Left to right: Kathleen Tierney, Susan Farwell, Kathleen Savio, Kim Waller, Margaret Milkint

Although most successful women in the insurance industry have had at least one defining moment in their careers, few have been as dramatic as Susan Farwell’s: Hers came at the end of a gun.

Farwell, president of The Executive Communicator LLC, which advises top corporate leaders on how to communicate, briefly described an incident years ago where she was held up at gunpoint. She remembered staring down the gun barrel and seeing the flash as the gun went off. But the perpetrator misfired, the bullet went over her shoulder, and after that, “something happened; since then, I’ve always chosen work that I was passionate about.”

Farwell was part of a panel discussion at the recent IICF Women in Insurance Regional Forum in Chicago. Fellow panelists were Kathleen Savio, president, Zurich Programs & Direct Markets; Kim Waller, executive vice president, Willis Open, Willis North America; and Kathleen Tierney, chief operating officer, executive vice president, Chubb Personal Insurance. The panel was moderated by Margaret Milkint, managing partner, The Jacobson Group.

Read related: “5 Megatrends That Will Revolutionize Insurance.”

Although the women came from different backgrounds and perspectives, the advice they shared with the female attendees came down to some simple but profound advice: don’t be afraid to fail, strike a balance between work and life, learn your craft, and be fearless in finding your unique voice. 

Kathleen Savio’s defining moment came after attending an eight-week program at Harvard in September 2012, where she was immersed in leadership training. Her first day back in the office, her boss asked her if she wanted to assume a higher position in the company. Without pausing, her response was, “I’m in!” Savio said it was a “redefining” moment in her career because the leap of faith necessary to make the move probably wouldn’t have been possible without the perspective she’d gained from the Harvard program.

Kim Waller was lucky early in her career—she had a strong male mentor who took her along to high-level meetings, introduced her to the movers and shakers, and coached her on corporate politics. As a result, advancement came easy for her. But after a promotion when her mentor became her peer, it dawned on her that she’d lost her “safety net.” The defining moment came later, when she realized that he had given her all the skills she needed to survive and she could stand alone.

Kathleen Tierney’s defining moment came seven years into a career as an underwriter at Chubb, during a performance review when her supervisor told her that “you’re seen as a fixture” in the department. “I didn’t know if that was good or bad, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be known for,” she said. “Not finding my voice landed me there.” The incident gave her the impetus to reframe her career and move to a different area of the company.

When asked to name pivotal decisions that made a difference in her career, Tierney cited the decision to pursue an MBA. Being in an educational environment helped open her mind to different perspectives and build confidence. This led her to assume a new role within Chubb in the corporate strategy group, where she learned that she loved strategizing.

Farwell’s defining moment to live her passion led her to New York, where she spent 12 years in the theater. After deciding to start her own business, she hired a career coach, who gave her the freedom to explore different options, including taking the LSAT, looking into a career in psychology, and finally in training and development in the commercial field, where she is today.

For Waller, the decision to become involved as a volunteer at a not-for-profit organization provided her with access and the ability to network with people she would not normally have engaged with. She also got a masters’ degree in organizational change.

All of the panelists recalled times when they’d made mistakes in their careers—and lived to learn from the experience. For Savio, this involved the failure to delegate more responsibility to her staffers. Tierney tried to “get answers too quickly,” and discovered that in bigger leadership roles, “it’s more about asking the right questions than having all the answers…Trust the people you work with and ask them the right questions.”

Waller discovered that after she lost her powerful mentor, promotions and raises didn’t come as easily as before, so she decided to attend grad school to hone her skills. And Farwell lost business in the banking industry after 2008 because she had failed to network and many of her contacts lost their jobs.

The panelists also credited mentors in advancing their careers. Tierney recalled an outspoken branch manager at Chubb who was “not what I expected from the corporate world,” who encouraged her to stick with the job. Today, her mentor is Chubb Executive VP Robert Cox, who “helped me break the P&L conundrum” by hiring her for her current position. Farwell found her mentor in her own family: a brother, eight years her senior, who was a consultant at Arthur Anderson and helped her transition into the business world.

In discussing the “megatrends” outlined by PwC, the panelists agreed that the insurance industry could actually benefit from rapid sociological changes. “The next five years won’t look like the last,” Tierney said, adding that the performance bar has been set high by consumers and that people in the industry must use the full power of their organizations to meet their needs.

Savio looks to the competition for inspiration: “Looking five to 10 years out, what will our fiercest competition look like, and how do we get there faster and smarter?” she posited.  Waller observed that rapidly changing demographics–in 2050, 52% of population will be the current “minority”—will inevitably change the way we conduct business. And Farwell noted that advances in technology, ongoing globalization and generational differences will converge to change how we communicate. “We must explore how to handle differentiation of global teams and communication therein.”