• Laura Hay, Leadership |

Isn’t it intriguing when you hear that a successful person made a dramatic career shift? Think of Venus Williams moving from tennis to business, the UK’s Victoria Pendelton switching from Olympic cycling to horseracing, or Japan’s Amina Sugimoto, who left a promising medical career to co-found online marketplace Fermata for women tech entrepreneurs.

Such bold career moves no doubt get noticed by female professionals who dream of making a big change but fear the associated risks.

For that reason, I was excited to talk with Catherine Desgagnés-Belzil who went from long-time civil servant to Executive Vice President, Business Performance and Information Technology, at Beneva, Quebec’s largest insurance mutual firm. I wanted to learn how she found the mid-career confidence to go a new direction, and how she handled the inevitable challenges.

Build confidence to take risks

“I’m really not a risk-taker. That was the only time I ever took a risk!” exclaimed Catherine, when I marvelled at her risk-laden move between the public and private sectors to join the insurance industry in the midst of a massive merger.

On the surface, her modest claim might seem true, since Catherine had taken her computer science degree straight to the Quebec government, where she methodically built her career, diligently completing mandatory government exams to earn each successive manager level.

However, she certainly possessed confidence, since her decades’-long career ascent included leaps among diverse government ministries, from agriculture, to taxation, shared services and finally to CIO for the entire Quebec government.

That confidence helped her keep an open mind when, out of the blue, she was offered the chance to join the newly-formed Beneva and lead its complex technology integration, right in the middle of the pandemic. “I didn’t ever plan to quit government, but I was excited about the chance to become part of a team creating a whole new enterprise,” recalls Catherine. “I knew it would be difficult - and I had never worked in insurance - but I felt I could utilize all my competencies and experiences to work through the integration.”

Although Catherine doesn’t lack self-confidence, noting that, “I truly believed in my ability to succeed,” she insists that all women can muster the strength to make a daring move: “You have to keep an open mind when you are offered opportunities. You need to listen carefully, and take the time to really discover and analyze if it is right for you. Then, if it is, you must have the courage to go for it.”

In Catherine’s case, she took a few months to make the final decision, grilling the recruiters on the position details, seeking support from family, and consulting her mentors and previous supervisors: “I turned to those I admire and trust deeply, and those who knew the job I was considering. They all insisted I accept the role, or they would never speak with me again!” she laughs.

Skill-up to overcome challenges:

If it seems Catherine’s natural confidence helped her skate smoothly into her role, keep in mind that she learned tough lessons along the way.

“Although the Quebec government was committed to workplace equity, I became a female manager at a young age. I was very much alone in a world of men, and you can’t help but see that you are a minority. It can be daunting walking in the room, so you have to be very self assured and show confidence at all times. Often it meant that I had to be better, in order to be recognized. I was not always given acceptance on the first day, so I really had to demonstrate my abilities to earn credibility.”

In such an environment, “You have to be your own ambassador. You have to believe in yourself and show that you can perform. It has to come from within you,” contends Catherine, noting how women must sell themselves for promotions and speak up for the work/life balance limits they set.

“Sometimes women don’t dare speak up, but you must ask for what you deserve. It might be a difficult conversation but it’s worth it,” she adds. She recalls having to stand up to a former manager who was not willing to regularize her management level in favor of a promotion when the level of her duties and responsibilities unequivocally warranted it "He was happy to help me, but only after I asked him and made my case. If I hadn't spoken up, I wouldn't have gotten a fair adjustment.”

Today, Catherine is glad that there are many employer initiatives to support greater diversity and inclusion. That said, she has simple advice for any company trying to improve its gender representation: “Quite frankly, hire more woman, and that will attract other women to the company since they will see diverse role models and will likely feel more welcome. Name a woman to a strategic role and it will have a multiplier effect on your enterprise.”

“Full STEM-ahead”

As I wrapped up my call with Catherine, I was eager to spread the word to other women to be open to big career moves. Catherine proves the point, as a government mandarin who went corporate, and a STEM woman who found her place in insurance. Like Catherine says, “Insurance is going through a huge transformation and we need people with diverse skills to create great digital ways to serve and protect our customers. There are so many possibilities to be creative – there’s no limit what you can do in insurance.”

With such articulate enthusiasm, Catherine deserves the last word of advice for women thinking about their next move: “First and foremost, it’s your responsibility to be your own ambassador. Then, be open to opportunities, recognize the right one for you, and when you have it, have the courage to jump.”

More about Catherine Desgagnés-Belzil: Based in Quebec City, Quebec, Catherine is Executive Vice-President and Leader, Business Performance and Information Technology at Beneva, Canada’s largest insurance mutual firm, created from the recent merger of La Capitale and SSQ Insurance. Prior to joining Beneva in 2020, over the course of 10 years, Catherine has held a number of strategic IT positions in Quebec’s public service sector, namely as a senior information manager, vice-president of business solutions at the Québec’s Shared Services, chief digital transformation officer and head of the Québec’s Digital Center of excellence and Assistant Deputy Minister at the Treasury Board of Quebec Secretariat and the Chief Information Officer of Quebec . She has spent her career involved in IT governance and organizational transformation. Catherine earned a bachelor’s in business computing at Université Laval. She is also a certified corporate director.

The views and opinions of external contributors expressed herein are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG International Limited or any KPMG member firm.

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