Myrna Estrada is the vice president and regional general manager for Liberty Mutual’s Safeco Insurance Central Region. She began her career at age 19 as the personal assistant to the vice president of the underwriting department. She worked her way up through the company and now manages the distribution of products to more than one million customers. Estrada spoke at the 2018 Women in Business Summit.
How has the business world changed since the start of your career?
I started my career with Liberty Mutual 38 years ago. As you can imagine, a lot has changed. But if I had to just pick one to highlight, it would have to be the diversity, equity and inclusion journey. As you might imagine, as a woman of color 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 am 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 have always been a ‘heads down, work hard and produce great work’ kind of person. I don’t think I looked up until others started reaching out to me for coaching and mentoring. It was a pivotal moment in my career to imagine that others might be seeking 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 did you face?
Feeling heard was a significant obstacle I faced in my career. I was always the person behind the scenes getting the work done. 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 getting the work done. I struggled to gain credibility and to be acknowledged for the leadership I was already displaying. Frankly, it took strong sponsorship to get me to the next level. I don’t know where I would be without that sponsorship.
Have there been any obstacles that have surprised you?
As a working mom, it surprised me that I would still be worrying about my children as they became older. I always thought that once they got older, the worrying would go away — it never did. It might have actually even gotten worse during the teenage years. They are now out of college, successful and living on their own. When I see a young mom with children at home, I am empathetic to what they are experiencing. I know what it is like.
What experiences, training or education best prepared you?
For me, it was 100% on-the-job training. I started my career as the personal assistant of an underwriting 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 everyone else. I don’t know any other way.
What has helped you the most during your career?
Strong mentors and sponsors have been incredibly 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 importantly are those sponsors that are willing to “make the call” on your behalf.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
To be authentic at work. For years I felt like I had a double life. My life at home, 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 didn’t think my story mattered or fit in. I have since learned that not only did it matter, but it was much more relatable than I thought. True connections happen when you bring your full authenticity to work with you and you are comfortable being 100% you!
What is the worst advice?
“You’re too passionate, Myrna.” “You’re too direct, Myrna.” “You’re too competitive, Myrna.” All of these traits are often admired in male leaders. For years I allowed this feedback to hold me back. It wasn’t until I had leaders who knew how to channel these traits into great work and incredible accomplishments. This is where the magic happened.
What do you wish you would have known earlier?
I wish that I would have embraced my differences at work at an earlier age. I spent far too 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 have a seat at the table. If this is not happening, find a good coach or mentor that can help you. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I have 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 is always such a wonderful experience to see women supporting each other at the Women in Business event. I try to describe it to others, but it is really hard to do. It’s not a thing or one feeling, but more of an amazing vibe. There really is nothing like it and I feel honored to have been part of it.
What do you think the future holds for women in the business world?
I think the future for women in business continues to be optimistic. We have made great strides, and I am confident those will continue. For years we have talked about equality and the need to get a seat at the table. It’s time to look past that and recognize the unique strengths that a female leader can bring to an organization or role. We should not just be happy with a seat at the table, but ask why can’t that be the “head of the table.” While we climb that ladder of success, don’t forget to look back and bring someone else with you. There are many others still struggling 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.
What book had the most impact on you and your career?
Early in my career, I would have to say Good to Great. I read this book multiple 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 am also a huge Brené Brown fan.
What is the biggest mistake you see women making when it comes to advancing their careers?
I do see a lot of women that confuse a mentor with a sponsor. Most people take a step to find a coach and/or mentor. The key to that is finding the right mentor. Do you have someone that is willing to be brutally honest with you to address the gaps. That is the first step. After that, make sure you know who will “make the call” for you when it is needed. This is typically a person of influence and with a great deal of credibility. Here’s the thing, this person will have to know you very well and know your work. Make sure you know who that 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 at home! I’ve always liked being home, but since the pandemic, I don’t even really like to go out to eat anymore. I find I can make it better at home and enjoy my dining and entertainment space about as good as any other place. Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
What’s a recurring hurdle for you? (time, money, attitude, location, knowledge, etc.) What strategies are you using to overcome that?
With so many new employees joining the company, I need to be better about setting aside time to explain the “why” behind the things that we do as part of the onboarding process. This strong foundation sets them up for success in the long run.
What’s your personal brand and how do you nurture it?
People will tell you what your brand is. I’m told by many that I am tough but fair. In the type of business that I am in where there is a lot of negotiating, I think I will take this as a compliment. I’m told by employees that they feel that I am always open to listening to their feedback, concerns, or questions. Being present is something I strive for.
Local Profile‘s 21st annual Women in Business Summit will be held on September 30 at the Renaissance Dallas at Plano Legacy West Hotel. Click here for tickets.