Eileen McDonnell of Penn Mutual

By Jane M. Von Bergen The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Once Eileen C. McDonnell, 53, decided to forgo the usual career choices once offered to women -- teacher or nurse -- it didn't take her long to aim for the executive suite.

Now chief executive and chair of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., McDonnell first became a vice president at the age of 27, beating her goal of leadership by age 30.

"I was made a full vice president. I had never been an assistant vice president," said McDonnell, describing her position at Equitable Life and Casualty Insurance Co.

Two years before that, McDonnell had begun eyeing the position. Equitable had four regions, each led by a man in his 50s.

"There isn't anyone that I've ever asked for help that was unwilling to help me."

Question: So what did you do?

A: I asked each of them what was their path to get there and what recommendations would they have for me. Then I asked their bosses.

Question: Did you talk to these people personally or cold call them?

A: I called them. I said, "I admire you. I'd like to learn from you. Would you have 15 minutes for me?" These gentlemen gave me advice. They gave me things to think about, to learn, try, raise my hand for assignments -- which I did -- which would position me for the role.

Question: One mentor, a senior VP for sales, assigned you to develop business plans for all 100 field offices. Did that help you become vice president?

A: When he had to come up with somebody who knew what was going on in every office, who could come in quickly and identify areas of opportunity -- because it turned out to be restructuring that needed to go on in the branches -- I was the person. I had worked with all the teams. He hired me into a job where I knew 25 percent of what was needed and I had to learn 75 percent, but it was the 25 he needed to save his job.

Question: Yikes! You didn't know 75 percent of what you needed to do the job?

A: He said, "You're smart. You'll learn." That's what happened. I can tell you at the beginning when I came home at night, I used to cry because I would be so overwhelmed. But I got my confidence up and went on from there. Question: How does one benefit from a mentoring relationship?

A: So many walk into the opportunity thinking they're going to get the answers. I am a firm believer that you have to take control of your own destiny.

Question: What's the first step?

A: Most people know inside of them what they're good at and what they want to do. If they don't, they need to find out and ask people around them. Often times, I'll throw that challenge back.

Question:To the mentee?

A: To the mentee, to really think through [their goals and abilities]. It's hard to help somebody if they are not doing their part in understanding [themselves], because there's willingness and there's ability. If you have an issue around abilities, I can try to get you the skills and the experience. If you are unwilling, I can't help you. It's the marriage of the two that gets you to advance.

Question: Do millennials buy life insurance?

A: They are savvy consumers. They are delaying marriage, they are not buying cars. Many of them rent. They have a different view of the world. But they came of age during the Great Recession. That leaves an indelible mark . . . as they're coming of age. So I think we have an opportunity with a generation which is socially conscious, fiscally more conscious, and burdened with debt.

Question: How are you connecting?

A: We've started through rugby. It's the fastest growing team sport in the U.S. We sponsor Collegiate Rugby Championship, which is the feeder system for players to be on the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. So we have gotten in front of a dynamic new audience.

Question: What else?

A: Brand awareness. Penn Mutual has not been on national television. We wanted to get our brand known in a favorable way. We wanted to really use it as an opportunity to recruit on college campuses.

What we've been able to do is get attention through the athletic department, because we're the first corporate sponsor at the college level [for rugby].

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