How to Transition to and Succeed in a Leadership Role — From 3 Women Who Did Just That

Sponsored by American Family Insurance

American Family Insurance leaders Reider, Blockoms and Dykstra.

Photos courtesy of American Family Insurance.

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Fairygodboss
May 24, 2024 at 11:55PM UTC

“Balancing work and my personal life can be an everyday decision — as my role has changed, I have had to be incredibly diligent with my time by blocking intentional time,” says Marissa Rieder, associate planning and project manager at American Family Insurance, a property and casualty company based in Madison, Wisconsin. Rieder transitioned to this role from an executive assistant position.

But what was it like making this career pivot? Rieder says that she takes great pride in this move, and the seamlessness of the transition is largely thanks to the support she received at American Family. Networking, taking classes, saying yes to development opportunities and showing initiative when she saw a need helped her get to where she is today. 

And Rieder is only one of many successful leaders at American Family — with women taking a variety of different paths to leadership and having a variety of perspectives on leadership, too. 

Take Estelle Blockoms, the agency life distribution director for American Family’s life insurance operations. She took on a leadership role by, “Owning my development and not letting anyone own it for me,” says Blockoms, noting that while her own boss plays a helpful part, they don’t own her development.

Since taking on a leadership role at the company, Blockoms’ “day to day work changed from being more hands-in and -on to empowering individuals to lead their teams.” Blockoms explains. “I had to let go of the tactical day-to-day and dig into a deep one-, three- and five-year strategy.” 

As for Katie Dykstra — a diversity recruiting manager who is helping to increase diversity in their workforce by 50% — she has the interesting perspective of building her team from scratch. To do so, Dykstra looked “for different strengths from each person” in order to create a high-performing team. “We don’t want to hire five people with the same strengths, we need to hire people that can bring the team to the next level,” notes Dykstra.

For Dykstra, she was able to develop her career by finding her passion and purpose in life.
“Once you figure that out, it’s not hard to figure out what you want to do and where you want to go,” she says.

No matter your career stage, leadership experience or style (be it “servant, democratic and strategically focused” like Reider, “participative” like Blockoms or meant to “guide and develop” like Dykstra), these women have important advice and experience for you.

Would you like to hear live from Reider, Blockoms and Dykstra about their tips for redefining work-life balance, mentorship and more? Register for this webinar for inspiration!

What are some strategies that you’ve used when managing an individual or team that you think has been particularly effective?

Rieder: Leading with empathy and clearly stating goals are two key pieces to effectively working with an individual or team. Also, communication and 1:1 time are critical. I always make sure to check in about work and personal experiences.

Blockoms: Listen more and talk less. And ask for input before solutioning.

Dykstra: Weekly huddles to get the team together, especially when you have a remote workforce. Figure out ways to develop each team member. I particularly love telling people to lean into their fears because that is where people grow. 

Three questions I always ask are: ‘How do you like to be appreciated, how do you learn, what’s your learning style and what do you want to develop for yourself?’

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership?

Rieder: Always keep learning, ask for feedback and remain coachable — no matter what title you hold.

Blockoms:  Never doubt your abilities, have complete confidence and don’t apologize for it. 

Dykstra: You deserve the world; don’t let anyone tell you differently. Anything you want to achieve, you can do it. It’s all in our mindset that we have with ourselves. 

What’s been your most valuable career mistake?

Rieder: Doubting myself and not speaking up enough when I had an innovative idea.

Blockoms: Talking more and listening less.

Dykstra: My identity goes beyond work, and the most important things in life are the things outside of work. I learned that the hard way when I worked at an organization that didn’t appreciate people and my dad got cancer; the man I looked up to since I was kid told me to stop focusing on your career and focus on the important things in your life: your kids and family. 

What are you trying to improve on?

Rieder: Listening to understand rather than to simply respond.

Blockoms: Work-life balance.

Dykstra: Asking for help more and letting my team make decisions instead of me. I want to be an influencer, not a dictator.

Can you identify anything you said or did that earmarked you as someone ready for advancement?

Rieder: My previous career as a formal educator provided me with tools and strategies to see the big picture and understand how to partner with others.

Blockoms: I was very transparent about my desires and asked individuals to help get me there.

Dykstra: Transferable skills were key for me. I have a law enforcement degree, yet here I am in HR!

Who is/was the most influential person in your professional life and why?

Rieder: Rondale Dunn, Agency Strategy and Growth Vice President at American Family, has been a part of my journey at American Family since 2016, over time I have had the opportunity to experience his leadership and also see his own growth as a leader. He demonstrates an atmosphere of learning, teamwork and servant-led leadership. He challenged me to believe in my abilities, introduced me to other amazing leaders, and provided peer mentors for me to learn and lead.

Blockoms: American Family Insurance CEO Jack Salzwedel — with his courage to question the status quo.

Dykstra: My dad was the influencer in my life until I had kids, then it shifted to my mom and how amazing she was raising kids and working.

How has having a mentor or sponsor enriched your own work experience?

Rieder: Others’ experiences and learnings are so valuable. Every person has something to offer, and a mentor also can see a different perspective or challenge you to think differently.

Blockoms: Providing a great sounding board both ways.

Dykstra: I don’t think I would be where I’m at today without them. They were the ones pushing me to my potential and level setting with me.

Ultimately, what has led you to stay at American Family Insurance?

Rieder: The culture and the services we provide — insurance is a noble business. It's caring for others.

Blockoms: The continuous improvement of the company’s strategies and commitment to social justice.

Dykstra: The people and the flexibility. 

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Next Steps

Even though Rieder, Blockoms and Dykstra all have their own, unique paths for growth and top reasons for staying at the company, one thing is for sure — American Family Insurance is the right place for them!

And, their advice doesn’t stop here! In an upcoming webinar, Rieder, Blockoms and Dykstra will be sharing stories, inspiration and practical advice on:

  • How to create and maintain personal and professional boundaries.

  • How to ask for what you need (and deserve!) in your job.

  • How to know when it’s time to move on from a company.

  • How to build meaningful relationships in a dispersed workplace.

  • How AmFam has supported them personally in their careers.

Sound interesting? Register for this webinar here!

And, if you’d like to browse open opportunities at American Family Insurance — they’re hiring!  Click the link below to find a job that’s right for you.

Fairygodboss is proud to partner with American Family Insurance. Find a job there today!

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