Silke Sehm – the people’s polymath
As a mathematician and an actuary, Silke Sehm has an unshakeable love of logic. But she also has a deep need to be around people and sees teaching as an important part of being a leader
True polymaths are fascinating and rare people. Officially defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a person of wide knowledge or learning, the word originates from early 17th century Greek polumathēs - ‘having learned much’.
Typically, polymaths have an in-depth focus on a given area, but are inquisitive enough to generate a broader range of expertise. They then use this comprehensive knowledge set to make more informed, well-rounded decisions.
It’s about learning to think critically while seeing the world through curious eyes. And it’s definitely a characterisation that applies to Hannover Re member of the board Silke Sehm.
Hannoverian born and bred, Sehm studied locally, both at a school and university level. She never felt as though she was missing out by studying so close to home, and while she was happy to travel and explore, she was something of a home bird, wanting to have a safe and secure nest to return to.
A self-starter from a young age, Sehm had three part-time jobs while completing her education. She initially took on a newspaper delivery job at 13 after deciding she wanted to earn her own money.
Later, a life-long love of mathematics saw her teaching primary school students the basics, before moving on to tutoring students older than herself. “I found this even more interesting because I could learn something new,” she says.
“I’d ask them to give me their books, and I’d read it, and the next week we’d meet up and I’d explain it to them. Mathematics books, if you think very structurally…I’d say they were written very easily from my point of view.”
She also worked part-time at a computer retailer, where she learned the basics of programming.
But it was the teaching that she enjoyed most, something that was to translate into her leadership style in her later years.
While studying mathematics at university, Sehm looked at becoming a teacher and even began some early courses into the vocation. Although she ultimately abandoned the career in favour of becoming an actuary, she enjoyed teaching as “it’s about giving people something and helping them to develop”.
Leader versus practitioner
The distinction between a manager and a leader is not as stark in Germany as it is elsewhere in the business world. Talking to Sehm, it seems it’s more a case of having leaders and practitioners: those who lead companies and have high levels of emotional intelligence as well as strategic vision, and those product specialist roles that are less about people management and more about being experts in their field and in the execution of strategy.
“Management for me is more how you organise certain things, in various professional ways,” Sehm explains, noting that being empathetic and having the ability to listen to people and motivate them falls more into the leadership bucket, for her.
As a leader, she defines herself as someone who isn’t afraid to challenge people, but she does so with empathy. “In German it translates to ‘strongly challenging but with heart’,” Sehm explains.
“I always feel I listen to people and their individual needs. I try to find flexible and tailored solutions for everyone. So, before Coronavirus, if someone had asked me, can I work a day from home, I’d say, why not, as long as the performance is great?”
Listening to people and learning how they get joy out of their work is how you get the best out of your team, Sehm continues. She’s a big believer in the importance of work being fun. And by fun, she means intellectually stimulating.
“For me, fun means that I have challenging tasks. I like problem solving, finding solutions for people and clients,” she says. “At the same time, it’s about finding people who you can laugh and smile with, but it’s also about people respecting each other. It’s fine to say I have a different opinion to you, and we can debate it in a nice way – that brings us forward, but with respect.”
Much of her leadership style Sehm ascribes to her mentor and friend, the late Jürgen Gräber.
Gräber worked at Hannover Re for 37 years, latterly as a member of the board with responsibility for worldwide treaty reinsurance, catastrophe excess of loss and structured reinsurance and insurance-linked securities, among other areas. He died suddenly in November 2018 at the age of 62.
Sehm was close to Gräber – like her, he had an analytical mind and a big heart. She credits him with much of her success, and for giving her the confidence to be herself.
“I worked with him for a very long time, reporting to him for 15-17 years, something like that. He was my mentor and I liked him being my boss very much; he let me be entrepreneurial,” she says. “It was a very sudden death and was a shock to all of us. I learned a lot from him.”
Sehm went on to take Gräber’s place on the board.
Her other major challenge was working through the months following the Spitzer inquiry.
To refresh memories, in 2004, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer accused Marsh & McLennan Companies of cheating customers by rigging prices and steering business to insurers in exchange for millions of dollars in kickbacks.
The suit also named AIG, the Hartford and Munich American Risk Partners, part of Munich Re, as participants in the bid rigging and steering.
In the months that followed, finite reinsurance also came under scrutiny.
Finite reinsurance allowed an insurer to obtain reinsurance coverage at lower margins in return for a lower probability of loss to the reinsurer.
The arrangements were perfectly legal as long as they were properly accounted for, but the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the New York attorney general took a long, hard look at a finite reinsurance transaction between Gen Re and AIG, among others.
The whole experience tarnished the product’s reputation, and it was years before solutions in a similar vein returned to the market – now better known as structured reinsurance.
“There was accounting misbehaviour [in the market], and we had never done something like that but I was part of the industry and it was difficult,” Sehm recalls.
“Everyone closed down operations. I’ve always had high levels of compliance/accountancy knowledge in our team and high standards, but it was difficult for the business. In this industry, if someone does the wrong thing, the whole industry is [tarnished].”
Returning to the theme of being a polymath, Sehm decided early on that to become a leader, she first needed to become that expert practitioner.
“In the past, we had two ways of how you can develop at Hannover Re, going down the leadership path, or becoming the expert, so to speak.
“And I remember 25 years ago, when I started at Hannover Re, my boss told me after a few months: ‘You have to become a leader’.”
Sehm however, insisted on spending the first two or three years learning to become a product expert, “because then I can be a much better leader”.
She acknowledges that her approach isn’t for everyone. Many product experts don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of people management, she notes, they’d rather just become that expert underwriter.
But as comfortable as Sehm is with executing tasks and honing her product expertise, at heart, she’s a people person who needs – and thrives – on human interaction.
We debate about whether this is why she ended up in reinsurance, rather than banking or accountancy; that this market, more than any other in financial services, is about the people working within it.
“Oh absolutely. I wasn’t even aware of reinsurance when I was studying. I just studied mathematics because I loved it, I didn’t care so much about what I would do with it after [I graduated], I just thought I can decide that later,” she says.
“But I’ve always loved this job. I love working with numbers and analytics, but at the same time, I love working with people. I could never work in programming or something where I work on my own, I need to exchange ideas with people.”
That’s not to say that Sehm has always found working with others easy. When asked about the hardest lessons she’s had to learn professionally, she candidly comments that she’s had to learn to develop patience, and to appreciate that not everyone would go about solving a problem in the same way as her.
She has high expectations of people who work around her – and of herself. Has she always been quite self-critical?
“Yes,” Sehm responds, and ponders whether that is because she’s a product of her upbringing and the region she comes from in Germany. Hannoverians are quite reflective, less showy than their peers in other regions, she explains.
Her typical problem solving approach is also unusual for a mathematician – rather than developing a series of pragmatic data points or a inputting figures into spreadsheets, she attacks problems more like a creative, pulling out a piece of paper and generating mind maps and spider diagrams around the problem.
When it comes to delivering the outcome or the strategy for that problem, Sehm draws on advice she was given in her early years – to decide the right approach, and then communicate it immediately, even if that’s a hard thing to tell people.
“If I decide something [a course of action], even if I know it will be hard for the team, I never struggle,” says Sehm. It’s about having courage in her conviction.
“I first of all assess if the decision is the right one for the company, or for the team. If I’m sure it’s the right decision for them, it’s always easy to communicate. If I’m convinced of the answer, I can convince others.”
Mindfulness and motivation
Throughout the majority of the interview, Sehm is relentlessly cheerful. She says she “honestly can’t remember when I last had a bad day” at work, and attributes her positive outlook to being able to compartmentalise problems in a rational way.
She loves sports, playing tennis and in-line skating regularly, as well as jogging to help clear her mind. It’s how she decompresses from stressful days.
Her idyllic commute (Sehm lives near a nature reserve and reservoir, a 16km bicycle ride away from the office) helps her to unwind after a long day in the office. It also allowed her to spend more time with her family when they were young.
Sehm has two boys, now 16 and 18, but when they were younger she would often leave the office in the early afternoon, look after her children and put them to bed, then log back on and work into the evening.
“Today it's different. But during those days it was quite unique,” she says, remembering that back then, when you left the office people assumed you had stopped work for the day. She laughs about the fact that during those years she rarely had a chance to take in a film or watch TV.
As we approach the end of the interview, Sehm talks passionately about her pride in working for a company that is not only very profitable in terms of return on equity (over 11% ROE consistently since 2015), but also that encourages innovators.
“The team’s culture is key here. Hannover Re’s approach is “somewhat different”, as the brand quote says. We accept people with corners, as they’d say in German – or people with rough edges.”
“I like the rough edges, they are people’s personalities. And they’re often people who are entrepreneurs, innovators. We are more than 3,300 people now, but it still feels like a family. And I’m very proud of that,” she concludes.