Insightful leaders have an outsized impact on the world around them. They can often cut through the noise to see the crux of an issue or the active ingredient that will achieve the desired outcome. Margaret Meister, President and CEO of Symetra Financial Corporation, brings that wisdom in droves, applying a thoughtful, analytical approach whether talking about interest rates, product innovation, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), career paths, or remote working policies. The result is a leader whose view of the big picture is crystal clear.
IRI celebrates exemplary leadership within the insured retirement industry. Read on to learn about Symetra CEO Margaret Meister’s views on the low interest rate environment, the country’s changing demographics, and why she’s never let a job description “box her in.”
In describing your career and the varied leadership roles you’ve taken at Symetra, you once said that you “never let a job description box you in.” Would you elaborate on that idea and why you think professionals should adopt that mindset?
I think the desire to continually challenge yourself and a willingness to embrace change and actively pursue it is essential for professional growth. I’m not sure that a job description always accommodates those biases.
When I began my Symetra career, it certainly wasn’t with the expectation of becoming CEO. I started as a division-level actuary with a focus on annuity products. When I moved into a finance actuarial role, I was exposed to a new set of activities at the corporate level. My actuarial education grounded me in how the products and the financials of the industry worked, but I was always interested in learning more. I wanted to define myself as a businessperson first, someone who understood the bigger picture beyond the actuarial assignment.
By the time I was named Chief Actuary, I had been involved in product launches, system conversions, and establishing new distribution relationships. I had regular opportunities to interact with the CFO and the CEO’s office. After I became CFO, I continued to look for opportunities that fell outside the traditional definition of the role, eventually taking on leadership of Symetra’s commercial mortgage loans unit, IT operations, and our brand marketing and communications teams.
So, I learned early on that pushing the boundaries of a defined role and a willingness to go above and beyond gets you noticed and gets you new assignments and responsibilities. That approach changes, of course, as you advance in your career. Once you decide you want to have a bigger strategic influence, you’ll need to be clear and intentional about making that desire known. Sometimes that will push you out of your comfort zone, but the greater satisfaction and longtime rewards are worth it.
The pandemic has brought so much uncertainty and chaos to the lives of so many. Tell us about a time of uncertainty from your career that ultimately proved to be an opportunity for you.
Two experiences immediately come to mind: The first was participating in the establishment of Symetra, and the second was navigating the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
When Safeco decided to sell the life and investments unit that would become Symetra in 2004, I was involved throughout the process as Appointed Actuary. It was a high-stakes endeavor, and the outcome was by no means guaranteed. There was a moment when the sale might not have gone through, and I led the effort to develop solutions. It was a career-defining moment for me as I was at the table making tough decisions about the company. Ultimately, we were successful in standing Symetra up as an independent company. It was a huge and invaluable learning experience.
Like the pandemic, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was a global event. The timing for events of this magnitude is never ideal, but at that point, Symetra was only a few years old, and I’d been CFO for just two years. I recognized that we could not falter, or we wouldn’t come out the other side, but equally understood that if we successfully navigated the crisis, it would have a profound impact on Symetra’s future reputation as a stable, trusted company.
I and others on the leadership team worked hard to guide our employees through tough times as people were understandably worried about their jobs and financial wellbeing. I was very proud of the financial strength and discipline we had built, which served us well and got the company through the crisis.
Both of those experiences were fraught with uncertainty, but they offered important lessons about trusting yourself and your team to make the right decisions. In hindsight, I’m grateful for them. It took a strategic focus, resilience, and a fair amount of courage to navigate them. That same approach has served us well steering through the pandemic.
Diversity is a significant industry focus. Can you talk about Symetra’s approach to DEI?
We have seen the crucial cultural and corporate shifts around DEI these last couple of years. Despite these efforts, it can still feel like we aren’t moving fast enough or doing everything we can and should.
I can say that Symetra is focused on DEI across our enterprise. It lies at the heart of our strategic vision to “create a world where more people have access to financial freedom.” It’s reflected in our Symetra Empowers strategic goals, which articulate what we’re trying to do for our customers, distribution partners, employees, and communities. It’s woven into our culture.
For me, this is both a business and a social imperative. We know that our industry has not done the best job reaching younger audiences, women, LGBTQ+ communities, and the growing number of diverse populations in our country. We know we need to do that at Symetra if we’re going to achieve our vision and help more people achieve the financial freedom they want, whether that’s saving for retirement, sending their kids to college, or building generational wealth. It’s equally incumbent upon us to ensure that our organization reflects the diverse audiences we’re looking to serve.
It's why we announced our commitments to promote racial equity and support social justice in 2020, set measurable goals for gender equality and racial diversity, and initiated a study of the diversity of our customer and partner base. It drove us to prioritize and fund work to build a world-class DEI program. That office is actively working with our leadership, HR, and employee resource groups to build a shared understanding of bias, system dynamics, and culture and to develop strategies to address inequities. Our objective is to strengthen inclusion and make Symetra more diverse.
The insurance industry has made progress on DEI—and I applaud IRI’s supporting initiatives on this front. But there is still a lot of work to do for all of us. I’m optimistic and committed.
Given the hyper-attention right now on the Federal Reserve’s pending actions, can you talk about the interest rate environment? How is Symetra addressing it both from a product and organizational perspective?
After a decade-long low-rate environment, I think we’ve all accustomed ourselves to this operating reality. Frankly, even if rates do climb, they will still be really low. So, the ongoing issue remains how do you effectively meet the challenge?
From a product perspective, we think it means shifting your product mix to better meet market conditions so that your liabilities are less dependent on a straight interest rate proposition. The rapid rise of registered index-linked annuities (RILAs) bears this out. According to Cerulli, 15 new RILAs were registered with the SEC in 2021 alone. We expanded our RILA suite with two new annuities offering customers more opportunities to find growth and expect this product line to be a big driver of growth for us.
From an investments perspective, everyone is looking at opportunities to source yield. In 2020, Symetra Financial established our investment subsidiary, Symetra Investment Management, or SIM. Last year, we successfully completed SIM’s registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission in order to expand its existing relationship with Symetra, continue to facilitate the ability of Symetra’s Japan-based parent, Sumitomo Life Insurance Company, to invest in U.S.-based assets, and begin to pursue third-party institutional clients.
It has taken a team effort to address this, involving all parts of the business. I’m proud of how we’ve responded and adapted to these conditions.
Symetra recently decided to make work-from-home (WFH) optional for Symetra employees. What concerns do you have as you roll out this policy at Symetra, and how will your leadership style evolve in response?
Last April, we decided to offer the majority of Symetra employees the option to choose full-time remote work once our pandemic restrictions ended. In the end, everyone on the Symetra leadership team instinctively understood this decision was the right one. Still, we were thoughtful and held candid discussions about how a permanent hybrid working model aligns with our culture and our future success.
Early on, I had concerns about maintaining and evolving Symetra’s culture, which I think is one of our greatest strengths. But I believe that one of the pandemic’s lasting positive effects is that we’re thinking of our teams less geographically and more functionally and structurally. It’s much more about who is working on what project and less about what location is responsible for a given initiative or business. It’s accelerated cultural norms we’ve been striving to permanently establish for years. In a very real sense, it’s taught us to think of ourselves and truly work as one team.
My leadership style has certainly evolved, with a heightened emphasis on communication unquestionably playing a key role. I’m finding that the flexibility of working remotely has expanded and, in many ways, deepened my connections to my teams. I no longer must choose between a product milestone celebration in our Bellevue headquarters on Tuesday or a strategic planning session in our Enfield, Conn., office on Wednesday; I can attend both.
Do I miss the energy and spontaneous hallway interactions of the office? Absolutely. But the direct feedback I’ve received from every one of the 100+ weekly all employee messages I’ve sent out since February 2020 has been invaluable. We have expanded the number of channels available to employees to share their thoughts and feedback, whether through talent check-ins, Teams platform, or regular polls so that we can actively incorporate that input into decision-making. Our new remote work policy is just one example of that approach in action.
I truly believe our willingness and ability to embrace a remote environment works in our favor on multiple levels, including retaining and attracting talented people—and we are as focused as ever on making Symetra a great place to work, develop, and grow.
What is one industry disruptor or rising trend you’ve been thinking a lot about? How is Symetra uniquely positioned to succeed given that coming change?
It is hard to pick just one.
Technology and our country’s changing demographics are two significant factors shaping how we do business. Our vision to help more people have access to financial freedom means developing insurance products and services that meet the evolving needs of a diverse spectrum of customers—and technology is changing the way we engage and serve those customers, whether online, on a personal device, or the phone.
I won’t claim that Symetra is uniquely positioned to succeed, but I will say that we are clear-eyed about the future and are intentionally steering towards it. We’ve made significant additions and changes to our product line-up, launching a record number of new products in the last 12 months. We’re working to become a digital business. We’re implementing new organizational models and prioritizing customer-centricity and DEI as core competencies of our culture. And we continue to adapt to new ways of working in response to the pandemic. We’re also seeking greater diversity in our team's backgrounds, perspectives, and skillsets as we continue to expand our employee base. Greater diversity in an empowered team will help us plan, develop and launch new products and services to reach a wider customer base.
Through all this change, I believe an open-minded approach and willingness to try new things will determine who succeeds going forward. Our industry can choose to embrace change or let the past dictate what’s possible. The past is static and limiting. The future offers flexibility and new opportunities to serve our customers. It’s this flexibility, this capacity to let go of past processes and approaches to find new ways to succeed, that we all must embrace.