In the C-Suite: Beth Voorhees
Catlin U.S.’ head of claims addresses the importance of a broad-based perspective, getting diverse teams to work together effectively, and the importance of supporting the art of claims management.
By Taylor Smith
Current Position: Chief Claims Officer, Head of Claims, Catlin U.S.
Size of Claims Organization: 51, and growing
Years in Current Role: 2.5 years
Years in Insurance Industry: 35
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Trenton State College; MBA from the University of Chicago
Originally from: Hackensack, N.J.
First Claim Job: Field Claims Adjuster, Crawford and Company
Tell us about your family.
I grew up in Hackensack, N.J., when it was still a small town. I have one older brother. My dad recently celebrated his 102nd birthday, my mom is 94, and they still live pretty independently. Given that gene pool, retirement planning is a challenge. I might retire at 65 but need to go back to work at 87! I was married this past May, and my husband is an electrical engineer who works in the nuclear energy field.
Where did you go to college?
I did my undergrad at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey). I majored in both psychology and criminal justice. At first, I thought I’d like to work with juvenile delinquents. After an internship in which I did some counseling, I realized that it’s the kind of work that you take home with you, and it takes a special person to do well. I wasn’t that person. Later in my career, I earned an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Did your work with juvenile delinquents position you well to work in claims?
That’s a bit of a loaded question! But on some level, it did. There were some similarities in the need to be able to interact with and read people, often in challenging circumstances. During the time I worked as a field adjuster, I handled quite a wide variety of claim types. I did all of my own field investigations, canvassed for and interviewed witnesses, did surveillance, gathered police and medical records, developed the facts and made decisions around them, so in some ways, it was a bit like being in law enforcement or a detective.
What was your first job in insurance?
As a junior in college, I worked part-time at a large insurance agency doing general office and clerical work and learning a little bit about the business. After graduation—and thanks to a tight job market—I went to work as a field claims adjuster for Crawford and Company. Like many of the other claims executives you have interviewed, a significant part of the allure of the job was the company car. My first car was a beautiful, shiny bronze Ford Granada with saddle interior. I took great care of it and washed it at least once a week. After Crawford, I worked in a similar field claims representative role for Harleysville, but by then I’d found I really enjoyed the variety and challenge of the work itself, and the car was just a bonus.
What was your first management job?
My third job in a claims role was working for a self-insured organization that had previously outsourced its claims handling. I helped them build an internal, self-administered claims function and began supervising staff. That was when I began to recognize that I had a strong interest in the operational and strategic elements of the work. The challenge of developing a vision that aligns with the business—developing processes, linking technology resources, and getting functional groups to work together effectively—is very interesting to me and, happily, has been a significant focus of my career ever since.
What skill set makes for a good claims leader?
There is no single set, but I think a solid foundation in the technical aspects of claims and claims process coupled with a broad view of the business overall are key. Just one or the other isn’t enough. I believe that one of the things that worked well for me was having had the opportunity to work in a variety of areas and in varied roles, though still very much centered on claims handling and claims management. That included working as an independent adjuster; field rep for an insurer; and a claims and risk management position for both a regional self-insured corporation and a large, multi-national self-insured corporation. After that, I somewhat naively expected that the logical next step for me was to become a consultant! I then spent 10 years with Coopers & Lybrand/Pricewaterhouse Coopers, working with and for the insurance and risk management industries both in and outside of the U.S. The point to all of this is that the variety of experiences gave me a fairly unique view of the different paths or approaches that an operation can take to be successful. A broad view of the business as it exists now, and the ability to see where it’s going next, contributes to not only the success of the leader but also the success of the organization.
Whose leadership style do you admire?
I like the Phil Jackson model. When I was living in Chicago, the Bulls were winning championships every year. It always impressed me that Phil could take a team of such vastly different individuals—from the mercurial Dennis Rodman to the disciplined Michael Jordan—and get them to work together seamlessly and successfully as a team in spite of their obvious differences. He was able to recognize vastly different strengths in each individual, put them together on a team, and have them work together effectively. That’s a lesson from which I think all leaders can learn. While we naturally tend to be more comfortable with those who may look and think like us, a good leader can take a diverse team, find a way to capitalize on the strengths of the individuals, and create an environment where they can not only function but also succeed.
What advice do you give young professionals who want to move into management?
They have to look at themselves very critically and determine if they are suited to handle not only the technical demands of the job but also the sometimes challenging task of managing people. It’s something that not everyone is good at or cut out for. I think you also need to realize that you don’t have to know everything or have all of the answers. It took me a number of years to get comfortable with that. A good manager sets direction and is able to get the job done by putting the right people, skills, and experience in place in a team environment where everyone can contribute.
Do you have any words of advice for women in the industry?
I have three: Don’t give up. Women make a significant contribution to this industry, but there is still a long way to go before we see a reasonable proportion of clearly proven and capable women in senior executive and C-level roles and, certainly, not just in our industry.
While programmatic efforts to promote overall diversity have a positive impact, I think the challenge that remains is in overcoming longstanding cultural perceptions. It’s not news that we tend to feel more comfortable with and gravitate toward those who may look, think, and express themselves as we do. While it may not be conscious or deliberate, when we look at candidates for a role, when we select a team, identify talent for future development, and even as we network, we tend toward those we connect with best, those who may fit the “image” we have of a particular role, or—because of our own successes—in whom we see something of ourselves.
Given that, I think it’s critical that women support one another and not be exclusionary in the process. We all need to take a cue from Phil Jackson and be sure that we are focusing more on capability and contribution to the job at hand rather than how we perceive the “wrapper.” As women achieve higher and more significant roles, I think it will help not only women but also will contribute to the openness and diversity of the industry as a whole. We still have a way to go, but, certainly, it is a different world now than when I began my career. We should celebrate that, but there’s still more to do.
What are your thoughts on the training that currently takes place in the claims industry?
When I hear people bemoan that the industry doesn’t train any more, I think, well…we are “the industry.” It’s up to us to be advocates within our own organizations and to help demonstrate the long-term value of training, educating, and developing the next generation of talent in claims.
My personal view is that we, as an industry, have taken a lot of the heart and the art out of the job, focusing too heavily on cost over long-term value. In many cases, we’ve taken well-educated entrants and talented professionals and turned them into data entry clerks or highly specialized processors who learn just one type or one aspect of a claim. We seem to have diminished the value of critical thinking—a key element in the profession—by attempting to replace it with technology. Is it any wonder that it’s hard for new entrants in claims to see an interesting or challenging career path ahead and why we’re challenged in retaining enough solid talent to build on and bring along for the future?
While we may no longer offer the allure of the company car, we need to work to make claims a job that someone would want to have, and then we have to prepare them and provide the tools they need to succeed. When I hear about the industry’s “talent crisis,” that’s what the crisis is to me.
Do you have any hobbies?
I’m a horse nut and a fairly accomplished equestrian, having competed in the hunter/jumper discipline in various parts of the country. I’ve always loved horses, but having come from a fairly humble background, I wasn’t able to actively pursue my passion for riding until I was gainfully employed and in my 30s. I currently own two horses—one now retired due to an injury, and the other still actively competing. Both are thoroughbreds and former racehorses that were able to move on to second careers in the show ring. My husband has recently started to learn to ride, so we’ve taken on a large but quiet and reliable “husband horse” to help him progress. It’s been fun being able to do that together.
Our home is now in Atlanta, but we also have a house in Aiken, S.C., which is sort of an equestrian mecca. The town has a great history. In the 20s and 30s, wealthy northerners would winter in Aiken, bringing their racehorses, polo ponies, and foxhunters with them. It’s a cute little town with a deep horse culture. Even today, the town maintains open spaces, trails, and clay roads right in the heart of town to accommodate the various riding disciplines and horse traffic. We also can boast that Aiken is both a year-round as well as winter home to several Olympic equestrians.