Canadian Underwriter

Terri O’Brien, Équité Association

March 11, 2022   by Brooke Smith

Terri O'Brien, CEO, Equite Association

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Terri O’Brien, CEO, Équité Association

Terri O’Brien worked 25 years in large financial institutions in the banking sector before joining the P&C insurance industry about a year ago as CEO of Équité Association.

But, they’re really compatible. “The two sectors are essentially the same in their makeup of large financial institutions delivering financial products and services to Canadians,” she says.

O’Brien considers herself fortunate in her career journey. “I was always moved into transformational roles,” she says. “They were all roles where, very often, I was the first or sometimes the only employee on the team and I had to build a team, a strategy, and a business from the ground up.”

That experience, she says, prepared her for the Équité role. Over the past year, the insurance fraud prevention organization incorporated a company, hired a leadership team, and closed two acquisitions.

Part of her success, she says, anchors on the advice she received early in her career: Put your hand up. “I put my hand up for special projects, assignments, and those stretch, transformational, roles.”

But it was more than simply raising her hand. O’Brien came prepared to those meetings with senior executives. “I always [had] an interesting fact or a unique piece of information from my perspective that I could offer at the table — even when I was the most junior person.”

As a result of investing in herself this way, senior executives considered her to be a thought leader. “The reason I was tapped for these transformational new-build roles was because they always walked away from those tables thinking, Wow, that was a really unique perspective.

Mostly men sat at the table when O’Brien began her career in 1996. But that balance has tipped over the years; now, the directors around the table are about 35% to 40% women. At Équité, the both the board of directors and the leadership team are 50-50 gender balance. “I’ve seen more of the industry moving toward that 50-50 in recent years.”

That effort needs to be targeted, she says. Organizations need to make more effort to ensure there’s 50-50 women in leadership as a goal; they must make sure they are meeting this target. “It’s got to be in the funnel when we’re hiring, in the promotion opportunities when we’re looking to promote women. In senior executive leadership roles, there needs to be that personal commitment that our leadership teams are going to meet that goal of 50-50 representation.”

That means getting women into the P&C industry in the first place, and assisting them into those senior roles. For O’Brien, that’s easy: promote women. “When I say promote women, I mean both literally into the next job or opportunity, and promoting their accomplishments and what they do. Every time I was moved to the next transformational role, I promoted a woman in behind me.”

In addition, find the quieter women. “There’s an amazing number of great women who are not necessarily speaking up for themselves just yet because maybe they didn’t get the same advice that I did early in my career,” she says.

“We need to reach out to them to say, ‘I think you’re ready for this role. Let’s talk about your accomplishments.’ And help them believe they’re ready — because they are.”