Opening doors for women leaders: An interview with Caroline Feeney

For Caroline Feeney, being a good leader means being authentic and empathetic. She has held several field leadership roles and in-house executive positions at Prudential and currently leads its US businesses. She has been included on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list and has been recognized in several notable publications for her leadership and accomplishments. Recently, McKinsey spoke to Feeney about her career path, her mentorship style, and the opportunities she sees for other women in the insurance industry.

McKinsey: Is there a key moment that helped you further your career and become a leader?

Caroline Feeney: One defining moment for me was when I was asked to leave a comfortable position in the home office to go back into the field and lead our largest sales territory. I enjoyed the role I had, knew the job inside and out, and liked the people I worked with. I was comfortable.

In the new role, the leadership team that would report to me was seasoned and predominately men. The position was highly results-focused—so much so that senior leaders would receive a weekly scorecard on results in the territory, so it would quickly be clear whether you could execute or not. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared.

To take that leap, I had to get out of my comfort zone, and it turned out to be one of the best moves I ever made. I learned more in that role than in any other role I’ve held. It also taught me the positive aspects of change and the importance of embracing fear when you are faced with a new challenge. That mindset helps us confront change head-on.

McKinsey: What advice did your mentors give you throughout your career?

Caroline Feeney: I’ve received a lot of great advice over the course of my career, and I try to pass it along to others. The best advice I’ve ever received is quite simple: “It’s never as good as it seems, and it’s never as bad as it seems.” I’m the type of person who likes to prepare for things, such as events, and tends to overanalyze how they went after the fact. This advice is helpful because it helps put things into perspective and balances my expectations or assumptions with the reality of the situation.

Learning when not to take advice from someone is also important. I’ll give you an example. One male leader, who was trying to help, told me to lose my empathy gene because he thought it would make me tougher and, therefore, a better leader. I already knew at that point that empathy was a key element to how I led, and I believed it made me stronger and more in tune with my team, and helped me pick up on issues earlier. Years later, it’s quite clear that my decision to ignore that advice was the right one. Now, I’ll consider all advice, but I always use my own judgment to make sure it’s right for me.

McKinsey: What are the important qualities for leading during uncertain or challenging times? What important leadership styles do women bring?

When times are challenging or uncertain, the first thing we should think about is how we’re caring for our people—how we are supporting them and communicating with them.

Caroline Feeney: Women bring a lot to the table as leaders in general and excel even more during challenging times. We can often bring a higher level of empathy to the equation, and that, plus strong communication skills, can go a long way. When times are challenging or uncertain, the first thing we should think about is how we’re caring for our people—how we are supporting them and communicating with them. That connection was especially important when we were working remotely during the pandemic.

During challenging times, leaders should also spend more time motivating and inspiring others, making sure everyone feels connected to their company’s purpose, and showing everyone how they fit in. Leaders especially need to show appreciation for their people when they are working under difficult conditions. Everyone handles changes and stressors in different ways: some may thrive, and others may find it difficult to adapt. Leaders must recognize these differences and find ways to help everyone move forward as comfortably as possible. Last, it’s important to always keep a positive tone and outlook, even when you’re not having the best day. That can entail adding an extra degree of transparency in what you communicate.

McKinsey: What leadership opportunities for women do you see in the insurance industry? What are the challenges the industry should address? What can be improved, and how?

Caroline Feeney: I recall a study that found only one-third of respondents thought women had enough opportunities to reach the executive ranks. At the same time, the poll showed that many of the most desirable management characteristics were associated with female leadership, including accountability, fairness, open-mindedness, and communicativeness. So the skills that make good leaders are skills that many women tend to possess, but there’s still a disconnect because women often lack opportunities to move into senior-level roles.

We need to attract and retain women, and then move them up through the ranks into profit-and-loss roles, because those are feeders for the C-suite. It’s about building up your bench strength. As it stands, too many women drop off as directors—not just in financial services but across every industry. To remedy this, ensuring equal opportunity for all employees is key. That comes in many different forms. First, it’s important that we look differently at the skills and qualifications we set up for a particular role: we have to move away from checking traditional boxes. Because the truth is, most of the boxes that we’re looking to check were created by men for men.

I believe companies have to ask themselves whether they’re looking at performance and potential in the right way or if they are simply looking at the same qualifications they’ve always looked at. For example, maybe what we traditionally thought was important for a sales manager position, like sales experience, isn’t as important as we thought; good leadership abilities may be more important, and the rest can be learned.

Similarly, we need to be intentional about finding opportunities for women who show potential and offer them stretch assignments, even when their current role or experience may not be an exact match. These are a few ways to build the pipeline that we need.

McKinsey: What advice would you give aspiring leaders, especially in the insurance industry and financial services?

Oftentimes the things you’re good at are also the things you’re most passionate about. Find out what those are, and try to make your role more about what you enjoy.

Caroline Feeney: The first thing I’d say is to leverage your strengths. Oftentimes the things you’re good at are also the things you’re most passionate about. Find out what those are, and try to make your role more about what you enjoy. On the flip side, you can work at the things you don’t love to do or aren’t great at, but you should also consider building a team with these complementary skill sets. As you spend more time doing the things you love, you’ll find that you have more energy and can be even more successful.

Second, I’d say be authentic. Being authentic at work isn’t always easy, but it’s very powerful. Staying true to yourself is important as you navigate through your personal and professional life. I chose early on to embrace the fact that I am a woman leader, and that really helped me. I didn’t try to be one of the guys, because I knew that if I did, I’d have failed. Women overall are naturally more empathetic and have better listening and nurturing skills. Embrace that. You’ll be able to identify potential issues earlier, treat people how you would want to be treated, and build deeper relationships.

Third, I’d say lead for the greater good. In business, we’re often all winning together or losing together, and winning is clearly more fun. So if you see a colleague struggling, it’s important to be willing to reach out and offer a helping hand. Think about the person who reached out to you and how it may have made all the difference in your success—I had plenty of people who helped me along the way.

Last, I’d say get out of your comfort zone. When you’re tapped for an opportunity or project, do it. Even if you lack confidence in yourself, the person choosing you sees something in you that you should believe in. I think women tend to be more reticent in these situations than men, but it takes courage to go forward even if you’re afraid. And getting out of your comfort zone is critical to being successful and achieving your goals.

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