Canadian Underwriter

The ins and outs of networking in the insurance industry

March 30, 2016   by Sarah Cunningham-Scharf

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At Broker Bash, drink tickets are hot commodities. When you walk into the Fifth Social Club in Toronto on the last Thursday of each month, you’ll find a group of insurance professionals dressed in business casual standing around the bar and holding onto their drinks like a lifeline. Groups slowly form around Broker Bash’s organizers as they hand out drink tickets, and once those groups become chattier—around 7:30 p.m.— the mood changes. Laughter is easy, and there’s a sense of camaraderie.

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Attending industry-wide events like Broker Bash— the Toronto edition can attract upwards of 300 insurance pros, and it’s also available in Montreal and Vancouver—provides laid-back opportunities for meeting new people and learning how to schmooze. But for those connections to help you find a new position, they need to be formed in the right way.

Nadia Linklater, a partner at insurance-only recruiting firm DGA Careers, says networking should be considered a long-term plan. “You don’t necessarily meet someone at an event and translate that into a role immediately. Usually it comes after years of networking.”

Etiquette can be different depending on the type of event. Since Broker Bash is a social event, for example, networking is an implied component. But “trying to recruit for a position during a fundraiser event may not be appreciated by the event host or its participants,” says Sharon Bajwa, the marketing coordinator at FIRST Insurance Funding of Canada, which sponsors and organizes all three Broker Bashes. “You want to be mindful of the overall objective of the event and align yourself with that.”

Educational events can be easier for newbie networkers, Linklater says, because the attendees all have something in common. Plus, everyone from new grads to senior execs might be attending, “which allows you to broaden your network.”

Always be prepared

Choosing the right event to attend is especially important if you’re paying for your own ticket. Broker Bash is free—other than the cost of your G&Ts if you arrive after drink tickets run out—but “a lot of these events can be expensive,” Linklater says. “If your company isn’t sponsoring you and you’re doing it out of pocket, you have to choose what works best for you.”

To figure that out, “do [your] homework before attending,” Bajwa says. “What’s the overall objective of the event—fundraising, education? Who will be attending?”

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Once you’ve decided what conference, course or bonspiel to hit up, she suggests trawling LinkedIn for specific people you’d like to chat with. “Learn more about them, their history and their interests. Take the time to prepare some speaking points. It will make your conversation with that person much easier and more meaningful, which means you’ll stand out and create a memorable impression.”

Kadey Schultz, an insurance lawyer at Schultz Frost LLP in Toronto, agrees. “You can never go wrong asking someone what they do and what they think and what’s important to them,” and asking any sort of question is a good way to break the ice.

Three conversation starters

  • What’s your typical day in the office like?
  • I love your earrings/bowtie/moonboots! Is there a story behind them?
  • What do you think about Aviva and Economical going direct?

Once you start speaking with one person, she explains, you can then bring others into the conversation. “If I know one person and there’s three people standing around, I try to expand that circle. It gives you a great opportunity to introduce them to someone else or be introduced to someone else.”

If you’re nervous attending an event by yourself, Linklater suggests heading over with a colleague. You should “both agree not to be joined at the hip during the course of the event and take initiative to interact with those around you. The best way to avoid spending all your time together is to split up and reconvene.” Showing up as a pair also gives you a go-to person to draw into conversations, and an easy excuse for extracting yourself from a discussion that’s run its course.

But always remember you’re at a professional event, especially if you’re looking to source a new job and your current employer has paid for your ticket. “If you’re networking and reaching out to people,” Linklater says, “you should do it more in a way that you’re gathering information than letting it be known you’re on the market and interested in moving. Current employers would probably not react positively to the fact [you’re] actively seeking another role” on their dime. Once you’ve determined the status of the company and whether a role is available, following up and making a move may be appropriate.

What not to do

What’s inappropriate, on the other hand, is squandering a networking opportunity to text about weekend plans or improve your Angry Birds score.

“Being on your smartphone the whole time is not a way to endear yourself and create opportunities at your table and with those speaking,” Schultz says. “They can look out and see who’s engaged with them and who isn’t. If someone’s giving a speech, be quiet and listen.”

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She also highlights the importance of being respectful and making effective use of other people’s time. “Be mindful that all of us feel like we don’t have enough time in the days,” so think about how you can provide value to those you’re asking to help you.

And don’t interrupt conversations. “You don’t want to run around the room shaking hands,” Linklater advises. “If you make a connection with someone and there’s something there, take your time. You don’t have to work the room.”

The power of insurance fundraisers

Kadey Schultz’s lifetime of fundraising experience came in handy when, in 2012, her family received devastating news. Her son Emery—who’s currently eight years old—was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a neurological degenerative disease.

Prior to her son’s diagnosis, Schultz had been involved with The League of Ordinary Gentleman, which she describes as a “charity that raises money for charities.” Once her colleagues there found out about Emery’s diagnosis, they organized a fundraiser and silent auction for Schultz’s family, which drew many attendees from the insurance industry.

“Four hundred and fifty people showed up at the Hard Rock Café in the middle of June [2012] on the hottest day of the year,” she remembers. “That was my first real engagement of bringing together the not-for-profit work with our community in insurance. We raised $20,000 that night.”

The fundraiser became an annual event called Music Heals. The proceeds support the Biggar Endowment for Muscular Dystrophy at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, where Emery is treated. To date, Music Heals has raised about $250,000.

Insurance industry fundraisers have allowed Schultz to develop her professional network as well. “It’s been a tremendous opportunity for professional growth for me, because when I started doing the volunteer work, I was exposed to people on boards and senior executives, and mentoring opportunities.” And, more importantly, fundraising has also given Schultz a sense of purpose in an otherwise powerless situation. “Whenever we feel like we have no time, that’s the time to give. It makes you feel like you have more than 24 hours in the day and it also helps to put things into perspective. To take that feeling of being disempowered and turn it into hope.”

Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the March 2016 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.