“Pitching in just feels good”

This article originally appeared in the CIA (e)Bulletin.

The importance of volunteering has almost become a mantra for Sharon Giffen, CIA President from 2017–2018. An FCIA for over 30 years, Ms. Giffen worked in many positions at Foresters including Chief Risk Officer, CEO of Foresters Canada, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Actuary and Vice-President, Actuarial. Not only did she volunteer extensively during her professional career but she continues to do so now that she is retired.

Seek interesting intellectual challenges

“My first volunteer experience was right after qualifying … as many others, I was recruited to work on an SOA exam committee as question writer and grader,” she says. “It was not intimidating, as there was very good orientation for newbies; additionally, having just finished writing exams, looking at the material again from the perspective of writing questions was an interesting intellectual challenge – something that I have sought throughout my career.” 

Being comfortable speaking up

As a new volunteer, Ms. Giffen often found it challenging to speak up, especially in groups where she was the only outsider. It takes time to understand the rhythm and flow of meetings to ensure that one contributes on point and at the right time. To help overcome this, she often volunteered to take minutes of meetings. Since no one liked to do it, people were grateful someone else did, and it allowed her time to get up to speed while being useful to the group.

“The real value, though, is that it is important to have minutes be accurate, so it gave me the chance to talk to the leaders of the group to ensure I recorded something correctly, or to get a deeper understanding of an issue that I was trying to summarize in the notes,” she says. “Then, too, I had a chance to raise a point with the leaders (not in the full meeting) so I could understand whether it was relevant. When it was, often the chair would ask me to expand on that at the next meeting – an easy way to get some “air time” without having to break into a conversation in full flight.”

If you want something done, give it to a busy person

Balancing a job, personal life, and volunteering can be difficult. Ms. Giffen acknowledges that there were times when she was stretched and found volunteering contributed to her stress level. “Even then, though, I always seemed to be able to double down and just motor through the things that had to be done, to ensure that I also had time to do the things that would benefit me personally in the longer term, such as volunteering,” she says. 

“When under stress, it is important to remember to prioritize things. They are “important” or “urgent” or “can be deferred” or “can be delegated”,” she advises. “For me, the secret to balance was to ensure that urgent things did not get in the way of important things. You must allocate some time for both. The activities that can be deferred or delegated were … it is not possible to do everything oneself!”

Developing invaluable networks that will serve you your entire career

She adds that volunteering is one of the easiest ways to network. “By ensuring that your volunteer work remains important to you, you will have a ready-made set of connections to seek out at networking opportunities – you will have the work that you did together as a common connection to start the conversation,” she says. “Further, it is likely that you can expand your network as your fellow volunteers introduce you to their friends and colleagues, while you do the same for them.”  Indeed, many of the volunteer positions she currently holds are a result of conversations with other volunteers in her network who have told her about opportunities. Leadership positions on volunteer groups helped when she sought promotions in her employment situation.

Where does scuba diving fit in?

Ms. Giffen started scuba diving right after qualification as a reward to herself for finishing exams. She wanted the challenge of learning a new skill, and the opportunity to move outside her comfort zone.

“Diving is an other-worldly, peaceful, and mentally relaxing experience for me,” she says. “It is a great combination of being very alone – communication is very limited while underwater; yet your dive buddy shares your experience and you can have great chats afterwards about what you saw. That said, one is totally out of one’s natural element, and one must be aware of your surroundings and, importantly, of the equipment that is keeping you alive.” She adds that watching fish and other creatures in their natural element never fails to make her day.  

The importance of training, attitude, and colleagues

Ms. Giffen did have a scary experience while diving when the hose that runs from the mouthpiece to her air tank disconnected.

“Immediately, there was a panicked moment as I discovered that the floating hose was indeed supposed to be attached!” she recalls. “Training, and remaining calm, were both important, as I reached for my spare “octopus”, switched over to it (so I could breathe!) then immediately notified my buddy and we terminated the dive (as I no longer had a “spare”). In diving, as in my career, training, attitude, and colleagues are critical to successful outcomes.”

The value of working outside your comfort zone

“Volunteering is most valuable when you are working on something that is likely related to, but different from your day-job,” she says.

“Many of my volunteer efforts have also been way outside my profession – I volunteer at our curling club,” she says. “I volunteered regularly with Foresters where I did a huge number of things from staffing the phone lines for radiothon, to participating in Habitat for Humanity builds, to participating in many playground builds for KABOOM!, to cooking at a children’s shelter in the aftermath of the Calgary floods, to organizing a used clothing drive for a women’s shelter. I have also participated in fish-counting, to help researchers understand the evolution of fish life on Caribbean reefs. Pitching in just feels good.”

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