Of the 20 years she worked in insurance, the late Donna Walker described the current period as ‘one of the most dynamic and exciting’.
‘Both the challenges and opportunities are vast,’ Walker told ANZIIF in 2019.
DONNA WALKER AWARD
A notable professional and a truly warm and giving individual, Walker touched many lives. It is for this reason, ANZIIF is proud to launch an awards program with two categories to honour her achievements.
Walker was extremely passionate about the insurance industry and about sharing her knowledge to help it grow.
The Allianz Donna Walker Awards will therefore reward excellence in leadership and at entry level, as part of ANZIIF's Year of the Insurance Professional initiative, which is highlighting women in insurance in September.
As Chief Technical Officer at Allianz Australia, it was Walker’s mission to leverage data and technology to create a simpler customer proposition, while still holding true to the tenants of insurance
And she led by example, making sure that ‘every day our people make a difference, in moments that really matter, for our customers and other business partners’.
An actuary by training, Donna Walker started her insurance journey at CGU as part of a newly created team.
Her rich and diverse career saw her in leadership roles across the insurance value chain, including the market-facing claims and broker divisions at both CGU and Allianz Australia.
TECHNICAL EXPERTISE AND EMPATHY
For Walker, these experiences taught her the importance of good relationships — ‘that the ability to be empathetic and to have open and honest conversations when they are needed most are essential attributes to succeed in this sector’.
‘Donna was an extremely clever and astute executive with great judgement,’ confirms Allianz Australia CEO Richard Feledy, who worked closely with Walker and spoke at her funeral.
‘What made Donna one of the finest executives I’ve had the privilege to work with, was that she combined strong technical expertise with empathy and an amazing amount of EQ [emotional intelligence],’ he says.
‘Her exceptional leadership skills came from a genuine love of people, care for customers and a knowledge of how to motivate and inspire teams.’
JUMPING AT THE CHANCE
Feledy adds that as a Chief Technical Officer, the decisions you make are rarely easy, and almost never unanimously supported.
‘But Donna got the tough stuff done, with class, dignity, respect and style,’ he says.
‘Her presence changed the mood in the room. She made the complex, simple, and always seemed to ask the right questions.’
Jenny Bax, Allianz Australia General Manager, Underwriting Agencies, who met Walker at CGU, jumped at the chance to work with her at Allianz.
‘I took a job that was well outside of my comfort zone to give me the opportunity to work with Donna,’ Bax recalls.
‘I was always impressed with the way Donna presented herself to the industry and I knew there were areas in my development as a leader that Donna could help me finesse.’
TRUST IN HER PEOPLE
Bax says she loved Walker’s confidence in her people’s ability to go away and fix an issue, knowing that if they were stuck, she was only a phone call away.
‘Donna and I would regularly debrief after meetings, and I got to see the importance of reviewing your performance to ensure a continual learning loop in the way we conducted ourselves.’
Allianz Australia General Manager, SME Michelle Forrest is another close colleague and friend from Walker’s CGU days.
‘Donna was a real strategic thinker,’ she says. ‘When I was working with her, we were always on opposite sides – Donna in technical, myself in distribution – and we could often disagree.
‘But Donna had a talent for talking through the issue – she was really curious rather than judgemental – and she would constantly ask questions that would have people change their point of view without even realising it.
‘I would watch her do that a lot through her career; she could always guide someone to a good outcome.
A BETTER PERSON FOR KNOWING HER
Bax feels she is a better person for having known Walker and getting the chance to work closely with her.
‘No matter how busy she was, she always took time out to have a chat with the staff, irrespective of role or tenure,’ Bax remembers.
‘Donna had the ability to make everyone feel important. She was one of the most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.’
Feledy also admired the way Walker challenged the status quo, loved doing things differently and was a very strong people leader.
‘The art of influencing, motivating and inspiring others, often led to exceeding even our own expectations,’ he tells.
‘There are many reflections that I have of Donna, that are now permanent reminders to always treat others with kindness and respect.’
One very fond memory was a trip to the Allianz Head Office in Munich.
‘It was a freezing, snowy, winter’s morning in Germany and Donna, Helen Silver and myself were walking from our hotel to the office at Donna’s request, and against my better judgement,’ Feledy shares.
‘I vividly remember being dressed for an Australian winter, struggling to protect myself from the bitter cold, while Donna was smartly dressed in her goose-down puffer jacket, standing-out in the snow with her bright sunny-yellow gumboots.
‘That image embodies her personality: smart, practical, but with an enormous dash of fun and flair.’
Bax says Walker’s bright yellow gum boots were her trademark. ‘She wore them into the office on miserable rainy days, which ensured a little bit of sunshine.’
According to Forrest, the yellow gumboots weren’t her only pair. ‘When we worked together at CGU, she only wore boots – flat boots, high boots, heeled boots – she had hundreds of them.’
A GREAT ROLE MODEL
One of Bax’s fondest memories of Walker is making a monthly video for the wider Allianz Technical team.
‘In it, Donna would talk about all the positives that had happened in our space during the preceding period and give everyone a heads up on what was around the corner,’ she shares.
‘Donna took this opportunity to personally thank individuals for their outstanding work.’
Bax adds that the two of them also spend a lot of time laughing at Walker’s bloopers, which meant having to start the whole video process again.
‘Donna was so much fun,’ confirms Forrest. ‘We had so many laughs. It was so easy to work with her.
‘Not only was she kind, compassionate, smart, strategic, she was someone you could look up to and someone who you could role model.
‘She empowered me. She trusted me. She was all you wanted in a leader.’
REMEMBERED FOR HER CONTRIBUTION
Feledy believes Walker herself would like to be remembered for the contribution she made to the industry she loved, the customers she served, and the people she inspired.
‘Donna helped mentor and inspire the next generation of young female leaders, as well as ensuring we all put the customer at the heart of everything we do,’ he says.
While Walker focused on helping young women leaders early in her career, Forrest says she also provided many of the men that worked for her with the support they needed.
‘She supported those who wanted mentorship and guidance equally. Donna created a culture where it was okay to be yourself, and she got the best out of people.’
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
Bax says actions spoke louder than words for Walker and that she would like to be remembered as a champion of young people in the industry.
‘Donna was always willing to share her knowledge and took the opportunity to do this at any occasion,’ she says.
She agrees Walker’s passion for people was paramount and she was equally passionate about our industry, evidenced by her commitment to ANZIIF.
‘Donna wouldn't like too much fuss at all. She really saw herself as one of the team and someone who was always there with a positive word and a generous smile.’
SHAPING INDUSTRY FOR THE BETTER
Forrest adds that Walker was a fiercely loyal person and a manager who was always looking out for those around her.
‘She was a strong advocate for grass roots innovation and keen to find smarter and simpler ways of helping customers.
‘She was extremely generous with her time, and there are a lot of people who would say that she provided the advice and guidance that helped shape who they are today in their own careers.
‘I think she would like to be remembered for the impact that she had in being able to help create the industry we have today – where we place the customer and people at the heart of everything we do.’