Women of Influence: Karen Mason

By Kate McCaffery | August 18 2014 09:00AM

Karen Mason

Bringing innovation to a competitive market

Her background in a company that values job rotation as a way of developing its future leaders, has given Karen Mason an impressive resume, and an acute understanding of business needs. This understanding is clear in the way Mason is able to discuss client needs, in particular.

Benefits, for example, give plan members access to medications, services and some financial security, but many employers don’t provide benefits because of the cost. “Particularly small employers,” she says. “As an industry, we need to continue to evolve and find the most creative, efficient and effective solutions to meet those needs. What makes it challenging, is the sum total of all those needs are often in conflict.”

If we have even a small influence on how our industry evolves to better meet customer needs, that’s great.

Before joining Equitable Life, Mason worked in several roles at Canada Life, after answering an advertisement for a marketing role with the group benefits department back in 1986. Several years, and several roles later, she was thrown into the deep end, to lead the company’s group IT department.

“When you manage something that you know how to do, sometimes you rely on your technical skills and innate knowledge of the job,” she says. “When you’re leading an organization and you don’t know how the work gets done, you need to think more about the function at a higher level. It really focuses you to develop your management and leadership skills.”

Three years later, the company called on her to switch roles again, and lead a restructuring of group operations, organized functionally at the time, to a business structure organized by customer segment. Following that, she worked in a staff role to support the international executive team’s strategy initiatives, before heading to Atlanta to lead U.S. group operations.

“I’m a big believer in job rotation. You get to see a company at a whole different level – I was able to see the inner working of an executive team at a fairly large, global company, long before I was at that level,” she says. “I do believe in lifelong learning. There are just a lot of different routes to get there.”

When she arrived at Equitable Life in 2006, the group had been very “heads down” for several years, to implement new systems. “I’m really proud of where the division is today, and what we’ve accomplished,” she says. “There were many positive things about the company’s reputation in the group market, but we were also seen as being dated. I’m very proud of the fact that we are a more vibrant competitor today. It’s not easy to change your image or develop a reputation for being innovative in such a crowded, competitive, mature market.”

Top rankings

In 2012, the Equitable group division achieved top rankings in a majority of service categories in a survey of group policy holders. Moreover, the division reached record sales of $53.3 million, up 83 per cent over 2011 figures, and came close to matching those results in 2013, as well.

“Competitors tell me they like the way we’ve done certain things, and it spurred them on to change, as well,” she says. “If we have even a small influence on how our industry evolves to better meet customer needs, that’s great.”

Outside of the office, Mason volunteers her free time on the board and executive committee for the Greater Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, and participates on the group insurance committee at LIMRA (Life and Insurance Marketing Research Association).

Go back to the list