Karen Cutler

A fascinating field of constant discovery


Karen Cutler, vice president and chief underwriter at Manulife Financial, says the underwriting field is one of constant learning.

“Underwriting is a field that I don’t think people set out to enter but it is incredibly interesting. It just changes so much. We always talk about the number of hats we wear in underwriting. Obviously we are medical, financial, marketing, legal, compliance – all of those things factor into every decision that we make.”

This reality requires underwriters to constantly update their knowledge, particularly with the rapid changes in medical science.

“It’s interesting and challenging to keep up with it and ensure you’re using the latest information available to be able to put business on the books in a way that makes sense for all the stakeholders and the customer.”

Underwriters also have to clearly understand the state of the economy and the impact on different businesses since they underwrite business applications regularly. “It’s a very wide skill set and I think that’s what makes it so interesting. You have the opportunity to learn a lot of things about a lot of very different things.”

Despite the inherent interest of the job, there is a lack of underwriters in the industry. “There are not a lot of underwriters in life and living benefits in the Canadian industry,” says Cutler. The challenge is finding the right talent. For Manulife, Cutler says she wants people who are engaged and want to be lifelong learners, but who also have a real sense of customer focus.

“At the end of the day we are dealing with human beings and their personal information.” Underwriters need to have a great deal of empathy and technical skills to look at a case and try to get it on the books, she says. “Obviously, we can’t take every single case, but you’ve got to be able to weed through a lot of information. Getting that skill set is very, very difficult.”

Cutler says she would not necessarily define the current situation as a shortage of underwriters, “but it is something you do have to fight for. And, of course, when you do have a talented staff, you have to work very hard on staff retention.”

Why would she encourage young people to pursue a career in underwriting? The constant learning opportunity is at the top of her list of reasons. “I talk to my team about walking away every day having learned something different.”

Cutler, herself, has a high commitment to learning in her own life. While working full-time, she completed an MBA.

As well, in her position at Manulife, part of her mandate is research and development. She consistently tries to look out on the horizon, see what is coming in terms of new developments and tries to get a good understanding of how they are going to affect day-to-day underwriting. For example, she and her medical directors might evaluate how a new type of medical test will impact risk selection and then share this information with her team.

“The things that really get me out of bed in the morning are consistently looking at new ways to underwrite, faster ways to process our business and definitely our R&D side because it is really quite fascinating. When you think about what’s going on in medicine these days and how technology is going to change that, I get really, really excited about that.”

One technology trend that Cutler believes will have an impact on underwriting is the proliferating number of medical apps for smartphones. These apps are becoming increasingly used by the general public to track diseases. For example, diabetics can now track all of their daily tests, enabling them to more closely monitor their disease. She thinks gaining access to such information will eventually allow underwriters to better classify people with medical conditions into the right category from a risk perspective.

Another developing technology is an EKG test that, with the help of sensors placed on the back of an iPhone, can provide a rhythm strip to a cardiologist instantaneously. “This stuff is all really cool and I think what’s going to happen as a result of that…is we’re going to see more individualized medicine and we’re also going to see people living longer and more healthy lives because they are more in control of their diseases or their impairment.”

How does she think underwriters may someday access such information? She believes it will eventually be provided through doctors. “But I think if a client is really astute and really taking care of himself, and the advisor knows that information will help us, then maybe there’s a way to get that information to the underwriter.” More information of this kind will help underwriters “make a really good aggressive decision”, Cutler says. “Ultimately that’s what we want to do, to make the best decision we can and get the business on the books.”

Advice for young people

Asked what she believes she has done right in her career, Cutler replies, “I’ve always put my hand up.” She was willing to volunteer to resolve problems, take on new roles outside of her comfort zone to expand her abilities, or stand up and say, ‘You know we could do something a little differently if we just tried this.’”

She also says she was never afraid to apply for jobs for which she was not qualified. “You’d be surprised at how many people will look at you and go, ‘You’re smart, you can do this job. I think I’m going to take a chance on you.’ I’ve always kind of taken that approach.”

Also, whenever she started to feel that her career was getting stagnant, she made sure to request further challenge. “I’ve always gone to whoever I was reporting to at that time and said, ‘I need something more because I’m starting to get bored, or is there a project I can take on?” This goes back to being willing to put your hand up, she adds.

“You don’t know until you put your hand up what people think you’re capable of and that’s the challenge – making sure that you understand what you’re capable of and letting people know what you’re capable of.”

Giving back

Through official and unofficial mentoring relationships, Cutler enjoys sharing what she has learned with young underwriters. She also contributes to the industry through involvement in committees. She recently chaired the Canadian Reinsurance Conference’s 2014 meeting.

In the community, she gives back in a very colourful way as part of the Celebrity Clown Committee of Toronto’s Santa Claus parade. “I am new to the committee this year…I will be actively recruiting clowns but I have been a clown myself for eight parades…There are hundreds of thousands of people that line that parade route, just a myriad of children. They’re all stuffed into their snowsuits and waiting to see Santa…I love doing it. It’s one of the best days of the year for me.”

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