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In June 2020, JRNY ran a successful webinar titled ‘Leading Through Uncertainty’ where insurance legends Lee-Ann du Toit (Partner, Deloitte), Glenn Renwick (former CEO of Progressive USA and current Director at UnitedHealth) and John Lyon (CEO, Ando Insurance) shared their experiences leading through uncertainty through times such as Hurricane Katrina, the global financial crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes and of course, COVID-19 so far.  

In this blog we cover key themes that came out of the 60 minute discussion - responding to a crisis, how to be a good leader in a crisis, building resilience, and learning from mistakes.

Responding to a crisis

Glenn, you were CEO of Progressive during multiple major hurricanes including Hurricane Katrina. I can only imagine that must’ve been massive as the leader of one of America’s largest auto insurers! Can you explain some of the issues those incidents created for Progressive?

I have two big takeaways in a crisis:

Authentic communication - either to customers which is more important in this particular case but oftentimes to your own employees.

Really no one wants spin. Leaders sometimes become paternalistic. I think people actually see the facts, so just tell them what the facts are and lead in a way that is very comfortable.

In a case like a hurricane, the job of a leader is not analyse not just operational impact, but how do we use this as an opportunity to grow business and do something not so obvious to others.

For example with Hurricane Katrina, there are two things I'll point out - one is that it was a real catalyst for us as a company; two, realising this is one place that we were able to get in contact with our customers in a very real way and do very real things for them.

Hurricanes became our brand defining moment

We became extraordinary in data - we would communicate to people before the hurricane ever happened - what to do, where to do it. We mobilised our own internal structures so that we could really do it without sort of scurrying. We had advance teams for fuel for hotels. We made hurricane disasters a science.

My third point that I'd make there is that almost all crises create some opportunity for true leadership. In this particular case I, and a few others, had a chance to go in with the National Guard right after Katrina had hit and we realised that it wasn't just water; it was quite frankly sewer water, all sorts of things, so we actually made a decision that day to crush every single vehicle that was flooded in New Orleans. I'll never know whether that cost shareholders money or whether it actually was incredibly brand enhancing. Subsequently, we grew faster than any other company in New Orleans or Louisiana. 

So my message would be, yes, there's always the operational implications of a crisis but as leaders, think more broadly about how maybe this defines your company and what are the opportunities for growth. And that's the leaders job as well as handling the operational implications.

John, you lead Lumley during the GFC. Can you tell me more about some of your experiences while you were running Lumley at that point in time?

Whether it's the GFC or Canterbury earthquakes or this COVID-19 experience now, my insight is that there are two phases to any crisis: there's the easy bit and there's a hard bit.

The easy bit is the immediate impact of the crisis where people come together as a team assuming the core culture is good, people come together as a team. They've got a common sense of purpose, urgency, clear outcomes, crisis management kicks in and people are given specific jobs. Generally speaking most people I've talked to through this COVID experience say their organisations responded well to that environment. And we've seen that from politicians and others, that it’s ultimately the easy bit - that's showing empathy, it's communicating, having a clear plan.

The hard bit is the phase we’re coming into now when the sense of urgency has now gone. We feel like we're on top of the virus but there's still risk there but we've got the second wave coming which is the economic wave. And we've still got people working with restrictions in terms of investment opportunity, restricted salaries, in some cases there's still a lot of risk out there, a lot of uncertainty and that's the place where the leadership needs to be much more about discipline. 

As Glenn absolutely correctly says, communication communication, communication - know your stakeholders, know what their needs are. Oftentimes stakeholders might have competing needs as been alluded to there - the customer need versus the shareholder need. If you've got it right your stakeholders will be aligned, if they're the right value sets across the base but ultimately if you understand your stakeholders, communicate with them effectively and particularly the important ones - your frontline staff and your customers. And the feedback mechanisms that go with that, of getting information back.

It's not just outbound communication but the sensing and listening skills to understand exactly what's happening.

So no matter what the crisis - split in those two components and you need slightly different skill sets for each phase.

Lee-Ann, Deloitte is in a unique position as a consultancy. I guess it sort of gets to look at the industry from a bird’s eye view almost. What are you seeing at the moment in the industry and what is the most common advice Deloitte is giving right now?

I think from an insurance perspective we have seen that the industry has not been as affected as many of the other industries in New Zealand and the rest of the world. So, so far we have come off relatively light, especially in New Zealand, but it is definitely going to change as we progress into the next 12 to 18 months and it's more from an economic perspective than from a claims perspective. 

I think the big thing that we're picking up on is that the insurance sector and for a lot of our clients in the insurance sector, initially the main focus was a little bit to John's point - manage the crisis and you focus quite a bit internally so you focus on your own staff your own team getting everyone to work from home new ways of work - all of those things - and to think about how do you then pivot towards really focusing on the customer and I think that is actually what we will see...

...the successful players in the industry are going to be the ones that focus the most on the customer and how their lives have changed and how their lives are changing because the insurance needs - whether it's in the general space or in the life insurance or disability or mental health space - is going to be quite different over the next 18 months to what it was in the past. 

And we do see that across the industry, and even globally, that's how the insurance players pivot towards that. And even linking a bit to the industry that you're in Michael (insurtech) around how we support customers more in the digital space - they have got used to engaging more digitally now, so now is a good time to allow for different ways of engaging with customers in the future than in the past.

So focusing both on the actual needs as well as how we engage with them on those needs.

Leadership

During uncertain times what's the most important trait that makes a good leader?

Glenn:

I'll offer you two things: there's probably a lot that we can actually put relative to characteristics of the leader but maybe two tools that listeners might find useful.

One is sort of right now and that is what I'll call ‘scenario planning’. Too often we think there is one mainstream line of thinking and all actions seem to relate to that mainstream. It's really a leader’s job to think about or almost expect the unexpected. If you went through the global financial crisis there are a good number of things that we simply didn't expect even after we saw the early stages.

I'll give you an example of something I've been doing as a board member with United (United Health). I'm encouraging the management team to really think through different operating scenarios i.e. there is no vaccine, what does that mean? There is a vaccine, but it has, like the influenza, to be reapplied every year or rejected every year and in the billions of doses - what are the logistics for something like that?

You don't need 15 but three or four scenarios - at least create a spectrum of outcomes that are not predictions; they are simply not nonzero possibilities. And from those scenarios then a leader can start assigning some responsibilities to things like capital management - not just negative capital management i.e. what might we need for operational requirements - but there'll also be opportunities.

And this is probably one of my key messages to leaders in a crisis: there are always opportunities.They're easy to see in hindsight. But your job is to try to sort of wrestle with them as they're emerging.

There will be opportunities for acquisitions - so what kind of capital might you want to have on hand given different operating scenarios and ones that maybe others haven't planned for. 

So just the whole notion of scenario planning - write down a few rationale scenarios, get some other people involved if necessary. 

It's really a good practice to do an after-action review too - take a look at your disaster recovery plans, what went well, what didn't go well, what was the implication of people working from home?

Since it's insurance, use every opportunity as a data collection opportunity - we may never see that same crisis again. Really analyze what the frequency and severity of claims might be if it's insurance and be able to use that as a basis to infer for other situations. So don't assume that it's a one-and-done crisis. There's always data there that could be very valuable and for most businesses today data is gold so don't leave it lying there; pick it up and one day it may come in useful.

Lee-Ann:

To be present and visible with staff through uncertainty is quite a big one and also to be real and authentic because you can't actually have all the answers and you can't give people guarantees that everyone will still have their jobs a year from today, or that things are going to be fine. We just navigate the uncertainty together and we'll find the right solutions to the challenges, but the authenticity of leadership is quite important at this point in time.

John:

Another observation is around leadership styles. A lot of us read articles on leadership, talk about being consultative, hearing people, all that sort of stuff. Leadership is ultimately situational and sometimes people don't want to be asked what they think they should do; they want to be told what to do.

And in a crisis, particularly the early stages it's very important to be as directive as possible to give clarity without becoming a complete autocrat but adjusting your leadership style to the particular environment is very important. 

So if you were trying to bring about cultural change in an organisation then you have to be more visionary and more consultative. If you're dealing with a crisis then you need to be more directive.

And there's a whole bunch of different facets of leadership you can apply at different times so being very clear and intentional about what your leadership style is. And the important thing is don't just spring it on people - tell people “we're now in a crisis, I'm going to be more directive” - that actually sets the tone so people aren't surprised by your particular style .

The second important thing, and it reinforces what Glenn was saying about the review and the planning - good crisis management happens well in advance.

You cannot create a good culture in a crisis. You have to create the good culture well in advance of a crisis happening. You have to have your technology prepared, you've got to have your systems and processes prepared - the more prepared you are in advance, the better you will be able to manage in a crisis.

A crisis can help reinforce the culture and can help reinforce your  technology strategies and so forth but the planning ahead and the review of test cases and real cases is absolutely making sure you get a right next time.

Glenn:

Try to link your communication to the values of the company and your mission, objectives or vision, whatever it might be. Try to make this a real cultural credibility test and lead with those things so that while they've been out there, they may not have been called on in the same way as they are in a crisis.  

Remember as leaders, there's no such thing as a void. If you don't communicate on something, don't assume there’ll be a void. It'll get filled - it'll get filled with rumours - you just won't control how it's filled.

So to LeAnn's point of being authentic - I used to say quite regularly: “I'll answer any question as long as you'll accept “I don’t know” as an answer. And occasionally I may not be able to tell you.”

You've got to start communicating consistently, authentically, well in advance of a crisis so that you build that credibility to be just as credible delivering bad news as good news. 

What's more important during a crisis is it inspiring leadership or is it effective management?

John: 

Leadership is critical but you cannot be an effective leader if you don't have good management. You need to get both working in harmony. There are no quick ways to become a good leader - it takes time and there's no one thing that's going to change your leadership style.

Leadership is a whole range, a kaleidoscope of disciplines and behaviours and learnings and experiences that's built up over time. And to be trusted as a leader, you need to be consistent and you need to have good management skills.

If you don't have certain skills then surround yourself with people who have those skills and make it clear what the roles are.

I would say both are important - to get the immediate impact you need strong leadership, to give assurance and create trust; but then you need to be good at actually executing as well. 

Lee-Ann:

Some people are very good at operationally getting things done and managing the business and others are really good at inspiring people around them and sharing the vision, the culture, the values and where you're going. You may not have it all and you might be slightly better at one part of that than the other one - and that's where people around you should fill up the voids and complement each.

Glenn:

Be visible.

The one thing I found over the years, and I'm sure I didn't get it right early in my career, is that you somehow feel as the leader, that you're supposed to have all the answers. You know people actually don't expect that of you; what they expect is that you'll be genuine, and just tell it the way it is. Don't try to spin it in a way that gets you through the day or gets you through an awkward question or whatever it might be. Just be real. 

Communicate for as long as necessary, probably all the time, about going into something, managing through it, and then coming out the other side; why you see things that maybe others don't. 

And remember the difference between sort of a good leader and an average leader - people just want to follow you. Just think about people you want to follow. So set the example that you have people wanting to follow you.

And one last point-  as you communicate to employees, if you need to downsize or lay people off or whatever, communicate to every employee as if you want to rehire them again later.

It costs a lot of money to hire people. If the worst situation is you have to let them go make sure they want to enthusiastically come back. And I did have a situation like that, I won’t go into detail on that now, but we were able to get over 40% of the people that were actually laid off to come back when a situation had changed a couple years later. That's a lot cheaper hiring and a lot more committed people to your culture if they've gone through the bad with you 

Building resilience

John, after the acquisition of Lumley you started Ando with some of your ex-colleagues from Lumley. With any startup there are bumps in the road. How did you build resilience within that team while also managing really fast growth?

When I reflect on our journey over the last five years, the bit that I'm most disappointed with was our failure to put adequate support in place for some of our people who, for long periods of time, were working at breakneck speeds in very challenging and stressful situations.

So it is very difficult when I reflect back on sort of the health impact and relationship impact with a whole bunch of other things that our team in the early days particularly struggled with.

It's to some extent a natural consequence of building a business from scratch at pace and trying to keep ahead of the cash flow curve, trying to balance all the trade-offs that are necessary to get a business established, but the lessons we learned over time was that communication and support is critically important.

We're now, I believe, much much better at managing well being and we've got a whole bunch of programs in place to support mental health, to help people through challenges and a part of our drive towards being good at that now is learning your lessons from the past.

But the best way to do it is communication, by being close to your team, listening to them, getting genuine feedback on what's happening and trying to be more disciplined about not trying to do too much. And the problem is when you've got a group of people together who are often, say in our case in the early days, all shareholders in the business everybody's got a commercial interest, everybody's fired up about the vision and the opportunity, and it's not that we were asking people to work harder, people wanted to work harder and longer hours.

And you forget that stress is an insidious affliction in that it sneaks up on you and you don't actually know that you've got it until you look back and say that was an awful time; you gradually slip into a way of thinking.

So having people from outside who can call us and have those conversations and then put in place the obvious things like making sure you take breaks, exercise, diet, avoiding alcohol and other stuff that might be a short-term comfort. And so there's a lot of lessons learned about how you do it but the single most important thing is communication - making sure that you talk to people about prioritisation, resourcing if you can't get through, adequate resources when you have to slow things down and that is sometimes the hard part particularly when your neck is on the line.

Lee Ann, you've worked in leadership positions in both South Africa and New Zealand. Have you seen a difference between South African culture and New Zealand culture when it comes to resilience?

Well I think in South Africa there've been quite a few crises, so there's a lot of resilience there. You almost never have a day that isn't a challenge in South Africa and leadership there has been quite a quite a big thing unfortunately - you don't always have the best leaders as examples and even across some different parts of the public sector and private sectors. But the ones that are good examples are the ones that really pivot towards what the customer needs and also to what their staff need. The resilience there is also around being agile and flexible to the adapting environment.

So one similarity between New Zealand and South Africa is actually how quickly we are agile and we adapt to new situations. If I just look at how we quickly adapted to a current level four world, then a level three world and back to level one and how New Zealanders are thinking differently about how we engage at work with each other etc and that's typically what I've also seen in South Africa is to...

...pivot quickly towards a new normal, take the good stuff from what changed and let go of the bad stuff, and just figure out which one's the best one to stick with.

Glenn, you've spoken a lot about making sure that you communicate, making sure that you're authentic - is there anything in addition to that that you think is really necessary to build resilience within your teams during uncertain times?

To reinforce the point I made earlier about also looking to crises to be creations of opportunities, I'll give one quick example. And remember this is in the ‘80s so long before the kind of technology that we’re all totally wed to now.

In California they created a proposition that effectively was going to put insurance profits as a thing of the past. At least in our industry 23% of our entire company at that time was in California that may not seem like a crisis to you but for me that was a crisis. You lose that kind of revenue and you really have no ability to operate in the biggest single market. Ralph Nader had led a proposition that consumers clearly would support and it was all around the fact that there was no competition in the insurance industry. Ralph has become a good friend and at that time I explained to him there were over 3,000 companies writing auto insurance. So he had the problem sort of right, but the solution, in my mind, was not surprisingly, wrong. 

So we used that as a way to create a price comparison service and again that's why I say the 80s because they're more common today and that became brand defining for Progressive. And it is the single biggest brand defining element of a company that has gone from what was then a billion-ish to over forty billion dollars in revenue and people still associate that kind of transparency.

We've talked a lot about communication - it's just another spin on it. So instead of being a threatened company losing 23% of our revenue stream, likely to put us out of business...

...we took a shot at doing something that was quite radical and not well accepted by our friends in the industry and ultimately it redefined the company to go on to be extraordinarily successful.

I just want people to recognise that - deal with the today, you have to, that's your job; but look for opportunities that might be brand defining, by trying to see things from the customer perspective not being inside out but rather be outside in and it may mean that you have to do something a little more radical than you would in normal operating scenarios. 

We don't like to admit that but frankly a crisis sometimes brings a willingness to do things that you might not otherwise do. If you can, use this crisis to look long and hard at products, product features, things that might be consumer responsive and may have a long shelf life versus just the instantaneous resolution. What got you to this point in the past and what made you really successful is not what will get you to be really successful in the future 

So a very different way to think about your product strategy, your distribution strategy, your marketing strategy, who your customer really is all - of those things may change, and how you work with your staff given this pivot. 

Mistakes

I'm really keen to understand some of the mistakes that you have made while you're leading through times of uncertainty and after you've made those mistakes how you've gone about trying to fix them.

John:

Look if I was to list all my mistakes I would be using up the rest of the webinar time and afternoon.

Mistakes are essential if you're pushing boundaries. You will make mistakes, you've got to make them. The key thing is to make sure that the mistakes you make you're happy to live with.

So there's no single event that comes to mind straight away. I suppose one that’s not really a mistake but a defining experience was I went in to run Lumley as CEO in 2008 and we spent five or six years transforming the company, building the team, changing the culture, going through a lot of hard work, full refresh of technology, managing the earthquake scenario, doing a whole bunch of things. And then our parent company decided to get out of insurance and the business was put up for sale.

So having built a wonderful culture with 700 people I was then in a position of having to tell those people that their business was being sold...

...and ultimately was bought by IAG and what that reinforced for me is that you have got to be clear about what's important to you - for me, the team culture, and having the trust of my team and building a great team around me is critical. If you don't have control of your own destiny you've got to learn how to live with that. One of the reasons I started this business was because I wanted to have control over my own destiny and to have as much control as I could over the destiny of those people who are loyal to me and have elected to put their trust in me for their careers and their livelihoods. So to me that wasn't necessarily a mistake doing all that work at Lumley, it was a wonderful experience in its own right but the lesson I took from that was to have to try and control my own destiny and if anything does happen in the future I will be able to influence the outcome of those people around me to make it a better experience than it was the last time 

Lee-Ann:

I think to John's point there are many and I just love learning from my own mistakes and other people's too if I can. But I think one example that might be quite topical right now - I was asked to head up the digital and direct business of our organisation in South Africa and that business was mainly focusing on brokers and financial advisors. Up until that point there was no direct link to the customer and my first approach was to to almost be in competition with the advisers.

I thought it's either face to face or its digital and direct, and after a period of time I got to the realisation that the more value was in integrating the two worlds. Starting with the customer first it was evident that the customer often does need face to face advice and sometimes they want to do things direct. And probably because we're holistic, we did everything, healthcare, life insurance, investments and general insurance - so if you look at that package sometimes you need to see someone and sometimes you need to just do something over the phone. And when I realised that it's not about competing with what made this company so successful in the past it's actually integrating those two worlds we actually started to get real success by putting those two worlds together and making it a partnership approach through an omni-channel strategy rather than two separate strategies so that was quite a key learning for me.

Glenn:

Just a couple of quick specifics. One case, not necessarily a mistake, involved that situation where we had lost a significant amount of business and ongoing so we had to lay off several people. We had these layoffs down to a science - we knew we had three waves and who, when, what. And it was like a military exercise. I was working very late and overheard some of our call centre say what I thought was a comment that was on the lines of “I wish they would just ask us”. 

And you keep always asking the question during life ”what“, “who are they”. I don't quite know what they meant but I called off our plans at the eleventh hour and went out to employees and said here's what's going to happen, why don't you tell us about your situation because we have the opportunity to go in waves and create tranches of people to be laid off and so on and so forth. They all knew it was going to happen.

What happened is we got through one and a half waves of the three in total all on voluntary timing. I got notes that said “gee I was thinking of going back to school”, “my husband and I can start a small business” and so on and so forth. 

My mistake was I had 95% of the data, or I thought a hundred, and that other 5% really dictated an ability to do the same thing but in a better way. By not being afraid to actually treat people as adults and ask them “it's going to happen how would you like it to happen”.

A second is a little bit of a different crisis. It was a branding issue. I just want to reinforce some of the brand implications of dealing through crises, where in this case we, and I'll take responsibility, made a decision to take our brand and create two brands. Primarily in retrospect to suit our internal organisation; not the customer. And that was unquestionably a mistake - a mistake we reversed a year later.

One of the things I just point out regardless of what the crisis is, self-made, imposed, whatever it might be...

...brands are so hard to build but they are so quickly destroyed. It just has to be a variable in the leadership thinking. There is never a formula that balances customer, employee, shareholders, capital management, and brand but it's your job to try and think through all of those things, that you have the best possible outcome and the best possible company going forward. So don't minimise brand in your decision-making is my primary message.

If you could pick one thing you wish you'd known back when times got heated what would that be?

John:

For me, I probably wouldn't look back; I think I'd turn the question around and say: “what's the one thing I'd like to know now about what the next 12 months or 18 months is going to bring” and I think that's the the challenge for us at the moment is trying to predict where where things are

going to go from an economic point of view.

If you look at the the reinsurance markets - I was on a webinar last night out of London talking about the impacts of the COVID environment on the reinsurance markets and this is a $70 billion event and $200 billion impact on the reinsurance markets if you include asset deterioration on the back of bonds and equity markets. 

This is a huge event globally that is going to impact our sector and even though we're somewhat insulated in the insurance world because we're not like bars and gyms and other things and we're not as discretionary they spend in some areas and customers still have to buy insurance so we're somewhat insulated from an economic downturn but not completely. So the margins are going to be fine. If unemployment stays at 8% then we're probably going to be reasonably okay as an economy, we might bounce back. If unemployment stretches out to twelve ,fourteen percent there's going to be a lot of challenges and this whole thing is going to be stretched out a lot more. So there's a whole bunch of uncertainty coming our way and I think it goes back to what Glenn was saying - map out your scenarios, understand worse-case, best-case, what are all these stages in between and regularly review, adjust, respond, get your information systems working.

You don't have a crystal ball, but if you can make certain assumptions about broad trends and then refine those as you go, you find a way of charting a way through future uncertainty.

Glenn:

I would really not add anything new there but just reinforce. I don't know the audience and their leadership responsibilities but just reinforcing something that I said earlier  -the scenarios and John's just referenced it - I didn't think like that as a new leader and I felt a little bit more operationally inclined to deal.

With the situation that has presented itself now I would encourage leaders to make sure they do those scenario plans, that they allocate certain responsibilities to their team and they leave enough opportunity for them to think about other implications - positive, how might this turn into an opportunity for us; but also Plan B's for situations. For example, I had to find a friendly source of equity should it be needed in the global financial crisis - it wasn't - but if I wasn't thinking about that who was?

I will also just reinforce something that John really hit on very very well and that is to you all and to the people around you, take care of yourselves. Stress can be insidious in the sense you don't really see it and know it. I don't know what ‘take care of yourselves’ means, whether it's health, faith, whatever it might be, but you choose - but carry yourself especially in a crisis. 

Lee-Ann:

Well that's it everything so I'm just gonna have a short and snappy one.

Take people with you. 

So just make sure that as you go through this high level of uncertainty, you might be in a different space than the people around you. It's not only your staff members, it's also your family and your friends and everyone else. 

Take people with you on this journey, stay close.

John:

Just to reinforce that, I think I'm very lucky to have a great team of people around me. 

Leadership is not a singular game, it's about creating a team environment and having people around you, particularly people who are happy to challenge you. 

You don't want to have a whole bunch of “yes” people around you. So I'm lucky to have that. I've got people who tell me when I'm straying from the path and I think that's critically important.


You can find the full panel discussion here:


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