Sharon Giffen, FSA 1984, FCIA, ICD.D
Independent Board Member
Toronto Ontario, Canada
Brief Description of the type of work you currently do:
I serve on the boards of four insurance companies—two in the P&C business, one health benefits company, and a life company issuing group annuities.
Primary Area of Practice:
Other Areas of Practice/Interests:
Why do you want to be on the Board?
In reviewing the SOA’s strategy, I find that I am extremely well aligned with all elements of the plan, and would welcome the opportunity to contribute my energy to seeing them implemented. As I am semi-retired, I also have the time to give significant focus to such efforts. My actuarial career has been highly rewarding to me personally and I believe in giving back to our profession. As I am completing my term with the Canadian Institute of Actuaries Board in June, the timing could work well to shift my efforts to the SOA.
Ethics and Transparency
Ethics and transparency are essential to professional practice and service on the board. How will your own ethics and views on transparency influence your decisions and actions as a member of the SOA board?
I believe that it is critical to have the integrity and courage to speak up on issues, even when one’s own views may differ from others. Through discussion, it is important to tease out a diverse set of opinions to ensure that biases are identified and can be dealt with directly. Equally, it is important to actively listen to others, hearing those differing views to help inform one’s own conclusions. Once a decision is properly made, whether or not in agreement, I believe it is critical to embrace the decision and to do one’s part in ensuring it is implemented efficiently and effectively. The highest of ethical standards are “table stakes” in dealing with decisions that may impact our profession, our members, future members, and the many stakeholders of the SOA.
Collaborative working relationships are essential to the governance function of the SOA Board of Directors, especially as board members work with each other, volunteers, and staff to advance the direction of the SOA. We need both leaders and team members. Describe a situation from either your professional or volunteer experiences that demonstrated where you can be effective in each of these roles.
In my previous role as a Chief Financial Officer, I was in a position where it was necessary to shift seamlessly between being the leader of my teams to being a support person for my colleagues. In this role, I was first in the company to bring the actuarial team and the finance team (along with others) together under common leadership. As in many companies, there had always been a tension between the two groups, who now were expected to work together more co-operatively. To achieve this, I implemented strong communication channels, common objectives and then modeled that collaborative behavior at our team meetings. In short order, the working relationships improved and the financial reporting process was less stressful for all involved.
At the same time, we were undertaking an acquisition for one business unit, in which project I personally supported the business unit leader in due diligence, financing and negotiations. In that role, I was supporting my colleague and providing my expertise and best advice in collaboration with the business unit team and the legal team. We looked at several opportunities, and were successful in acquiring and then integrating a corporate entity which more than doubled the assets under management at the company.
In both functions, I was able to adapt freely to the expectations and needs of the particular task at hand. I bring the same flexibility in thinking to my current Board roles and would do the same for the Board of the SOA.
Board members need to exhibit curiosity and a desire to learn about areas that may potentially impact the SOA and the profession. How will you apply that knowledge as an elected Board Member?
Lifelong learning is core to my belief system. I have been and will always be happy to engage in a new area of work; I bring my own framework of experience and expertise and work to discover how that might be applicable to unfamiliar tasks or questions. In the context of the Board of the SOA, I expect this may include working in committees, task forces or with sections that are outside my work experience. These opportunities are, in fact, what is attractive to me about serving on the SOA’s Board.
As I have transitioned to performing Board work as my sole occupation, I have joined the Boards of companies in lines of business that are outside my direct work experience. I think there is benefit to my performance in that I don’t make assumptions about how things work, rather I ask questions to ensure that I am applying my own knowledge in an appropriate way.
I believe it is important to maintain a stance of big picture thinking—recognizing that I will never be the technical subject matter expert in new areas, but do need to provide appropriate oversight. In unfamiliar areas, I will ask questions to be satisfied that the appropriate thinking has been applied to the question at hand - not to try to uncover flaws. In my current board work, this has been a strength for me—I am always pleased when I can share a best practice or framework of thinking from one company to another—always applied respecting confidentiality.
Respectful and prudent use of resources is an important function of all board members. Explain how you have demonstrated this characteristic in either your work or volunteer experiences and how it will carry over to your role on the SOA Board.
In many of my past positions, I managed an expense budget, usually in the context of trying to reduce expenses, through automation and the use of technology. Actuarial and Finance functions are often thought of as pure “overhead” and thus there was always a balance to ensure sufficient budget and human resources to do the required work, and to do it in a manner that others saw as value-added—never an easy challenge!
Additionally, I served for several years as Treasurer and Chair of the Audit and Finance Committee of a small opera company. In that role, balancing revenue and expenses required an innovative approach. In the arts, expenses are incurred (talent hired and sets and costumes produced) before tickets go on sale. Forecasting sales, donations and grants against those costs—and doing this in collaboration with the single person in finance on staff—was indeed an interesting perspective, and I learned quickly the real meaning of operating on a shoestring.
I believe in a discipline approach to budgeting and expenditures. I also see the SOA’s budget as representing members’ dues and other revenue raised primarily from members, their employers and other stakeholders. It is incumbent on the Board to respect that revenue and to be conscious of the need to demonstrate overall value for our expenditures.
Provide a brief description of your professional background and the type of work you have performed and explain how these experiences have prepared you as an Elected Board Member and qualify you in carrying out the strategic direction of the SOA.
After many years in primarily pricing and product management roles, in both large and small companies, I joined The Independent Order of Foresters (Foresters) in 2000. Foresters is a multi-national fraternal benefit society, selling individual insurance to middle market families and devoting all profits to its purpose of enhancing the well-being of families and their communities. Starting in a product management role, I was promoted to manage both the product and corporate actuarial departments and then to Chief Actuary, including the appointed actuary role for both Canadian and US regulatory statements. From there I moved into the Chief Financial Officer position with accountability for Finance, Internal Audit, Risk, Actuarial, Investments and Capital Management. Next, I held the position of President and CEO of Foresters Canada, and finally Chief Risk Officer & Chief Compliance Officer, with dual reporting to the CEO and the Board.
In 2016 I left Foresters and am now serving on Boards of Directors of 3—and soon to be 4—insurance companies and on all four Risk Committees. I have served the profession in a presidential term with the CIA, which ends in June 2019.
I believe my C-suite roles demonstrate my flexibility and adaptability to work in new areas, and to comfortably shift between leadership and teamwork roles. As the CEO of Foresters Canada, I was accountable to develop a new strategy for the business unit, to improve profitability.
My tenure with the CIA was notable in that I chaired the Governance Committee for all three years, in which we completed a total re-organization of the structure and governance of the Institute and its volunteer working groups.
Volunteer and Governance Experience
Describe how your volunteer, personal and governance experiences would strengthen your contributions to the SOA Board, the organization, and strategic plan execution.
I have been a regular volunteer for the profession since shortly after qualifying. I served on SOA exam committees. I had leadership roles in the Actuaries Section of the National Fraternal Congress of America (now American Fraternal Alliance), the Toronto Actuaries Club, and the SOA’s Smaller Insurance Companies Section. I have spoken on a variety of topics for the SOA, the CIA and with other industry groups.
With Foresters, I supported volunteerism to fulfill their fraternal purpose in a variety of activities, from building playgrounds to organizing a drive to collect articles of clothing for residents of a women’s shelter.
My recent experience with the CIA, with a strong focus on the modernization of governance, has given me great insight into how to create and work within a set of decision-making rules. This also required the careful navigation of widely diverse input from members—and finding from that input the balance of governance structure that will work for the CIA.
Most importantly, I can generally see the big picture and have the can-do attitude to pitch in and help however I can. I see these skills as highly transferable to serving on the SOA’s Board.