Women of Influence: Sharon Giffen

By Rosemary McCracken | August 18 2014 09:00AM

Sharon Giffen

Targeting the uninsured market

When Sharon Giffen joined Foresters Canada as vice-president, product management in 2002, she was at a comfortable mid-point in her career in the insurance industry and ready to take on something that made a difference. She was attracted by the fact that Foresters is a fraternal benefit society, a not-for-profit organization with a mandate to champion the well-being of families through quality life insurance and investment products, and member benefits.

“I was intrigued by an organization that does not have shareholders and is dedicated to its members—and being involved in something that was bigger than myself,” said Giffen, who in 2012 was appointed Toronto-based president of Foresters Canada, and president and chief executive of Foresters Life Insurance Co. “And there was a challenge to it as well. The organization had gone through some topsy-turvy times in the mid-1990s, so I had the opportunity to help rebuild it and its brand.”

Rising to challenges

Giffen, now 55, has always risen to challenges. Indeed, she’s approached her entire career as a challenge. She grew up in a rural area outside Lindsay, Ont., and earned a bachelor of mathematics with an honours co-op in actuarial science at the University of Waterloo—with one of her co-op placements at Foresters Canada’s headquarters in Toronto. “I was always good at math and I had a natural interest in business, so becoming an actuary was a perfect fit,” she said. “I was also attracted to the insurance industry because insurance, particularly life insurance, can make things much less difficult for people at difficult times in their lives.”

Along the way, she made it her business to get experience in different areas of the industry—as an underwriter and a product wholesaler. “This was unusual for an actuary,” she said, “but it taught me about what drives the insurance business.”

As a young woman, she was painfully shy and had to overcome this obstacle. She said that when she was about to make her first public presentation as a product wholesaler, “I was petrified. I didn’t think I could do it.” But she did and is now comfortable speaking in public.

One of the challenges she took on as Foresters Canada’s president was targeting the uninsured market. “According to a recent study by LIMRA, an industry research association, 6.1 million Canadian households are uninsured or under-insured,” Giffen said. “These are often middle-income people with children, or who plan to have children; or they may be part of the sandwich generation—raising children and caring for elderly relatives. They may have insurance coverage through their employers, but they will lose it if they lose their jobs. They need to understand that there are insurance products that can help them, that they can afford and that they can easily access. Unfortunately, the industry has developed a lot of complexity around products and accessing them.”

While the insurance business, focusing as it does on helping people through difficult situations, would appear to be a natural line of work for women, Giffen said that very few women were in key positions when she entered the industry. “There were plenty of women working in insurance companies, but very few in actuarial departments or in senior jobs. But I didn’t let that stop me; I just told myself that I would do what I could,” she said.

“As time went by, more women entered actuarial programs at universities. And companies began to embrace diversity in their workforces, with gender-based diversity being at the forefront of this movement. So gender should no longer be a barrier to young women entering the industry.”

Women who are raising families, she added, often struggle to maintain a work-life balance, but there is no formula to achieve that. “My advice to these women is to choose what is good for them right now and accept that there may be consequences to these choices,” she said. “Unless they are well-off, they may not be able to hire two nannies for their children while they are at work. So they may decide to take a few years off and develop stronger relationships with their children, but it will mean putting their careers on hold.”

Giffen said that there was a year in her career when she was busy caring for elderly parents and couldn’t put her full focus on her job. “I explained the situation to my boss, that there would be times when I’d have to leave work. He told me to do what I had to do, and I think most supervisors would say the same thing.”

Other advice Giffen has for young people in the industry:

  • Seize opportunities that come your way, and then generate more opportunities.
  • If something doesn’t seem to be working, try to do it a different way. “And you’ll learn how to do this by networking.”
  • Build your communication skills: speaking but, most importantly, listening.
  • Be curious. Never be afraid to ask questions.
  • Seek help from senior people. “They will make the time for you. Whenever I see people I have helped go on to succeed, I’m just thrilled. A little bit of me goes on with them.”
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