On the eighteenth installment of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger speaks with Lawanda “Elle Michell” Hall, an engaging global Risk Management & Insurance professional with experience in diverse industries. She speaks about how she got started doing this work, who her target client is right now as a coach, and shares what it is she can help people do to manage the risk that comes in having a career.
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate. Now, look, every now and then we try to mix it up for y’all. So look, dependency and consistency is really important, but even within those lanes of consistency, you gotta have a little bit of variety, you know what I mean? You don’t come home and just eat the same thing every day, or even if you do–you know, you got a meal prep thing–maybe sometimes you put a little red sauce. Maybe sometimes you put a little green sauce. You know, you gotta just, you know, mix it up from time to time. Maybe sometimes you grill it. Maybe sometimes you saute. Maybe sometimes you rotisserie. You gotta just–am I hungry? Yes, I’m hungry, y’all. My bad. Listen, check it out. We have another entry for y’all from our See It to Be It series. Amy C. Waninger, CEO of Lead at Any Level as well as the author of Network Beyond Bias, she’s actually been a member of the team for a while now, so shout-out to you, Amy. Yes, thank you very much for all of your work here. And part of her work has been in driving this series called See It to Be It, and the purpose of the series is to actually highlight black and brown professionals in these prestigious roles, like, within industries that maybe we–and when I say we I mean black and brown folks, I see y’all–may not even know exist or envision ourselves in, hence the name of the series, right? So check this out. We’re gonna go ahead and transition from here. The next thing you’re gonna hear is an interview with Amy C. Waninger and a super dope professional. I know y’all are gonna love it. Catch y’all next time. Peace.
Amy: Hello, Lawanda. How are you today?
Lawanda: I’m amazing. How are you?
Amy: You are amazing. I am so glad to have met you recently at an insurance conference focused on diversity and inclusion, is how we met, and I don’t think there are a whole lot of those in the world, and we need to make sure that there are more of them coming up. But I’m so glad to have you today, and I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about what it is that you do, first of all, and then how you landed in that spot.
Lawanda: So what I do today is risk management in a very different way than I started doing risk management. I manage the risks of people living unfulfilled lives and sitting in unfulfilling careers, and so I am a life and career coach full-time and a motivational speaker. My career started as a risk management and insurance practitioner, and I spent 20 years doing that for a global brand and had an amazing career in the space of global corporate brands. How I arrived in that place? So… [laughs] I loved math in school, loved, loved, loved math, and my mother was an accountant, and so her estimation of my career opportunities would be in line with hers – I would be an accountant – and so she really groomed me to do business and focus on accounting and math and those kinds of things. Well, in 8th grade I took an accounting class and thought, “Okay, this is just adding and subtracting. This is not really interesting or layered enough for what I expected.” And so it was in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t a top priority. So anyway, then fast forward a couple of years later I was taking an AP math course, which is a college level math course in high school, and we did a project on projections, and at the time it was called decision science. So you take a bunch of data sets, and then you learn the trends and figure out how to project the future. So I thought, “Oh, this is really cool, because although I’m very analytical I’m also very creative,” and so I thought, “Okay, I can take the math and take the numbers and tell the future,” right? Like, sign me up. So I asked my teacher, you know, what career would I sign up for to do this, because I didn’t know, I didn’t understand what the possibilities were in that space, and Gregory Wright, my math teacher, one of my favorite teachers, told me “actuaries are the people that do this work,” and I thought, “Great.” He went further and did research and gave me some information about Georgia State University, which is one of the top three programs in the country, and I was familiar with Georgia State already because my mother attended Georgia State University and I had attended some summer classes there for gifted students, and so I was very familiar with Georgia State, and it just made sense to me that, “Okay, I’ll go to Georgia State and be an actuary.” So that was my initial major, and then I did, like, an intern for a day with some actuaries, and while I loved the work, I didn’t think my personality would fit into the work environment, and so I went to my counselor and said, “Hey, I love the work. I think it’s interesting, great, wonderful. However, it’s important that I don’t have to sit in a space where my whole being is not welcomed and invited,” and so I asked for alternatives. Again, curiosity, “What are my menu of options?” And she said to me that risk management was in the same field and I would work with more people and I would be the–actuaries would actually be hired by risk managers, and if I understood a baseline of what actuaries do then I could be a very thoughtful risk manager and engage with them in a meaningful manner. And so I thought, “Cool,” and also all my credits transferred. [laughs] So all the classes I had taken already were transferring to risk management, so I thought, “Great, this is a win-win,” and so I pivoted and changed my major ti risk management, and it has been an amazing career.
Amy: That’s awesome. So I wanted to ask just a couple of follow-up questions on that. So I heard, “I sat with the actuaries and I thought, “Oh, this isn’t for me. There are parts of me that wouldn’t fit in this world.”” Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Lawanda: So I was in a room full of old, white men, and I have nothing against old, white men–there are quite a few in my life that I love dearly and appreciate, however, they weren’t warm and fuzzy. They weren’t welcoming. I have a lot of personalities if you can’t tell. [laughs] Like I said, I have a lot of creative energy, and I just did not feel that who I was would fit into that environment. Now, let me say this. If that was in ’96, like, you know, many years ago, right, that is not the truth today, because today business has evolved to not only understand the importance of the numbers but also be curious about how we’re arriving at the numbers, and so actuaries are in a place where they’re consultants. They’re not in a back closet just pumping out numbers anymore. They’re in the front, and they’re being asked many questions and asked to explain how they got to the answer and what were the assumptions that were made, and they’re being challenged even on how the numbers evolved and these kinds of things, and so today actuaries are charged to do more than just crunch out numbers, so if I was in school today, honestly, I think actuary would be perfect for me because I would be able to explain the numbers and be able to go through the process and problem solve and give people clear understandings about what has occurred, but that was not the case in ’96. In ’96 it was, you know, people sitting in back rooms crunching out numbers and asking no questions, because they didn’t have the language to ask, they didn’t have the understanding that they should ask, and so actuaries were deemed as, like, mathematical gods. You just do what they say. They pump out the numbers and you go for it and you don’t really ask a whole lot of questions, and so in that environment it was literally just, you know, older white men, middle-aged white men sitting in a very sterile environment pumping out numbers without the need for a whole lot of engagement with other human beings. It was the computer and their numbers.
Amy: Mm-hmm. So I talked recently to Rosie Zilinskas, I don’t know if you know her, and she’s an underwriter, and she followed a very similar path to yours where she wanted to be an actuary because she loved math and wanted to dig into the math and then learned then, “Oh, I can’t talk if I’m in this room.” Right? Like, there’s not enough space for me to actually have a conversation with a human being, and so she ewnt into underwriting, and I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about the difference between the role of the risk manager and the role of the underwriter, because I think those are things that, outside the insurance industry, are not very–you know, there’s kind of a blurry line there.
Lawanda: Right. So risk management is a discipline and insurance is a tool used within that discipline. So though we’re talking about the insurance industry, understand that risk management gets kind of thrown into that world, but risk management is a discipline unto itself. Insurance is a tool used by risk maagers, and so ultimately risk managers and similar professionals are the corporate consumer of insurance and the corporate manager of our risk, upside risk and down risk, and so you focus on processes and the people, the product, the brand, you know, all these things that could potentially be comprised in a way that brings adversity to the company or to the brand in some way, and then you mitigate that risk, and you do that through several different tools. Insurance is one of those tools that you can use, so as it relates to the insurance industry the risk manager is the corporate consumer. So they make decisions around buying insurance, what insurance could buy, and basically they package the risk and exposures to the insurance industry in a way that is correct and equitable so that the pricing can be fair and it can make financial sense for all the stakeholders involved. So that’s what the responsibility for a risk manager is. The underwriter works with the insurance companies, and their responsibility is to look at the exposure presented to them by the risk managers through a broker and price it in a way that makes sense for basically everything that’s being done, mitigation efforts, processes and procedures, and the trends in the industry, because insurance is a [?] tool, and so what is everybody else doing that’s similarly situated to you? And so they do the analysis to say, “Okay, here’s your risk. Here’s your exposure. How does this measure in the grand scheme of all the other risk and exposure that’s similar?” And then they price it. So that’s what the underwriter does, and they price it for two reasons, one to be fair, but then also to be profitable for the company that they work for.
Amy: Okay. Thank you for making that distinction. It’s interesting. Within the insurance industry–I’ve talked to a lot of people within the insurance industry for this series because that’s where my network is primarily, and I’ve talked to a lot of people in the underwriting space and that sort of thing, but I think you’re the first risk manager, which is kind of on the buying side of insurance, that I’ve had in this series. But you mentioned that insurance is one tool, and I would imagine that as a risk manager you have to be incredibly strategic as well as analytical and creative because you’re looking not just at environmental risks or property exposures and that sort of thing in terms of your business. You’re looking at things like reputational risk. Do we have the right people on staff? Do we have the right marketing campaigns? Are we developing the right products? Is that close to correct?
Lawanda: Yes. You’re looking at the whole picture of the organization and you’re doing, like, a 360 analysis of risk for the entire company, and insurance is just one tool, and there’s so many other opportunities to engage, to mitigate risk, because, I mean, we’re in the business because stuff happens, so stuff is going to happen. It’s just a matter of managing that and mitigating the downside risk and maximizing the upside risk. So yeah, you have to be analytical, you have to be creative and strategic, and you have to have really good partners and alliances to make that happen, because you’re sitting in the company looking from your perspective, but you have to kind of have eyes outside and at different angles. So you work with other departments, the legal department, engineers, you know, the creatives in the company that are doing product development and research and things of that nature, and just have an ear or an eye on everything to make sure that people are operating in an environment where they’re considering the risk.
Amy: Okay, thank you so much for that. I want to share with our listeners one of the things that, if I can say this without–I don’t mean to offend you in any way, and I hope I don’t scare you, but one of the things that you said that just absolutely made me fall in love with you was at this conference you were talking about the corporate box and how difficult it can be for someone–and like you said, you have a lot of personality, right? You have so much to offer. And you said you got tired of fitting yourself in that corporate box, and so now after 20 years you’ve gone out to work for yourself and to help other people, and I was wondering if you could explain just a little bit about what you meant about fitting in the corporate box and what it feels like now that you’re out of that and you’ve been able to expand.
Lawanda: Oh, wow. That could take a whole hour. No, I’ll keep it brief. So the corporate box, as I define it, is a place designed for being and acting and showing up in the way that corporate expects you to do, and that depends on the corporation that you work for, and I’ve worked for quite a few, and so most companies, particularly large companies, because they are so large, they’re very much about checking the box. “Okay, we put you here to do this, and this is what we need you to do,” and not really avail themselves to being open. Also if you happened to notice I am a Black woman, and so walking in a room does not give me instant credibility. I don’t have that privilege of getting instant credibility, particularly in the risk management and insurance space, which is traditionally pale and male. So I always felt like I had to–I was starting at a deficit of explanation and starting at a deficit of credibility, just because of the way I look, the DNA that I was privileged to be blessed with. So that was a very difficult challenge because I often felt like I had to fight just to do my job. I’m like, “You hired me to do this, and then you’re not gonna let me do it because you don’t have the perspective or understanding that I’m more than capable of doing it. I went to a top three school. I’ve worked for some amazing companies,” and yet I was met with questions, and so that was very intersting, and I then had to remind myself that the box was never built with me in mind. It was not built with me in mind at all, and so when I speak up and speak out and ask questions and hold people accountable, that level of authority required for a risk management professional did not translate well with people who worked with me and were receiving those instructions or receiving those directions or receiving on the other end of that authority. It didn’t translate very well, and so that’s unfortunate because ultimately I would like to think and hope that we all have the same goals in mind to make sure that we’re protecting the company and protecting outcomes and making sure that people are safe and that the products are operating as they should, as they’re intended to, and not causing any problems for consumers or things of that nature. So the lack of focus on the main, ultimate job and allowing corporate environments, allowing the fact that I’m a Black woman to impede accomplishing I think was my challenge, because I’m a Type A personality. I’m very passionate about what I do, and I want to get the job done in an operation or in a place of excellence, in a spirit of excellence, and I felt like perceptions of others got in the way of doing that effectively each and every time, and so that’s what I meant by the corporate box, you know? Sitting in a place that wasn’t designed for me. So it’s like wearing clothes that are too little for you or wearing shoes that don’t quite fit, you know what I mean? You can make it work, but it’s uncomfortable on an ongoing basis, and so what it feels like now is amazing. The freedom is amazing in every way because the brand that I represent is my own, and I’ve always been very clear no matter what company I work for that my most important brand is my name, because if a company, regardless of what their brand is, asks me to do something outside the purview of my integrity I have no problem saying no, I’m not doing that. I don’t care what your global brand is. My integrity is intact and my number one brand, alliance and allegiance is to my name. My grandfather taught me about that. He was very clear about that. “You always protect your name,” and so I’ve done that. I haven’t always been very popular for doing that, but I have done that, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my career, that I don’t feel obligated to lean to corporate politics at the expense of my integrity or at the expense of my own personal brand, and so that’s what I teach my clients. And so on this side I represent my brand, I can speak very candidly and fluidly about the experiences that I’ve had in corporate and hope that corporate hears me from this side in a clearer manner and in a more open manner so that they can solve some of the challenges, particularly in the insurance and risk management discipline, so they can solve some of the challenges as it relates to diversity and inclusion in a very real way and hold themselves accountable and hold the processes accountable for working the way they say they should work, so putting the policy in place and inviting diversity and inclusion for the sake of brand management is one thing, but actually doing the work and training people to show up in that space in an open way to say, “I’m going to be a prudent individual and a prudent practitioner and it doesn’t matter how the person sitting across the table from me looks, loves, prays or pees, right? ‘Cause that doesn’t matter. How I look, love, pray or pee has nothing to do with my ability to manage risk effectively and to show up disciplined in a space of excellence. So there’s absolutely room to grow, and I hope to be a catalyst for the industry and to be a candid voice for the industry to help them in that endeavor, to not just give lip service to diversity and inclusion and equity but to actually do the work and hold managers accountable for showing up in a real way to affect change in an efficient and sustainable way.
Amy: Mm-hmm. I think that’s beautiful, and I have used not nearly as eloquent language as you just did to explain my departure from my corporate job as well. There were changes that I saw that needed to be made, and the role that I was in was too small to make those changes and to affect those changes, and I was only seen a certain way because of the role that I held, and I knew that I had more to contribute, but I couldn’t do that from inside. I had to go out to come back in, and so I really appreciate your perspective on that. I think it’s so valuable and so important. I want to give you a chance to speak to – who is your target client right now as a coach, and what is it that you can help people do in their careers or for themselves to manage the risk that comes with having a career?
Lawanda: Right. So the sweet spot are young professionals, because I think a lot of young professionals show up with a lack of understanding for corporate languaging and being able to navigate that space, especially [?] in transition. So the transitions can range from college to career readiness all the way through retirement, because all of those transitions matter, and I’m really good at helping people navigate transitions when you’re particularly super vulnerable. You may need someone to give you some perspective and help you understand your options and explore possibilities in that way, and so anybody navigating, you know, career transitions would be an ideal client, but I will say that my sweet spot is young professionals. They tend to gravitate to me because I’m super candid, and I think I do a good job of giving them the tools that they need to show up whole and show up confidently, because confidence is a complement and catalyst to anything to any human. So I work with all people to give them an understanding of being super confident when they walk in the door in an authentic way. So not walking in, like, arrogant, like you know everything at 22 because clearly you don’t. Being confident in what you do know and in what you do bring to the table and being able to package that in a meaningful way, in a way that adds values to the experience of the organization. So that’s my sweet spot. In addition to individuals, I also work with organizations and universities. So I do workshops for students quite a bit, and most of that is college to career readiness and helping them explore different kinds of careers, non-traditional career paths they may not have known of or that may be emerging or evolving as technology evolves and emerges in general. So I work with schools in that endeavor, and then I work inside corporations to help them make sure that their teams are working effectively and working–you know, competencies is one thing, but if you don’t work well together based on how people source their energy and how they show up in this space, then that can cause some deficiencies in the workplace. So I’m a certified predictive index practitioner, and that’s an assessment tool that I used to help people understand how to work well together in teams and optimize teams within organizations, and so those would be my main clients, any professional individual, any organization and university.
Amy: Excellent, thank you. And where can people find you?
Lawanda: They can find me on my website at intelligentintentions.com, and that’s intelligent intentions with an S dot com. Also I’m very easy to find on LinkedIn, Lawanda “Elle Michell” Hall, and I’m very active on LinkedIn. I have over 14,000 connections. Half of them are in the insurance industry, and the other half are mixed of lawyers and entertainment because I have quite a few entertainment clients, which is fun.
Amy: That’s fun.
Lawanda: It’s very colorful. It’s a lot of fun. That’s the whole creative side of me where I get to hang out and help them navigate, you know, because they go from one job to the next in a different role. Sometimes that’ll take a lot more effort and they need some assistance with that transition. So it gets really colorful and fun, but anyway, I’m active on LinkedIn, so that’s a really good way to connect with me, and my website.
Amy: That’s fantastic. Elle, thank you so much. I am so glad to have gotten a chance to talk with you.
Lawanda: Thanks for having me. It was my pleasure.
Amy: Not just learning about your past and where you’ve been, but also all of the amazing things that you’re doing now, and I am so happy to know that you have gotten to expand into yourself in this new role and in your business and in your career so that other people can see themselves in you and can find you to help them move forward. This is fantastic. Thank you so much.