As you move throughout your career, never underestimate the importance of your network, notes Kathleen Ziegler. “As an extrovert I have amassed a relatively robust network, but I don’t think it was until later in my career that I became strategic about it,” she says. “It’s never too early in your career to start thinking about how you should build relationships, taking care to create a balance of both women and men, as mentors and sponsors.”
A Global Career
In Ziegler’s case, her network has truly shaped her path. She says she never dreamed of a career in insurance, as an English/French major with parents who were both professors. After graduation, she wasn’t “quite ready for the real world,” so went overseas to teach English in the Czech Republic. At the end of her second year, she decided to market her other skills and started researching potential roles in advertising or public relations. After studying a hard copy of the American Chamber of Commerce’s listing of companies in Prague, she ended up working for a small PR agency that was run by an American woman. The position was perfect for her, opening up doors to meet local VIPs and see amazing venues and even travel.
After her time there, she decided to apply for graduate school and was considering a PhD in linguistics, but other opportunities came her way that led her to cut it short at the master level. A friend who was earning her MBA was distributing resumes at the campus job fair, so Ziegler went along to keep her company – and offer a few as well.
After receiving interest from entities as varied as the CIA and consulting firms, she accepted an offer from Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) where she spent five years primarily working with insurance clients which began her career trajectory. She left largely because of the grueling travel schedule and took a job with Zurich in underwriting; two years later she was approached by her manager to be considered for a position as chief of staff for the global CEO. She subsequently spent two years overseas in Switzerland, returning to New York to become COO of a relatively new business division they were launching. Her most recent post at Zurich came when she was asked to consider a P&L job, resulting in a positon running the northeast commercial markets business.
While she enjoyed the opportunity, she learned that a former mentor from Accenture had just taken on a global COO role at Marsh so she went there as head of operations and technology for the United States. Several years later, a mentor from Zurich persuaded her to join AIG which is where she is today.
After working on strategic initiatives in the company’s transformation office, Ziegler is currently managing distribution for AIG’s new technology-focused subsidiary.
Helping Change the Company Face
While she acknowledges that the insurance industry doesn’t tend to be a trend setter, she sees the growing use of artificial intelligence as one that will provide more opportunities for women in the workplace as it supplants administrative tasks and encourages more strategic work and stakeholder engagement. “From what I’ve been reading, we will need more people with social networking, people development and coaching, and collaboration skills. There is a clear intersection between these soft skills, which generally play to women’s strengths in those areas,” she says.
Ziegler has been actively involved in advancing women throughout her career, a cultivation that became more pronounced in Switzerland when she noticed the dearth of women in executive roles. That motivated her to corral a number of smart women she knew to attend informal meetings, which progressively grew and ultimately became the women’s network group for Zurich which is still in place today and has expanded globally. “This group was a labor of love and genuinely borne out of a desire to create something that would help women,” she says.
The need was clear — pull up most insurance company websites and you will see their executive committee and boards don’t have the diversity they are aiming for. “While the pipeline is building, we are not progressing fast enough,” she says, adding that only 8 to 12 percent of the C-suite seats are currently held by women. That being said, AIG’s Executive Leadership Team of 12 now consists of six women which, according to Ziegler, “inspires employees about their opportunities at the firm.”
Ziegler is currently on the leadership committee for AIG’s women and allies employee resource group and believes strongly in progressing change to help elevate women into leadership roles. “I always want to play a role no matter what company I work for,” she says, noting that being involved helps you feel more connected to the company but also allows you to meet other people at all levels outside your department.
In her free time, she enjoys exploring with her husband, whom she met taking a Second City improv class in Chicago, and their eight-and-a-half-year-old son. “We are big on travel and the outdoors, and are currently making a point to visit as many national parks as we can.”