpose-led organisations. 

It’s clear that Melissa leads with purpose. In a role like CEO, the scale and breadth of the undertaking could become all-consuming. “My job is to lead. There is accountability for staff, customers and stakeholders, the working environment and maintaining equity and diversity, which is a wonderful thing and I hold that very personally, but it can be a lot” Melissa says, highlighting the importance of leadership vulnerability, as well as discipline in senior leadership positions to ensure there is space and distance in one’s life for personal pursuits and downtime.

Balance is undoubtedly a priority for Melissa and Fidelity Life. They’ve recently introduced a new flexible working approach, Flexiplace, allowing their people the freedom to choose where they work from based on what their day entails. It was developed off the back of internal research into what people needed to be able to do their jobs well and to continue to deliver for customers. The idea is that when people are empowered to choose what works for them, they are able to create space in their lives to suit their individual needs. And speaking of its overall effect, Melissa notes that both productivity and office occupancy has remained high - “people come in because they know they’re not being made to.”

Melissa is aware of her role in building a supportive culture at Fidelity Life and she is obviously passionate about helping future leaders move up the ranks. Her advice for young people in the early stages of their career: “Be yourself, back yourself and understand what your own values are,” she says, reinforcing her purpose-led approach to career planning.

For more from our Women in Financial Services series, read our conversation with ANZ's Astrud Burgess here, BNZ's Kate Skinner here, Naomi Ballantyne of Partners Life here, AIA's Linda Page here and Fidelity Life's Melissa Cantell here.