MetLife CEO, Deanne Stewart on leading with heart

Deanne Stewart is the CEO of global insurance giant MetLife in Australia. Truly a people focused leader, she seen first-hand how getting the internal culture of a business right impacts the bottom line. Completing her MBA at Yale School of Management, she’s honed her ‘people first’ style leading teams across the finance industry including roles with BT Finance Group, Westpac and Merrill Lynch.

In this episode of Success Stories, she chats with Catherine Robson about key elements executives should cultivate, how strong culture drives business success and the tough lessons that shaped her leadership style.

Leading MetLife, Deanne has grown a culture where care and compassion for customers is celebrated alongside the high performance of staff.

“The amazing thing about our industry, but a completely underplayed thing, is that financial services, financial wellbeing, is at the heart of a family’s wellbeing. There’s physical wellbeing, emotional wellbeing and financial wellbeing. There’s an incredible noble purpose to what we do.”

A people focused leader, her desire to make a real difference through the personal development of her staff is deeply rooted in her upbringing.

“It was something that was inside me right from the word go. I think some of that just comes from being the child of two teachers that worked every single day developing and nurturing their students. I was like, well how do I do that in a business context?”

Deanne believes that the slavish focus on quarterly profit numbers in many corporates has actually been to the detriment of performance.

“My philosophy as a leader has been really focused in on people. Get your people right and get an environment where people thrive.”

“If you get that right, they, in turn, have a ripple effect on your clients, partners, customers and stakeholders. That in turn, ends up equaling better long-term profit and loss.”

“To do really well, in the 21st Century and beyond, you need human centred leadership, and to be really purposeful in what you’re doing.

“I think that is the way of the future and more and more corporations are waking up to that.”

Deanne’s focus has always been on making an impact but developing the right leadership approach took time and grew from some tough lessons. One lesson came after she had developed a strategy to turn the international business unit at Merrill Lynch (NYC) around, then lead the team to implement it.

“About 6 months into it, I had a 360-degree feedback session. The feedback was really lovely from my peers and my boss but from my direct reports, it was pretty average, actually.”

“Their feedback to me was ‘You know what we need to do, it’s your strategy and you’re letting us know what the next steps are in the activities but you’re not really engaging us.’ That was really a pivotal moment for me,” she recalls.

“Really altered my leadership style.”

“It helped me realise that you need to, from day dot, engage your team, really co-create strategy and vision with them.”

Deanne makes taking time to foster her professional relationships a priority, giving her an edge in improving her executive presence.

“I often see in women, and I was absolutely guilty of this too, come into work each day, you put your head down and do your best job.”

“But they probably don’t spend as much time on the connection and sponsorship element or really working on that executive presence that builds trust and confidence in seeing you as an executive.”

“Once I realised how little I was spending in terms of connecting and networking, what I did was I looked at my calendar over any given fortnight and deliberately put time aside for things like coffee catch ups with people inside the company and outside the company.”

Cultivating executive presence isn’t just about your network, it’s is about making people feel you can handle things.

“I often see in many women that they give their lack of confidence away in their voice, not necessarily what they’re saying but that nervousness in the voice.”

“Even simple little things like where you sit, how you sit, the space you take up. There’s lots to it. I’m not saying you should over engineer it, but you need to be very aware of the presence and the impact you have,” she says.

Setting clear boundaries helps Deanne build time for wellbeing into her hectic schedule.

“This was amazing advice that I got. Get really clear on what your boundaries are,” she says.

“It’s the wisdom to reflect and think in any given week or fortnight, what are the couple of things that have to happen to make me feel good?”

For Deanne, those things are getting enough sleep, exercising three times a week and picking her kids up from school to take them out for a milkshake and a chat at least once a fortnight.

“Provided I get those three things happening in any fortnight, that gives me a real sense of wellbeing. Hit me with whatever else comes and things should generally be ok,” she laughs.

Listen to this week’s full episode at The Constant Investor or on iTunes.

Recommended resources:

Firms of Endearment – Raj Sisodia

Thrive – Arianna Huffington

TED Talk – Your Body Language May Shape the Way You Are by Amy Cuddy