In the C-Suite with Carol Ann O’Dea
AXIS Reinsurance’s Executive Vice President and Chief Claims Officer offers advice to claims professionals while addressing the industry’s biggest challenges.
By Taylor Smith
Where did you grow up?
My father was a dentist in the Army, and my early days were spent in Germany. My dad left the Army to open his own dental practice when I was quite young, so I lived mostly in Morristown, N.J. I knew some German when I was a tot. On occasion, I can pick up a few words when I’m with German-speaking people—but I’d be pretty reluctant to carry on any kind of conversation.
How did you find your way to the insurance world?
After law school, I went into private practice. I am admitted to the Bar in both New York and Connecticut. Initially, I handled insurance coverage work for companies that issued D&O policies. After three years of handling strictly D&O matters, I left New York City and was in private practice doing corporate work. Roll forward a few years, I was pregnant with my third child, and I decided I wanted to step back from that fast pace for a while. My husband was in the Navy and was gone for three or four months at a time, so I definitely knew that I needed a more flexible schedule that didn’t include evening seminars and dinners. I went to work for Executive Risk Management Associates as a claims attorney. They needed someone who knew executive D&O policies, coverages, and the litigation that followed, and my background was very strong in that. And I was immediately thrown back into the world of travel, client dinners, and distant claims negotiation meetings. I found that I enjoyed working in claims and the ever-changing issues so much that I’ve been doing it ever since.
What advice would you give to new claims professionals?
I think it’s absolutely crucial to keep yourself relevant. What I mean by that is that it really is important to keep abreast of the industry, regulatory changes, and legal decisions that impact your business and the types of claims with which you’re working. I also think it is crucial to learn about emerging issues, new products, and the legal and claims implications so that you are the “go to” person.
When I’m speaking to women, I always suggest that, if they decide to step back from the business to have a family and children, they work hard to keep their fingers in the industry somewhat and keep in touch with what is going on. It’s hard to leave completely and then get back in many years later, which of course applies to both men and women who step away from the industry. It’s important to educate yourself on the newest exposures, trends, and emerging issues. That kind of approach lasts your entire career. For example, cyber liability and the legalization of marijuana are two emerging areas for the insurance industry with many variations on liability exposures with which we need to keep up. And a very important tool for your personal development is that it’s extremely useful to have a mentor or sponsor who will champion you in your career growth. But also, let’s not forget about the power of communication. In a world of emails, texts, Lync, etc., a face-to-face conversation or phone call with a colleague, client, mentor, or sponsor has far more impact, meaning, and lasting memories.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the industry?
From my perspective, we’re looking at an industry driven more and more by a focus on technology and processing efficiencies. While technology certainly enables us to do things that we could only have dreamed of years ago, we need to not overly rely on it. We need to be careful that we don’t lose the skills of the analysts and the professionals who work in this industry. That expertise is crucially important. As an industry, we need to keep up with education, training, and professional development for our staff. When we’re able to combine the two—technology and claims staff expertise—we benefit as a whole by maximizing the potential of each.
What is something people may not know about you?
I’m an open book, but I bet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows that I am a pretty decent knitter. I don’t knit scarves; I knit Icelandic-style sweaters, which can be quite complicated given the patterns involved. I’ve knitted quite a few. Each one takes about 80 to 120 hours. I’ve made some for my family members. I find that knitting not only is very relaxing as a process, but also very rewarding because there is something tangible to show at the end of your project—hence why I don’t knit scarves!
I think I also hold the distinction for being one of the very few people in the world who has been injured while knitting. In college, I sat on a knitting needle and punctured my leg very badly. I was living in a sorority house full of nursing students, and they decided I needed to go to the hospital, so off I went to the hospital with a knitting needle stuck in my leg. That is my worst (and only) knitting injury.