State Farm’s Sarah Mineau on gaining strength from setbacks has been saved
Cover image by: Jaime Austin
Sarah Mineau: I still believe in the old adage [that] it’s harder to be what you don’t see. And so, the more that we see representation of women in all different roles throughout this industry, I think it is a self-fulfilling journey back to those outcomes of more women leading the business [and that] means more solutions and approaches attuned to the needs of women.
Tanya Ott: I’m Tanya Ott, and this is The Press Room from Deloitte Insights. Over the last few years, we’ve been running an occasional series called Within Reach. We’re taking deep dives into the issue of gender equity in financial services, through the eyes, ears, and experience of women at the highest levels in the industry.
My guest today is Sarah Mineau. She’s a vice president at State Farm, where she oversees the life insurance, health insurance annuity, and retail investment-planning services operations. But she’s done a lot of different jobs along the way, starting on the client side at another company and then moving up through the ranks at State Farm in a variety of operations and strategy roles.
I started our conversation by asking Sarah how she ended up in financial services.
Sarah Mineau: My father was in insurance the majority of his life. He was in commercial insurance and [the] large-project surety bond business. So, I did generally understand insurance, but I would not have counted myself a student of it [when I was] young. And, as I went through my undergraduate degree, I was not blessed with a clear target that I was aiming for career-wise (laughs). And so, I tried a lot of different things. I actually began in the space of sales early on. I started off in the business of more client-side sales. That wasn’t my first role, but pretty early on. I was 22 when I went into the insurance business, and so I learned it pretty quickly, but I really migrated much more to the personal versus commercial side, as well as really a love for financial services.
Tanya Ott: So, I guess that sales background kind of led you pretty well into the client side of things when you were on the client side.
Sarah Mineau: Without question. It was people that I knew from the sales roles that I was in that introduced me to a recruiter in the insurance and financial services space, and that was how I began to investigate and explore if that would be the right next step for me. And it certainly turned out to be it. I really began as a scratch multiline agent and had I not some background in beginning a conversation with people that results in a business relationship with them, I think that would have been harder for me. But because I had a bit of that experience from other industry sales, while it did not make it easy to begin on that client side, it certainly gave me some of that fortitude that you really do need in the early years.
Tanya Ott: Beginning the conversation is often one of the most challenging things for some people. What was the key for you? What was a eureka moment you had on that?
Sarah Mineau: You know—a eureka moment—I’m not sure that I had. Candidly, I’m a bit of an introvert by nature. But I certainly had a couple of experiences that gave me the courage that I could do that. Throughout college, I waited tables. You have to be willing to talk to people. That probably began it, honestly. And then, the more that I realized how much people just sought to tell someone what they needed and share about their own lives and needs, and the more of a listener that I could be, the more I could ask questions and listen, [and] the less I felt like I would have any awkwardness in that kind of an interaction. And the more I realized that I was adding more value to every customer relationship that I was in, the better listener I was, the better off I was going to be for people. The more questions I asked, the more I was going to be able to help people. And I think that was a good learning fairly early on that has really, I think, followed through for most of my leadership career as well.
Tanya Ott: And good learning not only in a professional space, but also in pretty much every space of life. Right? Being a good listener is key.
Sarah Mineau: I think that’s right. And yet at least for me, that’s been a maturation process of the confidence of silence, the confidence of asking and listening more than talking and telling. I know I didn’t start there, but I had some early experiences that helped me get there sooner.
Tanya Ott: I will say I, in my day job, teach journalism students and one of the things that I talk with them about is you can just be quiet, and humans like to fill that void, right? They feel uncomfortable with quiet, so they start telling you things. And I think that that works not only in a journalism environment, but also in a sales environment probably as well.
Sarah Mineau: Absolutely.
Tanya Ott: How long have you been in the industry now? How many years has it been?
Sarah Mineau: I’ve been in the industry for 25 years—19 of those with State Farm.
Tanya Ott: You’ve probably seen a lot of evolution of the composition of the industry, people working in and outside of it, the way things have been done. Gender equity is one of the big issues that we’ve been talking about in this series, and I’d love to have you just delve into what it looked like 25 years ago when you first entered and what it’s like now.
Sarah Mineau: Sure. And I agree with the premise of the question: It has changed a lot. At the early outset, I was the only woman in the office that I worked in originally. And that was not terribly dissimilar than some of the sales roles that I had had before I really entered into the brokerage and advisory and agent space. But today, I see it in the composition of the agents that I work with every day—I see it in the composition of the internal leadership teams, [that] there has been a clear shift toward more representation of women in both client side, sales side roles as well as operational—both expertise-oriented roles, actuarial, accounting kinds of roles, as well as operational leadership, broader leadership roles.
I do think it’s critically important—I have a real care for it personally that we continue to see more gender equity in this industry. Financial security and financial freedom are the bedrocks of choice and confidence and taking risks in your life. And so, the more women that have that foundation, the more that’s going to be a foundation to build upon for further progress.
From a career and industry perspective, I think it’s important that everyone has access to opportunity. That may not mean equality of the results that everyone has, but everyone should have that access to opportunity. I still believe in the old adage [that] it’s harder to be what you don’t see. And so, the more that we see representation of women in all different roles throughout this industry, I think it is a self-fulfilling journey back to those outcomes of more women leading the business [and that] means more solutions and approaches attuned to the needs of women.
Tanya Ott: I love the phrase that you use—It’s hard to be what you can’t see. And I’m wondering, when you started you were the only woman in the firm. What was that like?
Sarah Mineau: I don’t know that I reflected on it as much at the time as I do [when] looking back upon it. It may have been that naivete of youth, but I felt so compelled to learn the business and grow the business and learn from others and grow my own competency that was going to increase my own confidence that I may not yet have looked across and thought, well, gosh, I’m the only one. It’s more in the later years that I reflected back on that. And part of that was a joyous reflection, because it means that the rooms that I was increasingly in had much more of a mixture, much more of a diverse composition. I think, at times, when I’ve been in that situation, there’s a chameleon aspect to it where you adapt to the surroundings that you’re in. But any time that that I felt “only” in a situation, I felt like the only one on something in a situation, that may have had less to do with the composition of the room and more to do with an individual within the room or where the conversation was going. And I feel, even in the early years, I had the good fortune of courage of my conviction to speak up. Courage of my conviction to express my opinion. And I think to be able to do that in a setting where you do feel a bit more “only” has made me more attentive to the situations that I was then later in throughout my career, to invite more people’s voices into a conversation. And certainly, it’s just maybe set up a foundation of courage that I think is very necessary in most roles in business.
Tanya Ott: And that courage that you talk about is just necessary in any industry because you have a wide variety of challenges that you have to tackle and a wide variety of opportunities that you’ve got to suss out—you know, what’s going to work for you, what’s not, and how do you go for it.
Sarah Mineau: Absolutely. Whether it’s that willingness to take risks [or] it’s the grit and determination to overcome obstacle or adversity—courage is an ingredient to all of those things. And so, regardless of who you are, regardless of the composition of the teams that you’re a part of or the industry that you’re a part of, courage is a necessary ingredient of leading your team successfully. Whether you’re in leadership or delivering on the results that you’re aiming for, you’ve got to have the courage to take a chance. You’ve got to have the courage of your own convictions. Sometimes, you have to have the courage to trust yourself, even when other people don’t.
Tanya Ott: And sometimes, you have to have the courage to realize that a great opportunity maybe isn’t the right thing for you at that moment or just isn’t the right opportunity for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you identify new opportunities, including the ones that you shouldn’t take.
Sarah Mineau: Well, that’s a good question, Tanya. I think for one thing, I do have a belief in the benefit of taking on different kinds of roles. Some of that’s the good fortune I’ve had here at State Farm. There are so many different kinds of things you can do, and I think a lot of companies have that same characteristic. I do believe in the benefits of trying adjacent things because I think it ultimately builds on your full skill set. It certainly has built on mine. Early in my career, I probably was less intentional than maybe I wish I had been. I was “willing when asked,” and I was always someone who wanted to understand things that were happening outside of my specific purview. I think that’s a really important part of identifying opportunities that may be a good fit or may not be a good fit. If I could offer contribution across a wider range of efforts or work or initiatives or projects or teams, I could widen my own personal boulevard of opportunity because I was growing a set of experiences by doing those different things, by contributing in different ways, by trying to be a part of project teams that were outside of perhaps my specific area of responsibility. I think it really creates a wider set of experiences and a wider set of relationships.
And because of that, for me, it became easier to identify what opportunities might be a good match and which ones might not. I’m an open-minded person, certainly open-minded from a career perspective. Any time I was either approached about a new opportunity or I was thinking about one, I would approach it with an open mind. As my career progressed, I think I became more intentional about the types of crucible experiences that I thought I didn't yet have but could make me better at what I did today and might unlock new opportunities for me to do something different and contribute in a different way tomorrow. Sometimes, that learning begins with the professional interests that I might have had, but more and more—and this is something that I do when I have mentoring relationships, which I consider to be really two-way regardless of who thinks of themselves as mentor or mentee—I’ve increasingly become pretty vocal with especially other women leaders about the importance of articulating what you think your highest and best value to the organization that you’re with could be, or what you think your highest and best use within an industry could be, and not shying away from that and not feeling like that was a self-promotion. In my opinion, that’s being clear with the organization that you’re a part of [about] what is the best use of you for the benefit of the collective, and then, of course, what would ignite my interests and passion and use my capabilities and skills in the best way. And so, when I either am approached about a new opportunity or I’m exploring on my own, I do try to draw on the experiences that I have and things that have caused me joy in the work that I did and gave me real challenge that was additive to what I was able to then contribute in other ways. And I was just open-minded about how I would be able to contribute in a higher and better way for the organization, even if it didn’t seem like it was right in line with the career progression that I’ve had. I’ll tell you, over the 19 years at State Farm, I’ve had equal measure or lateral and upward changes in role—probably a little bit more lateral than upward. I’ve been fortunate in my career, but I consider the lateral moves to be so additive, to making me be able to be a better leader for the teams that I was with and making me more valuable to the organization in a wider range of ways.
I’ll just give one example. Most of my 25-year career, as well as most of my career at State Farm, has been in financial services and retail financial services, not institutional. And at a point about seven or eight years ago, I was asked to take on a wholly different role. This was an upward opportunity, and I was asked to go into the space of human resources (HR), specifically learning and development, for which I had no educational or experiential professional background. We all had some learning background, of course, as learners, but it was quite a left turn for me from a career standpoint. And I trusted my leadership, and one of the reasons that they were interested in that for me was because it would be a broadening role. It would be a role where I would be working with parts of the organization that in my financial-services role I never would have necessarily worked closely with. And I probably thought, Tanya, that that would be a two-year journey, and then, I would be back toward the work that I do today. And lo and behold, five years later, I thought I might just have become an HR leader. Right? That that may just be the career that my path was now going to be on. I loved it. I learned so much from it. And it has made me more capable coming back to P&L (profit and loss) roles than I would have been had I not had that experience. But it was the open-mindedness at the outset and through multiple HR roles that I was able to gain those experiences and learn the value of something pretty different to lead than what I had done before.
Tanya Ott: You have a story about taking accounting classes and figuring out pretty quickly that [that] was not for you. Tell me about that.
Sarah Mineau: You know, that would fall into the category of open-mindedness to change. It was actually when I made a move into human resources and after about a year, I had learned some of the comp and benefits side, which I knew the retail side of that but less institutional. And it had started to enter my mind that my career might go on this path of human resources. I had talked to some experts and some leaders here about what are some of the objective criteria, some of the things that I could build my own personal portfolio around. And one of the leaders had said, if you’re really to go in that direction, I think a stronger foundation in accounting might be good for you. Now my background was liberal arts as an undergraduate and then I have an MBA. I thought, okay, I can add accounting to the mix of that. I hadn’t done accounting as an undergrad and so I went back to school during my career, went back to school in accounting as an undergrad.
Tanya Ott: Oh, wow.
Sarah Mineau: Yeah. Oh yeah. So yeah, I make that point clear as an undergrad because it’s very different. It’s very different than what it’s like in a graduate program. It’s a different curriculum, different body of work. I actually enjoyed the discipline of it a bit. I enjoyed that it allowed me to participate a little bit differently in some conversations that I was in because I now had some foundational mechanics that I didn’t have before. I also quickly learned that if this was going to open a door, it was maybe not a door that I wanted to walk through because I was not ignited in passion and interest. I freely admit that. I recognized that for me to be at my best, I have a real interest and passion in something. That’s not unique to me. Most people, I think, really feel that way and do their best when they feel passionately about something. I simply didn’t feel passionately about it. It was a bit of a slog to muster up the energy to continue in it. And so, I said, you know, stop.
This is a learning that I’ve shared with a lot of other people, that simply because you begin on a path doesn’t mean that that’s the path that you’re going to end on. That’s been the case for me throughout my career. In this case, I think it gave me more than I would have imagined in learning about myself and having the courage to say, you know what? It’s not that. That’s not the continued direction. I’m going to invest in some other things to continue to build my capabilities. Now, Tanya, I’ll be very honest with you. My mother was extremely excited about me pursuing accounting, and I may not ever hear the end of it from her that I have not pursued any more. Probably the most lasting impression on me is that, because I continue to get questions about why I don’t want to continue to pursue a CPA.
Tanya Ott: Tell me about a time that maybe things didn’t go well professionally. You know, maybe you were just very disappointed in the way something turned out or you were particularly challenged. What were the learnings from that?
Sarah Mineau: How long do we have? No, just kidding. You know, first of all, I think we’re all a bit of a work in progress on that. Failure’s hard. Things not going well is hard. It can be personal. It can be professionally embarrassing at times. It can feel like it’s derailing, even more so when you’re passionate about something.
I’ve had a couple of experiences. One was a business unit that I’m still responsible for today, but we weren’t achieving the level of growth that we thought was possible. We had to ultimately make some fairly significant changes to the business, [and] not all of those changes went as we wanted them to. There were setbacks internally against a backdrop of macroeconomic challenges as well. Navigating the complexity of trying to drive a business unit forward, for the growth with sustainable profitability that was needed.
And so, one of our—sort of—challenging setbacks was business growth not meeting expectation and needing to step back, reevaluate, find success, and build upon that success. But for me personally, what I did was ... a bit of perseverance, a bit of creativity, bringing down biases that I may have had about what the path needed to be, and finding a new way with the teams to find a new route to success for that business unit that we still lead today. What I just described is probably a ten-year journey of having to unwind and rebuild. That took perseverance against setback. It took grit. I mentioned the word grit before—I find myself using it a lot lately because I think it’s such a critical characteristic of the ingredients of passion and courage and perseverance and resilience. [There are] so few challenges that don’t require it, and certain crucible experiences exponentially grow it. And I would say a business unit coming close to needing to be sunset and finding a new way would be one of those crucible times. What came from that adversity on a business front was that we were able to make a turn, remain in the business in a narrower way that allowed us to build upon a bit narrower foundation, but to a successful line of business that gave us the ability to serve more customers and gave our producers an ability to have a wider offering.
From a skill standpoint, I’ve learned a lot through that adversity—mechanical things like prebriefings and premortems, and you set up red teams and you invite critique and criticism early, some of those mechanical steps to leading the teams and the work. And from a mindset standpoint, I think it’s back to courage and grit and surrounding myself with truth tellers that desired and would celebrate the success but would be very honest about whether the path we were on was going to get us to that point or not. Inviting that personal board of directors closer into our work earlier is an element of courage, as well. Having those different voices at the table has certainly improved the way that I approach things and I think that’s the case for my team as well.
Tanya Ott: So that’s a great transition, all those different voices at the table, because there are all kinds of diversity. It’s not just gender. It’s not just racial. You’ve got LGBTQ+, economic background, [and] neurodiversity. How do you think organizations can best embed that kind of diversity and also inclusion into their business efforts rather than announcing a nice-to-have program that might address something for a short while?
Sarah Mineau: I think that leadership is critical—leadership modeling [in which] we invite dissent when it matters, that we ensure through our processes, our practices, and the way that we approach our work in every room that we’re in, that we have a range of diverse people, whether it be race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and identity. [In] business that I’m a part of, we serve tens of millions of customers and households, and the customers we serve are an incredibly diverse population. If we do not have that representation, then I do not believe that we can serve them as well. I do not believe that we can necessarily understand their needs as well if we are homogenous while our customers are heterogeneous. I further think representation matters. It’s important that we have diversity and inclusion programs. That’s important. It’s foundational. And it’s critical that we have that embedded into the fabric of how we operate, how we learn, and how we teach.
Tanya Ott: Some folks have been a little frustrated by the outcomes in gender equity in the financial services industry. And I’d like to know from you what you hope the conversation around gender in your industry is going to be in 10 or 20 or 30 years.
Sarah Mineau: Ooh, I think I’d be naive to think we weren’t having it anymore, but I wish that that was the answer! I hope the conversation is being had by a representation of women in all levels of leadership that mirrors the population. I think that would be a great start. I expect it to be less about how much progress needs to be made and the societal and economic benefits of the progress, and more about what’s been accomplished and the benefits that it has added societally and to business and to the economy and to people as individuals and communities collectively. So, I hope that the conversation now stands on a foundation of progress that allows it to be less widespread and more acute to dislocations that still exist.
Tanya Ott: This has been such a great conversation. I’m so glad that you were able to join us today.
Sarah Mineau: Thank you very much.
Tanya Ott: Sarah Mineau is vice president of life, health, and investment planning services at State Farm. Our conversation is part of a series with women in some of the top jobs in financial services—It’s called Within Reach, and you can find those conversation, white papers and plenty of data, and thought leadership on the topic at www.deloitte.com/insights.
We’re on Twitter at @deloitteinsight and you’ll find me at @tanyaott1.
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I’m Tanya Ott. Thanks for listening and enjoy the rest of your day.
Cover image by: Jaime Austin