Women in Leadership Profiles

Amy Swartwood Applies Hard and Soft Skills Equally to Succeed at Mutual of Omaha

Growing up, Amy Swartwood moved around, following her father’s ministerial career from place to place. It’s no surprise that she was drawn to a career in finance initially because of the stability it offered. Now, after several high-level roles in risk management and finance at banking institutions, she has found a sweet spot as Vice President of Finance at Mutual of Omaha. Likening her role to an “air traffic controller,” Amy gets to apply both her soft and hard skills every day to solve challenges.

Current role: Air traffic control and understanding how it all fits together

What does Mutual of Omaha do? In simple terms, what is your job?
Mutual of Omaha is an insurance company. I describe my job as Chief of Staff to the Chief Financial Officer, which is similar to “air traffic control.” We have roughly 275 associates on our team, and I support and serve all of them. I have two primary areas of focus: strategic planning, and communications across the finance and actuarial teams. Strategy can include achieving financial objectives, but it can also include a wide array of operational objectives including resource planning and logistical coordination across the company.

What characteristics does someone need to be successful in a role like yours?
You have to love math, and numbers need to make sense to you, but equally as important, you need strong verbal and written communications skills. You need to understand emotional intelligence and how people think. I do quite a bit of evaluating teams and how they interact and fit together to be successful. I have a lot of spinning plates and need to be able to synthesize information succinctly and clearly in short order.

Softer skills can be the “make or break” in leadership roles in finance.

What is your favorite part of your job? 

A paycheck was what brought me to this industry, but what has kept me here is all the unexpected benefits of working in financial services: relationships with peers, the opportunities to do new and different things, and the ability to learn, grow, and advance in my career. I also really like my job – most of my day is spent solving problems, and no two days are alike.

What is most challenging?

Every role I have had in financial services has required finding a common language for all the humans I interact with. On any given day, I may be talking with IT or human resources professionals, actuaries, accountants, or payroll clerks. I frequently serve as a translator between finance and these other teams as well as within our own team across the different specialties.

Early influences: First woman in my family to get a college degree

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Sioux Falls, SD and my dad’s job as a minister took us a lot of random places. Omaha, Neb. has been my home since high school.

Is there someone (parents, teachers, grandparents, friends, etc.) or something from your upbringing that influenced your career path? 

My grandfather was a pediatrician and a huge advocate for education. He encouraged doing your best and pushing yourself – including pursuing a college degree. I was the first woman in my direct family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Moving around a lot as a small person influenced my desire to have a home base, and stability is one reason I was attracted to Mutual of Omaha.

Did you ever dream about a career at a young age (other than finance and risk management)?

I wanted to be a teacher. I like kids and I was organized. When I was in college, women’s careers primarily focused on nursing and teaching. Now I am passionate about women pursuing careers in STEM because I think my initial choices and my peers’ choices could have been different with more awareness.

What was your very first job (not after college, but first ever)? What did you learn from it?

I worked at a grocery store as a bagger and eventually became a shift manager. Working there was not too dissimilar from my current role:  you start by getting a strong foundation across different areas of the business and then move into leadership roles. I did not come from a family of means so I started working at 14 to pay for necessities like food, clothes and shoes. I learned that I didn’t want to work there forever – time goes slowly when you do manual labor – but I learned about serving customers and I am now fantastic at bagging my own groceries.

Career path: The value of flexibility and seeing the bigger picture

Your bio says you have been at Mutual since 2013 and have had several positions since you’ve been there. What is it about Mutual that makes it a satisfying place to have a career?

Even in this remote environment, I appreciate the culture of Mutual and the way they take care of their people. Whether it’s a good or bad year, pandemic or not, Mutual goes above and beyond for their employees, and they care about individual growth and development. The past few years we’ve had extra learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and their attitude has been very open: “We don’t know everything, but we will learn along with you.”

What did you learn in previous roles at Security National Bank and Bank of the West that has helped you in your current position?

I learned how to navigate corporate politics and what type of role and environment I do best in. I have four kids, and not all my previous roles had as much flexibility, which is so important to my overall well-being. Being able to leave early to go see your kids in a play or soccer game should be a privilege everyone has – not just the people at the top.

Looking back on your career, has there been a pivotal moment or decision that took your career in a new direction?

The biggest one is tied to education and my decision to get an MBA. It has opened doors that would not have opened otherwise.

I gained more than a degree on paper – the MBA helped evolve the way I think about how the world works, how businesses work and how the economy impacts business. It helped me look at things differently.

Business lessons: Be brave and acknowledge mistakes quickly  

Is there anything you would do differently?

I wouldn’t change the path because without those experiences, I wouldn’t be as effective in my role today. In my earlier years, I would have been kinder to myself. Being a woman in finance can be intimidating, and I was pretty timid early on. It took me awhile to realize that if I didn’t advocate for myself, no one else was going to.

I see women in our field downplay their experiences and skills, and I tell women who work for me: be brave and put yourself out there.

No one is 100% qualified for anything, and we can all learn as we go, as long as we are willing to put the effort in.

What advice do you have a for a young woman just starting out her career in business?

Surround yourself with strong women in your career field. Find the women in the roles you want and ask them to be mentors. Some of my best girlfriends are my co-workers. It is helpful to have other women you can call on – they have your back and are a safe space.

The other piece of advice I give frequently is how to handle mistakes, which I still make plenty of.

I tell my team members, if you find a problem or make a mistake and cover it up, it’s your problem. If you find a problem and bring it to me, it’s OUR problem.

Acknowledge your mistakes quickly. Be upfront and honest.

Personal passions: One passport stamp per year  

I see that you are on the board of Girls Inc. of Omaha. Does this organization share something with Forté’s mission – and what excites you to be part of both their efforts?

Girls Inc. is a passion project, and its mission is to encourage school age girls to be strong, smart, and bold. Forté’s mission is an echo of that work to help women, but at a later stage.

Is there anything on your “bucket list” you’d be willing to share?
We like to travel, and I particularly want to go to Europe. My goal right now is to get at least one passport stamp per year. COVID got us off track, but we are back on now.

How do you spend your time when you are not working?
My current hobby is watching my kids doing what they love. We watch a lot of soccer, football and volleyball games – and do a lot of chauffeuring, bench-warming, and cheering from the sidelines. When I am not spending time with my family or working, I enjoy reading and doing anything outside.

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