22 minute read 24 April 2023

Nationwide’s Holly Snyder on leading with empathy during times of change

Holly Snyder, president of Nationwide Life Insurance, shares why courage, empathy, and authenticity are the key components of her leadership toolkit.

Tanya Ott

Tanya Ott

United States

Deloitte’s Center for Financial Services launched the Within Reach series in 2019 to evaluate the progress financial services institutions had made toward achieving gender equity in leadership roles, and to discover the practices that could spur measurable growth in the number of women leaders. That involves both deep dives into data and sharing the voices of individual women who have reached the upper ranks of their organizations.

Holly Snyder, president of Nationwide Life Insurance, led and operated organizations through all stages of business maturity, from launching startups to divesting underperforming units, and she’s maintained her commitment to authenticity and empathy throughout. She has been with Nationwide for 26 years, with a few breaks at other companies in between. She attributes her longevity to her firm rejection of imposter syndrome: “Women need to have confidence in their abilities, to have confidence in [themselves]. We’ve got to be able to demonstrate that to others. You’ve got to control your destiny.”

We sat down with Snyder to talk to her about the career foundations she relies on, her quest for continuous improvement, and why being the youngest of five children gave her the skills to succeed.

You know, when decisions are made at work and people tell you it’s not personal—well, that’s ridiculous. Of course it’s personal. You had to put a face with it, and you had to be available to people.

Q: Today on the show, managing with authenticity even­—or maybe especially— during the tough times.

I’m Tanya Ott, and this is the Press Room from Deloitte Insights. A few years ago, we launched a series called Within Reach. It’s rooted in the reality that even though they’ve made strides, women are still underrepresented in the financial services industry and especially at the higher levels. We’ve been talking with women who’ve reached the upper ranks of their organizations … and today, my guest is Holly Snyder. She’s the president of Nationwide Life Insurance, responsible for sales, product development, strategy, operations—you name it. I started by asking about her origin story—how she got into this line of work.

A: I kind of fell into financial services. I am a CPA by training. I began my career as an accounting and auditing professional at KPMG. Nationwide was an auditing client. I worked for a couple of other companies in between before I joined Nationwide, and one of my first jobs at Nationwide Financial was leading the P&L for one of our annuity lines. I strongly believed in the annuity value proposition of providing retirement savings and a source of guaranteed income that you can’t outlive. I did leave Nationwide, and I went to GE Financial in Virginia, where I led their variable annuity and income lines of business for a few years, and then I was recruited back to Nationwide—it’s always a good idea to keep those doors open and those bridges intact. I’ve worked in a variety of businesses and functions ever since.

I divested several underperforming businesses that we had, including health insurance, workers’ compensation, global life, and retirement. I was responsible for enterprisewide innovation. When I was leading that business, I created and led a company focused on health and productivity management. We set out to prove the connection between health and one's retirement planning—in other words, how one’s health directly impacted their wealth. I moved to Nationwide’s Life Insurance business about 10 years ago, and I’ve had a variety of leadership roles, including CFO (chief financial officer). I was leader of the new business operations area. I’ve also led product and business development. Often, I’ve served dual roles at the same time, which was a lot of fun. And, then in 2019, I became the president of Nationwide Life.

Q: Dial us back even further. When you were a kid, did you know CPA was a job? Was this something that was on your radar screen?

A: Not at all, no. I grew up in a hard-working, lower middle class family. I was the youngest of five children. Both of my parents worked really hard to take care of our family. Neither had gone to college. My dad worked at a factory all day and he farmed on the side at nights and on weekends. My mom did a wide variety of odd jobs. I would say a strong work ethic was instilled in my siblings and me at a really young age, as well as the need to be frugal and to manage your money carefully. I still have a problem with any kind of waste. I’ll use a bar soap until there is literally nothing left, and I’ll squeeze every last bit of toothpaste out of that tube.

Being the youngest, I’d say I developed grit and determination out of necessity, and I also have a fairly robust competitive spirit. I needed to have the highest grades in my class, I needed to outrun all the boys in races, and I needed to be the last person standing in the game of dodgeball.

I’d also say I have a natural curiosity for taking on new challenges and finding solutions that really haven’t been done before because I am always asking, what can I do better? How can we achieve more? My three daughters and my work team—unfortunately for them, they know that I’m really never satisfied. I’m always thinking there’s something more we can do, there’s a better way we can do this. And that’s probably why I’ve had this innate desire all of my career, to just keep learning and finding new opportunities.

Q: So, do you sleep?

A: Not well! (laughs)

Q: You teased this just a little bit, but when you’re thinking about your leadership style, what’s the primary catalyst? What is really shaped you as a leader in this space?

A: There are three traits that I think are the most important: courage, empathy, and authenticity. I have a personal mission statement. It’s to be a fair, authentic, and empathetic leader that develops and inspires others to work together to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. People who know me, what they’ll say about me is that I really do think it’s important to make your voice heard, to share your point of view. People tease me that I do have a lot of opinions, even when it’s not the most popular one.

When I think about leadership, you’ve got to treat people with kindness and caring. I can't help but think of a quote by Maya Angelou that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. That really resonates with me. Part of my leadership style centers on developing strong relationships with my team. It’s about touching the lives of those you lead really at a personal level. When those around you believe you’re passionate about the work that you do and the fact that it serves a greater good and that you genuinely care about them, they really buy in and they perform at such a high level.

And the team, the associates need to know that you’re in the trenches with them—not to micromanage them, but to support them and remove any obstacles that are in their way. They should be able to put their challenges on the table, have a healthy debate, and gain diverse perspectives to find the best solutions. When you do, you’re going to see your team’s untapped potential, which goes beyond fulfilling a job to embracing a common vision. When that happens, people are driven to make a difference.

Q: I’m interested in that idea of leadership, and particularly your real focus on your employees. You mentioned that you divested a number of different lines of services, and that’s always very challenging. Talk me through how you approached that while trying to balance that humanity.

A: I mean, I can remember the number today. Seven hundred ninety-two associates was how many people we impacted as a result of those three divestitures. My door was always open if someone wanted to come and talk with me about career opportunities or development.

We placed over 90% of those associates that were impacted either with new partners that were acquiring those businesses or through our career development resources, helped them find new roles and new opportunities. When decisions are made at work and people tell you it’s not personal—that’s ridiculous. Of course it’s personal. You had to put a face with it, and you had to be available to people. That was something that’s always been very important to me.

Q: Without divulging any personal information, is there a conversation that you had during that time with an employee that really, to this day, still stands out to you and resonates?

A: I can think of one that at the time, let’s just say we were both in tears when we were talking about the impact and the fact this was a lady who was leaving the company. She’d been here a number of years. We talked about options at that point, and probably what was most gratifying is the fact that she was back in touch, probably two or so years later, she had gone back to school, and she had created a new career and was actually happier than she ever was.

Even though it was difficult at the time, I firmly believe [when] one door closes, another one opens. For this individual, that catalyst, while it was unpleasant at the time, put her in a position to be much more successful and find an area that she had a lot more passion about than the job she had before.

Q: I’m wondering if that if you ever faced the imposter syndrome idea, you know, going to college as the first one in your family, going into a business that when you started probably wasn’t at the level of gender equity that it is today, which we’ll talk more about in a little bit. How was the confidence [gap] for you?

A: There was a term that I was looking at a couple of weeks ago relative to the confidence gap, and I actually had to look it up. When I looked it up, it talked about just because you're a woman feeling less confident in yourself relative to men, that impacting new opportunities in the future. I can honestly say I have never faced that confidence gap in my career. I’ve always believed, maybe a little too altruistically, that if you work hard and you get results, you’re going to be rewarded accordingly. I don’t think it’s that I’m lucky. I think generally across my career that’s been the truth. I would not have stayed for any company if I believed that I was being held back or not rewarded just because I was a woman.

Granted, when I looked at many of the companies that I’ve worked with, most of the leadership has been men, but I never interpreted that as a barrier to what I could achieve. Confidence is a prerequisite to being courageous; when you think about being a courageous leader, and the things that you need to do to be a good leader, that’s one of those things. My advice to people would be you’ve got to dig down within yourself. You’ve got to know your stuff. You’ve got to believe in yourself. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, why should others?

Q: You led a P&L right? The way often to rise through the ranks is to have an involvement with a P&L, which, particularly in the financial services industry, is pretty significant in terms of making it to senior management.

A: Again, I kind of fell into accounting. I didn’t know what CPA was when I was going through high school. But I love math, I love numbers. When I wound up in public accounting, I had never imagined how many doors that would open up to me to go in so many different directions, because, yes, I’ve run P&Ls. I’ve run business development. I’ve divested businesses. I’ve done mergers and acquisitions. I’ve done continuous improvement. I’m a certified Green Belt, Lean Six Sigma.

The advice I would offer: Have a foundation of expertise. I couldn’t audit financial statements or implement a FASB today, if my life depended on it. But the basics, the financial, the analytics, understanding the insights, how to read financials, how to understand numbers, those are things that once you learn them and have them, it’s just a tremendous foundation to go off and do so many other things.

Q: Gender equity is something that comes up in a lot of these conversations. Could you paint a picture for us what it was like when you first entered the field and what you’ve seen over the last 25 or more years?

A: [In] my first days in public accounting, there were a few women managers, but every partner was a man. In insurance, the last estimate I saw was about two-thirds of entry-level associates are women, and most of those being in operational roles or claims positions. We’re so underrepresented in finance and risk management and even sales. I look at it from a standpoint of progress is being made. Certainly, [there are] more women partners in public accounting. I probably am part of one of the most diverse leadership teams that I’m working with in Nationwide Financial today, both [in terms of] gender and race.

Statistically, women’s life expectancy has increased by 25 years in the last 100 years. We now have three times greater chance living [to] the age of 90 than men, demonstrating how important it is for women to be able to communicate with other women about the need for financial planning to help them prepare for that longer lifespan. It’s proving over and over again that women are so vital to this profession from a financial services, from an insurance perspective, and not just the demographics, but from a leadership perspective, being able to relate to those customers that you’re trying to serve.

Q: You’re a mom of three daughters.

A: I am.

Q: I’m a mom of three daughters. I know for me how that’s affected how I talk to them about my work, what I share, how I talk to them about life in general, and their interactions with people. And I’m wondering what kinds of conversations you’ve had with your daughters about gender equity or about how to interact with the world.

A: Yeah. I think about a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she said, “my mother told me to be a lady,” and for her, that meant to be your own person and be independent. I would say from a mom’s perspective, independence is so important for me to be able to convey that to my three daughters. The last one just graduated college last year. All three of them are college-educated, [and] have gainful employment. My oldest just had a baby, so she’s stepped away. She’s a nurse, and she’s taking care of her one-year-old right now. But this is something where, again, as a mother and a leader, you can never go wrong with making sure people are being who they were created to be. It’s so much easier being your authentic self and making sure when you’re working with others, that you’re also giving them permission to be themselves as well.

Back to gender equity ... I encourage my children to find [their] voice[s], be heard, don’t limit [their] potential. You’ve got to be able to take charge of your career and push forward in that career, but also be true to your values, know what your strengths are, know what your talents are. And as we talked earlier, I do think it’s so important to be an expert. Choose something where you can get that expertise in that field, get [the] necessary education credentials if you need them, like my CPA. Have that foundation, allow that foundation to become your support for that independence. It drives me crazy when I hear the statistics about the number of women who don’t participate in the financial decisions in their families. That is just crazy. Become educated, participate in that process, have your voice.

Q: I know I have, because I hear those opinions somewhat regularly. You alluded to this, but obviously diversity is more than just gender. It’s more than just race or ethnicity. It’s also LGBTQ+ status, economic background, neurodiversity. One of the challenges that a lot of organizations have is they start programs around diversity, and it’s a program that’s stand-alone. From your perspective, what are the types of things that work when it comes to truly embedding inclusion and diversity in business efforts?

A: As you indicated, diversity, equity, inclusion—or DE&I—has to be woven into that culture. And to your point, it’s not just that it’s the right thing to do. We all know from a business perspective, it’s critical to success. At Nationwide, we [have] a longstanding commitment to DE&I, [which] we think is one of the reasons we’re a Fortune 100 company, and we continue to be so. Those diverse perspectives [are] critical.

We’re committed to the communities in which we live and work. It’s important for us to be able to represent those communities within the walls of Nationwide. We’ve had wonderful board executive leader sponsorship around our initiatives. We don’t refer to it as a “program,” but we work to give people the space they need to be heard, to be themselves, and these diverse perspectives [are] going to create competitive advantage in our chosen markets.

Specific to our life insurance business, which I’m responsible for, one of our four strategic pillars is protecting more diverse and underserved people. We’re very explicit in how we talk about this from our strategy. We’re leveraging a number of Nationwide's partner and affinity organizations to help us reach more women, Black, Hispanic, rural, LGBTQ, [and] Asian [customers]. There [are] a lot of different views from an underserved perspective, and we’re trying to make sure that they have the protection they need from a life insurance and long-term care perspective.

We’re also working with [our internal] Nationwide Retirement Institute. We [sponsor] an organization called the Financial Alliance for Racial Equity, or FARE. The whole objective of FARE is to increase the number of diverse financial professionals that are in the industry.

Q: I'd love for you to talk a little bit about the pipeline coming into the industry from those diverse communities. What are the pipeline challenges that you face?

A: We’re still relatively underrepresented. When we’re recruiting for interns, we’re looking at financial professionals, it’s still a struggle to find people who want to have financial services from a passion perspective. When I was in school, I didn’t know what a CPA was. You have a number of people in colleges today who don’t really understand and think about financial services. They’ll typically think about banking or maybe Wall Street. Understanding the insurance component or retirement savings vehicles, [there is] still an educational need to do that.

But we are very deliberate in our recruiting and the internships that we award. We are very focused on where we recruit. [We have relationships] with historically Black colleges and universities. We have a number of other relationships with [the] Hispanic Scholarship Fund, with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Essence, Black Enterprise, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. There are so many wonderful assets within Nationwide, but from a pipeline perspective, we still have to work really hard; first with that education to make sure people understand what the opportunities are in this space.

Q: I mentioned a little bit earlier that you have led P&L, and you talked about that. But I’d love for you to expand on the conversation around the types of roles that women tend to take in this industry and how it does affect their path to the C-suite.

A: Again, I started in finance, but apparently underrepresented in that space are risk management and actuarial teams, our sales positions. These are ones typically that are more male-dominated still today. There was an article from Fortune that talked about since origin of the Fortune 500 list about 68 years ago, there are currently 10% of CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies that are women, and the number is growing. So there’s good data that suggests what may have been in the past, there’s no need for that to be the future.

I entered Nationwide in a finance role, and I’ve done 13 other jobs since I’ve been in the company. [There are] lots of wonderful opportunities for you to spread your wings. It [goes] back to continual learning, focusing on what you can control on your career path. Perform, bring that expertise to bear, build relationships that are always important, lead with your values, and then make that measurable impact.

Women need to have confidence in their abilities, to have confidence in [themselves]. We’ve got to be able to demonstrate that to others. You’ve got to control your destiny.

Q: That's a great place to end. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

A: It was enjoyable. Thank you so much.

Q: Holly Snyder is the president of Nationwide Life Insurance. We’ve got dozens of conversations like this with women at the top of the industry, including some who were the first to break the ceiling. They’ve got war stories and stories of true empathy. You can find more conversations like this one by going to deloitte.com/insights and searching for our Within Reach series. Again, that’s deloitte.com/insights.

Keep up with what we’re up to by following us on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight and I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for listening. Have a wonderful rest of your day!

Cover image by: Natalie Pfaff

The Deloitte Center for Financial Services

The Deloitte Center for Financial Services, which supports the organization's US Financial Services practice, provides insight and research to assist senior-level decision-makers within banks, capital markets firms, investment managers, insurance carriers, and real estate organizations. The center is staffed by a group of professionals with a wide array of in-depth industry experiences as well as cutting-edge research and analytical skills. Through our research, roundtables, and other forms of engagement, we seek to be a trusted source for relevant, timely, and reliable insights.


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