Ambitious but Achievable

Leadership lessons from former Sun Life President and CEO Dean A. Connor, FSA, FCIA Interview by Ron Tsang


Dean A. Connor, FSA, FCIA

On Aug. 7, 2021, Dean A. Connor began his retirement after nearly 10 years as president and CEO of Sun Life. Over the past decade, Dean and his executive team transformed Sun Life into one of the top insurance and asset management companies in the world. He did this by focusing the business on a “four-pillar” strategy:

  1. Market leadership in insurance and wealth solutions in Canada
  2. Group benefits in the United States
  3. Global asset management
  4. Retail insurance and wealth in Asia

Along the way, Dean was named top new CEO in 2014, Canada’s outstanding CEO of the year for 2017 and one of the 100 best-performing CEOs in the world for 2019 by the Harvard Business Review. He is a fellow of the Society of Actuaries (SOA) and the Canadian Institute of Actuaries (CIA). He grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, where his father was a compensation and benefits executive. In the Connor household, it was not unusual to discuss the actuarial report of the Canada Pension Plan—even when Dean was only 12 years old.

In this Q&A, Dean reflects on lessons learned from his 40+ year career and shares insights for actuaries who want to hone their business acumen.

What was the biggest factor in your career success as an actuary and as CEO?

I started my career working in pension consulting, and my first job dealt with income tax rules for pension plans. I remember my first client meeting: I was 21 years old, and it was with the treasurer of a client firm. I left that meeting thinking, “Wow, I knew more about that subject than this guy did.” It struck me that if I worked hard and learned enough, I could be good at this job. The idea of lifelong learning was imprinted at an early age.

In a textbook on life contingencies by C.W. Jordan, there was a wonderful quote on the inside cover that stuck with me my whole career: “The work of science is to substitute facts for appearances, and demonstrations for impressions.” That motto has proven to be a core tenet as a leader. I want to see the data and really understand something before making a big decision.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in learning how to think like a great CEO?

The more senior you get in an organization, the broader the perspectives you need to have. For example, take the decision to launch a new product. Early in my career, I might have considered the technical aspects. But as you progress, your aperture must widen: What are my competitors going to do? What does the regulator think? Is this actually a good product for society? Is it going to generate the right capital and cash returns? Where does it fit in the strategy for the organization?

As you become more senior, your peripheral vision must get wider in terms of defense against things that could hit you from the side or from behind and opportunities for offense.

As a leader, you set the pace. It feels like the beat you’re driving is faster than the one the organization would naturally go at. I was pushing the organization—not asking people to work harder or longer hours, but setting goals and getting things done faster. People can achieve more and in shorter time frames than they think.

What was the best advice you received in your career?

The advice I wish I had received is this: From roughly age 16 to 25, just focus on one thing—opening doors. Through your courses, marks, friends and acquaintances, as well as travel, community, work and volunteer experiences—each one opens a new door. If all you do is open doors and keep them open, good things will happen.

I got lucky because I opened doors and didn’t know it. I started university with two years of math and finished with two years of business school. I had enough math under my belt to write the actuarial exams, yet by graduating with a business degree, I was unique among actuaries. It brought me a different set of perspectives.

The second piece of career advice is this: Work outside of Canada (or if you’re in the United States, try Asia) at some point. I moved to New York when I was 49, and it was one of the best things I ever did. There’s a buzz and a hum and a click to business in the United States that’s way faster than in Canada. I was only there two years, but I returned with a far faster clock speed. Canada is a great country, but we are not as decisive, risk-taking and fast-moving as the United States and Asia.

How did you come to embrace disruption at Sun Life?

I realized that if you’re going to make a step change in a large global organization like Sun Life, it takes far more thrust and mass than you ever imagined, for much longer.

For example, we made an annual trip to Silicon Valley and met with fantastic technology companies. I remember flying home from one of those trips, reflecting on the week and thinking that I saw amazing technology and smart people, but I didn’t see anything that was going to, in the short run, disrupt what we were doing.

What I did see, though, was that these companies were client-obsessed—they understood their clients’ needs and anticipated them. We were client-centric, not client-obsessed. To get to that level would require changing everything about how we ran the company.

As one small example, we switched from using the word customer to using the word Client with a capital “C.” A customer is somebody who walks into your store, you sell them something, and you may never see them again. Whereas a Client is someone with whom we have a trusted relationship, we have their back, we try to do the right thing for them, and we expect it to be a lifetime relationship. In essence, we changed everything: compensation, goal-setting, language, reporting, communications and just about every other process in the company.

To create big change in a big company requires a lot of force and thrust over a sustained period of time. After 12 months, people are listening; after 24 months, people get it; and after 36 months, people really get it. It’s a journey, and we’re thrilled to be part of it because the whole organization is galvanized around helping Clients. It gives meaning to the work we do. People jump out of bed in the morning to help Clients achieve lifetime financial security and live healthier lives. Employee engagement scores and Client scores have gone up at Sun Life, and I think it’s because we were well-positioned for the pandemic given our obsession with Clients.

What was your thought process when developing the “four-pillar” strategy?

Coming through the global financial crisis, life insurance companies were hurt by having long-dated products on their balance sheets that had unhedgeable risks, particularly interest rate risk. Our decision to move away from those products—an important part of the “four-pillar” strategy—was taken before a number of other companies did so as well.

If you’re wondering why I did this so early, it comes back to my approach to actuarial exams. I wrote my first exam in 1978 and thought, “Wow, nine more to go!” And I had this idea that if I just applied myself, time would go by quickly and they’d be done—and that’s exactly what happened. That notion of time also applied to the four-pillar strategy: I’m a new CEO, the next 10 years are going to go by fast—we must get going now!

I was appointed CEO on Dec. 1, 2011, and in March 2012 came out with the four-pillar strategy. The following year, we sold our annuity business. The big decisions to get out of long-dated, riskier products in the United States—and to double down on Asia and asset management—were part of the four pillars.

The biggest changes over the past decade—changing culture and talent—were the hardest to do, but they have had the biggest impact. I inherited a culture that was collaborative with high integrity, and we built on that by creating more accountability, setting goals that were ambitious but achievable and raising the bar on talent. Many companies have similar strategies, so it comes down to which company can execute the best—and that depends on talent and culture. In our case, I worked with an amazing executive team that worked well together and shared a common view on what we needed to achieve and how to achieve it. And, I should add, there was some luck involved!

You have said that how you get work done or how you get buy-in is half the battle in business. What do many actuaries miss in this area?

Some people are overly process-oriented. We need people who are outcome-oriented with a good process as a foundation.

The other questions are: Are you working on the right things? Do you have the right priorities? How do you allocate your time toward your own development? You can have people who are good at getting things done, but how do you get them to work as a team? That comes back to talent and culture.

Most organizations are not static. They’re changing in terms of business mix, strategy, culture or technology—try to understand the direction of travel and how you as an actuary can support that and contribute. Don’t just think about the work you have to get done in the next 30 to 60 days. More broadly, consider: How am I part of this direction of travel for my organization? How am I part of the solution?

What lessons have you learned about effective communication?

It is one of the most important tools in your toolbox for getting things done. I’ve learned that words matter a lot. Let me give you a few phrases:

  • Ambitious but achievable. Those three words are echoed by Sun Life employees around the world. Ambitious but achievable strikes a good balance—it’s not insanely ambitious, and it’s achievable.
  • Hits and misses. We adopted these words in our performance language instead of using “successes and failures.” Even the best batters in baseball’s major leagues only bat .350—even the best have some misses. It fosters a different conversation.
  • Polite but direct. Employees at Sun Life were polite, but almost to a fault. I coined these words to convey a different way of engaging with people—you can object without being objectionable. It became part of the language of the company.

Additionally, public speaking is important. I thought I was decent at it until we benchmarked some of my speeches against other business leaders and great speakers in history—and there were a lot of gaps in my game! You can never stop improving in this area. Public speaking can be learned, but you must work at it. I had mentors at Mercer who were terrific speakers and writers because they worked really hard at it. They might spend 10 to 20 hours on a speech—reading it out loud, hearing how it sounded, then improving it.

Finally, communication is a two-way street. The receiving side (listening) is as important as the sending. I once said to a colleague, “You have to listen so hard that your head hurts.” Listening incredibly hard means looking for the intent behind people’s comments.

How did you manage your time as CEO?

There are lots of things I would love to have done. Business leaders are invited to many different events and pulled in different directions. It requires self-discipline to say “no” to the things that are fun or come easily to you and say “yes” to the things that don’t come naturally.

Making deliberate choices about, for example, spending more time in China to build relationships, understand the regulators, the political environment and the competitive environment—nobody was inviting me to do that. You must insert yourself into those things, and that’s true at every step of your career. It’s an element of time management but also an element of career development.

What does your next level of success look like?

I’m thinking about this next chapter in three buckets:

  1. Personal and family. I plan to spend more time with family and friends.
  2. Community. I’m involved with University Hospital Network and the United Way of Toronto.
  3. Work. I joined the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and I’m helping a young entrepreneur as part of his advisory board for his startup.

A key element in common to all three buckets? A desire to keep learning.

Ron Tsang helps professionals become more effective at high-stakes communication. He is an independent consultant, a professor at Centennial College and the author of From Presentation to Standing Ovation.
Dean A. Connor, FSA, FCIA, is former president and CEO at Sun Life.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.