Barbara Schonhofer: A Visionary Leader Building Supportive Business Networks that Empower Diverse Communities

Top 10 Most Influential People in Insurance, 2023

Barbara Schonhofer CEO of ISC Group

What inspired you to take the step of faith and start ISC Group, and what laid the foundations for the company?

Curiosity about why the insurance industry, and particularly the London Market, was so tough to crack for women. There was a need to take action upon discovering the complexity of the challenge. 350 years of an industry built on a close-knit community of men who formed business bonds that were deep, narrow and hired from the same gene pool, led to a comfortable club-like environment where everyone knew everyone else and nothing out of the ordinary was likely to happen. It was predictable as a market place, steeped in tradition, and had no visible incentive to change. This spread out from the London Market, internationally. Couple this with women playing catch-up in terms of being recognised in the workplace as equals and it painted a challenging picture. I started off thinking that the companies needed to change, but in reality, women also need to own their added value, demand change and ask to be included. A combination which could accelerate transformation for all.

After 18 years working in the financial services industry, I was used to being the only female leader in the room. When I moved into executive search, after working for an international financial services boutique and later as a partner in a global big search firm, I set up my own business in early 2000, establishing and leading an executive search firm in the city of London focused on insurance. I could see there was an extreme lack of women in leadership positions in the London market. At the time, one of my business partners was from the LGBT community and had a strong support network in that community. Gay people weren’t generally “out” in insurance back then; however, they knew each other, and this created a strong behind-the-scenes support network. His community helped us to build our search brand, EJS Search, and this in turn resulted in me seeking out the women in the insurance business to develop our own support network.

When we started our search business, we had 60 women on our database of thousands of men, and so I started organising events that might attract women, inviting individuals to join and bring female colleagues. Over time, we identified over 5000 women, mostly in positions up to mid-management level in their careers.

To maintain this new community, I collaborated with an existing marketing network organisation, and we created TWIN (The Women Insurance Network), which still exists today. However, I sensed that there was more to do because I had yet to engage with the most senior women in the London Market who had broken through the glass ceiling. I found they knew of each other but were not connected as a supportive community.

I realised that without collaboration between us senior women, progress would be slower.

As a next step, I met with 12 of these senior women within insurance to form a business networking group. Once we were established and started to grow, a number of the executive women took turns hosting our round-table get-togethers in their corporate facilities. As time progressed, meeting regularly and exchanging business ideas, our community started to evolve and develop outside the London market into the European and North American insurance markets. As we grew as a business community, our conversations evolved away from pure business networking into our purpose, and when the Davies Report was published by the UK Government on the lack of women on boards, it pushed gender inclusion into the spotlight for business, and the Insurance Supper Club community took on the goal of getting more women into executive leadership positions in the insurance industry.

The first suppers had been in 2003, becoming more formalised in 2006 and by 2008 we had formed the Insurance Supper Club as a C.I.C. (Community Interest Company). Today, it is the insurance industry association and hub for the advancement of women in leadership, with our own charter. It was only later that we started to become known as the ISC Group.

As awareness of the group increased and more women joined, we began to expand and set up more formalised member groups in different countries, such as the US, Canada, Bermuda, Ireland, and Switzerland. Developing a business network connection that joined women executives and directors around the world with the ambition to get to know each other and support each other in business. It takes a long time to build community through relationships and to gain mutual trust and this is part of our unique offering at ISC—combining community with our sector focus and global reach. Over the years, we have supported many of the executive women who have been on the journey with us and now form 150 ambassadors and volunteer committee members who support our vision to achieve gender equity.

Other gender groups started to form more recently, and at ISC we help them develop, including a group of women in the investment industry from the US established in London. We also helped establish a female network for the Worshipful Company of Insurers, one of the city guilds, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. Barbara Merry, who had previously been one of the only female CEOs in the Lloyd’s Market, and I co-chaired iWIN for 5 years. Today, it is a successful female business network in its own right.

By the time COVID hit, we had already started to expand our community and business network to include women aspiring to be at C-level. Three years ago, we were in the process of rolling out a group coaching pilot with Marsh in the UK. Despite launching during lockdown and the pandemic, it proved such a success that Marsh has rolled out the programme for their women across the MMC companies in the UK.

Shortly before the pandemic and lockdown, we also made the decision to open up our community, welcome all women to insurance, and give them the opportunity to become part of our growing community. In welcoming all women from entry to board director, we created several tiers of membership and offered different benefit packages to our corporate members. Changing how we operated and going viral allowed us to reach many more women, and the ISC team was able to very quickly pull together some fantastic online events and programming to support many more members around the world. This provided much-needed support for each other.

It was only possible because of the building blocks we had put in place over the past 15 years: creating relationships and trust in order to form the numerous volunteer regional members committees and ambassadors to help recruit more funding from corporate partners, providing expert speakers and panels online and hybrid, and, with the end of the pandemic, providing in-person events and programmes to support the whole ISC Group community.

Today, many of our original Insurance Supper Club members remain involved, having achieved business leadership. These women, who grew with the insurance supper club, tell me that the most important aspect for them was the peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities the community provided in a safe space. Our aim as a founding group is to encourage and support the next generation of women business leaders to join forces as we did.

My observations during my 50 years in business, operating first in the FS industry and then as a talent consultant to the industry, are that women work very hard to get noticed in the insurance industry however, this has proved simply not enough to achieve parity with male peers.

We need to do more with our community, its advisors, and allies to challenge the status quo and support culture change to have a positive impact on all stakeholders. We women need to continuously find the courage to step forward and be heard. Our male colleagues need to sponsor our promotion wherever they are able and to take on board what it must feel like for women and the dreaded imposter syndrome that is, for many, now part of their DNA. It is only together that we can hope to bust myths and accelerate much-needed change. Today, women in the ISC community are learning that strategic networking is a huge factor in career success. If you are brilliant and no one knows about you, all the hard work will not necessarily be rewarded with a chair at the top table.

The industry has an ever-reduced pool of talent available in the market to meet employment demands. We desperately need to attract diverse talent. As the world evolves, new risks emerge, and existing understanding of risk needs to develop. We will need more and more diverse thinking and challenge to industry norms, to ultimately lead to better informed business decisions that also more accurately mirror customer needs. The insurance industry touches everyone’s lives and needs to reflect this broad customer base in what happens next.

Welcoming, retaining, and promoting women is a key fundamental component of necessary change for the insurance, investment, and savings industries.

Welcoming women at all levels of leadership is important in the DE&I journey and intersectionality. Women make up over half the population and have all the minority complexity within our gender. At ISC Group, our members are committed to welcoming differences into our industry.

Neurodivergent Talent:

As an industry in the insurance, savings, and investment industries, we need to change our mindset regarding talent and our ways of working if we are to meet the needs of our clients and customers.

Wellbeing and talent are at the top of board agendas, and companies are realising how people can operate and think very differently while sharing a common goal. In order to open up the talent pool and get the best out of its people, the industry needs to acknowledge differences, flex the environment, and allow more for individual differences. Masking who you are to fit into a pre-ordained mould suppresses the full potential that an individual may offer.

It has only been since the industry was forced to operate differently overnight with the onset of COVID that corporate awareness of neurodiversity really began to take hold and flourish. Previously, I had brought the idea to the insurance industry that we should form a mutual community to address the hidden asset of neurodivergent individuals. However, it wasn’t until after the pandemic that the concept came to life.

I was working on a Chartered Insurance Institute initiative called Insuring Women’s Futures when I met with Lauire Edmans, CBE. We bumped into each other at a train station, having both attended the same IWF event, and we started to talk. He was on the employability board of Ambitious About Autism, a UK charity, and was looking to engage with the insurance, saving, and investment communities, company by company. As we talked, I suggested that we might join forces and rather than tackle the issues of employing neurodivergent individuals’ company by company we should start an industry collaboration similar to ISC Group.

From this conversation, we found a group of volunteers across the FS sector and from the neurodivergent community and education, as well as Ambitious About Autism, and worked on the prototype for bringing together the stakeholders via an industry hub. From this initiative, we developed and launched GAIN (Group for Autism, Insurance, Investment, and Neurodiversity).

Today, GAIN is a dedicated community and industry association conceived to bring about a radical improvement in the career prospects of neurodivergent individuals.

The insurance and investment industry is realising that the business landscape is changing and that the digital age requires a new kind of workforce ready and able to solve the business problems of today and tomorrow. With cyber risk and climate change, insurance and investment risk are becoming more complex, and we needed people who could think differently. We need access to people from different backgrounds and genders who bring a fresh approach to these changing business challenges. For this transformational approach to work, we need better equity in the workplace for all.

It is my belief that having more women in leadership positions is the start of the process of strategic change and transformation to welcome a much broader range of talent for our industry.

By embracing diversity of thought throughout our business and in the boardroom, we will get better business outcomes for our stakeholders—customers, shareholders, and employees.

The reason GAIN is an industry collaboration is because, as an insurance and investment industry, we touch everyone’s lives. We’re about protection. Everything leads back to the insurance investment industry.

At GAIN, we have been joined by 22 companies, along with a community of neurodivergent individuals working in the industry and 40+ partner organisations offering services to drive transformation in the way we welcome and embrace divergent talent.

The seeds and foundations set through the gay community have trickled down into the women’s community, the neurodiverse community, creating transformation in our industry.

There is so much cross-fertilisation; what we’re learning in GAIN, we adopt for ISC, and vice versa. It’s accelerating our knowledge and reach and, with it, better equity for all.

A challenge makes you stronger. What’s your take on this? What were the roadblocks that taught you? Valuable lessons in your professional journey?

If you stay around long enough and hold on, people will begin to accept you as part of the ecosystem in a relationship-driven environment. This takes a long time if you are in a minority group. The point is not to walk down the same road and fall into the same pothole. It is important to listen, understand the nuances, and try different things. Above all you must have intent and be clear about when and when not to compromise. Don’t take no for an answer when you care. Never compromise your ethics, and so stay true to yourself. Don’t give up.

It takes a very long time to build a relationship and trust. It can take years, and it simply doesn’t happen overnight. With established relationships, longevity, and trust, it’s much easier to navigate unchartered waters because you have a community and network of allies offering their experience and support. Sharing knowledge and connections accelerates change from a ground swell and from board level.

I started my career in 1972 and many, many challenging things have happened in my work life. One of the big challenges for me was building a career and raising a child with learning differences. I was in uncharted territory at work and at home.

My daughter, Claire, was different. Nobody seemed to understand. She went to state school until she was 11 or 12. It was very challenging for her. We later found out, when she was 32, that the challenges she had experienced at school and in early life were due to autism combined with learning differences.

As she grew up, she became a vulnerable adult, but we didn’t really understand the complexity of it. In the 1970s, nobody really understood what it was to be autistic.

During that time, I was building a career while having a lot of issues with the education authorities over what was best for my daughter. That’s when I found I was tenacious and would hold out for my beliefs. It wasn’t through business; it was through the challenges with Claire and dealing with all that as a young woman in my early 20s. The education authorities wanted things that I didn’t believe were right for my daughter. I fought and challenged their every move, which established my ability to make connections and get support. And that’s when I realised what I was made of and my capacity for staying with something that was extremely difficult to solve. That is why I’m so passionate about giving neurodivergent individuals all the opportunity they need to thrive in this world. Without having Claire as my daughter, I could not have become the businessperson I am today. Her profound and literal approach, combined with her frustrations and her joy, impacted me to my core in how I developed as an individual and how I went about all my decision-making at work.

At work, I started off as a junior clerk in administration. It took until my late 20s before I was able to convince the building society where I’d started as a clerk cashier to promote me to a mortgage clerk.

What I really wanted was to get into management. To do this, you had to become a sales representative, which meant you were given a car and a briefcase. In those days, a sales representative had to open accounts for professional partners like solicitors and banks to keep client funds. It took me until I was 29 before I convinced my employer to promote me.

I was scared because I had to do the job, but my career took off from that point. It necessitated years of pushing boundaries, and until quite recently, I have operated largely outside my comfort zone all my working life.

During my 18 years in the building society sector, I rose to establish the first centralised lending operation in that sector.

During my time in industry, nobody gave me a promotion without my asking for it. Nobody gave me a pay raise without my asking for it. Nobody gave me a job without my asking for it. I was 40 by the time I left the building society sector.

I started on a new path to become a consultant to the industry in executive search and worked for an international financial services boutique. I had suffered discrimination in my executive career, and this increased when I moved into a city-based career in London.

I wasn’t accepted as a woman in executive search in the London insurance market as I didn’t come from a reinsurance background. I overcame this initial hurdle by going to Singapore five times a year to help the first wave of reinsurers and insurers establish themselves in Asia and the Pacific. I also did several international assignments, which gave me a truly global insurance market perspective. I was able to take this experience back to London and start to establish my brand.

After 7 years learning my new trade, I joined Korn Ferry, where I became the first partner without a university degree.

After two years at Korn Ferry, I left to set up an executive search business, which takes us back to how the Insurance Supper Club was formed, completely changing the cycle of events.

As a consultant to the industry, I realised I could influence and challenge age-old practices and, in doing so, help make way for new talent using different assessment criteria to validate choices and improve communication. My passion is to empower all to discover who they are and how they can control the narrative and add value to business. Know who you are, be able to articulate it clearly to your target audience, and be strategic in your business networking.

Ultimately, I wanted to do something because of what happened to me and to my daughter, and through the communities of ISC and GAIN, I felt what it means to belong. My daughter is now an adult who lives independently. She’s 51, and she’s got a partner. She’s working a charity job, and she’s a delight to have around. I see her learn new things and new skills every minute of every day. I’m so proud of her.

If I’d been in a position to help her more when I was younger, by getting her into meaningful employment, I would have done so.

My desire is to see everyone thrive in work and life, so ultimately, for me, changing the landscape for neurodivergent individuals like Claire is the final piece of the jigsaw.

Tell us how your expertise facilitates the growth and success of ISC Group.

The background to how ISC Group developed is important. You need to first give to receive. You need to have the courage of your convictions, stay true to your purpose, and not be put off by naysayers.

I have tenacity and belief that the industry needs more women in leadership roles to stay relevant to its clients and customers. Women have learned different ways to operate that can help businesses flourish. However, establishing a business network and taking it to the centre of a thriving ecosystem is not for the faint-hearted. I discovered I was a very determined and passionate change agent when I was young, and that’s the course I followed. So, staying power, delivering what you promised, however tough, and being passionate about people has been central to my success. Along with years of business experience comes a good antenna for issues arising, which is very important in an entrepreneurially evolving organisation. Knowing when to act is paramount. Being authentic, up for the challenge, and prepared to fail are all important. You have to be prepared to take calculated chances and trust others to follow.

How do you ensure a culture of integrity and innovation in your team?

Be authentic and true to yourself, be transparent and clear, listen to your team and, above all, be fair.

I am a consulting leader. I encourage people from different walks of life and from different disciplines to contribute, whether in a senior capacity or entry level, and all between. I take it from the premise that engaged people offer a greater contribution. Team members at the coal face usually know what is going on and have good ideas, so I listen and respect others options. Ultimately, the buck stops with me however, the best outcomes are usually consensual.

I give everyone the opportunity to contribute and learn, and I’m a great believer in learning from them as well. People who are coming into the industry as well as established people like my co-chair at GAIN Laurie Edmans CBE. I believe it’s really important to let everyone have their say.

As a leader, you have to sometimes make the final decision, and sometimes that’s not going to be popular. The important thing is to communicate what you have done and why fairness is important if you want to gain trust and respect.

To ensure innovation, you must be receptive to different thoughts and respectful of other people’s opinions, even if they differ from your own. I do expect that, in return, my team will do their job, bring ideas, and be respectful to me as their leader and to each other.

I have lots of experience, I’ve been through a lot, and I take great pleasure in transferring knowledge.

Share your views on making an influential impact on the next generation of leaders and how you wish to do so.

Share knowledge and observations and help them understand what they don’t know.

The best way to make an impact is to get them to think about what they offer and where this can add value, focusing on how they operate and why. It is a simple formula based on facts about yourself rather than marketing a profile of what you believe a company is looking for. I am this; I am not that.

What’s your vision and plans for the future of the ISC group and GAIN?

To become the industry body and centre of knowledge and excellence for the advancement of women and neurodivergent people in the sector.

The vision for ISC Group is and has always been to support more women in leadership positions. Once we have achieved parity, it will exist as a professional business community and network.

ISC provides something quite unique for women operating in the insurance industry. There are exceptional career opportunities for women through advocacy and sponsorship and ISC provides a route to them.

And the same for GAIN: as a hub, we are there for our members on a journey of welcome and acceptance. Our desire is to spark an industry-owned and industry-led radical improvement in the employment prospects of neurodivergent individuals.

It’s important that we never forget that we’re a membership organisation.

Both ISC Group and GAIN are industry-led organisations that exist to empower and enrich through shared experience and connectivity. The insurance industry touches all lives one way or another, but by embracing the importance of attracting, retaining, and promoting different types of talent in our industry, we will stay relevant to our customers and clients and deliver better outcomes for all.

What do you do day-to-day in your role at ISC Group and GAIN?

I strive to keep everyone mindful of our purpose, ensuring that we stay on course to achieve our vision. Additionally, I aim to challenge thinking and establish the right governance. My focus is on maintaining the highest standards possible and securing funds to support our goals.

I am currently the Executive Chair at ISC Group, accountable for keeping the management and team focused on delivering our agreed mission as it evolves and changes to meet members demands to achieve our vision and fulfil our purpose.

It is my responsibility to keep the ethos and drive on track and secure the funding needed to continue to offer the services and value that we know work for women.

Over the last few years, we have experienced significant growth and expansion, and now is a moment of inflection. I have formed a new global fiduciary company board to agree on a strategy and, along with my excellent global management team, execute this strategy delivery to a high standard for our members.

We have been working on developing the GAIN initiative for 3 years with a team of 10 volunteers, and in the last year we have developed the platform, programmes, and services with a team of 4, including 2 full-time employees and 2 contractors, and our volunteer members formed a supervising board.

To date, I have been the co-founder with our volunteer team and co-chair with Laurie Evans, CBE, and our task has been to take it from concept to fledgling commercial membership organisation. We are now also a community interest company that is supported and owned by the insurance and investment sectors.

We have hired an executive chair, Francis McGee, to take charge of our strategy and deliver on what has been promised. Laurie and I will remain on the board to offer advice and support in the next stage of development as the industry association hub and platform for delivering programmes and services to our members.

The biggest challenge is getting the funding right in order to deliver a high-quality service and fulfil our vision and mission. This is ongoing.

How do you balance your personal and professional lives, and how do you most?

It is important to set and take action on social dates in your personal life as well as your professional life. You need to carve out time for both and make sure you stick to it. Having a social life means balancing, helping to contain stress, and keeping things in proportion.

With difficulty. When you’re a passionate advocate of something and a driven person, you can become absorbed to a degree that impacts your personal responsibilities.

What is important is to be mindful of the impact you may have on your family and make provisions for your busy schedule of social dates with family members.

I try to speak to my daughter most days and see her frequently. My husband is still in corporate life, so we both have busy work schedules and need to make an effort to carve out time together to do something different and enjoyable. We have two dogs that help keep us on track, and David also has a daughter who is a wonderful person and talented glass artist who we spend time with. We also have a good social life with neighbours and friends.

We both took up yoga a number of years ago, go on yoga retreats regularly, and have developed a very different set of friends outside of our work communities. This all helps keep a healthy work-life balance.

What is the message? What is your message to aspiring leaders in the field?

Know who you are and what you offer to your business and customers. Be clear about your narrative and stay consistent. Develop a support network, get sponsors and mentors, and plan ahead.

Know who you are, what the two or three things that combined make you unique are, and stick to that rather than try and fit a profile.

Remember to network in business and know that it is two-way. So be supportive and offer to help others in their careers too.

Find peer-to-peer mentors and seek sponsors from people who have made it.

Keep up to date with trends and developments in your field and get as qualified as possible for your next position.

Work hard on your narrative and be consistent in your messaging.

Don’t forget to thank those who help you.

What is your unique definition of success?

Being able to look in the mirror at your own reflection and feel comfortable that you have been true to yourself and not compromised your ethics.

Leaving a legacy that is impactful.

Change one person’s life for the better.

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