Vienna Insurance Group's leaders, Elisabeth Stadler and Liane Hirner, get more attention because they are women – but they don't mind, as they are delivering sustained success. In this interview with Christopher Cundy, they discuss their rise to the top and how diversity improves their organisation
Elisabeth Stadler and Liane Hirner lead Vienna Insurance Group (VIG), one of Europe's largest insurers with 25,000 employees across 30 countries and annual premiums of more than €10bn ($12bn).
They have a regrettably unique position, as the only major European insurer where the two top positions – chief executive (Stadler) and chief financial officer (Hirner) – are held by women.
In this Q&A with InsuranceERM, on the occasion of International Women's Day, they discuss that situation, reflect on their experiences in the industry, the importance of diversity and their inspirations.
VIG is the only insurance company I've ever known to have two women in the most senior positions1. What does that achievement mean to you? Is it something that brings you satisfaction, or is it something you would rather was ignored?
Stadler: To be asked by the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the largest listed insurance group in Austria and Central and Eastern Europe to take on the function of CEO was a great recognition of my competencies and management skills. To be trusted as the CEO of an ATX [the main index of the Vienna Stock Exchange] company means the highlight of my career and of course I was very pleased.
I am often asked whether it is something extraordinary to be the only woman in Austria to steer the fortunes of an internationally positioned and listed company. The answer is yes, because it is an exciting challenge and an opportunity that you don't get every day.
"I would like to have more female colleagues in this position by my side"
I have been in this position for more than five years now and I am still the only woman at the top of the listed companies in the ATX, the leading Austrian index of the Vienna Stock Exchange. I don't like that at all and I would like to have more female colleagues in this position by my side.
Hirner: There is no question that it is a special honour but also a challenge to be the CFO of such a large insurance group. This function is also the highlight of my career so far.
Vienna Insurance Group really plays a special pioneering role in terms of diversity, but at the same time we also receive increased attention and are watched more closely to see whether we are successful. But we have nothing against that, because we deliver successful results.
Can you outline your career choices that brought you to where you are today?
Stadler: I started working at the end of 1983 after completing my studies in actuarial mathematics, and over the years I have had to work hard for my management positions through a great deal of ambition and commitment.
From 2003 onwards, I held management board functions in various companies, since 2009 functions as CEO of companies, and since the beginning of 2016 I have headed the Vienna Insurance Group.
I believe that a career is controlled by coincidence. Besides showing up, drawing attention to yourself and trying to score with your skills, you also have to be in the right place at the right time.
"Besides showing up, drawing attention to yourself and trying to score with your skills, you also have to be in the right place at the right time"
Hirner: After my business graduation I started my career at PwC and was a partner at PwC for many years, and as an experienced auditor and business & tax consultant, I gained profound knowledge of the insurance sector.
I specialised in auditing according to national and international standards as well as IFRS consultation and due diligence reviews of insurance companies.
I have been able to contribute and expand my knowledge in this area in several functions for organisations like as a member of the IFRS working group of the Austrian Insurance Association, the Austrian Institute of Public Accountants or the Insurance Working Party of the Accountancy Europe in Brussels, to mention a few of them.
This has certainly contributed to obtaining the position of CFO at Vienna Insurance Group.
What has been your experience as a woman in a male-dominated insurance industry?
Stadler: Based on my many years of professional experience in the insurance industry, I have the impression that women have to achieve far more to receive the same recognition as men.
But I never had the feeling that I was disadvantaged as a woman. On the contrary, I often get feedback that the atmosphere in board meetings is different since I joined the company. The interaction is more polite.
However, this would not be possible without the high value of diversity and our corporate culture in our Group.
"I often get feedback that the atmosphere in board meetings is different since I joined the company"
Hirner: In general, it is harder for women in the financial sector. They have to perform and work harder to position themselves well and stand out. So far, I have been lucky to be respected and appreciated by all my colleagues.
My experience also shows that emotional intelligence and social skills are somewhat more pronounced in women. I am glad that in the VIG the expertise of persons is what really matters, independent of gender.
Why is it important for VIG to have a diverse leadership and workforce?
Stadler: We see diversity as our strength. More than that, we believe that diversity is one of our competitive advantages. And this is why Vienna Insurance Group has defined diversity as one of its core values – already years ago.
Accordingly, it is also included in our management principles. Local entrepreneurship, our multi-brand strategy as well as the multi-channel distribution are marked by diversity. We are convinced that diversity in practice contributes to the economic success of our company.
We all benefit from the diversity and exchange in our Group: many different people with a variety of ideas and approaches also have greater potential for innovation. This has a positive impact on our business development and makes us fit for the challenges of tomorrow.
"Studies show that companies that focus on diversity are also more successful"
Hirner: If everyone thinks the same and has the same opinions and interests, the results will always go in one direction. Studies show that companies that focus on diversity are also more successful. I can only confirm this. According to a new international McKinsey analysis, the correlation between diversity and success has recently become even stronger.
We have also noticed that the capital market is attaching increasing importance to diversity and that has an impact on the ratings. Investors are increasingly realising that diversity in top management is not only socially desirable, but also economically profitable.
From its own investment data, Goldman Sachs for example recently analysed that companies with higher diversity in top management deliver higher performance for equity investors.
And how does the company ensure this diversity actually happens?
Stadler: As mentioned before, diversity is our core value and it is part of our DNA. We see diversity as a reflection of the similarities and differences that we encounter at VIG, in our markets, at the local group companies, as well as in our partners, customers and employees.
At VIG, diversity management involves genuine respect for, an open-minded approach to and conscious efforts to capitalise on our diversity. Therefore, we implemented 2017 a new position of the VIG diversity advisor who consults our holding and local group companies on matters related to diversity management.
We created a diversity strategy with three priorities: gender, generations and internationality.
"Our understanding of diversity is based on VIG's Code of Business Ethics"
Our human resources strategy includes valuing diversity and thus, among other things, removing barriers to women's careers as one of its core elements. Remuneration and compensation systems are designed to be gender-neutral and offer equal income opportunities for all genders.
Hirner: To add that our understanding of diversity is based on VIG's Code of Business Ethics and is also part of our diversity concept: we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind.
We are committed to offering equal opportunities in terms of recruiting and supporting employees, regardless of faith, religion, gender, ideology, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, age, skin colour, disability or marital status.
Which other female leaders have inspired you to achieve your career success?
Stadler: I am impressed by Marie Curie, she was the first woman who have been awarded multiple Nobel Prizes in typical male businesses, physics and chemistry.
She believed in her abilities at a time and in a profession that was difficult for women or where they were not respected. And she campaigned for the promotion of female and foreign students. I am also committed to promoting young female talent and university courses.
"I would advise young women to have courage and be self-confident"
Hirner: I never really had role models. I think it's very important to remain authentic. You can't copy anyone. However, I find people with outstanding abilities, such as Elisabeth Stadler, very inspiring and enjoy the privilege of being part of this unique constellation.
What advice would you give to young women considering a career in insurance?
Stadler: I notice that women often stand in their own way because they don't have enough confidence, and this also prevents some from pursuing a career. That's why I would advise young women to have courage and be self-confident.
In addition to self-confidence, commitment, dedication and diligence – a term that has been somewhat lost sight of in some places – are also very important. Moreover, you have to enjoy doing your job.
Hirner: Don't be afraid to take advantage of opportunities and break new ground. Comfort and the fear of change often prevent you from becoming successful. And one more thing: approach tasks and challenges with structured and strategic thinking.
1. After this interview was conducted, Laura Prieskorn and Marcia Wadsten were appointed CEO and CFO, respectively, of US life insurer Jackson.