Before she could manage senior leaders, Aon Benfield’s Maggie Westdale had to learn to manage herself.
By Kara Lawton
In February 2009, amid the height of a major global recession, Maggie Westdale started contacting recruiters. After taking a four-year career break to raise her sons, now six and eight years old, she wanted to know what she could expect. She was pleasantly surprised.
“On the basis of a resume and a few conversations, four out of the five [recruiters] said not to worry, ‘You’re going to come back right where you were,’” said Westdale, who previously served as Senior Vice President of Corporate Financial Planning and Analysis and internal Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for CNA’s Property and Casualty operations.
That May, Westdale was hired as the CFO at Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance broker with 3,000 employees and $1.5 billion in revenue. “They had just done a very large merger. Aon Re and Benfield were Nos. 1 and 3 in the industry,” Westdale noted. “They were in need of massive integration around technology, people, culture—and these were the types of things I’d done before.”
Despite the familiarity of integration at work, being in the corporate world with a family at home was new territory. “I had built it up as something in my head that was going to be incredibly challenging, but it was as if I never left,” Westdale said. “It was so fun and energetic. You’re learning so much every day whenever you enter a new role. It doesn’t matter if every single thing is something you’ve done in the past, you’re learning all new personalities and how to accomplish things in the organization. My days were so full I didn’t have time to dwell.”
Westdale’s busy days accelerated with the introduction of a dual role. In November 2010, she took on the position of Chief Operating Officer (COO) and accountability for Human Resources, Marketing and Client Services, in November 2010.
Diversity Begets Diversity
The first person Westdale hired was Cathleen Marine, Aon Benfield’s Vice President of Financial Planning and Analysis, who had worked with her at CNA. The reason was simple: “[Marine] thinks about things completely differently than I think about things, and what she’s good at is what I’m not good at.”
When bringing new team members on board, two things she looks for are people who process information differently than she does and those who round out the company’s skillset. “You quite literally come up with a different solution if you include people on your team with different backgrounds, and you open yourself up to broader opportunities,” she said. “I think that young people want to come to work at places where they can look at the senior leadership and see some of themselves.”
Once new senior leaders are on board, Westdale focuses on their development by having conversations about their strengths and opportunities. One of her priorities is asking what these employees want and then supporting their development opportunities.
“I really sincerely mean development opportunities. It doesn’t mean your weakness, it means what’s going to take you today to where you want to go,” Westdale said. “If everyone who works for me grows to far surpass me and become way more successful from a business perspective, then I’d be incredibly proud.”
The effectiveness of Westdale’s management style became evident two years ago when she reached out to hire another person formerly employed at CNA. This individual told her, “The reason I’m going to come and work for you is because I’ve never had another leader take so much interest in my personal development—not in me being successful and making money, but my development and how I can be an even stronger leader myself.”
Stop Talking, Start Listening
Within a few years at CAN, Westdale had transitioned from managing small teams to managing a large organization and senior leaders with experience notably beyond her own. She recognized the need to learn more. Westdale hired an executive coach, who did a 360-degree evaluation to gather feedback from her peers and employees.
According to Westdale, “In the past, if I made my team happy and I made my boss happy, everything was good. When I found myself in this much more senior position, it became clear that you also need to make your peers happy and really make them feel like they’re part of the team. I was doing a pretty bad job of that.”
Some of the evaluation feedback included Westdale being too aggressive and not listening enough, which was hard to hear because it was the opposite of what she intended. The coach acknowledged this, but also pointed out that others’ perceptions are key—that how others feel and interpret things is what actually matters. The coach told Westdale, “Just make sure everybody in the room always is allowed to say what they think.”
“That was a major turning point for me and opened my mind about how to communicate more effectively with people,” Westdale said.
It led to what she calls the single most important change in her professional career. Westdale came to the seemingly simple realization that everybody thinks and processes information differently, and that she needed to listen and let people talk rather than interrupt them, albeit inadvertently.
“The 360 process made me realize that at times I was actually impeding people’s ability to think,” she said. “One day I interrupted [someone] and I heard myself, and I said out loud, ‘Oh my gosh, I never should’ve interrupted. Please finish your thought.’ … I never heard myself do that before, but I bet I did it a hundred times.”
Always Ask Why
Westdale’s proactive management style reflects her eagerness to learn and improve. It centers on collaboration and her team’s right to understand “what” and “why,” and to have an opinion about everything.
“Sometimes in big corporate America you can get a bit of, ‘Do it because I said so,’ Westdale acknowledged. “How I like to build my team is to make sure people feel heard, respected and at the end of the day we’re still a team even if we’re not always allowed to have our way.”
In egalitarian fashion, not getting “our way” applies to everyone, including Aon Benfield’s COO-CFO. Westdale does not mind when someone else makes the final decision. “I don’t always need to have the answer,” she said, “but I do need to at least feel like people heard me.”
With a level of self-awareness that most people rarely achieve, much less cultivate, Westdale continues to focus on improving at the art of listening. And she expects the same from her team, while encouraging them to always ask, “Why?”
“I feel like in school we’re all taught to be very linear in our process—question asked, question answered—and that everything kind of has a right or wrong answer,” Westdale said. “In my head there are many ways to answer a question, and I can just answer the question or I can be really helpful and drive to a better solution.”
This is the kind of focus Westdale has instilled throughout her organization by asking shrewd questions. How can she best support people’s career goals? How do others perceive her? How can her team give better answers? And ultimately, what is in the best interest of Aon Benfield’s clients and shareholders?
“We’re going to move forward on the path of the client and the shareholder, and I’m really proud. I truly believe that’s who we are.”
Kara Lawton is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.
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