Why Women Are Successful Leaders: Meet Sandra K. Lee

LeeSandra K. Lee

CEO
Harold L. Lee & Sons
New York City

Why insurance?

My background was nursing and education. I grew up in a family that was immersed in insurance and financial services, dating back to my great grandmother and grandfather who started a storefront in the late 1800s. That’s where our firm is sourcing from. Even though I was a nurse, I was always around the business as a little girl. I worked there in college in the summer, but I never really envisioned myself working in the agency. And it was ironic because my parents didn’t really push any of their three kids to do so, either.

As I got more involved while my father was looking for succession and winding down, I suggested he consider my cousin, who is my counterpart and the same age as I am. We were both looking at career changes just because of family commitments, so I started to work part time and help the agency out because of my background. Nursing is very similar to insurance because you’re caring for people, just in a different way. You have to be a good listener. You have to be open to creative solutions, and as a ‘people person,’ I thought this would be something I could help my dad with.

I started to really enjoy it and be quite successful at what I was doing, so I got a lot of satisfaction from helping people in this way. I continued to evolve after my family got a little older. I’ve been with the agency since ’81, but I went full time in ’84.

Mentors and role models?

The women in the family never took front-seat roles, but they were all involved in the business. My grandmother was always sort of the anchor. When my grandfather had to be out of the office, she made sure the business was up and running every day. My aunt was working full time in the agency as a bookkeeper—an operations person. She knew the customers, she knew the carriers and she made me understand that it’s a relationship business. If we did the right thing for our clients, we would be successful. That stuck with me.

Mentoring from my aunt, mother and grandmother gave me the confidence to be able to succeed in this industry—to be able to pick up the phone and call the CEO of any of our carriers and really have a conversation without being intimidated. I think that’s very important. The body of knowledge gives you confidence. It’s important to excel, be prepared and have the expertise so you are respected.

What does it take to be a woman leader in the insurance industry?

I think the most important thing is to excel and to strive. Demonstrate that it’s not because you’re a woman that you are where you are, but because you’re there to have a great command of the industry, the products and the coverages. Then communicate that to the clients and make sure the carriers are accountable and responsive to the community they serve. Show you are of a caliber that gains respect from everyone—whether it be man, woman, vendor or the people you’re working with. If you’re a role model, gaining respect and a seat at the table becomes realized.

When I got into the industry, there weren’t a lot of women-owned brokerages, but women were always in the background of every agency—operations, accounting, customer service, bookkeeping. As I grew in the agency, I noticed women in the industry starting to evolve into leadership roles. They’d start in underwriting and they’d move to the sales side. It’s rewarding to see the changes.

Toughest challenges along the way?

Starting out, it was an all-boys-club kind of industry. You would rarely see women in the boardroom, at presentations or at client meetings. They’d be in the back working on the quotes and the proposals, but you wouldn’t really see them interfacing.

That changed a lot over the years. The insurance industry realized that the commitment and loyalty and dedication that women give to the work they prevail in is very compatible for our industry. You need consistency, you need great product knowledge and you need to know some institutional history with the carriers we work with. I think all those ingredients have come to the forefront.

Now, we’re seeing so many more women in leadership roles, and many times it’s a family business. In our case, we’re three generations out, but women have the confidence to be on the front lines now and realize that their contributions are very positive.

What makes the challenges worth it?

I love getting up every day and working at the agency. I’m at the point where I could slow down, but there’s something about the energy and appreciation that the clients feel for you. I’m always learning. We can offer just about every insurance product for a client’s needs, which covers a huge span of information.

You constantly meet new challenges: new coverages to learn about, new clients that are emerging with technology. We’ve had the opportunity to expand our knowledge and our agency reach. That’s an ongoing challenge—it’s not like we get up and do the same thing every day. To me, it doesn’t seem like that at all. It feels like I have a new client that is doing something different and they’re not getting the help they need, so they come to us.

Goals?

Keeping up with technology and social media—and the way the millennials are communicating—is the next challenge. How can the industry still retain personal relationships, while also using these new tools?

I think getting a balance is the most key to taking on that challenge. Some agents are going 100% in the technology direction, and that’s not the right answer because some of our clients are not there yet. You really have to judge who the audience is at the time and reach them on a level that they’re comfortable with.

All of us who ever have dealt with the service industry have found that you still like to speak to a person. And when they know who you are, that’s very important. We’ve been able to prevail with our clients over some of the larger firms because of that personal touch in the business.

This article is the first in a series that profiles women leaders who are thriving in the independent insurance industry. Keep an eye on IAmagazine.com and upcoming editions of the News & Views e-newsletter for more.

Jordan Reabold is IA assistant editor.