By Jessica Thiel
Jill Wagner Kelly didn’t take a conventional path to leading a company, starting a family first and attending college later. It was a colleague who recognized her talent and urged her to go back to school.
Ever since then, Wagner Kelly has relied on the guidance and support of others in helping her advance her career. Now the president of Appleton-based Integrity Insurance and executive vice president, chief distribution and affiliate officer for Grange Insurance, Wagner Kelly mentors others and advocates for people creating their own personal board of directors.
“Whoever comes into your life has an impact on who you are and what kind of leader you become,” she says.
Wanting to surround herself with diverse opinions and ideas, Wagner Kelly has intentionally chosen people from a variety of backgrounds to be part of her personal board of directors. The group includes her sister, industry colleagues and a former boss whose leadership style differs from her own.
As for her leadership style, Wagner Kelly says she worked with a leadership coach early in her career who taught her how to mentor and to have empathy for others. When she began leading others, she quickly learned if she focused on her people, they would, in turn, take care of customers.
“When I got the president’s role, I made a promise to them on the very first day. I said, ‘You don’t build a company, you build people, and they build a company,’” Wagner Kelly says.
It’s a strategy that’s served her and the company well. When Wagner Kelly joined Integrity in 2011 as vice president of commercial lines, she says the company was “hemorrhaging money.” Since then, it has managed a complete financial turnaround, including notching seven consecutive years of profitable growth and increasing personal and commercial lines direct written premium from $100 million to $200 million two years ahead of plan.
“Jill’s thought leadership brings value and insights as to where to place the bets as we strive to bring value to associates, agency partners and customers,” says Maggie Haddock, who nominated Wagner Kelly for the Women of Influence Award and serves as senior marketing specialist for Integrity.
In addition to leading Integrity to financial success, Wagner Kelly has focused on mentoring other women. She serves as executive sponsor for a young professionals’ group and helps up-and-coming females understand the challenges of the industry, so they’re prepared to face them.
One of those challenges is working in a male-dominated industry. That was the case when Wagner Kelly began her career as the company’s only female field underwriter and continues today. Back then, most of the customers and business leaders she has worked with were male, and that has been slow to change. She says that’s proven difficult at times but has also helped shape her into the leaders she’s become.
Click here to watch Jill Wagner Kelly’s acceptance speech.