Knowledge Center

Knowledge Center Items Podcast Episode 37

How to Encourage a New Generation of Leaders

Published on

If we really do the hard work, it's going to take a generation or two before real impactful change can happen.

Then it's possible the industry could look like a place where more people want to be.

That means it's going to take every minute of that time to make up for the past and have meaningful conversations to get there.

Because right now, despite decent progress, insurance still has a gap to fill communicating the opportunities that are available inside.

Sylvia K. Alston, Managing Partner at Momentum Risk Management, talks about her experience creating her own insurance path to include more people.

For more Change Insurance episodes, click here.

Full Episode Transcript

Joey Giangola: Sylvia K. Alston, how are you doing today?

Sylvia K. Alston: I'm doing well. How are you? Thanks so much for inviting me on, Joey.

Joey Giangola: Sylvia, it's a pleasure I have one question for you before we get started. I need to know, what is the most underrated part of the holiday season for you?

Sylvia K. Alston: The most underrated, not responding to emails.

Joey Giangola: Oh, all right. [crosstalk]

Sylvia K. Alston: Yeah. Listen, I'm one of these people who responds to emails on the weekends, late at night. So I look forward to the holidays to definitely just disconnect. So just sitting on a couch, watching Netflix and Hulu with the kids and my hubby, that's the most underrated part I think, just being able to just take a break.

Joey Giangola: I would agree. I think for me, it's that moment if you do go out somewhere to visit a relative on Christmas morning, it's just that feeling like everybody's doing the same thing and it's just like everything's stopped. It's a very underrated moment for me. I'm going to take it even one step further on the more of the celebration side of things, give me your most underrated modern Christmas song that you feel never got enough love and affection?

Sylvia K. Alston: Modern song.

Joey Giangola: Yeah. Like being a modern Christmas classic, it's such a, like white whale.

Sylvia K. Alston:  Okay. I'll tell you my favorite Christmas song is Silent Night by the Temptations. Hands down, favorite Christmas song. But there's a whole Christmas album that by an artist, a soul artist by the name of Kim, I think he has the best contemporary Christmas album out. It is just such beautiful melodies and wonderful new songs with a new twist on some of the classics. I just think it's a great holiday album through and through.

Joey Giangola: That's a pretty deep cut. I don't even know if I'm familiar with that one. I was going to go something a little more mainstream.

Sylvia K. Alston: Of course you can.

Joey Giangola: Well, mine would be Let it Snow by Boys to Men is the track and video that never really made it. The whole album in general never really got enough attention in my opinion, but that's like, if you want to put on... That's the soundtrack of my Christmas youth, that entire album is fantastic to me.

Sylvia K. Alston: That's another one. You hit it out of the park. That's another one. It just puts you into such a romantic mood.

Joey Giangola: Well, I was looking through that album before we jumped on today and I'm kind of mad at them because they didn't put one good Christmas cover on there. I feel like if they might have done that, they might have given themselves a chance. But speaking of harmony, Silent Night, when they opened with Silent Night, the harmonies on that, I dare you not to get chills. I dare you not to get chills.

Sylvia K. Alston: That's the thing about the Temptations cut. It is just so soulful. It kind of reminds me of my dad's voice. My dad's sang in the house. My father's deceased. It felt like that is kind of like, it brings me into the spirit of the holiday. I'm one of these ones, it takes me a very long time. I'm not the person who starts in October getting ready for Christmas. But by the second week of December, I can get on board with hot cocoa and marshmallows and decorating the tree and having some great music to listen to is always key. I thought you were going to go with the Mariah Carey, All I want for-

Joey Giangola: No, come on. That has now become like the biggest Christmas song ever I think.

Sylvia K. Alston: It is. It is, but it's not one of my personal faves.

Joey Giangola: All right. Well, I'm glad we got that out of the way. And I'll have to say, don't come to my house because my wife is the exact opposite. We might have had the tree up for the last six or seven weeks. But let's shift over onto the insurance side of things. Let's talk about, speaking of let's just keep the underrated thing going real quick. Because this is an unlikely career for most people, what do you think is the most underrated aspect that is hard to see from the outside?

Sylvia K. Alston: I will tell you that I don't know of anyone who wakes up and says to themselves, "I think when I grow up I want to be an insurance broker," or "I want to work in insurance." I don't think anybody does that. So I think it's a career that kind of gets a bad rap so often, but I think you see its necessity in all facets of life. And so, what do I think is most underrated about it? I think the opportunities are the most underrated part about the insurance industry. There's a wealth of opportunities that are available to you if you choose a career like this. I think most people, all they get a chance to see is claims and your traditional calling your insurance agent and it's a hassle. It's something that you don't want to do.

Sylvia K. Alston: But there's all kinds of things that you can get involved in if you think about risk management. And as industries change, we kind of operate in response to what's happening in the world. You see all of these new industries pop up and it gives us an opportunity to expand the conversation around what's risk tolerance or what needs to be insured. So I think it's a wealth of opportunity. I think that's the most underrated thing.

Joey Giangola: Now, I will say one thing that is not underrated is having your own Sirius XM radio show. That is very unorthodox, we would say in this industry. Talk to me about your approach to how you want to present yourself in the industry, communicate with your clients. That seems like something that would be just completely off the radar for most in this industry.

Sylvia K. Alston: I came through the back door into Sirius XM. I ended my show though on November 1st. It was contract season and I decided that I wanted to move into this space of podcasting. I had worked for Sirius XM for six years. It was a tremendous opportunity. And I loved having the opportunity to do that. I worked on Urban View. So, if you know anything about minorities or if you know anything about black and brown populations, it's not the conversation that most people want to have. But one of the things that I think about often is how under-resourced and how under-represented black and brown people are in the industry, all across the spectrum. So from the standpoint of working inside of the industry, but also as customer bases, I think how black and brown people buy insurance is typically to just pick up the phone and dial 1-800-INSURANCE.

Sylvia K. Alston: It's something that they have to do when something in their life is changing. When they're buying a new car, when they're getting a house or when they need life insurance for a job. It's not something that somebody thinks about on a day-to-day basis. And then once they're done with it, it's put that policy in a drawer and let's never think about it again.

Sylvia K. Alston: So I approach insurance as relationship management, as establishing kinship or friendship with customers. And that's something that I think has not been traditionally done. When people think about their insurance agent, they don't typically have a relationship... From my community. They don't typically have relationships with their insurance brokers. And so I operate in this space to kind of change that narrative, make it a lot more interesting to discuss, make it relatable, make it real, and then talk about ways that we can make sure that you're properly covered and have your assets protected.

Joey Giangola: So do you think to serve that under serving better, do you think there needs to be more representation within the industry first? Or do you think that's something that can be addressed without maybe balancing out the representation, having people actually work in the industry to serve the end client better?

Sylvia K. Alston: I think historically, in order for us to really be able to answer or break apart that question, I think we have to talk about historically how the industry has operated. It's operated in a space where it's preyed upon, black and brown people. That's the truth. It's a very uncomfortable conversation for the industry to have. And I know that they don't want to have it, but when I think about how we were introduced in this country to insurance, one of the things that people have probably never even heard of are conversations around slave insurance that existed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, where overseers and farmers and masters put insurance on their slaves. And then when you look at, after the slavery in this country ended, and people became farmers and sharecroppers and started to own their own lands, they were buying policies, life insurance policies that were sometimes three times the mortality rate based on mortality tables that people were just making up out of thin air.

Sylvia K. Alston: So the industry itself has always preyed upon black and brown people. And historically what that has meant throughout generations, is it means that it's a very uncomfortable, disconcerting and people don't look at it and see it as something that's really helping them. So I think the first thing that we have to do is number one, reduce the stigma around it, deal with the past, and then reduce the stigma and really trying to find a way to move forward. When I think about redlining, the practices that came out of making decisions around certain populations, they lived here, we're going to put a line around this and we're going to charge them higher rates. That begat, it's like the Bible, this begets this, and this begets that. The redlining practices beget what you now see happening with credit data being used. People are being assessed higher premiums based on whether or not they have poor credit.

Sylvia K. Alston:  And I can tell you that in urban centers, in urban school districts, throughout life, people are, they're not coaching, teaching, showing people how to take care or protect their credit. And so what happens over and over again, is a certain group of people become victims of something. And so I think, number one, the insurance industry has an incredible responsibility to do, to say that it's caused harm and then to show ways that they can improve from the harm that they've caused.

Sylvia K. Alston:  And I think it would also be very helpful if we start thinking about risk management as a career. Yes. For so many people, I think the recruiting process. You don't see people recruiting at historically black colleges and universities. These kids are graduating with business degrees. Where are they going? The insurance industry we know, historically, does not have the kinds of unemployment rates that so many other industries do. It's a great industry to really be involved in it and to make a living in. So I think, yeah, we've got a lot of work to do from a number of sides and how we do that is, I think by having conversations like these.

Joey Giangola: What do you think a realistic expectation is in terms of gauging that progress? The people that I've talked to over the years, it's always been, we need to have these conversations, but it's one of the things that is going to take a little bit of time. What's a realistic expectation to actually, like you said, pushing them all forward?

Sylvia K. Alston: In terms of timeframes or in terms of outcomes?

Joey Giangola: Give me both, Sylvia. Why not.

Sylvia K. Alston:  Okay. I think if we really do the hard work, I think it could take us probably one to two generations to fix it. So 50 years, which seems like a long time, but what we're going through in this country, on all sides of business, these are not inequities that we're going to be able to fix in a night, in a year. They're not. They've existed for 3 or 400 years, so it's not possible to fix these things overnight. But I think realistically, we can do it. I know that America has incredible capabilities when people are working hard together and having tough conversations and doing great work. I believe it could change a lot in a generation. So 25 years, I think is the minimum timeframe that it would take to kind of see some impactful change.

Sylvia K. Alston:  Outcomes is I think one of the outcomes is that we're creating legacies, we're creating wealth for other communities. We're creating job stability. I think those are some of the outcomes. I think we're changing regulation and compliance and policies because it's going to take that kind of conversation. It's going to take lawyers and our government to look at how historically some of the regulation in this country has affected a certain group or a certain class of people. And I think all of that, it takes time, especially with this Congress. So we've got a lot of work to do, yes, on all sides. But I think it's possible if we're having the conversations. And if we're encouraging a new generation of leaders to have these conversations and making the industry look like a place that they would want to work or a place that they would want be. And I don't think we've done that yet. Insurance doesn't seem sexy. These kids, this generation is looking for sexy work. We've got a lot of work to do to make the industry look sexy.

Joey Giangola: All right, Sylvia. Well, you said it, give me your best pitch. What is your sales pitch to somebody to come into this industry and say, "Hey, look at me. We're kind of pretty too." Is there something that you think we should be talking about that would maybe give us a better chance?

Sylvia K. Alston: I don't know how we set the tone or set the mood or if we cut on Boys to Men... I don't know what-

Joey Giangola: Well, that would help.

Sylvia K. Alston: It would definitely help. I think one of the things that we have to talk about is stability. I think this generation, the generation of online, I think about the amount of debt these kids are in, and the grandiose ideas that I think we all had. I'm sure when you came out of college, you thought you were going to be a millionaire immediately.

Joey Giangola: Sure, yeah.

Sylvia K. Alston: I think it's important for us to talk about stability. In this country, we see so much debt and we see kids go to college and they come out. We ask them to go to school for four or five years to come out and make 25, $30,000. That's not realistic. That doesn't make me feel sexy, but I think one of the things that we have to talk about is pay and... We've got to talk about pay and equity. We've got to talk about, I think this industry does a great job of starting pay. And I think it's something that, what we're not doing is having the conversations about the opportunities that exist.

Sylvia K. Alston: And so we've got to find a way to encourage this new generation. Hey, listen, I know you don't want to go into retail and make 10 or $11 an hour with a college degree. You should really think about what do you want to do with your life, the opportunities, how do you want to design your future? And there's an incredible amount of opportunity to do that inside of the insurance industry.

Joey Giangola: Yeah. It sounds pretty good to me. Let's actually dive in a little more nuts and bolts. What's something that you've discovered in your career path to, I don't want to say being successful, but what's something that's really worked for you? When things started to click, when things actually got going? At what point did you think I figured this out a little bit, and this is going to be fun?

Sylvia K. Alston: Getting out of my bubble was key. I started my career at Zurich in Baltimore, Maryland, right out of college, and I was recruited out of college to come and work for Zurich. I worked in group sales and it was more like service work. But while I was at the company, I started really doing some background work of how Zurich was created, their founding in Switzerland and all of the different industries that they are in. And I was really interested in real estate. I was really interested in assets and high net worth, and talking to people who were doing amazing things. And that kind of led me into the private client space. So I've worked with people who have tremendous amounts of assets. And so what really kind of worked for me and helped me really design my career was having great conversations with great clients about how they build things, how they built their careers, how they earn their money, how they made their living.

Sylvia K. Alston: And then just trying to find strategies and ways to make sure that the risk that they were taking in their lives, that they will be protected for it. I got a kick out of that. And I don't know if... I always say, I think people who work inside the insurance industry and do well, they're wired differently. We are are hardwired a little bit differently than the rest of the public, but I really am interested in how people make things work, how people do tremendous things in their lives, because I think that inspiration has provided me inspiration in my own career.

Sylvia K. Alston: And so that's how I was able to start building a career in this business. And I think what I also did at that point was getting to know people, remembering their names, remembering their kids' names, remembering the things that they talked about that were important to them, and then asking them about them the next time we talked or mentioning it in the email, "You know, it really struck me what you said about dah, dah, dah, dah. I looked into it, I did some research on it, and here's what I found. I hope this is helpful to you." Those kinds of conversations make people remember you and it makes them decide to keep you when the bills get a little bit higher than they want to pay.

Joey Giangola: Well, yeah, I think the thing that you said that was interesting that I also think we don't do a very good job of sort of broadcasting is the idea that you can get really close to industries that you find interesting, and that you are passionate about, that you can have almost a collaboration in some sorts, you can almost impact that industry in some ways. And I think that's maybe a missing part of the conversation or realization that people don't, it takes a while to see, you can't easily look at it and say, "Oh, that makes sense."

Sylvia K. Alston: Yeah. We don't do well in the insurance industry historically with marketing. We don't. I think, the insurance industry, 30 years ago, there was no cyber crime insurance. It's a result of the changes in the world. And I think people have done tremendously well. I'm thinking of a couple people who are thought leaders in the space of cyber crime insurance that I've worked with. They love what they do every day. The insurance program that they put in place, is just really one small portion of what they do on a day-to-day basis. Their study is how crimes are committed, how cyber theft is committed and how technology is expanding and changing. And that's what drives them. The insurance program that they put together for it is just a small piece of it. What drives them is the interest behind that technology. And I think we have not done a great job of showing college students or kids or new people in the business, all of the different ways that they can really enjoy themselves, dig deep into their applications and their aspirations and their interests, and also make a handsome living.

Joey Giangola: All right, Sylvia. I've got three more questions for you. And the first one, very simply, what's one thing that you hope you never forget?

Sylvia K. Alston: What's one thing that I hope I never forget? Nobody has ever asked me that before. That's a rough one. What's one thing that... I hope I never forget the importance of my voice. I hope I never forget the importance of using my voice.

Joey Giangola: Now, on the other side of that, what's one thing you still have yet to learn?

Sylvia K. Alston: I think there's so much I still have to learn. I do. I look at my life as a canvas. I think I'm on a tremendous journey. I've done a lot in my life, but I'm not arrogant. I do know that it's been by grace and opportunities and education that I've made it this far. And it's been about taking risk in this phase of my career, that's brought me to this success level. But I think I'm just really on the cusp. I honestly, I think I don't even know all of the things or opportunities that are available to me as long as I keep doing the work, doing the research, having great conversations like this, meeting new people, networking, just challenging my mind to think more critically, more deeply about the human experience as a whole. And I think, that is what's going to continue to hopefully help me evolve and grow.

Joey Giangola: And Sylvia, last question, if I were to hand you a magic wand of sorts to basically reshape, change, alter, improve, really any aspect of insurance, what's that thing? Where's it going? And what's it doing?

Sylvia K. Alston: The wand is definitely going to go on the space of inclusion. I think for too long and for far too long, there's only been a certain few voices in this space. And I think that we're in a particular time in our history where we need to encourage the utilization of an amalgam of voices. And so I would use my wand to invite more people to the table, invite more people to the dance, because I think that's what's going to be necessary to help this industry evolve and grow.

Joey Giangola: Sylvia, this has been fantastic. I'm going to leave it right there.

Sylvia K. Alston: Thank you so much.

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