Redefining Leadership: Q&A with Darla Finchum, Head of MetLife Auto & Home®

In January of 2019, Darla Finchum was named the head of MetLife Auto & Home® and tasked with leading strategic execution for the company, a leading property and casualty insurance providers that insures nearly four million automobiles and homes nationwide.

I had the honor of meeting Darla in March when MetLife Auto & Home graciously sponsored our March Women in Leadership Nexus event, “Diversity & Inclusion, 2.0.” Darla kicked off the event, welcoming our community of leaders and said something that will stick with me forever. Referencing Jim Collins’ best-selling book, “Good to Great”—and one of his core leadership principles Level 5 Leadership—Darla said she chooses to surround herself with a “Level 5 Network.” There are very few executives who subscribe to a Level 5 Leadership mentality, an incredibly selfless, humble way of leading. It was in this moment that I knew that Darla must be a unicorn type of leader, convicted to shatter leadership norms and pave the way for better, more inspiring workplace environment.

I couldn’t wait to pick Darla’s brain about leadership. What follows is a glimpse into our conversation…

You are the Head of MetLife Auto & Home; can you talk a little bit about how you came to work at MetLife?

Darla Finchum, Head of MetLife Auto & Home®

Darla Finchum, Head of MetLife Auto & Home®

Darla: I have spent my career in personal insurance, property and casualty industry. I started right out of college in the claims organization of an insurance carrier. In the beginning of my career, there weren’t nearly as many women in the workforce as there are now—and certainly not in claims. While I didn’t understand specifically that insurance was going to become my life’s work, claims helped me fall in love with the industry as a whole.

Claims is where we put people’s lives back together in some of the most devastating moments. I developed a passion for what insurance does for people and for society; it is such a noble profession. I immediately felt good about what I was doing every day and the fact that I was making a difference in individual lives of our customers. I have always felt that people should pursue something they have passion for  because there’s a lot we can do but it should also be about what we want to do.

From there, once I knew that I enjoyed insurance and what the industry stood for, I wanted to learn as much as I could. I’ve always found that once you like something, you become naturally curious about it. That’s why I am bullish about telling women to chase their passion because of the amazing behaviors it fuels. Drawing upon this passion and curiosity, I took jobs in the industry that I didn’t always know much about—from underwriting to sales to operations to services. I really began to understand the customer, the backend and frontend, the business operations, and why it’s important for us to be a partner in the lifetime of our customers. When you choose to get into an industry, you have to become a real student of the business. Don’t be just a mile wide and an inch deep; instead, be a mile wide and a mile deep. Get as much experience as you possibly can and take that chance. That’s how I got here.

I came to MetLife through an acquisition in 2000. Before my current role leading the business, I was MetLife Auto & Home’s chief claims officer. I really feel I was given the opportunity to lead this organization because of my knowledge across the business—not just because of my work in claims. It’s a real privilege to lead MetLife Auto & Home as I have grown with the company over the last 19 years. We have a great group of people here!

Congratulation on such an exciting role! As you sit here now, is it clear to you that you always wanted to become an executive leader?

Darla: I can remember really early in my career—probably in the first year—turning to my colleague and looking at our supervisor and saying, “I can’t wait until we are sitting in their seats!” She responded, “I never want to sit in their seats!”

I always had an aspiration to lead people. I never chased the title. Instead, it was more about choosing pathways where I could make my contributions, set strategy and generate results through others. I have always believed that it’s much more about reaching goals through teamwork and seeing how associates’ work and contributions led to success, rather than seeing you succeed. One of my favorite parts of being a leader is creating an environment where others can be wildly successful. That’s my biggest pride point and where I get the greatest excitement about the job.

I have always wanted to take roles in which I know I can bring value and that value is about making a difference for other people. That’s how I have gauged all my opportunities. I never wanted to run from something but rather walk very deliberately towards something.

So well said! As you walked deliberately towards this role at MetLife, you opened the door to huge leadership responsibilities. Since leadership is such a big component of your day-to-day, what shifting trends do you see in the leadership space that excite you?

Darla: I love that the face of leaders are starting to look different and that there are a lot of really powerful proof points today highlighting that diverse leadership teams and board of directors really improve the results of a company. I also appreciate how leaders are starting to—in a more holistic and more active way—sponsor other leaders that don’t always look like them. That’s really, really exciting. There are a lot of reasons that challenging the status quo has taken a long time, but I am incredibly encouraged by how the face of leadership is changing. There are lines of women in places that never had lines before.

My view is you have to continue to have an impact on the people you touch because it creates a ripple effect where they will have an impact on the people they touch and so on and so on. That’s how real change occurs.

On the flip side, where do we still have room to improve in the leadership space, particularly for women?

Darla: As women, we tend to be more self-limiting, maybe because we haven’t seen as many women and peers in core roles around the world. We are not always risk takers, but I think it goes back to our maternal instincts. We are here to protect others instinctually, and that protector role can our ability to be a risk taker.

For the last five years, I have led a Lean In circle, where women come in with certain guardrails about what they believe is possible. What I love most is through our discussion we are lifting those misperceptions away to uncover and see what  is actually possible. I field a number of questions from women about whether they should apply for a position and if they are qualified enough. If I could give everyone the same piece of advice, I would say, “Go for it! What’s the worst thing that can happen? They may say, ‘No,’ but you learn a ton from just putting yourself out there.” Before we start limiting ourselves, we should be very clear on what we want and start talking about it. Women should surround themselves with people who will help them make it happen. When you have a clear vision of what you want, people are willing to help you make it happen.

That’s been paramount to my career progression. I have always known the kind of roles I want, how I can best contribute to an organization and what work feeds my energy. I have also been very clear in articulating that vision to others. As women, we have to remember that we are not alone in this. We may think we have to do it alone but we don’t. When I was named to my current role, I was immediately overwhelmed with gratitude for those who helped make this possible. Nothing in this world is worth it or possible without people who really care and matter around you.

Another area we can still improve in is the balance of work and life. We have to be clear about what we want. You can have it all, but you cannot do it all so surround yourself with people who will help you along the way.

This is great advice to share with others. Along those lines, can you reflect on a particularly powerful leadership moment you experienced throughout your career?

Darla: During my career, I had to move halfway across the country without my family for a job opportunity that was unlike anything I would have ever picked for myself. It was a couple of incredibly tough years. We can all be good when things are going our way but it’s in that face of adversity and how you perform when things are not in your control or going your way, that matter. Those moments define our future. It was a huge learning moment for me. Every now and then the path we are on gets tough. It’s hard but we have to power through it. It’s a huge muscle to learn.

Ok, final question for you! When you look forward, what is one major business change you hope to see?

Darla: You have to create forums to bring people together with diverse perspectives and enable people to challenge the status quo. Our world is changing at an incredibly fast pace and we have to continue to question what we have always known or long held as truths. It’s time for us reassess and do it in a thoughtful, inclusive way in which you really are caring for and creating forums for people to think differently, bring their whole selves to work, share their passions and give it 100 percent.

At the end of the day, I feel it always goes back to my three favorite words: grace, humility and respect. These are words that don’t always appear in business books, but if you can embrace those attributes in the right doses, you can accomplish great things.

Carrie Majewski is committed to affecting change. As Founder of the Women in Leadership Nexus, Carrie is fueled by a desire to create safe space for female luminaries to convene to redefine the notion of leadership. She has forged a career around strategic writing and storytelling, having led a digital marketing agency for almost three years and today working as VP of Marketing for Trilix. Carrie is a 2017 Rhode Island “40 Under 40” honoree and a 2016 Rhode Island Tech10 Winner. In her spare time you'll find her trying out a local hip-hop class, exploring parks with her rescue dog Tori, and sipping coffee with other powerhouse women.