'Hearing diverse voices elevates your thinking'

by Leo Almazora10 Mar 2021

Near the tail end of last year, The Women’s Executive Network released its list of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women for 2020. Among them was Rowena Chan, President, Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc. & Senior Vice-President, Distribution, who still looks back at the recognition today with a sense of gratitude and pride.

“I am extremely honoured and humbled at the same time to be recognized among a group of incredible female leaders in Canada,” Chan said. “I’ve had many mentors and sponsors who believed in me, and I am grateful for the many development opportunities I’ve received throughout my career journey.”

Along with fellow Sun Life leader Patricia Callon, Senior Vice-President & General Counsel, she was among the group of distinguished women in the Executive Leaders category, which is especially significant for Chan. Beyond their great leadership, awardees within the category are recognized for their efforts to build confidence, champion equality, and break down barriers for the next generation of leaders. That’s definitely been high on her agenda ever since she joined the Sun Life organization in March of 2019.

“I truly believe in the fact that we can all benefit from having a diversity of thoughts, experiences, and perspectives,” Chan said. “Whether it's from gender, thought, culture, race, religion, or age, diversity is actually about opening up powerful opportunities for a company and for an individual to grow. Because if we embrace and draw strength from this diversity, it will actually bring in more creativity and innovation, therefore driving better outcomes for our colleagues, our advisors, our clients, and our communities.”

Her unique perspective as both a woman and a first-generation immigrant from Hong Kong has made Chan acutely aware of how diversity diminishes at the senior levels of leadership. Early in her career, she didn't see role models that were like her, a fact hard to reconcile with the ideal of giving everyone equal opportunities. That sense of disconnectedness ignited her passion to continually find ways to foster a more colourful spectrum of talent. 

At the enterprise level, Sun Life currently has representation targets to capture different dimensions of diversity. With respect to female representation within her own organization, Chan said she’s set a target of having 50% women among directors, and 50% AVPs. She also stresses that while targets are important to demonstrate transparency and track progress, those alone are not enough: there needs to be a cultural commitment as well, with diversity being embraced in daily actions and conversations.

“I would say Sun Life has made very good progress,” she said. “When I look around the organization, there is no lack of visionary female leaders that I look up to, and work alongside me. I’m also very privileged to hear from voices in Asia and the U.S. when our leadership team meets at the enterprise level, which naturally opens up your thought process and elevates your thinking.”

The efforts of Chan and her fellow leaders have been instrumental in helping Sun Life fulfill its core purpose of helping clients achieve lifetime security and live healthier lives. Over the past year, a large part of that has been helping them adjust to unexpected twists and turns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has meant creating ways to stay connected and make sure advisors are there to help maintain a living plan to achieve their goals and dreams.

While nothing can replace the personal touch of a professional who knows a client’s family and unique circumstances, the pandemic has forced people’s preferences and needs toward the digital side of the spectrum. For Chan, that’s meant supporting advisors as they reinvent themselves and adapt to new practices on the digital front.

“During this stressful time, what matters most is for advisors to build and deepen relationships with their clients emotionally, and also have the empathy to understand the client's situation,” she said. “To do that effectively, they need to be digitally empowered.”

According to Chan, Sun Life has had Zoom capabilities in place for years before the pandemic, which it was able to quickly leverage with over 170,000 client meetings held over the past year. Wealth nominee accounts, she added, benefit from a full end-to-end process where paper-based transactions aren’t required.

The company was also able to quickly pivot with new capabilities. In the later nine months of the pandemic, Sun Life introduced 21 additional e-signature forms, and made heavier use of AI in its insurance underwriting process. Over that same period, more than 90% of new insurance applications arrived through paperless channels.

“I think going forward, clients will want options. In certain situations, they’ll want to talk to an advisor face to face; in others, they'll say ‘just send me the form digitally. I'll sign it,’” Chan said. “We need to be able to provide that option and recognize clients’ preferences once we come out of the pandemic.”

Another important initiative introduced last summer, specifically within Chan’s distribution organization, was a new Vision and Culture program. Built on foundational principles of diversity, respect, and inclusivity, the program aims to enable every person in the organization to be honest and authentic, fostering an environment where they don’t need to compromise or conceal their true selves in order to advance in their career.

“Our number one priority is our clients’ wellness, and I’m of the firm belief that achieving that takes investment in the mindset and attitudes of our talents,” Chan said. “If they have the right mindset and the right attitude, it will drive the right outcomes to deliver on our purpose. If people feel like they don't have to hide anything, it gives them the confidence to know they’re good enough, while still giving them room to be curious, to learn, and to grow.”