Stewart: Welcome to another edition of the Insurance AUM Podcast, and today we’re going to be talking with the newly appointed sole CIO of F&G Life, Leena Punjabi. Leena, welcome.
Leena: Thank you, Stewart. So excited to be here.
Stewart: We just, before this podcast, before I hit the record button, you just said that you just got promoted to sole CIO at F&G Life, a $38 billion life company. I’m super happy for you. You and I got a chance to meet in New York some time ago. You’re a rarity in this industry being a female minority CIO. Can you talk about your career journey and incorporate a little bit about F&G Life for those who don’t know it?
Leena: Yeah, absolutely. So Stewart, really the early part of my career and how I ended up in finance and investments and insurance was really a series of accidents, if you can believe it. I would now call them happy accidents, but while I was studying, I was never interested in finance. I actually majored in marketing while I was doing my MBA and I wanted to be a brand manager. But several reasons, I won’t get into them now, after my MBA, I ended up taking a position as a financial advisor with a private bank, and that was my first foray into finance. Then I moved to the US, and again, for several reasons that I won’t get into here, I decided to do an MS in accounting, and I was on my way to becoming an auditor somewhere in a big four accounting firm. But a friend of mine worked with Mercer Investment Consulting. They were looking for people and she asked me if I wanted to apply because she knew I was a financial advisor. So I joined their investment consulting practice.
And then the third accident, the happiest so far, was how I get got into insurance. So, the year I joined Mercer in 2006 we got our first insurance client in the US. I happened to have the capacity, so they asked me if I wanted to join and be part of that relationship, and I said yes. And, since then I haven’t looked back, but I’m saying all this to say that keeping an open mind and willing to change course because of life events or changing industry trends has served me really well, and what I really mean by that changing industry trends. So when I first started working with insurance, it was very challenging. It’s a male-dominated industry and I was an outsider. I didn’t come from the insurance industry. However, when I looked 10 years into the future, I realized that insurance was the future. Why do I say that? So, when I started at Mercer, I was a generalist. I was working with pension plans, 401k plans, and then fell into insurance by accident.
But, we all know that the pension industry is really dying. Most pensions are frozen and closed and they are being transferred to insurance companies. So everybody was focused on 401k, and I was like, “Insurance companies, given the low rate environment, need advice and fresh thinking from outside consultants. So I should focus on that, no matter how hard it is.” The fact that Mercer was not organized to serve insurance clients made it even more challenging, but I do think that just keeping at it, following advice that I got from people, fake it till you become it, constantly talking to people from the industry, asking questions, asking for help. It really, really has been rewarding, all the swimming upstream that I have done working within this segment. So I would say that every project was a true partnership within the consulting framework between the client, the asset managers, and us as the consulting team, and that has really helped me get where I am.
And, I wanted to then be part of an insurance company. And the reason for that was I wanted the insider’s view. So, I was interviewing with a few insurance companies and this is where F&G comes in. I really hit it off with the previous CIO, Raj Christman. I really liked everybody I interviewed with, the senior leadership team. But, I will say that it is hard to break into the insurance industry as an outsider, and it really took F&G’s core values of wanting diverse perspectives, which is why they gave me the opportunity. I mean, I’m sure I was a quality candidate. That was part of it. But it was also the diverse perspective I brought as a consultant, as an outsider, working with other institutional clients besides just insurance companies, and that, along with my background, the gender as well as race diversity, all of those things played into it. But F&G as a company really values diversity, so they put it into action with me and I have put it into action with my team. So we have a team of eight people, and I would say that four of us are what we call recovering actuaries. And then two of us are consultants, half of us are women, and of vast majority are what you would call people of color. So it’s been great and it’s really paid off.
Stewart: I find that to be a remarkable story in your path, but I have yet to interview anyone who said, “I set out to be in the insurance investment business.” Me included. My story is weird in that I took a job… I was the treasurer of a city, at 27. I got appointed to this job. I don’t know how. And, I quit this job to take a job at a pension plan running core bonds, and I went across the street to the bank and I said, “Hey, I just took a job,” and this person said, “Well I’ve just talked to some guys that are forming an insurance company this morning,” and I’m like, “I didn’t even know you could form an insurance company.” And, I became the CIO of that little startup insurance company, and that’s how I got my feet wet in the insurance asset management space. So I think there’s a lot of us that have kind of stumbled in there and found it to be a really rewarding career. When I was teaching trying to convince students that the insurance industry and the insurance asset management industry is an attractive place to go, is, to use your words, often swimming upstream.
So, over the course of your career, did you have mentors? How important were they if you did? And how are you building mentorship into the team that you’re running now?
Leena: Yeah, I would be lying if I said that I got to where I am without good mentorship. I will say, though, that when you are asking somebody to be your mentor or when you are picking your mentors, you need to be intentional and specific. And what I mean by that is… I’ll give my example. I am an introvert.
Stewart: When is that kicking in, by the way? I would not have put you in the introvert category, but okay. I’ll roll with it, Leena. I will. Let’s go with that.
Leena: Well, you haven’t met the Leena 10 years back, so this is just-
Stewart: Okay, that’s fair. That’s fair.
Leena: It’s faking it till I become an extrovert.
Stewart: I like it. You’re doing great. You’re doing great.
Leena: Thank you. So I would intentionally pick mentors that are extroverts. And the reason for that is they would push me to get out of my comfort zone to take up projects, to take up challenges, or even speaking opportunities that I was wired to not be comfortable with or I would shy away from. And that has really benefited me. The other thing that I have focused on is ‘what are the skills that I’m trying to acquire?’ And once you know that you can pick mentors that exhibit those skills, are effective at those skills. And just being around them, talking to them, working on projects with them, you absorb the way they do things. You get the benefit of their guidance and how they do things, and that has really helped me. So I would say that you need to be intentional and specific about who you ask to be your mentor.
The other thing I’d say is that it is very important to have sponsorship within the firm. So you need to find that voice within the organization that will support you, that will represent you in meetings and conversations where you are not physically present. And that I think is really, really helpful to have people that are your advocates when you are not around and that are in a position of influence. So I would say both of those things have really, really helped me throughout my career.
Stewart: It’s interesting right off the top when you said when you seek your mentors. I have never done a good job of that. My view of it… I know that some companies assign mentors. It sounds like you’re advocating for… Well, first of all, let me back up. I don’t think that early in my career I was smart enough to figure out that I need to be strategic and thoughtful about seeking a mentor. But it’s really good advice, and did you go to… How did you ask someone to be your mentor? We got a lot of ground to cover, but can you give me how you ask them?
Leena: Yeah. I mean, within the organization, it was easy. Whenever I got stuck with something and I knew that the things that I am struggling with, this person is really good at, I would just go and speak with them. But outside the industry and outside my line of business, I did approach people intentionally and ask them, “Would it be okay if I set a meeting with you at this frequency for this much time to just use you as a sounding board, to get your advice and guidance on certain things?” And I would say that people are more than happy to help. I mean, I have done it… I do it with my team. I’ve done it with people outside the industry. I also still talk to people at Mercer, even though it’s been three years since I’ve left them. So I love doing it, and I think most people do. I used to think that I’m encroaching on somebody’s time and time is such a luxury, but it’s very rewarding for a mentor, and I think most people are very happy to do it.
Stewart: I mean, I’m sure you can recall, I mean, to walk into the CIO’s office can be scary. This person’s senior to you, your job performance impacts your career in that conversation. So I assume that it’s both ways for you, given your background. Have you reached out to other people, when they haven’t solicited your mentorship, you’re actively reaching out, it sounds like.
Leena: Yeah, I am. And then you also asked me how have I implemented this or used this effectively on my team? So we do have a formal mentorship program for everybody that joins our organization. As you can imagine, in the virtual environment we are in, it’s very hard to build relationships, get face-to-face time. So, it’s hard to figure out who should be your mentor. So, we think about what are the skills we want this person to develop, and we will intentionally pair them with somebody, whether it’s their buddy or their mentor, that has those skill sets. But within the team, the way we’ve created reporting lines, I have encouraged… I talked about the recovering actuaries, because they have transferred to investments because they want to learn more about investments. I have tried to ensure that the actuaries are not all reporting into actuaries, they’re reporting into investment folks so that there is diversity of thinking, there’s challenge, and there’s learning happening as they work together as direct reports and managers.
Stewart: I think if you went around and you surveyed major corporations today and you say, “Do you have a DE&I effort,” whatever, I think people just say yes. Check the box. “Yep, we do.” But what that looks like, the old saying goes, the proof’s in the pudding. And at F&G it looks like that F&G has embraced diversity in a very authentic and genuine way. Do you notice it being different in some other places? Talk about how F&G does that in their mission and culture.
Leena: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we are an organization that is committed to the work needed to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion into our culture, our core values, and our decision-making. I gave the example of how they hired me, how I have built a team of diverse people. But forming a diverse team is just the beginning. You need to provide the right tools. You need to provide training and development. You need to give people a voice. You need to provide coaching and mentorship. And F&G has done all of this. From the very top, our CEO, he is very serious about DEI and we have formed a grassroots-led, an employee-led DEI committee, and we’ve defined our DEI mission to be respectful and embrace the identities of our people, value the diversity of our teams, and foster an inclusive and equitable community. And it shows in our actions. So I would say that’s what’s unique and different. It’s not a check-the-box exercise. It’s not just about responding to a question in the RFP where you make the numbers look good. It is actually everyday living within F&G and part of our culture and how we practice inclusiveness and equity.
Stewart: I really applaud that. It’s great to hear. Particularly in the insurance industry, I think that we all know we have a lot of wood to chop there. So you mentioned investing in leadership and in leaders. What has impressed you the most during your time at F&G as a female leader and minority?
Leena: I think it is the little things that we’ve done. So first and foremost, there is a leadership academy that has been created within F&G, and we’ve hired an outside leadership firm, a leadership training firm to carry out the curriculum and training within this leadership academy. And it is pretty widespread. We have about 20 to 25 people across the firm annually elected to be part of this leadership academy, and it is a pretty intense course, Stewart. I got elected the year I joined, two and a half years back. It took us a long time because of COVID to get through the curriculum. But it is, I want to say, about 50 hours of time that you spend in training and development and practicing it, and it encompasses a wide spectrum of topics, but one of the topics is also ‘how do you lead with diverse workforces?’ ‘How do you create a culture of inclusiveness?’ ‘How do you work across different generations?’
So, it is very intentional and we are spending money and time and resources to train people, to give them the tools, to be able to be effective in leading a diverse workforce. So I would say that’s one big thing that we are doing. There are other examples. We’ve enabled and empowered employees to share their own cultural experiences and traditions around holidays on our employee LinkedIn page. And it creates a lot of dialogue and conversation and awareness. And it’s really fun to be able to share all of that with your work family. We participated in Iowa’s Capital City Pride. I should say that F&G is a Des Moines, Iowa headquarter firm. So we participated in Iowa’s Capital City Pride and won the company of the year award for our involvement.
Leena: Thank you. And we are very quick to respond. For example, when COVID broke out, there was a lot of racism against Asians and we were at the forefront addressing it within the organization, and by addressing it, I’m not trying to say there were incidents within the organization, but talking about it, raising the issue, making people aware and giving our employees a platform if they were facing it outside or within the organization to talk about it. We’ve also provided employees company-wide training, on unconscious biases. And then we try to be there for our employees in difficult times. So again, using COVID as an example, when India really had a massive outbreak with the Delta variant, we lent money and we encouraged our employees to donate money, and the company matched employee contributions. We are doing it again with Ukraine. So it’s really the big and the small actions that signal to our employees that this is just not a check-the-box exercise, it is something we really care about deeply. So I would say that’s what makes the culture unique.
Stewart: It reminds me of a comment that was made by Gia Clarke, who’s a junior at Loyola of Chicago, and she said that her contemporaries look at how industries deal with diversity when choosing a career. So with that as a backdrop, why should others consider F&G and the insurance industry, which I don’t believe is on a lot of students’ radar screens, as a place to either begin or, in your case, advance an existing career?
Leena: That’s a really good question, Stewart, and it is something that I face as a leader in building my team, how do I attract and retain talent and to somebody like, did you say Gia?
Leena: Yeah, I would say that we need fresh and different perspectives. The insurance industry is facing so many challenges. It’s not just with the investment environment that we deal with. It’s not just low rates and low spreads. It’s also in terms of the use of technology, making our processes more efficient, our operations. I mean, across the board, we need to be able to respond to the future generations, and what’s the best way to be able to respond to them besides getting more people from that generation, giving them a voice, investing in them? And I would say that the insurance industry as a whole has realized this challenge. We at F&G certainly have. So we are promoting from within, we are giving opportunities to younger employees, to diverse employees. So I would say I see that in my peer companies as well. So it is really the right time if you are the type who wants to be part of a change, who wants to influence change, who wants to be part of the growth story. I think the insurance industry, the timing is just perfect.
Stewart: I think it’s such a great point about the timing. One of our clients said to me, “The life insurance industry has changed more in the last 18 months than it has in the last 50 years.” And I’m curious of your opinion, that’s true on the investment side and on the human side. Do you think that’s fair?
Leena: Yeah, I think that is absolutely true. It’s definitely changed on the investing side. Back when I started my career insurance companies were only investing in corporate bonds for the most part. And you know, just somebody like me who loves challenges, who likes new ideas, investigating and researching new ideas and implementing them, that’s not really attractive, but now with this challenging environment, insurance companies have embraced new ideas because they have to. There really is no choice. And that makes it an exciting place for an investment professional, for sure.
But the industry is changing outside in investments as well. Like I was saying, it’s operations, it’s technology, it’s ‘how do you appeal to a new audience’, it’s ‘how do you process the applications that are coming through it’s how do you put money to work?’ It’s ‘how do you service the client or the platform that you service them through?’ All of it is changing. So I would say that those changes mean that you have to have a different set of people. You cannot look the way you used to look to be able to do these new and different things. So I would say, yes, it’s absolutely true, not just across investments, but outside investments as well. The insurance company of today looks and feels very different from the insurance company of, I would say, even two years, back to your point.
Stewart: That’s good stuff. We’re coming down to the end of our podcast, so I’ll close with this. First of all, thanks very much for all your insights and your transparency on your career and the challenges. So, let’s just paint this picture. You’re in your office, you’re going home, and you go down the elevator and the door opens when you’re getting out, and right in front of you is Leena Punjabi at 21 years of age. What advice would you give your 21-year-old self?
Leena: Yeah, I would say two things. One is if you’re not terrified with what you’re doing, you’re not challenging yourself enough.
Stewart: I love that. That’s great advice.
Leena: Yeah. I mean, I have been terrified for large parts of my career, and I was terrified to even take on this role, and somebody told me that if you’re not terrified, then you’re not challenging yourself enough. And it made a lot of sense. I wouldn’t have been where I am if I hadn’t conducted myself that way.
Stewart: I was going to point that out if you didn’t.
Leena: And the second thing I’ll say is that focus on developing and honing your soft skills, especially for Indian people, we… I cannot speak across all cultures, but for us, we tend to focus a lot on technical skills, and I’m not saying that technical skills aren’t important, but honing and getting good at soft skills takes time, and it is what will really help you in the mid to later parts of your career. So the sooner you start, the better it is. So that’s the advice I would give my younger self.
Stewart: That is good advice. Leena Punjabi, senior vice president, chief investment officer of F&G Life. Leena, thanks for being on.
Leena: It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much, Stewart.
Stewart: Thank you for listening. If you have ideas for the podcast, please email us at email@example.com. My name is Stewart Foley, and this is the Insurance AUM Journal Podcast.