At least once a quarter, Jackie Hunt flies to Minnesota from her home base in Munich to check in with executives and staff at Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America.

As a top executive with the parent company of the Golden Valley-based Fortune 50 firm, Hunt places a premium on face time. Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Hunt is one of the world’s highest-ranking female executives and a force in global finance. Her career has taken her from New Zealand to Dublin, Ireland.

Now, as one of two women on the board of management of Germany-based Allianz SE, Hunt says she has made it her “personal crusade” to bring more diversity into the companies she manages. In addition to Allianz Life, Hunt, 50, oversees PIMCO and Allianz Global Investors in the U.S. 

Q: What’s the business case for a more diverse workforce and leadership team?

A: There’s a lot of research that shows that corporations with more diverse and inclusive boards and leaders — as well as employees — overperform. You perform better in areas of innovation; you tend to have better and more balanced decisionmaking because you’re less likely to get stuck in group think; you tend to see less turnover and a much more customer-centric organization.

 

Q: How is Allianz SE doing on that front?

A: We see ourselves as one of the leaders within our industry, but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot more that remains to be done. Allianz SE is in the top quartile of companies on Bloomberg’s Gender Equality-Index and ranks 18th on Reuters’ list of the Most Diverse and Inclusive Companies. Four of nine members of the executive leadership team members are women and the company has been recognized in Working Mother magazine. Worldwide, we have more than 140,000 employees in 80 countries. More than half are women. And women make up more than a third of managers. Double the number five years ago.

 

Q: How has Allianz achieved these results?

A: As a German company, we’re required to have 30 percent representation of woman at the supervisory board level. Those external targets are helpful because it gives us the imperative to have those conversations at a senior leadership level. On a practical level it helps us create role models. We know that attracting women into business and leadership, particularly in more diverse communities, is difficult if everybody looks different or acts differently than they do. They don’t feel they could ever make their own place in the organization.

 

Q: Without diversity quotas, how does culture change from within?

A: Operating in a European context means there’s broad-based acceptance. But what is increasingly obvious is this internal priority is being externalized. This becomes the wind behind us to drive forward these discussions across the enterprise. It’s easy to be pigeonholed as someone who is head of diversity and inclusion, the person who always pushes it. Within this idea of environmental social governance, diversity is a very strong element. It is rising up everybody’s agenda. That is true of politicians; that’s true of investors, shareholders and customers.

 

Q: How do you support diversity among the rank and file?

A: Largely it’s in the form of various employee networks. We’ve got a women’s network, a black employees network, an LGBT network. We have a network of single fathers; here in the U.S. we have a veterans’ network. Organizationally, we try to hear the issues that are being raised. In a number of countries we’ve set up something called the JET Program (Junior Executive Talent) for younger women who are looking to learn various skills.

 

Q: How do companies get beyond group think?

A: You start with how you how you look for people. If you’re using a headhunting firm, you insist they don’t shortlist the obvious candidate. Maybe you look at slightly younger candidates or candidates from outside the industry. You make a mixed sort of checklist. And look at the places you recruit. If you go through the same business schools for every role, it’s no surprise that they’ll have the same mind-set, even if people are ethnically diverse or a man or a woman. For me, diversity is about a different experience, different perceptions. What drives the value of a diverse workforce is the opportunity to bring different perspectives into a debate to end up with a more rounded answer.

 

Q: How do leaders get beyond their resistance to people who are different?

A: Organizationally, it’s about what sort of skills we value — EQ vs. IQ. Do we put enough emphasis on things like empathy. What sort of leadership models do we build? Do we only believe that there’s one form of leadership model — which is sort of “big personality” driven — or are we comfortable with a much more collegial and collaborative form of working together. As an organization, how do we rate people who have different skills, competencies and capabilities. How do we deal with people who maybe are seen as disruptive because they’re a little bit different from the norm? Do we embrace them and seek to get the best out of them or do we sort of reject them as an organization? These are ways to try to think systematically about it.