With assets of about $15 billion, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) ranks among Canada’s largest property and casualty insurers and is one of the province’s largest corporations. As chief investment officer and head of investments and treasury, Alison Gould is responsible for developing investment strategies that align with the corporation’s goals. She’s spent her entire career with ICBC and has found that the lessons she’s learned at every level have shaped her philosophy as one of its senior leaders. Advantage caught up with Gould to learn her top six areas of leadership that every executive should know.
1. Use your experience for others
Gould first discovered the operations and accounting side of investing when she began her career at ICBC twenty years ago as an entry-level analyst. And Gould wasted no time learning more about the industry. She seized the opportunity to manage fixed-income portfolios, eventually leading the entire investment team, which includes fixed income, real estate, and mortgage portfolios. Over the course of her time at ICBC she’s built teams, developed projects, and grown into leadership. “My hands-on experience here has helped me succeed at each new milestone,” she says. “I’ve learned the organization and the industry, and I know I can put that knowledge to use.” And she uses that knowledge to help her junior colleagues develop with the company.
The challenge then lies in letting go. As a leader, she understands the need to give direction while trusting others to execute their part. “People trusted me to take initiative and learn my roles while I was coming up, and it’s time for me to give others that same freedom,” she says.
Gould sets the tone and delivers resources on investment strategies, company vision, risk tolerance, and governance—but then she steps back and gives her team room to operate. “ICBC recently implemented a leadership program, which helped me focus on my role as a senior leader in the company,” she says. “It reinforced how important it is to develop our community leaders within the company.”
2. Provide opportunities
Developing employees is essential to staff retention and to delivering strong performance results. Now, talented millennials move from one organization to the next in pursuit of new challenges and other goals. But over her time with the crown corporation, Gould has seen that if an organization treats its employees well, they’re less likely to leave. “Part of treating people well is opportunity,” she says. “Everyone wants a chance to grow, and we need engaged people.”
When leading her teams, Gould works to ensure that development assignments are provided to each employee to help them reach their career aspirations. Employees are the driving force behind ICBC’s success, and Gould encourages each person in her department to develop strengths and take on stretch assignments.
“Part of treating people well is opportunity. Everyone wants a chance to grow, and we need engaged people.”
3. Be untraditional
In the past, a CIO in the property and casualty business dealt with short-term, fixed income investment assets. But in recent years, interest rates have been at an all-time low. Generating a return is difficult, and the era has taught Gould to pursue new levels of creativity. That’s pushed her to consider nontraditional asset classes like mortgage, high-yield bonds, and real estate. She’s overseen the identification of a new investment management system and has worked with other departments to provide and implement the necessary infrastructure.
ICBC is working to build a new investment management system that will be operational by early 2017. According to Gould, that’s when the real work begins. “CIOs need to closely monitor the external environment because things change and policies get updated constantly,” she says.
Others might see these changes as barriers, but she’s learned to find ways around any obstacle. “At many points in my career, I’ve decided to try something new when others just accept the status quo,” she says. “We are building a culture of continuous improvement at ICBC, and that involves everyone taking ownership for coming up with improvement ideas.”
4. Collaborate smarter
In many organizations, investor and financial teams sit in back rooms and scour spreadsheets. At ICBC, Gould stresses the importance of collaboration and sharing information. “If we work as a team, review deals, and look at risk from all angles, we can find a better way in the moment and down the line when the portfolio evolves,” she says.
She recently discovered an opportunity for cost savings in her external management models. Currently, external fees from outsourcing are high, but performing all work in-house is prohibitive. She’s struck a balance and monitors the work often to ensure internal teams are operating at—not above—capacity while third parties are billing only for valued services.
5. Understand the vision
Gould remembers watching other junior analysts struggle with the ins and outs of the industry. She learned to ask questions as often as necessary. Now, it’s an approach she passes on to her teams. “It’s critical to understand what you’re investing in and where the business is going, and sometimes, that understanding comes only through asking and through the sharing of information,” she says. Additionally, good leaders have to be able to explain complicated investment concepts to board members or other company leaders in simple, direct, and jargon-free ways.
6. Protect the culture
When Gould and her ICBC colleagues hire, they bring new employees in at the analyst level and then look to develop leadership skills that fit with the organization’s culture. “We’re very interested in finding the right fit for our team. We look for leadership aptitude and want people who can work on a team and eventually lead others. I’ve seen throughout my years here that those are the kind of people that rise to the top,” she says.
Together, Gould’s team drives ICBC’s investment strategy that generates the income that keeps rates low for customers across British Columbia. Two decades of experience at ICBC have put Gould in the perfect position to leverage all she’s learned to deliver dramatic results.