Lissa Pierce-Stauff knew she had to go back to college to climb the career ladder. What she didn’t know was how valuable the program would be to help her grow her connections and risk management expertise.
Pierce-Stauff graduated from CU Denver Business School a few years ago with a BSBA in Risk Management and Insurance. Now, she looks back to reflect on how her degree at CU Denver helped shape her career.
A degree a long time coming
Before coming to CU Denver, Pierce-Stauff was in a unique situation. She already had over 30 years of experience as a work compensation insurance adjuster. Despite her experience and success, she had reached a ceiling. Every job that would be the great next step in her career required a bachelor’s degree.
Pierce-Stauff never went the traditional path after high school to college, because she “didn’t want to get a degree for the sake of having one.” But now that missing diploma was holding her back from moving forward professionally.
She wanted to be sure that her degree would apply to her career. When she heard of the Risk Management and Insurance (RMI) program at CU Denver, she created a plan to get her diploma.
Step one in that plan was attending night classes at Red Rocks Community College, where she took several foundational courses in preparation for her business administration degree at CU Denver.
She then transferred to the CU Denver Business School to finish off her BSBA in Risk Management and Insurance.
Throughout her six-year higher education journey, she never stopped working. Her career was always her priority. Stepping into CU Denver, she had spent 12 years working in the Jefferson County schools in the risk management department and continued working full-time for them while in school.
The importance of relationships in insurance
Pierce-Stauff admits that she went to school mostly to be able to put her degree on her resume. However, she also expected to learn a lot about the newest trends in insurance through the program. Reflecting back, one of her most impactful experiences at CU Denver was her study abroad trip to London.
There she saw the birthplace of insurance: Lloyd’s of London. “As an insurance nerd, it was just awesome,” she mused. There she spoke with high-impact brokers and insurers and learned how they operated.
Pierce-Stauff’s biggest takeaway from that trip was a difference in insurance culture. In London, she saw how the UK insurance market differs from what she’s experienced in the United States. “I remember the kind of laughter that brokers feel about the US market. We’re so contract-oriented and litigious. We sue over everything,” she shared. “Where in London, insurance is really based on relationships.”
Pierce-Stauff reflected on her relationships with brokers and paid closer attention to making those relationships a priority. “That trip gave me a different perspective. I recognized how important it is to build trust with my brokers. It helped me be able to ask them the hard questions later on,” she said.
That lesson has impacted all of her jobs since returning from London, and she credits this mindset with the many successful relationships she’s built.
“That trip gave me a different perspective. I recognized how important it is to build trust with my brokers. It helped me be able to ask them the hard questions later on”- Lissa Pierce-Stauff
Applying her degree to a sticky situation
Before graduating, Pierce-Stauff discovered and applied for a job as a risk manager for the Aurora Public Schools. Six months before her graduation, they hired her under the condition that she finish her degree. She remembers sitting in that interview saying, “I am going to finish my degree whether or not I get this job!” Not only did she earn her diploma, she earned it with distinction.
She worked for Aurora Public Schools for two years, where she ran into a number of sticky situations. One cybersecurity breach, in particular, stood out as a great learning experience.
An outside vendor pushed through an update to the system that put personal data at risk. The IT department figured once the error was fixed that the problem was solved. Pierce-Stauff knew more needed to be done. She continued, “Once I got wind of it, I recognized the overreaching impacts of the breach. While it was totally new and exciting, it was also scary. My background in my CU Denver cyber class at least gave me the forefront to say that this is a cyber breach and we have to report it immediately.”
This simple idea of reporting breaches is why cybersecurity has been such a hot topic in media. From Equifax taking two months to reveal their hack to Yahoo’s year-long hold on the knowledge of their data breach, reporting is a simple idea that several multi-billion-dollar corporations are stumbling with.
Risk managers are trained to handle these difficult situations, but not very many have the opportunity to go through one when there are few protocols in place. In that crisis, Pierce-Stauff proved that she had the experience and the education to excel.
Landing a senior level position at RTD
It was these kinds of on-the-job experiences, her initiative, her degree, and a number of insurance certifications that made her stand out as a candidate for the senior manager for the risk management department for Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD).
Pierce-Stauff easily stepped into her role and was ready for a new challenge. Risk management is a big issue in transportation, so it was a role she was excited about. “From a terrorist attack to something as simple as a little pay station where credit card fraud can happen, there are risks everywhere,” she said.
From the very beginning, Pierce-Stauff recognized a number of opportunities for improvement in the department. One of her biggest accomplishments was getting RTD cyber insurance in the first six months of being hired.
Looking back, she values her career because it’s one where she never stops learning. The same is true in her current role. With the new constructions slated for RTD, there’s never a dull moment. There are always some new insurance packages to familiarize herself with or some new obstacle she has to overcome.
Connecting back to her alma mater
Pierce-Stauff remembers a moment with her kids while she was at CU Denver. “My kids asked me why I was going to school if I wasn’t going to graduate until I was over 50.” Despite her unconventional path, she never gave up because she saw the value in her degree.
Since graduation, Pierce-Stauff has stayed connected to CU Denver through the RMI program. She’s looked to the school to find a student intern, recommended the RMI program to other claim managers looking to hire, and visited classes to share her expertise.
Her advice to future RMI students is: “If you find one aspect in insurance that interest you, stick with it. It will serve you well in the future. If you’re tired of it you can always transition into something different under the insurance umbrella.”
“If you find one aspect in insurance that interest you, stick with it. It will serve you well in the future. If you’re tired of it you can always transition into something different under the insurance umbrella” – Lissa Pierce-Stauff
The opportunities in the industry are boundless. There’s a huge need with a majority of the workforce retiring in the coming years. Her message is clear to the future generation: No matter what your strengths are, you’ll find your place and have a reliable and rewarding career.