Pina Albo: Hearts and Minds
Hamilton Insurance Group’s CEO Pina Albo discusses the resilience and humility she gained from her family, and the importance of learning to “get out of the weeds” as a manager.
Pina Albo is an extremely accomplished linguist. She speaks Italian, German and French fluently, along with her native English, and has a pretty good understanding of Spanish.
But when you meet Albo, her voice is a mish-mash of her native Canadian accent (Winnipeg, Manitoba) with more than a smattering of New Jersey from her time there. Albo has rapid-fire direct speech, expressive body language and her dialogue is peppered with “you know” – more than 160 of them in our hour-long chat.
She’s approachable, warm and funny, frequently smiles and laughs, but there’s a serious side to her too. And it’s this focussed, driven and strategic Albo that has marched her way to the top of her game.
Albo began her career as a lawyer in Toronto, Canada. After practicing in real estate, corporate finance and M&A, she decided to move to Europe, following a life-long dream to live there, and took on a job at Munich Re, initially in claims.
What followed was a 25-year career at the firm where she rose through increasingly senior positions before ultimately taking a seat as a member of the board of executive management. Then in 2018, she moved to her current role as Hamilton Insurance Group’s CEO.
The Munich years
Significant professional and personal achievements occurred within that quarter-century stint at Munich Re and ably demonstrate Albo’s tenacity – but also her ability to connect with people and gain their trust.
Her biggest professional achievement came towards the end of her time at the reinsurer, when Munich Re America embarked on a bold new course designed to extend its reach in North America.
Traditionally, the carrier had operated largely on a direct basis, with less than a fifth of the business placed using the broker market. This was a problem, as the majority of business carried out on the continent was via intermediaries.
The change in strategy was going to be challenging. It needed someone with sincerity, charm and the ability to build long-term relationships with companies that were – to put it mildly – a little hostile to the reinsurer.
Prior to the move, Albo was head of global broker relationships and had spent much of her career working with brokers, so she was looking forward to the “challenge” but found she was “welcomed by a lot of unfriendly faces”.
“The broker community did not trust this new strategy. They had known Munich Re in America only as a [direct] market, and they didn't trust that it really wanted to penetrate the broker space,” she recalls.
“They felt ‘If we give you a deal you're going to go behind our back and write it direct’… because they've been burned in the past. So it was an uphill battle.”
Undeterred, Albo pledged that this was a new start for Munich Re America, with a brand new team, and implored the brokers to trust her.
“I was able to say, ‘All I'm asking you is for the benefit of judging me by my actions’,” she says.
“And it was a combination of putting some people in place that were ‘broker faces’, having this open dialogue and saying, ‘Look, I get where you’re come from, but I'm telling you, it's a new dawn. I am committed to this and I'm also telling you that if we screw up, I will hold myself and others accountable’.”
After a “little bit of a rough start”, the actions did indeed match Albo’s words, and by 2014 Munich Re America had become a trusted broker partner. Munich Re got the significance and promoted Albo to become a member of the board of executive management on her return.
Albo’s personal achievement dealt with an issue many parents in the (re)insurance industry still battle with: childcare.
Back in the 1990s when Albo started a family, childcare in Germany was pretty hard to come by. There was nothing until the child was three years old, and even then, childcare providers were only open between 08:00 and 14:00, and typically closed entirely around the Christmas and Easter holidays.
Albo’s solution was to gather a group of senior women at Munich Re and create a business plan to encourage the reinsurer to sponsor a daycare centre, to be run and part-funded by the local government.
“It was literally like setting up a small business – we have this vision of the place we're going to build. It's going to have set hours, and it’s going to service both people at Munich Re and people in the community.”
Albo and her team negotiated with investors and the local government, and helped design the facility and hire the staff.
She is characteristically modest about how difficult a goal it was to achieve, saying only that it involved “a couple of kicks of the can” and was “a little bit of a tough sell”, but the strength of the business plan sold it.
“I say it’s my biggest personal and professional accomplishment because that place is still standing 20+ years later. Actually, it is flourishing, it has expanded. And whenever I am in Munich I will go in and visit it. It is just such a point of personal pride for me to see that operating the way it is. And also it facilitated my purpose, my professional life, and the professional lives of [other] men and women.”
Kith, Kin and collaboration
Family is a big thing for Albo. The second of four children, she was a first-generation American-Italian immigrant whose parents ran a local grocery store that the family lived in. She describes her childhood with great affection, especially for all of the extended family that were so closely involved with her upbringing.
It’s her family that keep her sane in tougher moments. Alongside regular yoga and power walking sessions, she cites “just spending time with my family and having a good laugh – usually at my expense” – as her top ways of destressing.
Like many first-generation immigrants, Albo was brought up to believe that education would be her salvation, her ticket out of the grocery store and into the wider world.
She remembers watching her parents and extended family “struggle a little bit” with the obstacles and prejudices that came with not being a native speaker, adding that it taught her the value of leaning on each other, of collaboration, to overcome problems.
“They have this resilience, and they had a humility and a faith about what they were doing and why they were doing it. I think this shaped who I am. In the professional context, I take all that with me, so collaboration is a big part of who I am, [and at work], so many people I work with are my work family,” she says.
The collaboration and communication elements are key to her management style. Albo says that, in pre-Covid-19 times, she often walked around the office, checking in on staff and getting their feedback. And when it comes to delivering and receiving feedback, she advocates honesty and openness both ways.
She’s missing those personal interactions in the new remote-working environment, and has discovered an unfortunate by-product of the video meetings we have all been forced into adopting.
“When you do call somebody, I can tell you the other end of that phone is pretty scared because they're wondering ‘Oh my god, what does she want, she's calling me singularly’ right? As opposed to ‘she's doing a walk around and just checking in’.”
The longer the remote-working situation has gone on though, the more staff have gotten used to her regular video calls, but it’s not the same as the casual chats.
Like many other executives, Albo’s embraced setting up regular town halls to keep staff in the loop, and encourages staff to ask questions on them. But she recognised that not everyone wants to raise issues on a public forum, so her team set up a dedicated “Ask Pina” email account that staff can communicate with her directly through.
As a leader however, it’s her family’s lessons in resilience that she takes forward.
“Leadership is on a more macro level, you know, setting a vision. [And it’s] the conviction around that vision, and the direction – how you want to get there,” says Albo.
“I think management comes easier to most people because it's kind of doing what you do in your day-to-day life, right? Whereas with leadership, it pushes you further, because it makes you think more about the long term, and what you're trying to achieve.”
Albo classes her leadership style as strategic, with a focus on the long term, although that is something that she’s had work on.
“I cannot tell you how many times I [or the team] have come up with something opportunistic and you think ‘Oh my God, that's a good idea, let's just do it’.
“But then you can stop and challenge, how does this fit into your long-term plan? Does this further your long-term strategy?”
Albo also highlights the need to bring your team on that long-term strategic vision with you. It can’t be a singular vision that one person implements, she argues, it has to be everyone singing from the same hymn sheet.
“[That long-term vision] has probably been the area that I've had to spend the most time on because I am a do-er at heart – I just like to get things done.”
That focus on the long game also motivates her on tougher days.
“You're going to have that day where you wake up on the wrong side of the bed. So you have to focus on, okay what is my long game? Getting there is the thing that that keeps you going.”
In terms of her management journey, the toughest lesson for her was to “stay out of the weeds”, as she puts it.
As a trained lawyer, Albo has a serious attention to detail. That, combined with a can-do attitude and a desire to just get things done, meant it was easy to get drawn into every project.
“You’ve got to kind of step out of the weeds, provide guidance on what other people do – and [recognise that] actually they probably can do it a lot better than I can now anyway.”
Asking for help when she needed it was another keen lesson for Albo. As a young M&A lawyer, she was asked by a senior colleague to “just close the deal” she had already achieved verbal sign off for.
The problem was, she didn’t know exactly what “just closing the deal” meant and, six months into her job, felt that it would be frowned upon if she asked. So she didn’t. Luckily, a friendly face in the firm helped her correct her mistakes and no harm came to the deal.
But the experience had a major impact on her. “There's no shame in saying, ‘Look, I know this but I'm not sure if I know everything, can somebody please help me?’, That is something I never did again, and equally, I made it clear to others – if you need help, don’t be afraid. It's not a knock on you to say I could use somebody's help on this.”
There are two credos that she lives by now, both pieces of advice offered to her earlier in her career.
One: make sure you surround yourself with people who are better than you and who also think differently to you. And two: don't neglect your gut instincts.
“I don't just go with my gut, but I use my gut as a very good sounding board. I’ve had to learn to trust it more often – I guess it's fed by the logic anyway, [but] there's an innate sense in decision making where you shouldn't rely facts and figures, sometimes it's judgments and sensitivities that go beyond that.”
Listening to her gut has given Albo the confidence to not rush into making big decisions. Her approach to problem solving is: a) What caused the problem? b) What does a perfect outcome look like?, and then c) Work backwards from perfect.
Albo also believes that the bigger the problem, the more she should sleep on it. “Actually having that peace of mind and not rushing to judgment or rushing to find a solution has been the thing that served me the best,” she explains.
Isn’t that hard in today’s environment where the world moves ever faster and people want decisions yesterday?
“Yeah, but you know what, not everything has to be solved on the spot. There are some decisions you can make on the spot. Do I want to have a pizza or burger, that's an easy one, right? Other decisions require some thought and sometimes it's just an hour, sometimes it involves [[asking others for their] perspective.
“I like to gather other perspectives to make sure I'm thinking about things the right way and that I'm taking into account the broader context. Because if you're just focusing on solving that problem, you’ve got blinkers on. And you might not be thinking about consequences left and right of that problem.”
Albo closes out the discussion with a brief look at her current home, the specialty (re)insurer Hamilton. Asked what makes her proud of her company, she says it’s the team that she has assembled “and continues to assemble” which are made up of “exceptionally talented and motivated professionals that I feel I learn from”.
She also notes that she trusts them implicitly: “We have each other’s backs”. It returns to this notion of family, of a support network, of people coming first.
It’s always a fun exercise at the end of profiles such as these to put the transcript into a wordcloud and see what terms come up most often. Once you’ve discounted all the conversational ticks, it often reveals a lot about the individual.
You won’t be surprised by the top terms for Albo, but they serve as a nice way to finish this piece.
Albo’s most used phrases are: People, trust, family and business. That pretty much sums her up.