Being humble and placing people at the focus to leadership

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Kevin Strain (MAcc ‘90) leads Sun Life as its new President and CEO

by Patty Mah

Photo of Kevin Strain

As the President and CEO of Sun Life, Kevin Strain (MAcc ‘90) brings close to thirty years of insurance industry experience to his new role. Strain spent much of those years with Sun Life in various finance and business roles to advance his career to eventually assume the responsibility of Sun Life’s leadership. The School of Accounting and Finance (SAF) caught up with the very busy President and CEO to chat about his career, how he hopes to lead Sun Life beyond the global pandemic, and why he chooses to give back to Waterloo to help build future talent.

Like many SAF undergraduate students, Strain completed his co-op work terms with one of the Big 4 accounting firms. Having gained interest in the insurance field through his co-op work, Strain built his illustrious career with Sun Life gaining experience between business and finance roles and was the Chief Financial Officer for Sun Life’s global businesses prior to being named President and CEO. Strain attributes his diverse experiences between business and finance roles to his career success and the deep understanding he’s gained to help lead Sun Life.

“It’s been a great chance for me to do multiple different things. I’ve been part of the executive team for nine years and to see how different businesses operate and how we have an impact on clients’ lives has been very rewarding.” – Kevin Strain

Sun Life, the Canadian champion

As one of a handful of established global Canadian companies – 155 years strong – and in true Canadian fashion, Strain is quite humble about his plans in leading Sun Life to the next level. Strain’s excitement is infectious when he speaks about moving Sun Life’s goals and strategies forward, but his affection is palpable as he describes Sun Life as a Canadian champion in fostering a respected Canadian brand to build on the global reach of the company. Sun Life’s global reputation and strong brand has opened opportunities to Strain in meeting and collaborating with global organizations such as Amazon, Air Canada, Blackrock and the Canadian banks. “We have a reach that is far beyond just financial services. It’s been fascinating for me to see how global Sun Life really is.” – Strain

Strain acknowledges the need to shift Sun Life to be more digitally focused in all business areas. “We were already on that path, but COVID accelerated the adoption,” notes Strain while emphasizing that Sun Life will still be focused not only on “bringing people and our expertise to what we’re doing, but powering that delivery with being more digital where every touchpoint we have with a client is digital and straightforward.” Luckily for Sun Life that shift had begun pre-COVID in building more agility and synergy between the business and IT side of Sun Life.

“We have to shift our thinking to compete in a way that our clients want us… which is going to be more and more on a digital basis. But to be digital, we need to change how we work, what we measure and what we track.” – Strain

Working with staff has been a highlight of Strain’s career. Strain led Sun Life’s Asian business unit for five years focusing on growing the business and attracting talent. “The platform to work with our people is really humbling,” states Strain when referencing his leadership in shifting the culture by creating optimism for success and bringing in the best people to help train and retain the best talent. Strain speaks fondly of interacting and working with Sun Life advisors and agents as much as he enjoys the finance and strategic thinking side of the roles he’s held.

Giving back to build future talent

Strain’s personal experiences have been the key driver in his generosity to give back. Having relied on OSAP and his grandmother in helping him finance his university studies, Strain feels strongly in giving back as “part of my responsibility to help out new students coming in and I really want to target diverse students and students that really need the help.”

Beyond the scholarships that Strain has established, he also provides his top five pieces of advice to aspiring professionals:

  1. Focus on the job you’re doing and be successful at it. “If you’re successful in the job you’re doing, it will open up doors to other jobs.”
  2. Be thoughtful of your career development and never target just one role. “When you’re thinking about your career development and what the next step is, make sure it’s a role you’re going to be successful in and that it opens up two or three different doors and directions.”
  3. Enjoy what you do and have fun doing it. “If you’re passionate about it, if you enjoy it, if it’s not just a job, if it’s part of who you are and if it’s fun for you, then you’re going to meet that success standard.”
  4. Enjoyment will naturally mean better balance between life and work. “You want to be able to have balance so that you’re prepared to be successful for the long term.”
  5. And lastly, have a mentor to be able to talk with about career directions and to seek guidance from.

Strain’s generosity and caring nature is very apparent in the way he speaks of the culture within Sun Life, his experiences, the scholarships he’s established and the advice he provides to aspiring professionals.

“I hope that the scholarship can touch on people who have an energy to learn, have a passion to be better and want to see themselves grow as people. It seemed like a natural thing to do.” – Strain

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