Inspirational Woman: Sarah Dennis | Head of international at Towergate Health & Protection

Sarah Dennis

Sarah Dennis is Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection. She joined the company in 2014 with over 17 years of senior management industry experience for both intermediaries and global insurers.

Sarah has a formidable reputation across the industry sector and is very proud to have been recognised with several industry awards for her work. She is a regular speaker, committee member for some of the largest international providers and contributor to global industry conferences and media.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role.

I grew up in a supportive family that also pushed and drove us to be our best. From an early age I did not want to continue education after GCSEs.

I was happier in work than I was in school and was lucky to have the support of a good teacher who could see my greater potential in the working world. At the age of 14 I was applying for jobs in banking in London. My family always encouraged me to aim big and I took the leap and accepted a job offer before passing my exams. I went straight into the world of banking.

I quickly progressed to the back office of the London Stock Exchange. I wanted to keep pushing but it was a frantic environment, the job demanded long hours, and it was a significant commute for me. I had already moved out of my parent’s home at the age of 19 and now, in my early 20s, I wanted something more local to home, which was Horsham, West Sussex. I took a local job in commercial insurance. The day-to-day routine was rather monotonous and when I was offered a role in international healthcare, I took a chance.

I started again at the bottom, but it was the challenge I needed. I progressed from a role within admin to owning, supporting and managing the admin team, building a reputation for myself. My life took a turn, a divorce, and I moved away to start a new job in a new location with Aviva, which led to the broker world.

Brokering was a challenge. A completely different sales model. I went from selling what was in front of me, to supporting the client and finding what was right for them. I then moved to Jelf Employee Benefits and built a team of 12 people in international health and wellbeing. I had a very successful relationship with providers, built a good portfolio of clients, and a healthy turnover and profit

The Health Insurance Group approached me, and I jumped at the opportunity offered. I built a team from the ground up. Through acquisition, the company became Towergate Health & Protection and I have now been here for ten years. I manage a team of ten people and there are still so many challenges and opportunities ahead. The business is fully supportive, allowing me to grow and empower others through education and training. The ultimate outcome will be for my team to fill my shoes.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

No. But I did plan to make the most of opportunities offered to me and to make my own path in life and work.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

In the 80s it was really tough with the male/female stereotypes. Females were secretaries or PAs. Employers expected every female to have a family, so businesses had to compensate and think about how long it would be until they needed replacing.

My Dad is my biggest mentor and he brought me up to strive for what I want. He believes it doesn’t matter if you are male or female. Challenges are there to jump over or to break the barrier down. I like to prove myself. If I have a challenge, I won’t placate and become siloed. I always look to the future. I encourage anyone who works for me to fulfil their KPIs and try to deliver more. I am always looking at where they could be tomorrow and where they are going in their career journey.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The are two ways to look at this:

The people angle – I am very proud of the people I have brought into the business and seeing them succeed is very fulfilling.

Industry recognition – My own team put me forward for a Spotlight Award from our parent company, Ardonagh. I was up against over 10,000 employees and I won Leader of the Year. This was an amazing accolade, along with the 15-plus industry awards I have won with my team.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Being brought up in an environment that taught me to be independent. ‘Learn from your mistakes’ was my family motto. We didn’t have a wealthy background but we did have a wealth of encouragement. I was taught to believe in myself. Whenever I have self-doubt, my parents will always remind me of the potential I possess. I have amazing friends who are very supportive. Not every day is perfect. It can be lonely at times, but my friends and family help me through the challenges. I am also very lucky to have a great management team at Towergate Health & Protection.

What would you do to assist an individual who is trying to excel in their career in the field of international health and wellbeing?

International health and wellbeing is so diverse, with so many opportunities. To attract and retain talent you have to empower people and give them the full vision of what they could achieve. Career pathways and goals are important. What do your employees want to do in the next five years? This should be from a personal perspective as well as work. The new generation want a work/life balance. They need time, training and support. I grew up with a work balance. People need to be passionate about what they do and also be given recognition. If things aren’t working, ask your employees what is wrong, what do they want, and what challenges would help. Remember, it’s not just a job.

What barriers for women working in the field of international health and wellbeing are still to be overcome?

I am very lucky that I work for a company that values diversity, inclusion and equity. As a business, it has been a focus for many years. About 65% of the employee benefits industry is female. Ten years ago, however, the boards were male-driven. I sat on a board which consisted of nine men and me.

The world has changed but it has not changed everywhere. We have to remember that cultures around the world can be different. The next generation expects diversity and for gender to play no part but not everywhere has the same outlook. There are still challenges from a global angle and these may be slow to change. We have to work around the challenges and support clients, businesses and their employees. We have to educate employees to understand the differences.

What resources do you recommend for women working in the field of international health and wellbeing?

It’s important to continually build knowledge and access information that’s available. For instance, podcasts can be a very useful and easy-to-access source of information. You can learn a lot from hearing other people’s views and these can help you to develop your own opinions. Life coaching is really helpful, hearing about how other people overcame obstacles. I am also a great believer in conferences, seminars and networking, to learn from others. You might not agree with everyone else’s opinions but you can still learn from them. It is good to see another viewpoint and healthy to have a debate. It is also important to get out there and meet people. Be visible, don’t hide behind a screen.

Read more from our inspirational women here.

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