After decades in the insurance industry, where she reached a senior management level, Alison Slater from Zurich is now combining work alongside her interest in mental health counselling.
As a child, Alison Slater dreamt of being a teacher, but she left school at 16 to join the Youth Training Scheme. However, in a career spent in the insurance industry she has been able to use her coaching skills to develop people and has recently qualified as a counsellor which enables her both to tutor others and to make a big difference to individuals who are struggling with their mental health.
Alison has always had an interest in learning new skills. After leaving school, Alison worked as an admin clerk in a factory in Kent while attending college to learn business skills. At 17 she started working for an insurance firm in the City of London and she hasn’t looked back. Now aged 52, she doesn’t regret staying in insurance. “There are so many opportunities working in a large insurance company. I have explored all of these over the course of my career,” she says.
When she started her first insurance job in 1986 it was in a firm which had just acquired a smaller company. Her role as services assistant was to transfer policy data from one computer system to another. She stayed for two years before her potential was spotted and she was moved into property underwriting in the same company. Over the next decades, her office moved from the City to the West End and she worked on commercial properties as part of a big team. She was singled out for her skills at developing people and promoted to supervising underwriter where she coached people in her team and honed her leadership skills.
It was at this point that she had her two children, going back full time after her first child before reducing to three days a week after her second. She took a side step into a technical training role which was more about developing people’s skills and less of a frontline job.
When her youngest was of school age, Alison felt ready to take on a bigger job and was asked if she wanted to take up a team manager position. She knew and trusted her manager and, having started on three days a week, she soon worked up to five days a week, with one from home. “It was great being in a full-on leadership role, but the hardest thing was realising I couldn’t be everyone’s friend. The best I could hope for was respect,” she says. It took her a while to adjust.
She found doing one day from home made her much more organised and at a conference on efficiency, she mentioned to a participant that she felt she needed more of a challenge. She was offered a secondment in Chelmsford as teams manager with the aim of creating a new team from scratch. Alison recruited 30 people and became the operational leader due to her organisational skills. “It fitted my skillset,” she says. Being in a senior management role, she found herself moving further away from underwriting, but with a good working knowledge of the job that helped her to lead people better and gained her recognition and respect.
She was there for four years until the role was made redundant and she was moved to Croydon to do the same thing, but in a much tougher environment and a very different culture. Two years later that team was closed down. It was 2013. Before redundancies were announced, one of Alison’s bosses suggested that she apply for the role of operations manager in Chelmsford – a bigger role than the one she had left. “He was looking out for me as he knew I was a hard worker,” she says.
She saw the organisation through a period of massive change, including to the leadership structure, but started to fall out of love with the job. “My reason for being was to look after people and I found myself getting rid of them, doing things I found really hard. I was able to do them, but I felt I was selling my soul,” she says. “I was not able to be the person I am. Throughout my career I have always been challenged, but suddenly my job didn’t provide that challenge. I needed to move.”
In 2017, she had a random conversation with a person who was a counsellor and decided that counselling was something she could do well, given her experience of helping and managing people. “I have always been a people pleaser and have always wanted to make a difference, to be kind and help people,” she says. Alison enrolled on a mental health counselling course, being counselled herself as part of it which she says has helped her to grow significantly as a person. Over the weeks of the course she talked about how she was feeling about her job and realised that she was ready to leave. She took redundancy in March 2018.
After leaving the company she had been at for over three decades, Alison took four months off to get some perspective on her life – she was not yet 50 and had no plans to retire, but didn’t need a high-paying job and wanted to continue her counselling course. She thought about taking a local retail job and applied for local insurance jobs, but was overqualified. A friend suggested she return to underwriting. She asked around and a former boss offered her a job at Zurich in 2018. It is not a leadership role with all the associated stress, but Alison has taken an apprentice under her wing and helps her team’s leaders when asked. Zurich also allowed her to drop a day to four days a week so she could do her counselling work. Alison, who has recently qualified, works one day a week as a volunteer for Mind and at the college where she trained.
She says Zurich has been very supportive and she has repaid that support through training to be a mental health first aider as part of the company’s wellbeing team, most recently helping people through the pandemic.
She loves her job and the fact that it is not so completely absorbing that she doesn’t have time for life outside work. Her daughter had a baby last year and during the pandemic, she has been able to spend some time with her as well as doing the counselling work she enjoys on the side.
“I would rather work for Zurich and do something where I can give back alongside that than do private practice as a counsellor,” she says. “I started a new job at 49 and took my counselling diploma at the same time as going through the menopause. I see myself as older and wiser and it is wonderful. Zurich is a great place to work and there are opportunities to showcase what I can do. I feel very fulfilled and at peace and I am proud of what I have achieved after leaving school at 16.”