FROM COO TO CFO … MID-PANDEMIC
With grit and determination, this exec assumed her new role without missing a beat
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
The term “human dynamo” has been overused to the point that it’s become a cliché … but it truly applies to Sharon Edwards, chief financial officer of Risk Strategies Company, which she joined in December 2019.
Risk Strategies is a national specialty broker that provides risk management advisory services, insurance and reinsurance placement for property and casualty, employee benefits, and private client risks. It operates predominantly in the United States and Canada and aspires to become an international organization.
When Edwards came on board, what would become a global pandemic was just beginning to affect people with the disease called COVID-19. She subsequent-ly became chief financial officer and jumped into her role with both feet, having built a wealth of experience in financial management during her 26 years with Willis Towers Watson.
Not only did Edwards need to con-front the growing threat of the pandemic at Risk Strategies, but also, she called on her skill in managing a workforce in transition, with some employees working remotely while others returned to the firm’s offices. Adding to that mix Risk Strategies’ aggressive acquisitions posture and Edwards’ fierce commitment to diversity in the workplace, it’s clear that she faced an abundance of challenges.
Edwards has scored more than her share of accolades, having been named one of Directors & Boards magazine’s “Directors to Watch,” Business Insurance magazine’s “Women to Watch,” and Nashville Business Journal’s “Women of Influence.” In 2015, Edwards was named to the board of Reliant Bancorp, Inc., which manages over $3 billion in assets. She serves as lead independent director, chair of the audit committee, and executive committee member. She credits this experience with allowing her to sharpen her already finely honed skills in executive leader-ship and financial management, and she encour-ages other women to consider serving on the boards of similar organizations.
“We have more than 25 practice areas, so I interact with the head of each practice and learn what they’re doing to promote the growth and success of Risk Strategies while building out their particular practice area.”
—Sharon Edwards, CPA, CGMA
Chief Financial Officer
Risk Strategies Company
In 1987, Edwards joined Arthur Andersen & Company and served as senior auditor of the healthcare and senior living team. In 1991, she moved to Willis Towers Watson, where she worked for 26 years, holding positions of increasing responsibility until being named chief financial officer of Willis North America in 2011.
She began her career at Willis in the internal audit unit and also served as regional controller. From 1998 until 2008, she was North American controller and regional finance officer. From 2008 to 2011, she was director of financial operations and chief administrative officer. From 2011 until 2015, she was chief financial officer. She served as global segment chief financial officer for the corporate risk and broking segment and held the same responsibilities for North America at Willis Towers Watson from 2016 until 2018.
In 2019, Edwards moved to Risk Strategies Company as chief operating officer, a role she occupied for a year before making the transition to chief financial officer. Given her extensive background in financial management at the executive level, she didn’t find the transition to be unduly challenging. She also had executive experience in operations management but was pleased to accept responsibility for corporate finance.
“I like my job because it allows me to get involved in all aspects of Risk Strategies’ operations,” Edwards explains. “We have more than 25 practice areas, so I interact with the head of each practice and learn what they’re doing to promote the growth and success of Risk Strategies while building out their particular practice area.”
Another reason Edwards likes her job is that, as she comments, “Risk Strategies is growing by leaps and bounds. We have an aggressive acquisition posture and have acquired several companies during my tenure here.”
Women as leaders
Over the years of her career, Edwards has witnessed the rise of women in leadership positions, a development she applauds.
“Looking back, I can see that we’ve come a long way from the days when women were relegated to positions as customer service representatives and were rarely found in managerial roles,” she says. “When I started my career, it was unusual to see a woman in an executive position. My career path shows what can be accomplished through hard work and self-discipline. Today, women are respected rather than being overlooked as ‘not management material,’” she says.
What qualities does Edwards think women bring to leadership positions in the insurance industry? “Women are collaborative,” she responds. “We listen attentively and strive to build consensus. We’re assertive rather than aggressive, and I believe that serves us well in almost every business situation.”
How would Edwards characterize the opportunities for women in the insurance business, especially in leadership positions? “Women are suited to play a variety of roles, including as C-suite executives and in other executive management positions,” she replies.
What advice would Edwards give to a young woman who may be considering a career in insurance, especially if she aspires to be a leader? “Insurance is a wonderful career for young women who work hard in school and prepare themselves to climb the ladder and assume leadership roles.
“If a job becomes available, raise your hand and go for it,” she adds. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward. Try to take an outsider’s view of the industry so you can differentiate yourself.”
Elisabeth Boone, CPCU, is a freelance journalist based in St. Louis, Missouri.
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