Lisa Milburn is the chief operating officer at BMO Insurance, a role she took on after pivoting out of a career in communications. She’s also the executive sponsor of the BMO for Women program, an initiative that’s changing the way the financial institution interacts with their female clients.
By Hailey Eisen
Lisa Milburn is an expert in communications. She spent over 20 years in the field, first on the agency side and then in three different industries: pharmaceuticals, insurance, and banking. But when she moved into her first business management role — chief administrative officer of Canadian personal and commercial banking at BMO Financial Group — she realized she had to leave her personal brand as a communicator behind.
“I was very deliberate in my upfront conversation with the person I was going to work for. We agreed that any advice around communications would be given behind a closed door, so that I could transition my brand into being seen as a credible business leader, versus how people had traditionally seen me, in my communications capacity.”
Being honest with herself and others about what her brand stood for and the other strengths she could bring to the role enabled her to achieve credibility in the transition. Taking inspiration from the many incredible global leaders she’d supported throughout her career, Lisa became an authentic and successful business leader.
Two years ago, she moved on from personal and commercial banking to the position of chief operating officer at BMO Insurance. Lisa credits the bank’s culture for enabling her to begin her journey in a specialized corporate function and then pivot into C-Suite roles in two different lines of businesses. “It’s a culture where they take chances on people to grow and develop, and have a long career,” she says.
It was also the culture — and the brand that goes along with it — that attracted her to BMO in the first place. “I was drawn in by the BMO brand. The focus on making sure that our client experience is really the exemplar, and that we truly are passionate about being here to help our clients,” Lisa explains. “That transfers over into our culture, and how we work internally with each other every day.”
Having worked in three different capacities during the ten years she’s been with BMO, it’s not surprising that Lisa was tapped to be the executive co-sponsor of the BMO for Women program, representing the interests of BMO’s Wealth Management businesses. The initiative is helping to evolve client engagement strategies across the bank by recognizing that women want to approach their relationship with their financial institution differently.
“We are earning more, and we need to consider how to protect that earning power in a different way than we have in the past.”
“Research has shown that women aren’t satisfied with the way that they are developing relationships with their investment advisors or their bankers today, so there’s a great opportunity to change that, to really listen to our female clients,” says Lisa. “We’re doing it in a thoughtful way, and we’re not trying to exclude men from conversations. The program is focused on the way we build relationships with women clients to differentiate their experience with us and serve their unique needs, both as an investment firm and as a bank.”
Lisa also says that there are parallels from an insurance perspective, noting that many of the same stereotypes that people have around investing persist when it comes to purchasing insurance, making men the focus of the conversation. That’s layered with the fact that most Canadians are underinsured, plus a tendency for women not to see themselves as part of the equation, especially if they are not the primary breadwinner.
But the situation is changing. According to the latest Statistics Canada census, women are the primary earners in 17% of households — a number that has doubled in recent years. And even when women aren’t the main breadwinner, Lisa stresses that they still need to be a part of the decision-making in their own financial future, thinking about insurance for themselves as much as they’re thinking about protecting their families with insurance for their husbands.
“As women, we often think about everybody around us, but it’s important that we stop and think about ourselves too,” she says. “We are earning more, and we need to consider how to protect that earning power in a different way than we have in the past. Women can be more modest about their success, but it’s okay to have that confident conversation and have the right advisors around you.”
Helping to provide that confidence is just one aspect of the BMO for Women program — and it’s a commitment that goes beyond the realm of clients. Lisa sees the potential to influence positive change outside of the company by breaking down the barriers women can face, from developing relationships with their investment advisors to growing their businesses with funding.
“It’s much bigger than just BMO. We see it permeate across many different industries,” says Lisa. “In our research, we’re finding lots of parallels in the barriers that women face, whether you are an investment advisor, an aspiring lawyer, or developing a career as a CFA. If we can start the conversation in banking, I’m sure there’s lots we can learn across multiple industries to bring these barriers down.”
In the meantime, Lisa has personal advice for women experiencing a barrier to their success — like figuring out how to reinvent their career, as she did. “As women, we can fall into scenarios where we are helping others to be successful. Helping others is phenomenal, but the key to advancing is determining what are the few things that you can be recognized as driving in your role that are creating a significant impact — and that can make you stand out.”