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 insurance department. She worked her way up the company and now manages product distribution for more than 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 began my career with Liberty Mutual 38 years ago. As you can imagine, a lot has changed. But if I had to pick just one to highlight, it would have to be the diversity, equality and inclusion journey. As you can imagine, as a black woman in the mid-80s, joining an industry that was (and remains) predominantly white, male, and middle-aged, I struggled to feel included. Inclusion is something that is very important to me. I’m so 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 “keep my head down, work hard and produce great work” kind of person. I don’t think I looked up until others started contacting me for coaching and mentoring. It was a pivotal moment in my career to imagine that others could seek my advice and guidance in their careers. I have learned to use my voice to influence, inspire and help others who are early in their careers.
What obstacles have you encountered?
Feeling heard was a significant obstacle I faced in my career. I was always the person behind the scenes doing the work. When it came time to advance, I had to work to be heard. I was overlooked several times even though I was the person behind the scenes doing the work. I struggled to gain credibility and be recognized for the leadership I was already displaying. Honestly, it took strong sponsorship to get me to the next level. I don’t know where I would be without that sponsorship.
Were there any obstacles that surprised you?
As a working mother, it surprised me that I would still worry about my children when they grew up. I always thought that once they got older the discomfort would go away – never did. In fact, it may even have worsened during the teenage years. They are now out of college, successful and living alone. When I see a young mother with children at home, I empathize with what they are going through. I know how it is.
What experiences, training or education prepared you best?
For me, it was 100% on-the-job training. I started my career as a personal assistant of an insurance department. I had 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 extremely valuable to me throughout my career. Individuals 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 even more. But perhaps most important are those sponsors who are willing to “make the call” on your behalf.
What is the best advice you have received?
Being authentic at work. For years I felt like I was leading a double life. My home life, my traditions with my family, and what drove me as a person are all dimensions of myself that I kept to myself. I would rarely contribute to personal conversations at work because I thought my story didn’t matter or fit. I’ve since learned that not only did it matter, but it was much more connected than I thought. Real connections happen when you bring your full authenticity to work with you and are comfortable being 100% you!
What is the worst advice?
“You are very passionate, Myrna.” “You are very direct, Myrna.” “You’re very competitive, Myrna.” All these traits are often admired in male leaders. For years I have allowed this reaction to hold me back. Only then did I have leaders who knew how to channel these traits into great work and extraordinary achievements. This is where the magic happened.
What do you wish you had known earlier?
I wish I had embraced my differences at work at an earlier age. I spent many years holding back and trying to be someone else. True success happened when I embraced who I was and brought my authentic self to work every day.
What advice would you give to others?
Be authentic, work to be “heard” and sit 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 usually much more willing to help than you believe. Allyship is an incredible tool. Use it.
Do you have any memories of Women in Business?
It’s always such a great experience to see women supporting each other at the Women in Business event. I try to describe it to others, but it’s really hard to do. It is not a thing or a feeling, but rather an amazing atmosphere. There really is nothing like it and I feel honored to have been a part of it.
What do you think the future holds for women in the business world?
I think the future of women in business continues to be optimistic. We have made great strides and I am confident they will continue. For years we have been talking about equality and the need to get a seat at the table. It’s time to look at it and recognize the unique strengths a female leader can bring to an organization or role. We should not be satisfied with just a seat at the table, but ask why he 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 with you. There are many more who still struggle to get a seat at the table or earn equal pay, perhaps not being recognized because they are women of color with a unique and different perspective. Help them with their journey too.
Which book had the most influence on you and your career?
Early in my career, I must say Good to excellent. I read this book several 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 anything I do to create a better version of my success makes me a better person and leader. I’m also a huge fan of Brené Brown.
What’s the biggest mistake you see women make when it comes to advancing their careers?
I see many women confuse a mentor with a sponsor. Most people take one step to find 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 to address the gaps. This is the first step. After that, make sure you know who will “make the call” for you when needed. This is usually a person of influence and of great credibility. Here’s the thing, this person will need to know you very well and know your work. Make sure you know who it 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’ve always loved being at home, but since the pandemic, I don’t even really like going out to eat. I think I can make it better at home and enjoy my dining and entertaining space as much as any other place. I’m not sure if that’s 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 have to be better at setting aside time to explain the “why” behind the things we do as part of the onboarding process. This strong foundation sets them up for success in the long run.
What is your personal brand and how do you nurture it?
People will tell you what your brand is. Many tell me that I am tough but fair. In the type of business I’m in, where there’s a lot of negotiation, I guess I’ll take that as a compliment. Employees tell me that they feel that I am always open to listening to their comments, 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 at the Plano Legacy West Hotel. Click here for tickets.