When I was asked to write this article, I began to reflect on my career and the ups and downs and everything in between that has impacted my development as a leader. The first thought that came to mind was about learning. Starting out, nearly 40 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined enjoying some of the successes I have enjoyed and still enjoy today. But I do vividly remember having both the aspiration and relentless ambition to do great things. This was coupled with the good fortune of possessing some aptitude and what I would call the “prerequisite characteristics” it takes to be successful: namely, an ability to listen and desire to learn. And there were many lessons along the years to learn from.
Executive SummaryMario Vitale retired from his position as CEO of Aspen Insurance on June 30 after four decades in the industry. As he stepped down, he reflected on the lessons of his career in a letter to his younger self with advice on listening and learning, trusting your intuition, forming relationships, and behaving well in the face of adversity or change.
Some lessons were tougher than others to relate to and absorb, and some were simpler and more straightforward. But I made it my personal goal to take something from each of them. Like all ambitious people, I experienced some grief and frustration on my journey, and of course I’m still learning lessons to this day. Passion and determination kept me on the right path through more challenging times, and the lessons learned during those periods were particularly impactful, being both enlightening and long-lasting. It’s like anything in life: When you have to work hard to earn/learn something, you don’t soon forget it—and in time this becomes embedded in who you are and helps define your character.
Throughout my career, there are three prevalent themes that have been common threads. First, I am passionate about personal growth and have benefited from advice passed down to me from some of the industry’s finest and most successful leaders. Second, I am passionate about giving back. For me, that includes inspiring the next generation of leaders for our industry. And third, I am passionate about diversity, to authentically understand, relate and connect to a diverse team of employees and clients.
In the format of writing a letter to my younger self at the infancy of my career, this article is aimed at sharing—since hindsight is 20/20, as they say—the leadership lessons I’ve learned along the way. I hope that this will provide to interested readers guidance for establishing a career path, finding success and developing authentic leadership.
Dear Mario (at 25),
Your passion for insurance was initiated during your time at St. John’s University School of Risk Management and enhanced and propelled forward at your first job in the insurance industry at the Home Insurance Company. Your potential is boundless. So how do you now excel, stand out and become recognized as a leader?
Passion, Learning and Commitment
Your passion for knowledge, growth, and learning about the insurance industry and its aim to make people/businesses whole after a catastrophic event combine to position you quite well for a healthy and successful career in the insurance industry. In your twenties, I would advise you to spend more time listening than talking, do lots of reading and volunteer for special projects/assignments. From a credibility perspective, your focus on listening and absorbing lessons from your manager and company leadership will establish you as an enthusiastic, driven young underwriter with a passion, commitment and work ethic that is unique.
Networking, Relationship-Building and Credibility
Let’s not forget networking and relationship-building. As I have stated in recent keynote speeches on leadership (after four decades of experience), “People and relationships are as important—if not more so—than tasks.” To me, this is a big one and a valuable piece of advice I highly recommend.
Tasks matter, but the main role of a good leader is to motivate and inspire other people to perform tasks to their optimal ability. You need to build relationships, network and engage with your team. As your career progresses and your leadership roles expand, you’ll need to learn the art of smart delegation and how to lead other leaders.
Balance, Intuition and Emotional Intelligence
Another key lesson as you learn to become an effective, inspirational leader is balance. Learning to be a leader of leaders requires skill, intuition and a gut feel that will mature with time.
Emotional intelligence can’t be taught in a book. It grows from life experience and establishing the confidence in yourself to trust your intuition. Teaching and inspiring managers to become good leaders is important, but you also need to know when to step in and take responsibility.
It’s okay to say “no” if you are not comfortable with the direction of an initiative, and do not let other people push you into decisions you are not comfortable with. Trust your instincts.
How people behave in response to different leadership styles is important. You will have the opportunity to work for different people, and the exciting prospect for you in this circumstance is education and awareness. Your behavior will always be watched closely by leaders and can be an excellent opportunity for you to demonstrate your commitment, loyalty and focus.
About Mario Vitale
Mario Vitale was the CEO of Aspen Insurance before he retired on June 30, 2016.
Vitale had 39 years of experience in various leadership positions across a broad spectrum of the industry. He joined Aspen from Zurich Financial Services, where he was CEO of Global Corporate, with responsibility for all of Zurich’s corporate business globally. He also spent six years with global broker Willis Group Holdings, including four as CEO of Willis North America.
Vitale is a member of the board of trustees of St. John’s University College of Insurance in New York; the board of directors of AICPCU; the board of the American Insurance Association; the board of Broad Street Partners. He is also chairman of the board of Blue Marble Microinsurance and a former member of the board of directors of the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers.
Sometimes leadership changes, and communication style can sometimes change too. Your behavior in response to change is essential to how you are perceived—are you a flexible, loyal team player who can absorb the changes and remain focused on the key business objectives?
As I mentioned earlier, your behavior—sometimes amidst organizational change—can demonstrate to senior leadership your commitment to the organization. You need to validate your ability to continue to learn new things, in addition to absorbing a changing work environment, and perform at a high level as you may be required to adjust to distinctly different styles of leadership and communication.
The impact of your behavior is something that all people—not just those starting out—can take for granted. Being impatient, losing focus, making knee-jerk decisions and losing your temper are just a few of the ways that your behavior could impact negatively on your career advancement. And for me, behavior is something I tried to pay attention to quite carefully as my career progressed, and I strongly advise you do the same.
One of the most important aspects of my leadership development came from the valuable experience of working for different bosses. I’ve been blessed to work with some extraordinary, inspirational leaders over the years. While I wouldn’t say I’ve never had a “bad manager,” I would argue that even “bad” managers contribute positively toward your personal and professional growth. It is often disappointing when you identify or observe a more senior manager making mistakes or making decisions that you might disagree with. But it is nonetheless excellent preparation for leadership. We can learn from everyone in our professional network—which behaviors and leadership styles to emulate and others not to. Some might argue that success is or should be judged on whatis delivered. I propose that it’s more likely you’ll be judged on how you deliver that success. Behavior is key.
Vision, Engagement and Communication
A good leader sets a clear vision, and by building and retaining the respect of your team, you can lead with a strong vision and your team will be excited to follow.
Open communication is a critical facet of leading, and I have learned and strongly advise you to appreciate that good leaders are good communicators. This means communicating on a regular basis in a way that others can relate to and engage with: simple, clear, articulate. And solicit questions and feedback. Two-way dialogue is imperative for robust, impactful leadership. Set the right tone; create and communicate a clear vision; and establish a vibrant, energetic culture.
With a clear vision, a strong team and an open channel of communication, the engagement area ties right back to behavior. Lead from the front. Be a player-coach. When you roll up your sleeves and really dig into working on projects with your team or engage in team-building charity initiatives, you will be leading from the front. Lead by example; that is one of the most valuable lessons I want to emphasize as you begin your career.
Finally, a few more tips that may seem quite straightforward, but you’d be surprised at how often I tended to overlook them over the years. It took time and patience to hone these views and develop them into a part of who I am. As your leadership skills develop, emotional intelligence will become a close ally. Learning to trust your instincts and having the confidence in yourself to know that you are making the right decisions is a steep learning curve. You may have spreadsheets and advisors whispering their well-sounded views on a matter, but over time, your emotional intelligence will mature to a level where, despite those valuable resources, you’ll grow to trust your instinct because you know it is right. You can feel it.
Bringing It All Together
I, like so many others, have learned many lessons throughout my career. I hope these tips are helpful for you, and I recommend that you keep this letter in a safe place and read it occasionally. Think about the lessons and leadership guidance. Recognize that we all make mistakes and you will be a stronger leader. Helping people learn the important lessons from those mistakes is essential, but remember that people aren’t perfect.
Surround yourself with smart people who are knowledgeable, reliable and loyal, with diverse backgrounds. Most importantly, have people on your team that will challenge you. Think of these people as your mirror. It will help you grow and ensure you’re receiving honest and wise counsel, and it will lead to more robust, better decisions.
Let me not forget the management of your energy. As a leader with growing responsibilities, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed. Busy airports, long days and impossible-looking schedules are part of a regular day. The most important thing for you is to manage your energy. Prioritizing your health and maintaining sustainable energy can be difficult. One of the best ways to manage stress and energy is by identifying what causes it. What is your “power source”? I prefer to exercise in the morning and make time throughout my busy day for recharging exercises. Without a healthy body, a clear mind and well-balanced energy, becoming a dynamic and inspirational leader will be tough.
You’ve got a bright future. Take this advice to heart, and think about it often. Just as you grow and develop in your career, so too will your perspectives on these life lessons. It took me 40 years to learn these skills, so remember to be patient, listen, manage your energy, trust your instincts, communicate, work hard, don’t compromise on your principles and stay grounded. Now go get ’em.
Mario P. Vitale
June 30, 2016