Follow the Leader
FM Global’s Maxine Walker on recognizing talent and embracing opportunity
April 4, 2017
In a soon-to-be 36-year career in the insurance industry, Maxine Walker has held an impressive number of leadership roles—often doing so as the first woman, person-of-color, or both, in the position. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Walker didn’t always fully recognize her own leadership.
Walker says, “While I was always ambitious, my manager saw something I couldn’t see in myself. I realized others I trusted saw my potential as a leader, and it helped me acknowledge [that ability] to myself.”
Making good on that potential required a mix of skills: self-confidence, a willingness to take risks, an inspiring role model, and the relentless commitment to quality fostered by FM Global’s intensive training and cohesive customer-care philosophy. Now, Walker has become an acknowledged leader both within FM Global and the wider insurance industry, too, particularly through her service as a Loss Executives Association (LEA) board member. To help those she leads and mentors, as well as the insurance industry as a whole, Walker uses her own experience to illustrate how to recognize talent and embrace opportunity.
Walker’s explanation of how FM Global treats its clients illuminates how she approaches her role as a mentor helping others recognize and develop their talents. She says, “FM Global’s philosophy is to be there before the loss occurs. We partner with our clients to help them recognize how losses can be prevented, but at the same time also help prepare them for the possibility of the potential loss that may occur. Investing in relationships in that way helps build trust and confidence for the long run.”
Similarly, Walker works with the women she mentors to help them build trust in their own capabilities and talent. Walker understands how the fear of making mistakes often holds women back. She provides coaching to help mentees overcome that fear, often by sharing times and situations where she overcame her own vulnerabilities.
Walker says, “We need to make mistakes to grow. I like to instill the understanding that it’s OK to trip—trust that you’ll learn from your mistake and won’t trip that same way again. Otherwise, you won’t allow yourself the opportunities you need to grow.”
Walker also recognizes that women can doubt themselves and worry about being judged in a predominantly male environment. That, in turn, can result in reluctance to informally speak up at claim’s meetings or give formal presentations. Walker gives an example of the coaching she provides to overcome those hesitations. She tells the women and others she mentors, “You can use the work of experts when necessary, but you need to be the one to speak to the client and you need to develop the confidence to do that. I remind them that, when giving presentations, its normal to feel like you forgot to say something, but that no one knows what you forgot, but you.”
No matter the situation, she believes in the paramount importance of projecting confidence. Walker emphasizes that point to those she coaches, telling them, “Just because you feel nervous or scared, others don’t have to see it!”
Committing to Excellence
That belief goes all the way back to lessons learned working with her very fist mentor, Janet Skipper. When Walker joined FM’s Atlanta office, Skipper was the only other female field engineer there. Skipper’s confidence and abilities, as well as the universal respect Skipper’s skills engendered, both inspired and impressed Walker.
Walker says, “This was 1981. We were going onsite to factories, conducting field inspections, climbing on roofs, conducting water tests, etc.—and there were no other women around; this was the world of men. Still, Skipper was so comfortable in her own skin and navigated that world with ease. Wherever we went, it was clear that the men we interacted with had nothing but the utmost respect for her. And that made me want to be like her, to achieve that same level of excellence.”
From then on, Walker says, “My goal was to be so good that ‘someone comes and asks for you’” for the next job or promotion.
And come they did. Walker left the field as a loss prevention engineer to become an adjuster at the invitation—and repeated insistence—of a manager in the Atlanta office, followed by accepting an opportunity to become an assistant claims manager. Then, following the merger of the entities that now make up FM Global, Walker was encouraged to interview for a claims manager position. Despite hesitations that included the fact that she would have to relocate, and the fact that she had less practical management experience than other candidates, Walker decided to say yes and “seize the opportunity like guys often do!”
Walker believes that the insurance industry has a similar opportunity to recognize and seize an opportunity. Specifically, from insights gained both at FM and her service to the LEA, Walker believes that industry as a whole needs to recognize the great opportunity of actively embracing a more diverse talent pool. She believes doing so can help the industry overcome the challenges it faces as it seeks to grow and expand in a rapidly changing world industry. She identifies FM Global’s outreach efforts to engineering associations for women and people of color as effective ways to get more diversity into the industry. She also believes more broadly adopting innovations like flexible work schedules could help attract and retain more women within the industry.
She says, “We need to create opportunities for people to give them a chance. Talent comes in diversity across the spectrum—and new ideas come from a lot of different backgrounds. If we want to solve the new problems the industry faces, we need to be more open to the solutions diverse talent offers.”
In the end, it comes down to the relationship between leadership and the willingness to take a chance. Walker says, “People were willing to take a chance on me. In return, I decided to take a chance, because I hoped younger people of color would see my achievements and be inspired.”
So, when it came to that job in Dallas, Walker says, “I wanted to do well so that others [like me] will get an opportunity. So, I said, ‘We can and I will.’”
Now that’s a leader to follow.
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