Scholarship win prompts leadership lightbulb moment for Rebecca Zhang

By Ian Baker — ANZIIF Writer | 1 Nov 2018
  • Insurance Broking
  • Reinsurance
  • Risk Management
Rebecca Ziang Munich Re

When Rebecca Zhang (pictured) researched her winning application for the 2016 Peter Corrigan Scholarship, she had been thinking about what might arise to discomfit the industry. 

Zhang began her career with the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), and when she first entered the reinsurance industry, she felt that her new commercial world was curiously unconcerned by the threat of disruption.

‘My essay was about how digital platforms such as Amazon, Alibaba and Google might encroach on our industry in the next five or 10 years,’ Zhang recalls, ‘and about how we might shape our mindset to better prepare.

‘While I was writing that, I thought it was well and good to state the problem, but it would be much more interesting to look at the culture within the industry and how it needed to evolve so that we are ready for the challenge of competition from the outside.’

With the $10,000 scholarship prize, Zhang made a down payment on the Management Acceleration Programme with renowned European business school INSEAD, run at Fontainebleau on the outskirts of Paris. 

What the young, Shanghai-born Sydneysider learned there would upend her understanding of leadership and profoundly alter her view of the world. 

Thirst for experience

Zhang left the University of New South Wales in 2006 with law and finance degrees. A concurrent internship at the District Court of New South Wales had given her a taste of legal practice, and she had not found it enticing.

The position at APRA let her deploy her law training while developing her interest in finance. It had been a good fit, even if at times she felt green.

‘APRA gave me a really broad industry overview,’ she recalls.

‘At the same time, I felt that I lacked commercial experience. I wanted to see what it was like to really grow a business — to get my hands dirty.

‘I could see that there was a lot of pressure in the private sector, a lot of intense competition. I thought I would do well in a competitive environment, helping a company to grow its business.’

A gentle push

At APRA, Zhang found herself supervising insurers and reinsurers, overseen by a boss who was a former reinsurance broker. He encouraged her to complete the ANZIIF Reinsurance International Study Course (RISC) so that she could better understand the world she was regulating. 

‘I met a lot of great people in the industry,’ Zhang says. ‘And I was amazed at how events happening around the world could affect the reinsurance industry in Australia. The complexity of it all really intrigued me.’

When an opportunity arose with reinsurance broker Guy Carpenter, she made the leap. 

She arrived in 2012, keenly aware that the way to make a mark would be to bring in some business.

The power of persistence

‘There was a big international insurer operating in Australia who was not one of our clients,’ Zhang recalls. ‘I thought naively that it would be great to get them.’

Colleagues, however, told her that this fish would not bite, having developed strong links with competitors. 

‘For almost two years, there didn’t seem to be any progress. I was working on it with multiple teams, and I thought I had done everything — understanding the client, putting forward our capabilities, keeping regular communication going — but nothing moved. I was about to give up.

‘And then one day I got an email from that company asking us to propose solutions for some specific problems they were facing. We eventually got their business.’

Establishing trust

Zhang has since joined reinsurance group Munich Re as an underwriter with its casualty team. She summarises her role as helping clients transfer their insurance risks by providing tailored reinsurance solutions. 

‘The key challenge is to establish trust with our clients,’ she says, ‘and it’s what I enjoy most about my job.

‘This is about spending time trying to understand the client.

‘The goal is to have the client trust that they can share things with me. From that place onwards, I feel that we can work together to achieve something bigger.’

The other side of the coin is the assessment of clients’ capacities.
‘There are always documents and numbers, but we are one step away from the end customer: we are trying to underwrite our client’s company, not the actual risks.

‘Therefore, it is fundamental to assess the management, the control and the quality of the company that we are going to assume risk from.’

What makes a leader?

Recipients of the Peter Corrigan Scholarship for Innovation and Leadership are invited to undertake an international conference or seminar program. Zhang chose INSEAD after speaking with two senior industry figures, each of whom had completed a management course there.

Her training at Fontainebleau took place over three weeks.

‘I expected that we would do case studies together and learn about best practice for leaders and managers,’ Zhang remembers of her assumptions going in.

‘I thought there would be a set of things you could learn how to do, and when you could do them, you became a good manager. 

‘But it wasn’t about that. Instead, we spent most of the time learning about the emotional drivers that each of us has and the personal narratives we tell ourselves — our stories. 

‘I was in a class with 40 people from very, very diverse backgrounds. We sat together and shared stories with each other, learning through reflection and feedback. 

‘The course spent a lot of time creating opportunities for us to really explore ourselves with the help of the coaches and lecturers.’

In a report on her use of the scholarship, Zhang describes an exercise in which a nominated leader directed Zhang’s team as it struggled with an assigned set of tasks that it failed to complete.

She reveals how her frustration with the inadequacies of this leader dissolved when the leader spoke afterwards, in debriefing, of how lonely and isolated they had felt while attempting to direct the doomed exercise.

The leader had been unable to ask team members for help and advice. But Zhang realised that she herself had declined to extend any offer of help, leaving all the weight on that person’s shoulders. 

Stretching her wings

Zhang says that what she learned from her use of the Peter Corrigan Scholarship has helped her stretch her wings in a business environment that is facing dramatic strategic and cultural changes. 

It has broadened her view of the world and enabled her to see more opportunities where she can have influence.

‘Before I did the course, when things did not work out, I would sometimes find that I was feeling less powerful,’ she says. 

‘Perhaps I would tell myself that this can’t happen because so and so is not involved, or this can’t happen because of x or y.

‘What changed for me was that I started to think about how I influenced my environment. I grew to understand that the key question for me was, “Given the situation, what can I do?”

‘This has really made me feel like I have more influence in the situation, wherever I am.’

To anybody who finds themselves on the fence about whether to apply for the scholarship, she recommends: ‘Give it a shot!’ 

‘Regardless of the outcome, the application itself is an opportunity to sit down and think outside of your normal day-to-day job.’

The Peter Corrigan Scholarship will reopen 28 November. 

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