On the thirteenth installment of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger speaks with Traci Adedeji, the AIO program lead at AIPSO and president elect of the Rhode Island Chapter of the CPCU Society, in a wide-ranging interview about her unique role, her unconventional journey into the insurance industry, and so much more. Traci espouses the importance of establishing mentoring relationships at work and shares some advice on how to foster a very strong professional network on LinkedIn. Check the links in the show notes to connect with her and find out more about the CPCU Society!
Connect with Traci on LinkedIn.
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach Nunn. Now, listen here. Y’all know what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build, inspire, encourage, empower, all on a platform that affirms black and brown experiences in corporate America. And it’s interesting because as I came up just kind of coming into myself as a professional, I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me in consulting. I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me in human resources either. But when I would come across someone who looked like me doing something I wanted to do, it gave me encouragement. It gave me a stronger sense of hope that I could do it too, and so it’s with that that we’re really excited to talk to y’all about and bring you another entry, actually, into our See It to Be It series. So the next thing you’re gonna hear is an interview between Amy C. Waninger, a guest on the show, a member of the team, and the author of Network Beyond Bias, and a leader who just happens to be an ethnic minority. In fact, yo, Sound Man, give me some air horns right HERE for my leaders. [he complies] Yo, and give me some more air horns right HERE [he complies again] for the See It to Be It series. So catch y’all next time. I know you’re gonna enjoy this. Peace.
Amy: Hi, Traci. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Traci: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m honored that you asked me to join you.
Amy: Well, I am excited, because you and I have worked together before on committees and projects, but never in the same company, although we are at least in part in the same industry, in the insurance industry. And so I was wondering if you could tell me just a little bit–because your job title is program manager, but a lot of people who are not in a project management space or in a corporate space with a lot of projects may not understand what a program manager does, so can we just start there with kind of what is that job?
Traci: Okay. So technically it’s “program lead.” I work for AIPSO, which is not an insurance company, but we provide services to the insurance industry. So the easiest example that I can offer for what we do would be let’s say that in the state of Rhode Island, most–every state actually has a mechanism to handle what’s called residual market business for automobile insurance, because in just about every state you have to have automobile insurance to be able to drive. So what happens is that, you know, if Allstate writes 40% of all of the standard automobile business in a state, the state will say, “Well, you also have to write 40% of the residual market business in that state,” and–
Amy: And the residual market is typically, like, really high-risk drivers that couldn’t get insurance other ways, right?
Traci: Essentially–exactly, people who are unable to get insurance through the standard market for a variety of reasons. So what Allstate might say is, “We know we have to write this business, but we really don’t want to program our systems to handle this business. We don’t want to hire people to handle this business that’s underwritten and processed a little bit differently than our standard business, so what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna hire AIPSO or a company like AIPSO to handle it on our behalf.” So that’s probably the cleanest example I can give of what we do. There’s some variations on the ways those different mechanisms work, but that’s probably the clearest example. As the program lead, my responsibility is a little bit of underwriting, a little bit of program or project work. If we have to implement changes in the system, I’d be involved in the business requirements and working with the technical folks to make sure that our systems can accomodate what it is that we need to do from an underwriting and processing perspective.
Amy: Thank you for that. I appreciate that. So how did you get involved in the insurance industry? Because I’m guessing, based on all of the people I’ve talked to in the insurance industry, that when you were 5 years old and, you know, you went to a family event and Grandma said, “And Traci, what do you want to be when you grow up?” You probably didn’t say, “I want to be an insurance program lead.” [both laugh]
Traci: You are absolutely correct, although I do love insurance so much that I think we have to get to a point where, especially little brown boys and girls say, “We want to work in insurance.” I was–I’m 54 years old. I’ll be 55 in April. And when I was 16 years old, I was a teen mom, and when I was 17 years old I had another baby. So here I am, two children, college dropout, and my parents said, “You gotta get a job. You gotta do something to take care of your babies.” So I got a job working at an insurance agency as a file clerk, and one day everybody was busy, the phone rang, I answered the phone, and it was a very simple call that I was able to answer because I had been listening to the people who were customer service representatives, so I just handled the call. I got promoted to customer service [?], and this was in 1984, and just worked my way up. I went from working on the agency side of the business to the company side of the business, as an assistant underwriter to an underwriter to an underwriting manager in different companies around the New York City area. In 2007, I thought I was in love, [laughs] and actually left the industry and moved from the New York City area to Rochester, New York. That relationship and the business that we were trying to build together in a different industry didn’t work out, and I had to get a job, and insurance was all I knew at that point, ’cause at that point I had worked in the industry for over 20 years. So I came to Amica in Rochester, moved to Rhode Island, and, you know, Amica is an amazing place to work. I was very happy working there, but I got a call one day from a recruiter–that’s what happens when, you know, people have your information out there when you’re networking, and the gentleman said, “I’ve got this position I’m trying to fill. Do you know anyone who would be interested?” And when I looked at it, it looked like it was the perfect storm of everything that I’d learned to do in all of the different positions that I’d had in insurance. So I went on to interview and I said to myself, “Okay, I really don’t want to leave Amica [?], but, you know, this is a really cool opportunity.” So I had a number in my mind. I said, “Okay, if they come back at that number, that’s gonna be the universe telling me that this job is for me.” I interviewed on a Wednesday, and on Friday I got an offer at the exact number that I had in my mind.
Amy: That’s amazing. So I always tell people, “When a recruiter calls, answer, because you never know what’s waiting on the other side of the phone for you,” and if not for you, then someone that you know, right? You may think, “Oh, I have no interest in that whatsoever, but I know someone,” and if you can connect those two people, you’ve just created something amazing for someone else.
Traci: Exactly, which was also the relationship with that recruiter, because if you then get to the point where you legitimately are looking for a position, they’re gonna remember how you helped them out when they were trying to place folks and they’re gonna do their best for you.
Amy: Absolutely. And sometimes you even get a little referral bonus out of it if you–[both laugh] if you, you know, send them to somebody that they can place. So I’ve had that work out for me too. I was never expecting it, but when it happened it was always nice. So you’ve already told me about the different types of positions that you’ve held in the industry, but, you know, you came into this industry kind of by chance, right? You just happened to get a job at an agency. What has been the biggest surprise to you about working in insurance that you didn’t realize as someone from outside?
Traci: This is something that I’ve known for a while, but I think the thing that solidfied my interest in insurance and was my “a-ha” moment was when I started studying insurance, when I started studying–I actually started studying for my CPCU, which is, as you know, a professional designation in the industry. I started studying for my designation in 1992, and in studying insurance I came to have an appreciation for first of all how important insurance is, but also how diverse the industry is. Pretty much any discipline that you would be interested in studying, there is a job for you in the insurance industry, and that is I think the coolest thing about insurance.
Amy: Yeah, I had a similar experience. So I came into the insurance industry as an IT professional. That was my background. No insurance background whatsoever, but I just happened to be a consultant that got placed at an insurance company, and when I then later got hired by the insurance company, somebody told me about the CPCU designation, which–it stands for Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter. It’s a professional designation that requires 8 courses to complete. You have to pass some tests, which thank goodness they’re multiple choice now. They used to be blue book.
Traci: [laughs] Yeah, I remember the books.
Amy: No, thank you. I wouldn’t have done it. I would’ve been too scared. But anyway, I started studying because, you know, I wanted to prove myself in this industry, and I wanted to frankly get the bonus that came with getting the designation that my employer offered at that time, and I was amazed by the scope of the insurance industry and the mission of the insurance industry, and when people ask me “Why do you love insurance?” And, you know, my focus of my company is not insurance-specific, although maybe it will be someday, but I think insurance is so fascinating because it does two things. It makes all economic investment possible. There’s no part of the economy that insurance is not affected by or that it affects, right? I mean, every single transaction that happens is backed somewhere by an insurer. And the other thing we do in the insurance industry is we’re there when people need us most. I mean, on somebody’s worst day, we’re there to help in, you know, ways that we can to make them whole and get them back on their feet, and I can’t even imagine a more meaningful industry than that. So if somebody who has maybe never considered the insurance industry before and wants to learn more about the kinds of jobs available and how to get in–you know, how to kind of break into this industry, where would you recommend that they go?
Traci: I would recommend that they get in touch with the local chapter of CPCU. I would also recommend that they get in touch with professional insurance agents and brokers, because they have professional organizations. Depending on where they are in their career, I would, you know, for example, if they’re a high school or college student who’s interested in the industry, I would look at internships with companies, with insurance companies. So those would be my suggestions. I do also know that through professional organizations, those of us who are invested enough in the industry and in our careers to be a part of these organizations have a tendency to be pretty generous people, so it would be pretty easy to even get a one-on-one informal, or even formal, mentoring relationship with someone who is in the industry that could offer some guidance.
Amy: That’s a great idea, and I know that there are a number of formal programs, but like you said, LinkedIn is a great way to just connect with someone if you have a target company in mind and you want to learn more about it. Most people are open to a phone call or at least exchanging emails and, you know, seeing what they can do to help. That is true. So, you know, the insurance industry has a reputation–and I won’t say whether I feel that this is deserved or not, and you know exactly where I’m going–but the insurance industry has this reputation for being stale, pale, and male, and it’s all a bunch of old white men, and that’s it, right? And I know a lot of different industries suffer from this stigma, but for people who are maybe not older or white or men, what resources have you found that can help them kind of find their place in the industry, feel connected to others, feel a sense of community so that we can retain that talent in this industry and not lose it to somebody else?
Traci: For me, I think back to a company that I worked for in 1990, and that was where I really got my start as an insurance professional and learned the most about the industry, but it’s also where I recognized that at that particular company, in 1990, the early ’90s, if I wasn’t a white man with a degree from the right school, there was a very distinct feeling on how far I was going to progress in my career, and that was why I ended up leaving the company. I think that we–you know, it’s great to join organizations, but I’m a grassroots kind of chick. I think that it is important to give back to each other, whether it’s women, whether it’s people of color. It’s, like, whatever commonality you have with someone, if you see someone that’s struggling or you see someone who’s where you were previously in your career, you have a responsibility to reach out to that person and to offer them guidance if they’re receptive to it. I’m the type of person that I have no qualms about reaching out to other women, to women of color, to just form those informal mentoring relationships, even if it’s just “Let’s have lunch once a month.” There’s people I don’t even work with anymore. It just might be, like, an email or a LinkedIn message every now and then. So I think there’s great value in forming those types of relationships. Yes, it’s professional, but I think that if it’s sort of a little more casual where you bond with that person and feel comfortable speaking with them, they’re gonna be able to really guide you in a meaningful way.
Amy: So that leads me right into my next question, which is I’ve noticed about you that you have a very strong professional network. I mean, you know everybody it seems like. [both laugh] And not all the same kind of people. Like, you really know people up and down the hierarchy. You know people across the industry, and when we were together at a conference last year I was just so impressed by the span of the network that you have, and so I was wondering what’s your approach or what are your tips to networking and how do you stay connected with so many people with such limited time?
Traci: LinkedIn makes it easy, because I can be on my computer at, I don’t know, 2:00 in the morning when I wake up and can’t sleep, and I can pop in and see what people have posted. I don’t even have to tell you I absolutely adore your content, and every single thing you post I read and I share, you know, because I just find a lot of value in what you post, and I do the same for other people who are a part of my network. As far as I guess connecting with people, my advice would be ask. It’s simply to ask. There’s a woman who worked at a previous company, and she was pretty high up, you know, in the food chain if you will, and we didn’t really–I mean, we had casually and in passing at work spoke, but it’s not like we had a relationship. She ended up leaving the company, and I had no qualms about sending her a connection request on LinkedIn. I said, “Well, the worst that could happen is that she won’t accept it, and if she says no I’m no worse off than I was before.” I think that everyone has something to offer, regardless of their discipline, regardless of their position or title. I think that a lot of times we don’t make those connections because we pre-judge and make assumptions. So I think that you just ask.
Amy: That’s good advice: So I have a friend in the speaking industry who says, “Every time you ask you risk getting a yes,” and I really like that, and so I tried to kind of shore up my nerve to ask more, because I would not mind risking getting a yes.
Traci: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, I tell people this. I am by nature a pretty shy and reserved person. I grew up as the kid who got teased a lot in school and, you know, that whole thing, so not a lot of self-confidence in my younger years, but when you get to a point where you’ve got kids to feed and you recognize that the higher you achieve in your career the more money you’re gonna make, you kind of put that to the side, you put your game face on, and you make what magic happen you need to make happen, and what happens is that as you practice that, even if you say to yourself “I’m gonna try to connect with one new person this week at work,” “I’m gonna try to make a connection with one person who I’ve not had a connection with previously.” The more you do it the more comfortable it becomes and the more confident you are in doing it.
Amy: That is absolutely true, and I think a lot of people see networking as something very fake and forced and inauthentic, and they don’t feel good about it, right? It kind of leaves, like, an icky, like, feeling about it, and when you approach it from, you know, almost gamifying it–I’ve done that in the past, right? “I’m gonna meet three people today. I’m gonna help three people with something,” whether it’s, you know, I’m gonna carry somebody’s bag or I’m gonna hold open a door and say hello. Like, something, and so I think sometimes just kind of reframing how we think about networking can make a huge difference in our behaviors and our attitudes and ultimately in our results.
Traci: Right. You actually said something that I think is very important, that networking and connecting with people if you treat it as “What can you do for that person?” versus “What can I get from that person?” Because people know when you’re being fake. People know when you, you know, just have your hand out or you’re looking for something, but we need to first of all not undervalue ourselves and recognize that we each bring something unique, but there’s only one me. Nobody else brings exactly what I bring in this combination, and we have to recognize that that has value and that other people will see that value, and if we focus on “What can we offer others, even if it’s a small kindness?” You know, those things, the universe will bring those things back to you.
Amy: Absolutely. So I know that in addition to your day job you also volunteer with the CPCU Society’s diversity and inclusion committee, and I know what a time commitment that is because I’m on the committee as well, but can you tell me how and why you got involved?
Traci: I got involved because I was asked. [?]. I was new to Rhode Island, and I actually got–I’m on the board of the local chapter [?], and I was moving to Rhode Island. I said, “I don’t know anyone. I want to, you know, meet folks, so joining this organization would be a great way to make friends and immerse myself even more deeply in my industry.” So my request to volunteer resulted in me being asked to be on the board, and my relationship with David resulted in him asking if I was interested in being on the diversity committee. And it’s a lot of work, but I think that it is important. I think the idea of diversity and inclusion has evolved so much over the years. When a lot of people hear diversity, you know, they think racial diversity, they think gender diversity, but there are so many other types of diversity, and it really I think is about making sure that there are opportunities for everyone, but I think it’s also toward being a catalyst for the mindset that needs to happen so that opportunities are there for everyone automatically. We don’t have to say, you know, “Oh, we have to go out and make sure that we have a person of color,” there’s a person of color because we just organically created a culture and a society with people of color in our community, so of course they’re gonna have a role in our company, in our organization.
Amy: Absolutely. And I tell people, “If you look around and you don’t see someone’s group represented, it’s because you’ve got work to do to make people feel welcome and make people feel comfortable there.” The responsibility is not on others to seek you out, right? And so, you know, I’m thrilled to be a part of the diversity and inclusion committee because I see that what’s coming for us in terms of our talent, right, we have so many people on the verge of retirement in the insurance industry, and we just don’t have the groundswell of interest among people, you know, that we need to replace all of that knowledge and all of that talent, and so I think, you know, we’re gonna have to get beyond the “certain people from certain schools” and, you know, really reach out broadly and show people what we’ve got and why we’re such a good place to have a career.
Traci: Right. I think it’s about building the excitement about the industry. You know, insurance isn’t sexy to most people, and I think that, you know, the work that we do, particularly with the CPCU Society and the diversity and inclusion committee, is to educate the public about the excitement. Like, it’s kind of our job to get them excited about insurance and to show them what next level opportunities there are. It’s not just sitting behind a desk in a blue suit and white shirt and red tie. [both laugh]
Amy: Absolutely true. So I wanted to ask you too about role models. Do you have any professional role models, and if so, what about them inspires you?
Traci: So there’s a woman–the woman that I mentioned that used to work with me, and I consider her a role model. So a few things about her that resonated with me… first of all, she’s very tall like I am. [laughs] And that’s something that it took a lot of years for me to overcome, because there’s a tendency when you’re quite tall to not want to intimidate people, so you tend to kind of–you slump a little, you try to make yourself small. So it takes a courage to just be, to stand up and just be who you are and recognize that you’re putting that in your mind about, you know, your stature intimidates people, but she had such a grace about her and just a way of connecting with people. I don’t know. She just had influence. She had such presence and influence, and that is something that I admire greatly and something that I work toward emulating.
Amy: That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. So I hear men a lot of times will talk about “tall privilege,” right? So if you’re a tall man, and the statistics bear this out, tall men make more money than short men. They get promoted to higher positions. Like, we revere tall men in our society. Tall women have a different set of characteristics ascribed to them, and I am–I am not blessed with height. I’m only 5’3″, but I can–you know, I can imagine how that might play out and how that might affect the way you show up. And, you know, if you’re trying to make yourself smaller physically, you’re probably also trying to minimize your presence in a room and minimize your contribution and not call attention to yourself and not let the best of you thrive in an environment.
Traci: Actually it’s interesting, ’cause I had a conversation with someone probably about six weeks ago about the idea that as a very tall not petite woman of color, if I am annoyed at work or if I feel very passionately about something, I feel that I don’t have the luxury of being as vocal as someone who is not of my stature and my pigmentation, because it’s perceived differently.
Amy: If you’re vocal about a frustration, I would imagine that the word that comes back to you is “angry” or “aggressive.” If I get upset about something, if I’m frustrated and I express my frustration, I’m [BLEEP], right? I’m not angry ’cause I’m white and I’m not aggressive ’cause I’m short, but I’m [BLEEP] or I’m overreacting or I’m sensitive, right? And so I think that we all kind of operate in these constraints of words that are going to be used to describe us to kind of keep us in check, ’cause I don’t like it when people say that I’m being sensitive. It’s like, “No, I’m not being sensitive. You’re being a jerk.” But–[both laugh] that’s not on me. So I can understand how that would be a struggle. So what advice do you have for young people of color in navigating those kinds of interactions? Because you want people to be, I’m guessing–I mean, we want people to show up authentically, right, but we don’t want to lay a trap for people who the moment they speak up and advocate for themselves they get labeled in a way that’s damaging to their careers.
Traci: I can tell you what’s worked for me. I think–to your point, it is important that you be who you are. So I’m 5’10”. I’m gonna wear my four-inch heels because that’s what I want to wear. If I think that something is not right, I am going to speak up about it. What I try to do is–and I’m just gonna say it, because I don’t want to suggest that anyone be manipulative, but in a business setting, okay, what I do is I say to myself, “What is it that I want to get out of this exchange?” And, you know, know who my audience is and know what I need to say and how I need to say it to get what I need out of this interaction. You know, and I’m not talking about things where, like, I don’t know, I’m being discriminated against or harassed or something like that, ’cause that’s a whole different–and that’s, thank God, never happened to me to my knowledge, but that’s a whole other kind of conversation, but just an every day–you know, your boss has said something that you didn’t like, or you’ve ben assigned something that you don’t think you should have to do or something to that affect. I think that it’s important to always conduct yourself professionally. I think it’s also important to separate your feelings from what the situation is, because just like the other person has their biases and this whole set of ideas and backgrounds that’s influencing their behavior, so do we, and we have to recognize, like, the things that we’re sensitive about. We have to recognize how we might have contributed to that situation, and we need to present our case in a constructive way. And it’s interesting, because I have a 25-year-old daughter who’s going through this at work right now, and what I’ve encouraged her to do is, you know, write down what you want to say. Ask your boss for a meeting, and even if you need to have that piece of paper in front of you, make your point. You know, if you feel a certain way, rather than saying, “You, you, you, you, you make me feel, you did, you, you, you,” I would turn that around and say, “When you say or do, I perceive it as,” because what you’re then doing is you’re taking ownership of your feelings and you’re very clearly drawing that path from “This is what happened, this is how I felt, and this is how I responded to it. What are we gonna do now to fix it?”
Amy: Mm-hmm. And so really what you’re describing is emotional intelligence, and, you know, in my experience I’ve found that I am the most emotionally intelligent when I am the least represented in the room, and I am probably the least emotionally intelligent when I am most represented in the room, and so I try–once I recognized that about myself, I try very hard to think about the dynamics of a meeting or the dynamics of a conversation and “Do I need to kind of practice some of those skills because I’m dominating and maybe running over someone who doesn’t feel safe to speak up with me?” Right? And so I think that if we can all do our part, right, to recognize when maybe we’ve got a little bit more influence or a little bit more social power and kind of back off a little bit and make some space.
Traci: Yeah, and there’s actually power in being able to do that I think, right? I think that when your peers see you navigate let’s say a contentious situation, you know, if everybody’s on 15 on a scale of 1 to 10 and you’re on maybe 7 and bring everybody down to where it can be resolved, then people are gonna look at you as a change agent, if you will. So I just think that that’s powerful.
Amy: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s leadership, right? Leadership is getting everybody to a better place together. So no, I think that’s great. In the time that we have left, I’d like to ask you to finish my sentence. First is “I feel included when ______.”
Traci: I feel included when I am able to express myself.
Amy: Oh, I like that. And then the second part is “When I feel included, I ______.”
Traci: When I feel included, I’m able to include others.
Amy: I love that. I love having people answer this, because everybody answers differently, and it’s always powerful. So Traci feels included when she’s allowed to express herself, and when she feels included, she is able to include others, and I don’t know that there’s anything more powerful than that, to be able to widen that circle and bring others in. So that’s fantastic. Traci, thank you so much for your time today.
Traci: Oh, it was my pleasure. I appreciate you so much.
Amy: Oh, thank you very much.