One of the exciting things about working in the insurance industry can be the diverse background of your team. While there will always be people who have spent their whole career in the industry, many people come through unexpected paths. Recently, we sat down with Karen Williamson, a consultant with Cowan Insurance Group. She shared her background, including what brought her to Cowan, as well as what has helped her be successful in her role.
What is your background?
I have a degree in Science from the University of Guelph. When I was in school, I really wanted to get into the health care field, so when I was applying for jobs after graduation that was the type of role I gravitated to. Eventually, I landed a position doing underwriting for a large national insurance company in their group benefits department.
After working there for a while, I had the opportunity to join a tech start-up as their Chief Operating Officer. This was a great chance more me to learn about how to build a company from the ground up. While it was very challenging, it also gave me a strong appreciation for the value of a great team. When you’re working long hours trying to make a business profitable, having the right people surrounding you is so important.
What brought you to the insurance industry?
I didn’t necessarily make a conscious choice to go into insurance at the beginning. My first insurance role, where I worked as an underwriter, was just offered to me. After working for a tech company, I wanted something a bit more manageable and predictable. At that point, it made sense for me to go back to the insurance industry. My experience on the carrier side gave me a good understanding of how the process worked, and the leadership skills I gained at the tech company led me to benefits consulting. I was really interested in working with clients directly, understanding their needs and taking a tailored approach to their benefits.
At its core, science is the understanding of systems and how they work in the big picture. I like to apply that to my thinking when I’m working with companies. While what I do isn’t specifically science-related, many new health and wellness products are coming into the market. My background gives me a greater depth of understanding with clients when I’m discussing features and benefits with them.
Coming from the tech world, what were the most significant differences and similarities you found in this industry?
Insurance can get a bad reputation for being a bit stuffy. The personalities in this industry can definitely be a bit more reserved, but there are also many people who are really passionate about what they do.
It’s actually a fascinating time in the industry. Like the tech world, insurance is always trying to innovate. Improving user experience, experimenting with automation and technology, and creating new solutions are important to insurance and high tech companies alike.
What is your current role at Cowan?
Currently, I am a consultant on our group benefits team, working primarily on our TechLife business. I work with start-up and scale-up companies, helping them to define their employer value proposition and determining what type of group benefits offering would attract the talent they need to be successful. In a competitive job market, there is a lot of demand for skilled employees, so it’s essential to differentiate yourself from the crowd and offer something that your employees want.
My role here gives me the opportunity to be creative, problem-solve, and build solutions that maybe didn’t exist before. It’s not just handing out cookie-cutter products and doing the same thing each day. There are also lots of opportunities to collaborate with other lines of business to create holistic offerings for our clients and learn about all the different aspects of the insurance industry.
How does your experience inform the way you work with Cowan clients?
Having worked in a tech start-up previously, I have a lot of insight into the challenges they are facing. Some companies can be wary of ‘outsiders’, who don’t understand what the start-up culture is like, coming in and trying to sell them things. My experience helps me build the trust that is so important in a client relationship.
Unlike insurance products such as liability insurance, there isn’t a set point when a company needs to extend a group benefits offering to their employees. It’s more about when you want to attract and retain your talent. Much of what I do is helping clients understand the value that benefits can bring to their business. Many recent studies talk about increased employee job satisfaction when a benefits program is implemented. When you compare the cost of a benefits program to other incentives like raises or bonuses, it can make a lot of financial sense as well.
What advice do you have for people from other industries looking to break into the insurance industry?
Insurance has a reputation for being an industry that isn’t very interesting, but that’s a misconception. I’d encourage people to go into it with an open mind and focus on what you’re good at and how you can add value with that. Be open to trying new things and explore areas of the industry that align with your interests.
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