“Leave the superwoman mentality behind, it’s not sustainable.”

AXA UK&I’s Chief Operating Officer Shali Vasudeva talks about the diversity of her role, why the insurance sector shouldn’t be overlooked as a career choice, plus her tips for a good work life balance.

Shali Vasudeva in Women in Transformation

25 February 2022

Shali Vasudeva has worked for five major organisations, but when interviewed for the position of COO at AXA UK&I, there was an instant connection and a real culture fit. Because she’s comfortable and happy at AXA, in a culture where people are kind and respectful to each other, she can focus on getting the best outcomes. We spoke to Shali to find out more about her senior executive role.

Tell me a little bit about your role as Chief Operating Officer for AXA UK

I have a very diverse role overseeing the overall change portfolio across AXA AXA UK&I. This covers a varied and interesting set of programmes, including lots of exciting business transformation. I’m also responsible for technology, our data strategy and governance, operational resilience, security as well as our property estate and procurement. And, I also look after a number of our strategic outsourcing partners.

Can you tell us how you got to where you are today?

There are three things that helped me get to where I am today: one happened by accident, one by someone taking a chance on me and the third was down to great support.

In my 20s, I was living in the Middle East with my family, but the political situation there meant I had to move back quickly to the UK. I didn’t have a job lined up, so I decided to go back into education. The timing meant enrolment was limited, and I ended up doing a mathematics and technology degree, almost by accident. I completed this degree followed by international management. This gave me a diverse set of learnings to kick my career off with. My first job was working for an outsourcing firm in technology operations, followed by working in, and running, many large-scale transformation programmes.

15 years later I met someone who was working for a significant insurer, and they needed someone to help manage their strategic outsourcers, who were running their technology as well as most of their customer operations. I didn’t have any insurance experience, and at the time, the sector was quite sceptical about accepting people without insurance experience, but the COO at the time, took a chance on me. My career completely changed from that point. Three years after that, I took on her role as COO when she left to undertake larger roles. My experience and remit grew broader, and I was eventually led to AXA.

The third thing was support. It doesn't matter how many people tell you otherwise, when you decide to pursue a career, it has an impact on those around you. You need to be sure your family is ok being on that journey with you, because all your lives will change. It doesn’t mean you're giving anything up, it just means you need to all work together to make it happen. Without support from my family, it would have been really challenging, so I’m grateful for that.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

The variety of the role! I’ve recently been involved in diversifying our property portfolio, which is quite different to my usual work. I also work on our transformation projects from the very beginning; building and designing something for the future is very rewarding. It’s safe to say my day is never boring and I can work on a variety of topics in a single day. That’s what I love about it. I think the insurance sector can sometimes be underrated and overlooked as a career choice – I think it’s a fascinating sector and would highly recommend it.

And what would you say are the main challenges?

The most challenging aspect of the role is usually an unexpected problem like an external threat, for example. You can organise and plan for big things, but you often have to drop everything to respond to these issues, which can be a distraction. A different mindset kicks in during those situations.

What would you say are the most important skills or personality traits for your role?

One of the most important things in this role is resilience. We’ve had to demonstrate that through COVID-19, but it’s also important for a COO role, as you tend to be the crisis-lead. In training, you practice exercises that last half a day, but real crises last for months – or even years – and that requires a certain element of resilience. Collaboration is also hugely important. You have to really understand the value of your working relationships and ensure you keep them, so you’re truly aligned with the business. Continuous team development is also key. As leaders, we are only as good as our teams. It’s important to give people access to the tools they need to do their roles and also give them the room and support to grow. I really enjoy watching this evolve and helping others to succeed.

How are you supported in your role as a senior female leader?

I’m glad to say, it’s great to see the change in hiring attitudes. Diversity is important to me, so I’m pleased to say here at AXA UK&I, 41% of our Executive team are women. This is far higher than anywhere I have worked previously, and we want to keep improving this number. When it comes to gender diversity, there’s quite a lot that we can draw on as individuals. For me, it’s about giving back and being visible, to help people overcome barriers that might be stopping them moving forward. My advice is find a good mentor as this can be worth its weight in gold. Hearing what others have gone through and how they have overcome these barriers can really help.

What are your tips for a good work life balance?

I have a few tips I can share. Firstly, when you spend time in the office, make sure you use this time wisely, meet people that you work with and establish these relationships. So when you’re not working in the office, it’s far easier to reach out to them to solve things or seek help. You also need to maintain your network. You need to invest in the 4-5 people you trust – look after these relationships. People often shy away from asking for help, yet people are always so willing to give it. So, make the most of that. And finally, my family have joined my career journey with me. My husband picked up more of the responsibilities at home, such as chores and after school clubs when they were younger. This meant I could spend valuable time with my kids when I was not working. You need to let go sometimes and leave the superwoman mentality behind. You might be able to do it all for a while, but it’s not sustainable. Don’t put that pressure on yourself.