Susan Penwarden, Chief Technical Underwriter, Aviva Canada
Susan Penwarden has had a varied and robust career in insurance, living across five different countries and practicing insurance in the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Canada.
Before settling at Aviva, Penwarden started off as a broker, working each summer at Sedgwick Insurance Brokers. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she was rehired at Sedgwick for her first full-time insurance job.
“In my first job, I actually was working for a woman, which was quite unusual then. This was a long time ago,” Penwarden says.
Her manager’s support was extremely helpful in starting her career.
“She was very inspirational for me, in terms of being the only woman in the role but very much highly respected by all her colleagues—male and female—and just being very strong as a leader.
“That inspired me to keep going, you might say, in terms of why I would want to stay in the industry. I had some really strong support over the years, both in training and also through senior leaders who gave me the right steer or support to help me learn the way around; to learn what I needed to do to get to a more senior role.”
Her first executive role was Chief Risk Officer for a large Scandinavian insurance company. “That was actually done through one of my mentors, who sat in another part of the organization. My mentor recommended me.”
Having people advocate for her through various stages of her career was helpful to her development as a senior executive.
“I’ve lived in five countries and [held] different roles across those countries at executive level, but typically had been recommended or picked by somebody with whom I’d already worked. So those connections and having that network has really been helpful for me over the years,” says Penwarden, who made the most of her opportunities to widen her skillset. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t do the work and build my skills over time [and] work very hard.”
That combination of expertise and being able to develop some knowledge in various fields was instrumental, she says. “It was knowing what was important, and listening to people saying, ‘You know, this is an area where we need people with skill.’ Whether it was in risk or underwriting, widening my knowledge was really helpful.”
Some women may feel discouraged from striving for the executive level if they have to balance work with family responsibilities, she says. But the right level of mentorship and support can play a big role in changing these perceptions, she emphasizes.
“It’s about creating that environment where women do have the confidence to put their names forward for those big roles, knowing that they’ll have the right support and the training to feel confident when they get there.”
When working overseas, it was challenging for Penwarden to find and recruit the right talent. She says it’s important for organizations to understand where their female talent resides – and cultivate it.
“If I wanted to go out and recruit, where was I going to find the talent?” she asks. “And so, it became important…to grow your own. Understanding where the female talent is in the broader organization, and then actively supporting those women into more senior roles, giving them the right training and development, and the right support to have confidence, giving the flexibility where they need it [is of interest to companies],” she says.
Allowing women space at the executive table leads to a richer corporate environment.
“Having a balance at the table on gender is one of those elements that bring richness and differentiated thought,” she says. “Having worked in environments with a good balance, there’s a real rich dialogue that you get that you don’t if everybody kind of comes from the same background.
“The more you can diversify that thinking, the better off you’ll be and the better you will make decisions as a collective.”