Here’s what I’ve learned.
Executive SummaryGuest Editor Adrian Jones is often asked by other young professionals like himself, who are focused on innovation, how they can truly make things happen inside a big company. It’s a question he’s thought a lot about, and here he boils down his advice into a list of 10 items that only become clear after you’ve lived through the experience of doing at least one big thing every year.
1. Ban the “I” word.
Most innovation in insurance companies comes where customers (or distributors) encounter the company. This is one reason that 89 percent of insurance CEOs have previous P&L responsibility as opposed to being only staff function leaders. Innovators must be close to customers and understand how the company makes money, but many P&L leaders have become cynical of corporate innovation fads. The worst thing you can say is this: “I’m from the corporate innovation unit, and I’m here to help.” It has happened for decades—eager helpers, recently trained on a religion like Six Sigma, causing distraction. Thus it’s wise to start innovating by banning the word “innovation” from your vocabulary.
2. Help advance existing ideas.
Business leaders usually have a list of ideas but lack the time and spare brainpower to make them all happen. This is where to start. Creating a small win that advances the agenda of an experienced and influential leader gives you credibility and an ally when you propose more radical ideas later.
3. Work on one big thing a year.
Sometimes young and ambitious people come into big companies and try to change everything. Many insurers are acutely aware of their deficiencies. Pointing them out might not be well received, and trying to fix them all quickly becomes overwhelming. Instead, pick a single process or project to drive persistently, align with the boss, and fight if you have to.
I can name one big thing that I’ve done every year since I joined the corporate world. What will be your one thing for 2019
4. Align on what’s important; cut what’s not.
In any big company, a motivated and capable person attracts plenty of opportunities, requests and demands. I try to meet my boss every week, which isn’t easy when we both spend half our time on planes going opposite directions.
I make a written list of all the decisions I need him to validate. The list includes everything that I’m working on, roughly in order of importance. Sometimes it runs four pages; then I draw a line. I’ve never been called out for failing to deliver something below the line. I also ask my team to make a list for our weekly meetings.
5. Manage your project portfolio.
Finding ways to deflect, defer, delegate or ignore less-important work and meetings is the only way to ensure you’re spending most of your time working on what interests you, is useful for the company, builds your resume and builds your credibility. Thus you never have to turn down a critical growth opportunity.
It’s also important to manage your meeting portfolio. I enforce a “rule of two,” which means that no more than two members of my team should attend the same meeting. A related rule says that the most junior person who can represent the team credibly should attend.
6. Learn how and when to fight.
Senior executives who sponsor ideas pick leaders who will deliver the change they seek. Real change requires alignment, persuasion, give-and-take and occasionally a bit of conflict.
I once told a boss, “I’m going to deliver what you asked because I think it’s right, but I can’t do it without breaking a few dishes. If nobody comes to you complaining about what I’m doing, I’ve not done my job.” This is not requesting a license to be a jerk; it’s establishing a give-and-take relationship that involves the boss paying back the political capital that you expend to advance the boss’s change agenda. But be careful not to be seen as “the boss’s boy”—the grown-up equivalent of a teacher’s pet.
7. Go out.
I once decided that whenever I had the opportunity to go out for lunch, beers or any other social event, I would take it and stop doing whatever else I had to do. To my surprise, my performance went up, the job got easier and I was promoted a year later. For all its numbers, insurance is still a people business, grounded in trust.
8. Build a personal sounding board.
Many ideas that sound new in fact have been tried. There is a community of people who think about new ideas in insurance, and debating ideas with them will make you smarter when presenting ideas internally.
I once asked an industry veteran about an idea I had recently heard. He said, “Someone did that. In 1996.” Google proved him right. Use the sounding board to gather and refine ideas before bringing them to the person who signs your paycheck.
Example: Using a personal sounding board to vet ideas
After Hurricane Irma hit Florida stocks, I wondered why a company wouldn’t recapitalize by issuing shares at a price that existed before a catastrophe loss. So I started asking around. It turns out that a large broker sold a product called a CatEPut in 1996. A reinsurer known for financial innovation wrote the first one. The product lost favor when a CatEPut ended up in litigation after the 9/11 disaster and hasn’t been seen much since. #themoreyouknow
9. Travel, even if you have to pay for it yourself.
I got my current job in a London bar. I asked a business partner who in the market had a strategy role. He recommended a guy in France. I said, “I could go to Paris tomorrow late afternoon and stay the weekend if he’d meet me.” The introduction was made, I changed my weekend plans, and we got to know each other over wine and cheese. (How else?) I paid from my own pocket, but it was worth it. A year later, when he got promoted to a line manager role, a conversation naturally happened.
Many companies have restricted their travel budgets, but if you’re intelligent about booking in advance and find a good reason, you should be able to hit the road and meet people. If not, consider the next tip.
10. You have a five-year shelf life.
Before turning 40 (and maybe after, but I don’t know yet), a leader is accumulating the portfolio of skills and experiences that are necessary to succeed in upper management, where you have more power regarding new ideas. Therefore, if you have been in the same job at the same company doing the same thing (even with a better title along the way) for more than five years, it’s time to find a bigger, broader or different role elsewhere.
One of the best-kept secrets in business is that job-hunting and interviewing are some of the best ways to meet people, make connections to your network and learn about what’s going on before it’s in the press. Recruiters are your friends. Help them connect to friends who are looking for new roles, and learn what’s happening in the industry while doing so.
Many of my suggestions may be simply good business practice. Indeed, if you want to be an innovator, start by studying business leadership.
What would you add? Send Carrier Management your comments or reach out to the author on social media at https://www.linkedin.com/in/adrianjo