Myrna Estrada is vice president and regional general manager for Liberty Mutual’s Safeco Insurance Central Region. She began her career at the age of 19 as a personal assistant to the vice president of the underwriting department. He worked his way through the company and now manages the distribution of products to over a million customers. Estrada spoke at the 2018 Women in Business Summit.
How has the business world changed since the beginning of your career?
I started my career with Liberty Mutual 38 years ago. As you can imagine, a lot has changed. But if I had to pick one to highlight, it would have to be the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion journey. As you can imagine, as a woman of color in the mid-80s, joining an industry that was (and remains) predominantly white, male, and middle-aged, I struggled to feel included. Inclusion is very important to me. I am very excited to see companies like Liberty Mutual put diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of company initiatives. Companies now understand that this work is critical to a strong culture and strong employee engagement.
How have you changed?
I’ve always been a ‘heads down, work hard and produce great work’ type of person. I don’t think so until others start reaching out to me for coaching and mentoring. It was a defining moment in my career to imagine that others were looking to me for advice and guidance in their careers. I have learned to use my voice to influence, inspire and help others in the early stages of their careers.
What obstacles did you face?
I felt that I had heard a significant obstacle that I faced in my career. I was always a behind-the-scenes type of person. When it was time to move on, I had to listen. Even when I was the person behind the scenes I was ignored many times. I struggled to gain credibility and acceptance for the leadership I had already demonstrated. To be honest, I needed a strong sponsorship to reach the next level. I don’t know where I would be without that sponsorship.
Are there any obstacles that have surprised you?
As a working mother, it surprises me that I still worry about my children as they get older. I always thought that once they got older the anxiety would go away – it never did. It may actually be worse in adolescence. They are now out of college, successful and living their own lives. When I see a young mother with children at home, I sympathize with their experience. I know how it is.
What experience, training or education will best prepare you?
For me, it was 100% on-the-job training. I started my career as a personal assistant in an underwriting department. I have to prove myself every step of the way. I inherited a strong work ethic from my father who taught me to work harder than anyone else. I don’t know any other way.
What has helped you the most in your career?
Strong mentors and sponsors have been incredibly valuable to me throughout my career. People who are willing to see the good and the bad, and guide you through it all. A strong coach and mentor will turn those difficult experiences into learning experiences. They will see great work and encourage you to achieve more. But perhaps most important are the sponsors who are willing to “make the call” on your behalf.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Be authentic at work. For years I felt I had a double life. My home life, my traditions with my family and what drives me as a person are all my own dimensions that I keep to myself. I rarely contribute to personal conversations at work because I don’t think my story is important or relevant. I learned then that not only did it matter, but it was more relevant than I thought. True connection happens when you bring your full authenticity to work with you and you are comfortable being 100% you!
What is the worst advice?
“You are very emotional, Myrna.” “You are very direct, Myrna.” “You’re very competitive, Myrna.” All of these traits are often admired in male leaders. For years I allowed this reaction to hold me back. It wasn’t until I had leaders who knew how to channel these traits into great work and incredible accomplishments. This is where the magic happened.
What do you wish you would know first?
I wish I had embraced my differences at work at an earlier age. I spent many years trying to be someone else. True success happened when I brought who I am and my authentic self to work every day.
What advice would you give to others?
Be authentic, work to be “heard” and have a seat at the table. If this is not happening, find a good coach or mentor who can help you. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’ve learned that others are often more willing to help you than you believe. Ally is an incredible tool. Use it.
Do you have any memories of women in business?
It’s always such a wonderful experience to see women supporting each other at a Women in Business event. I try to explain it to others, but it’s really hard to do. It is not a thing or a feeling, but a feeling of wonder. There is nothing like it and I feel honored to be a part of it.
What do you think is the future for women in the professional world?
I think the future for women in business is promising. We have made great strides, and I am confident that they will continue. For years we have talked about equality and the need to have a seat at the table. It’s time to look back and recognize the unique strengths a female leader can bring to an organization or role. We shouldn’t just sit at the table and be happy, but ask why we can’t be the “head of the table.” As we climb that ladder of success, don’t forget to look back and bring someone else along. There are many others still struggling to get a seat at the table or earn equal pay, perhaps because they are not recognized as women of color with a unique and different perspective. Help them on their journey too.
What book has had the biggest impact on you and your career?
Early in my career, I would have to say Good to great. I read this book many times early in my leadership journey. Today, I focus more on books that touch my soul and make me a better person. What I have learned is that what I do to create a better version of my success makes me a better person and leader. I’m also a huge Brené Brown fan.
What is the biggest mistake women make in advancing their careers?
I see many women who confuse a mentor with a sponsor. Many people take a step towards finding a coach and/or mentor. The key to this is finding the right mentor. Do you have someone who is willing to be brutally honest with you about addressing gaps? That is the first step. After that, make sure you know who will “call” for you when it’s needed. This is usually a person with a great deal of influence and credibility. Here’s the thing, this person should know you well and know your work. Make sure you know who that is and don’t be afraid to lean on them when you need them.
What was one of the most interesting (or useful) things you learned this year?
My happiest place is home! I always like to stay at home, but after the pandemic, I don’t even like to go out to eat anymore. I think I can make it better at home and enjoy my dining and entertainment space which is as good as any other place. Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
What is a recurring obstacle for you? (time, money, attitude, location, knowledge, etc.) What strategies are you using to overcome it?
With so many new employees joining the company, I need to get better at taking the time to explain the “why” behind the things we do as part of the onboarding process. This strong foundation sets them up for long-term success.
What is your personal brand and how do you nurture it?
People will tell you what your brand is. I have been told by many that I am strict but fair. In the kind of business I’m in where there’s a lot of negotiation, I guess I take that as a compliment. I have been told by staff that they feel I am always open to their feedback, concerns or questions. Being present is something I strive for.
Local profileThe 21st Annual Women in Business Summit will be held on September 30 at the Renaissance Dallas in Plano Legacy West Hotel. Click here for tickets.