Canadian Underwriter

Karen Gavan, Swiss Re board

March 8, 2021   by Jason Contant

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Karen Gavan, Swiss Re board of directors and former president, CEO of Economical Insurance

To reach a leadership position in the Canadian property and casualty insurance industry, women leadership hopefuls need to develop and hone their financial literacy skills, the former president and CEO of Economical Insurance told Canadian Underwriter.

“Women overall continue to be underrepresented at executive and senior management levels, and there continues to be many barriers for women trying to reach the C-suite,” said Karen Gavan, who was the president and CEO of Economical from 2011 until her retirement in 2016. “To start, many women are uncomfortable with the numbers.

“How does the business make money?” she asked. “You must develop and hone that skill to reach a leadership position.”

As well, leadership hopefuls need to develop a deep understanding of the business and how it operates, advised Gavan, who was elected to the board of directors of Swiss Re in 2018.

“To get to the C-suite, you must be a strategic thinker and a visionary who is able to think about how the business must evolve over the next five to 10 years,” she said. “This requires a level of boldness in thinking about the future of the business.”

Ideally, the employee has gained experience across both line and staff functions to become well-rounded, Gavan said. “I believe that women progress through their careers by planning, organizing, executing, and [through] overall strong business performance.”

In Gavan’s case, she began articling for her Chartered Accountant designation right out of university. Travelers was her very first client; and in public accounting, Gavan audited many life and P&C insurance companies. “That developed my industry expertise, so it was natural that I moved into the industry.”

She started her career in finance roles at Prudential Insurance, Imperial Life and Canada Life, and joined Transamerica Life as chief financial officer. She added responsibilities over her tenure, becoming executive vice president and CFO of Transamerica Life Canada/AEGON Canada, and later, chief operating officer.

Gavan recommends the industry invests in developing talent at all levels of the organization. “A high emphasis must be placed on training that helps women hone and grow the skills needed as they progress through their career,” she said. “The industry must also shift its business practices to be more inclusive and diverse — we’ve made some progress on this front, but there’s certainly more work to do. Flexible and inclusive cultures — supported by strong [diversity and inclusion] programs and initiatives — must become the norm so all can contribute, grow and thrive.”

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