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Executive Interview
Lessons in Leadership

AIG’s Duperreault: Learn to manage diversity or be left behind.
  • Lee McDonald
  • April 2019
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Photo by Kim Bjorheim.

Brian Duperreault knows a lot about leadership.

Not only is he the president and CEO of AIG, but he has held several top executive positions including CEO of Marsh McLennan, Hamilton Insurance Group and ACE.

Duperreault views leadership as a learned skill and stresses the need to recognize the team as the true leader, not the CEO. In an interview with AMBestTV he also stressed how important it is for a leader to be surrounded by different points of view. It's easy to surround yourself with a team that's acting as an echo chamber of your thoughts, he said, but “it's a harder job to manage a diverse group. If you don't master that skill you'll be left behind.”

What does it take to be a strong leader?

I really believe in a servant-leader model. What that means is if you're a strong leader you put the team before you. The team is everything. Your leadership is to maximize the team's efforts, rather than maximizing your own. Indirectly, if your team succeeds, then you succeed. The strongest leaders I know defer to the team, put the team first, put the company first. They're second.

What leadership skills are even more important in insurance?

Insurance has, for us who take risk, this added uncertainty about it. When you're leading in a company that's taking risk you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences of that risk. Sometimes those consequences can be quite severe. You may do everything right and still have issues. Your leadership has to withstand the vagaries of the future.

How did you learn to be a leader?

My learning is repetition. You take leadership roles and you build up skills. As I said, put the team first, always.

In learning to be a leader you have to learn not to do their work, but have them do their work better. You can't do it for them. You should learn from others—having role models, seeing the people that you've been led by. To be the leader you also have to be a good follower. You should learn from others. The people that you thought were the best, emulate them, apply those skills. It's an application of skills. It's learning by doing. Repetition is everything.

In insurance itself, this is apparently a time of transition. You're seeing a lot of older, experienced leaders retiring. You're seeing an influx of new talent, new skills. How do they learn? What advice would you give them to be leaders?

How do the new people learn their skills? When you're coming in as a generation that's a digital native, let's say, as opposed to me, who's a digital immigrant, taking the skill sets that you bring naturally with you to the job is part and parcel to how you can step in.

Your job is to not just repeat the past, but to use it to mold the future. Taking skills that you have that we don't have, those leaving, you'll replace them with some of those skills, but new skills, skills that have emerged because of the evolving world we're in. That's how you grow.

What do you consider to be your No. 1 challenge as a leader, and how do you deal with that?

No. 1 challenge? The business that we do, and I'm speaking particularly as the risk-taking side of insurance, is to step in people's shoes. We say let us take your risk. It's an uncertain world out there, and so we go to the cutting edge of uncertainty, because we're taking some of the uncertainty away from them and taking it on ourselves.

The biggest challenge is how do you deal with this process of taking on more and more uncertainty; how do you manage the company around that; how do you prepare yourself and your organization to do what's right. You don't go extreme. You don't put the company at risk, but you do your job, which is to absorb the risk from others.

As a member of an organization there are always mistakes, especially as a leader, both mistakes you make and others make. How do you handle those?

First of all, everybody makes mistakes, as you said. To me, that's not the problem. The problem is not recognizing them. The biggest mistake is not dealing with the mistakes, if you don't address them head-on, if you don't admit them. You have to own your own. You can't blame others, then you'll start to get the credibility. If you take them on, you'll get the credibility of your team, your company, and all who are associated with you. Address them. Deal with them, even if it means it might expose you to some criticism because you should have done something you didn't. Your criticism's going to be even greater for not addressing it in the first place or not in a timely manner.

Is there anything that you want to share with us about leadership?

Leadership, it's a learned skill. You can learn it. It's something you've got to work on. As we said, it's recognizing the team is more important than you. It also is evolving, in terms of the kind of skills you need to be a good leader. As we become more and more of a digital world, the skills around that are required. I would say most importantly it's embracing diversity. It can't be just a slogan. You have to live it. You have to manage diversity. Leaders and managers have to get the skill set of diversity management, because it's hard. It's hard, because you want to have everybody giving you points of view that are not your own, then you have to sort all that out. It's easy to lead a group of people, as I said, in an echo chamber of repeating your statements. It's when you have to deal with all of the diversity that you want, and people telling you to do certain things that at the end of the day the group should not do. You've got to sort all that out and get everybody to agree, after you go through that process, to go in this direction. It's a harder job to manage a diverse group, but if you don't master that skill, you'll be left behind.



Lee McDonald is group vice president AM Best Co. He can be reached at lee.mcdonald@ambest.com.


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