A World of Learning

Carey Bongard uses her passion for learning to help inspire future Business Badgers

Carey Bongard (BBA ’83)
Carey Bongard (BBA ’83)

Never underestimate the power of a daydream.

Carey Bongard (BBA ’83) still remembers one she had in a UW art history class. As she studied a book’s beautiful works, they didn’t inspire her to become an artist—they inspired her to see the world.

“I looked at the pictures of the beautiful art in Italy and thought, ‘Someday I’m going to see the Sistine Chapel,’ and I did,” she says. “Those classes opened my eyes in so many ways.”

As senior vice president of global talent management and development at Assurant, a global provider of risk management solutions, Bongard hasn’t just seen the world as a tourist but has learned about people around the globe and helped them chart paths in their own careers.

Hers is a life of airports, worldwide friendships, new foods and customs, and unfamiliar markets. Bongard wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If I’m talking to a large group of employees or getting on a plane to go to one of our offices in 17 countries around the world, I think, ‘I’m from a little town in Wisconsin, how did I get to do something like this?’” says Bongard, who is a native of Watertown, Wisconsin. “And I think UW–Madison and the Wisconsin School of Business were the gateways to help me do that.”

As the head of Assurant’s global talent management team, Bongard’s work impacts 15,000 employees worldwide. Her team helps guide a path from talent acquisition to learning and development to talent management, along with succession planning, global mobility, and diversity and inclusion.

“It really is about helping people join the organization, be successful while they are a part of it, and making it the environment they want to stay in,” she says. “Part of it is helping people grow and have the kind of impact they want to have.”

Bringing leadership insights back to campus

In recent years, Bongard has taken on a similar role as chair of the WSB Dean’s Advisory Board. The board—made up of industry experts and executives—provides guidance and support to help the School achieve its strategic objectives. Recently the board has also been part of the dean transition process.

“Carey brings strong leadership to the board with her expertise in human resources, learning and development, and coaching,” says Dean François Ortalo-Magné, who invited Bongard to lead the board. “She has provided immeasurable value, offering perspective on how we move forward with our mission of collaboration and innovation.”

I think you stay relevant by continually learning from the people you work with and about the markets you do business in.

Carey Bongard (BBA ’83),
Senior Vice President of Global Talent Management and Development, Assurant

Some of the board’s goals—as well as the School’s—align strongly with Bongard’s. Her agility within her career, moving from underwriting to global leadership, gives her perspective for what students face when they leave WSB.

That’s been a frequent topic of conversation between Bongard and Suzanne Dove, WSB assistant dean for academic innovations, as the School builds on its educational innovations to prepare students for the continual change they’ll face in their careers.

“In my conversations with Carey, she has emphasized that the most successful business leaders value this learning agility,” Dove says. “Carey knows that the employees with the highest potential are those who can adapt rapidly to changing business contexts, transferring what they have learned in one setting to an entirely new one.”

UW helped pave path of success

Bongard works hard to try to stay ahead of the curve and to remain relevant, never feeling as if leadership roles automatically give her all the answers.

“I think you stay relevant by continually learning from the people you work with and about the markets you do business in,” she says. “It’s also what I really love about being involved with the WSB, you learn by getting to know some of the students. I wonder if I were sitting in their chair when I was their age, would I have come across so poised and confident? I’m continually amazed by the level of talent of the students at the School.”

Bongard’s connection to UW–Madison is strong, and deep. It goes back more than a century to her great-grandfather, William Oliver Thomas, who graduated from UW Law School in 1896. At her home in suburban Milwaukee, she has an album of photos he took while a student that show both the familiar scenes of a frozen lake and the Red Gym as well as campus areas that are unrecognizable today.

“As soon as I got to Madison, I loved it and I knew it was the place for me,” she says. “There were roots there.”

Carey Bongard (BBA ’83)

Carey Bongard (BBA ’83),
Senior Vice President of Global Talent Management and Development, Assurant

Bongard didn’t set out to have a career in human resources, but she knew she wanted a business career. When she was a little girl, she loved the book The Pink Motel, about a family who inherited a motel in Florida. Reading about the family taking on and then running the hotel made her think about wanting to run a business or be part of a leadership team in a business one day.

At WSB she took an introductory course in risk and insurance and connected with it, drawn in by the logic of assessing and mitigating risk. A part-time job with a Madison insurance company piqued her interest in underwriting and she had a job offer from Time Insurance Company in Milwaukee before she graduated. Time Insurance was part of the parent company that is now named Assurant.

Bongard started in underwriting with the company and then moved into the legal department. Despite the variety, there were recurring elements that appealed to her in all those roles—bringing new people onto a team and helping them be successful. When an opportunity came in human resources, she realized that would be a perfect fit for her strengths and interests.

Challenges of a worldwide organization

As Assurant grew through acquisitions, Bongard found other opportunities to develop professionally and help others within the company do so, too. A big part of that was creating a consistent approach to leadership worldwide throughout Assurant, which is headquartered in New York. Bongard is based in Atlanta and works out of Milwaukee one week a month.

“In the past, if you asked anybody around the world what the role of a leader at Assurant is, you would have gotten many different answers,” Bongard says. “So we came together to create an environment of engagement, growth, and performance. We also created an enterprise approach to leadership development.”

That can be a challenge in a worldwide organization, Bongard says, where differing cultures require consideration about local customs, languages, and methods—for the business and its leadership.

“We can’t take a product or service that works in the U.S. and think automatically that it’s going to work in Brazil,” she says. “We need to understand the culture and market and say, ‘What is the need there?’ instead of saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do there.’”

Preparing students for a changing world

Tapping into other cultures creates an opportunity for continual learning for Bongard. Besides adjusting to and leveraging the cultures represented within her company, Bongard has seen the company change through acquisitions as well as witnessed the transformation that technology has brought to the work world. This thirst for learning is a passion she brings to her role as Dean’s Advisory Board chair and a trait she hopes to inspire in students.

For students today, we can’t predict the problems they’re going to be facing in 10 to 15 years, so we need to think about how we graduate learners. How do you help them develop that muscle so they always think about what’s new, what’s different, or how to face a problem they’ve never faced before?

Carey Bongard (BBA ’83),
Senior Vice President of Global Talent Management and Development, Assurant

“For students today, we can’t predict the problems they’re going to be facing in 10 to 15 years, so we need to think about how we graduate learners,” she says. “How do you help them develop that muscle so they always think about what’s new, what’s different, or how to face a problem they’ve never faced before?

“Certainly we need to hire people with skills and experience, but what we really need are people who are curious and want to keep learning. Otherwise we’re in big trouble.”

Bongard uses curiosity to anchor her leadership style. She believes it’s important to tap into the talent around her, both to help Assurant and the individual team members.

“As leaders, we put so much pressure on ourselves to have the right answer,” she says. “What’s been so powerful about some of the work we’ve done is creating an environment where a leader might say, ‘I have an idea, what can we all do to make it better?’ One of the ways my team can grow is by being asked to contribute, and they want to be asked. That’s been a powerful lesson for me as a leader.”

Curiosity and a passion for learning forged Bongard’s path, and she appreciates that the result has been beyond what she had ever planned. She hopes that route can inspire WSB students and new alumni to be open to things that might come up as their careers evolve.

“I don’t know that I ever said, ‘I want a job where I travel all over the world,’ because I didn’t realize that was possible for me,” Bongard says. “But with my education, my work and through the people I’ve met, I’ve learned that the possibilities are always there. People should always look for the possibilities.”

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