The President and CEO of Penn Mutual Life Insurance, attributes her success to “dreams and aspirations and well-laid plans.”

Member of Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program.

Chairwoman, President and CEO of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company

By Bonnie Eissner

“If you’re going to take it to the next level of leadership…it’s not about you. It’s all about the people you surround yourself with.”—Eileen McDonnell, M.B.A. ’87

Eileen McDonnellWhat Glass Ceiling?

As president and CEO of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, Eileen McDonnell, M.B.A. ’87, spearheads a company with $ 18 billion in assets, 2,000 employees and 4,500 sales agents. She joined Penn Mutual as its executive vice president and chief marketing officer in 2008—at the start of the Great Recession. But since that time, revenue has doubled, and the company’s life insurance sales hit all-time highs in 2010 and 2011.

“I was only here for a couple of months and the bottom fell out of the economy,” Ms. McDonnell says, “and I came here with a mandate that we were going to grow the organization.” How did she pull it off? Her description of the company’s 2008 field leadership meeting is telling: “I got up and boldly told our associates and our sales force that Penn Mutual would not participate in the recession.” In Ms. McDonnell’s words, “We haven’t allowed the economic or market obstacles to take us off course or thwart our success.”

Ms. McDonnell has thrived while sticking to her principles of fairness and opportunity. Penn Mutual was recently recognized as one of only four companies in the Fortune 1000 to have more than a 40-percent female presence on its board, and 65 percent of Ms. McDonnell’s executive team is female.

As a national adviser for Vision 2020—a center at Drexel University College of Medicine’s Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership dedicated to promoting women’s economic and social equality—Ms. McDonnell seeks to empower women in the workplace and encourage them to take control of their finances.

“The diversity of thought you get when you bring people in from other walks of life and backgrounds produces a greater result,” she says.

She is especially proud of the work she has done to support veterans in the workplace. In 2011, as soon as she heard about the imminent drawdown of American troops overseas, she took action. She involved Penn Mutual in opening a Center for Veterans Affairs at The American College of Financial Services. She has since received the President’s Award from the college for her efforts.

The center offers a number of scholarships and online learning options. Getting an education is one thing, but gaining employment is something else entirely. “We want to help veterans and their families gain the employment they need,” she says.

The optimism Ms. McDonnell is showing for veterans is reflective of her natural ability to motivate others, which, in turn, has allowed her to thrive in the competitive insurance industry despite some long odds. The fourth of six children, she says she learned early on the power of diplomacy. Her parents also instilled in her the value of education. “My father, who was an elementary school principal, definitely set high standards for us,” Ms. McDonnell says. “I can recall coming home and getting a 99 on this test and him saying, ‘What happened to the other point?’”

Ms. McDonnell and her sisters were encouraged to become nurses or teachers. Although Ms. McDonnell initially enrolled at Molloy College as a nursing major, she decided, after her sophomore year, to major in math with a minor in computer science. Despite the disruptive switch and the need to work two jobs to cover a lost nursing scholarship, she completed her degree a semester early and with two job offers.

She chose a job at Wang Laboratories over a more lucrative offer from I.B.M. because, she says, Wang, a smaller and more nimble company, offered her greater opportunities. The experience, she says, was a pivotal one. Working in the comptroller’s office piqued her interest in finance, and she decided to pursue an M.B.A. at Adelphi. She also saw what happens when a company fails to adapt to market forces. Wang bet against the personal computer, insisting that giant mainframes and dumb terminals were the future. Two years later, Wang was in a tailspin, and Ms. McDonnell left, taking her first job in the insurance industry, as a financial manager at The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States (now AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company).

Once at Equitable, Ms. McDonnell says, “I started to dream about where I might go in the company.” She set a goal of being a vice president and homeowner by the time she was 30. She beat her deadline by three years, becoming, at 27, Equitable’s youngest vice president. The meteoric rise meant she was overseeing branch officers who were older than she and accustomed to being managed by men. There was pushback, but she remained undaunted.

After nine years at Equitable, Ms. McDonnell joined The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America as a vice president and quickly rose to become the company’s first female senior vice president in its 150-year history. She describes her eight years at Guardian as a time of great self-awareness. She developed a true passion for her industry, but she also came close to burning out. From that, she learned: “If you’re going to take it to the next level of leadership…it’s not about you. It’s all about the people you surround yourself with.” And, she says, she chose wisely.

Ms. McDonnell’s zeal and her skill at building teams served her well in her next corporate position at MetLife. Six months after joining the company, while on a business trip, she got a phone call. One of MetLife’s subsidiaries, New England Financial, was about to be investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for accounting fraud and the president was going to be removed. MetLife wanted to announce that she would be the new president. She took the job and turned the company around, an experience she describes as “baptism by fire.”

“People often ask me about the glass ceiling,” Ms. McDonnell says. “What I’ve always said is that I’ve never seen a ceiling, glass or otherwise. I just always had dreams and aspirations and well-laid plans.”

This piece appeared in the Adelphi University Magazine Spring 2012 edition.
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