An IB Rising Star in insurance recruitment

James Toth, managing director of Kona Recruitment, is the winner of an Insurance Business Rising Stars Award for 2022. In this IBTV interview, Toth explains how he provides insurance companies with insights into industry best practices. The Kona boss also discusses the changes he expects to see across insurance industry workplaces. 


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Daniel: [00:00:21] Hello and welcome to Insurance Business TV. I'm Danny Wood, news editor of Insurance Business Australia. And today we're celebrating a winner of our insurance business Rising Stars Award for 2022. To be nominated for this award, you have to be an exceptional young talent aged 35 or under, working in a role connected to the insurance industry. A winner of the award this year is James Toth, managing director of Kona Recruitment. His firm specializes in insurance industry recruitment. Congratulations, James. Well done.

James: [00:00:52] Thank you very much. It's an absolute honor and privilege to have been nominated and also to be here now. So it's awesome.

Daniel: [00:00:58] It's very nice to talk to you too. And one of the ways you impressed the judges was how you advocate for the industry to use recruiters like yourself to gain insights into industry. Best practice. How exactly do you do that?

James: [00:01:10] Yeah, it's a great question. And it was It's not something I've done my entire career. You know, when I first entered the recruitment industry, it was very much driven by that transactional kind of find a company, the right staff, and that's really the remit of your role. But as you delve deeper into what it really means to be an acquisition or a recruiter in general, you start to realize that there's a much broader picture that you're kind of painting with that client. So what we've essentially looked at is not only the immediate need or the immediate requirement in the business, but also the the greater implications of that hire. And look, that can sometimes that can sometimes be in assisting them in the recruitment of a professional. But the majority of the time they just want to have better understanding of what's going on in the market. You know, we really are brokers of information as much as our clients are brokers and underwriters and claims professionals. We are a broker of sorts. We have our finger on the pulse and the market that's moving incredibly quickly. So we always invite our clients and not even our clients. We will always invite our market to reach out to us just to find out what's going on. I think the best example of this I can give is remuneration. Something happened over COVID or in the last couple of years. I don't know if we can even save a C-word anymore on a live interview, but amazing. Good to hear. I will not get bleeped out or demonetized. That's always nice on YouTube. But look, over the last couple of years there's been a huge shift in expectation around remuneration, flexibility and so on, and I've really understood the need to help educate clients who maybe haven't applied in a couple of years or haven't had to go out and find that senior person because their most recent one has retired or something quite drastic. So we've always tried to be welcoming in that regard. We try not to look at the market as clients and non clients. I've always had the belief that, you know, great recruitment agencies aren't based off great clients that based off great industries. So if we can advocate for an entire industry trying to help companies, even if they're not within our client portfolio, that's going to be long from a long term perspective, that's going to be beneficial for us too. So I'd love to say it's completely altruistic, but I'm a big, huge supporter of the industry and it kind of comes with the territory. I feel it is my my obligation and responsibility to be that open book.

Daniel: [00:03:37] So do you see what you're doing here? This advocating is going beyond the role of a I guess, a more traditional recruitment agency in this space?

James: [00:03:45] Yeah, definitely. I think this is a complex question because it's very easy to look at the recruiter and ask them what their role is. But often they are given targets and KPIs by a business and an expectation based purely on the filling of roles. Now we've been very lucky at Kona, I guess, in the way that we tried to build Our culture hasn't been based off of how many people have you helped find a role or how many companies have you bought on this month? It's been a lot more around what's our position in the market? You know, are we a true brands partner and are we making decisions that are going to help us move closer to that true partner status, which is very notoriously difficult for recruiters for that exact reason that I mentioned. So I do think it steps away from the current conventional recruitment standard, but it is going to be the expectation moving forward as we enter this world of connectivity where you're not just hiring from your local competitor, maybe you're hiring interstate and you need to lean on someone with local market knowledge. I think that's really where it's going to rise in prevalence. And I'm proud to say Kona is is certainly a huge advocate for that and our competitors as well. We want to see more recruitment agencies doing the same.

Daniel: [00:05:02] When we've spoken before, you've been very big on flexibility in the workplace. Yeah, Where do you see that going in the insurance industry? What sort of what sort of changes are you seeing?

James: [00:05:13] Yeah, it's a great question. I think work from home is the obvious one. Right. It's been pretty incredible to. See the response of the market in a pretty quick time. You're always going to have outliers both for and against. You're going to have companies who embrace full, remote, and you're also going to have companies who don't come kicking and screaming because it's their business, it's their prerogative to to instruct their staff when to go into the office. But I do see a greater shift in the culture around what it means to go to work. This is so much bigger than insurance. This is a humanitarian shift. I think that's a word, but it's a general population shift around their expectations for what what work is. You know, I was sitting in an Uber the other day. I actually live in Brisbane, but my house is about K and a half out of the CBD. I left the house at 8:08, took me 35 minutes to get to the office and that's usually a seven minute commute. And I just sat there thinking about the craziness of even just these conventional office hours, right? You need to be in the office and you have to leave at five. But what that means is you're also going to have to commute an additional hour every day just because you're stuck in traffic for what should be a short commute time. And I thought about the stress that a professional goes through. If they do have a leader who is a bit of a clock watcher who does expect them to be there at 8:30 every morning, and they have things outside of their control, but they are the impact, that ability. What kind of stress is that putting on your team outside of just the stress of doing your job? These are incredibly difficult times to be an insurance professional for a number of reasons. The global economic landscape is is a challenging one for sure. So work stressful enough, let alone having to sit in the car for an hour and a half for a journey that should take you 25 minutes. So I think flexibility isn't just going to be working from home. It isn't just going to be hours. I think it is going to be in the way that we approach our staff and the way that we allow them to to reach their potential in a way that incentivizes work life balance.

Daniel: [00:07:21] You're obviously focused on the insurance industry, but in the past you've had experience with other industries, and I'm sure you're across other industries. I mean, how do you see the insurance industry comparing in terms of flexibility and its advancements in that area compared to other industries? Are we behind a head in the middle?

James: [00:07:38] Yeah, I think, you know, like all things insurance is one of the great the great pillars of the economy. It's one of the oldest industry. It's one of the oldest forms of commerce. And I do think sometimes we are the victims of that as well. As amazing as it is to say that we have an industry that dates back hundreds of years, sometimes the way that we go about business can feel a tad archaic as well, complete with complete respect to all of my insurance clients out there and friends in the industry when I say that. But it is lacking behind in some ways. You know, obviously your mind goes to technology. You know, technology is absolutely the future. I don't think that can be refuted. And when you look at what technology companies are doing, fintechs and insurtechs, the way that they're approaching it through this holistic work life balance, hey, we don't it's not about when you're here. It's about what you do when you're here that really counts and that culture. Is is something that I think insurance needs to catch up on. Ping pong tables in the office is the best example of something that seems very wishy washy, right? Like, oh, they've got a snooker table or ping pong table in the office. But actually it's indicative of the kind of culture that company is trying to create. Like, Hey, work doesn't always just have to be work. You can have fun whilst you're doing your job. And it's a strange example, but it is really what tech has pioneered and it is what we're starting to see in other industries where technology has allowed the facilitation of less hours in the office through connectivity and the ability to share information on the internet through Zoom. So look, I think there's a journey to go on. I don't think we're we're heading towards a world of completely remote. I think working in office or spending time with your colleagues is incredibly important. But it has to start with the why. Why are they in the office? Are they in the office? Because that's indicative to the success in their job or are they in the office because you just want to see what they're doing. And that's the real differentiator, I think.

Daniel: [00:09:35] When you talk about this journey towards better flexibility, you've pushed along in your workplace on that journey by implementing a four day week. Can you just briefly talk about some of the challenges bringing bringing that in?

James: [00:09:47] Yeah, and there's been a heap of them. I love to sit here and say that I implemented a four day workweek and productivity skyrocketed and profits skyrocketed. And I'm a very rich man, but the reality is very different. It's a new way of working. And one of the biggest challenges I found as a leader is the the trust you have to give a team when you do start to do things like a four day work week, when you change the culture of a business from productivity to outcome, which is what we've done to the whole point of the four day work week is not an excuse to work 9 to 5, Monday to Thursday, do the bare minimum and then have a long weekend, kick your feet up and go and go fishing or go fishing or swimming in the sea. It's my commitment to them that I'm trying to build a culture that doesn't expect them to to focus on productivity and instead focus on the outcomes from that productivity. So it has been enormously challenging in that regard. There's also a employee mindset shift. You have to take your staff first. At the start, it was almost impossible to get my team to actually work for days. The reason I was so keen on it was because I knew that sustainability in the role was more important than a great month for a great day or a great quarter. You know, we're trying to build a brand that's going to be here for a really long time. And if we have recruiters in and out of the door, that only hurts our clients because they want to develop long term relationships with our team too. So sometimes I have to instruct the team, Hey, you worked, you know, you've worked your ass off. You can believe that. Take take a long weekend, but make no shallow make no mistake, when the work needs to be done, when the outcome needs to be met, met or or had the team will work on a Saturday or on a Sunday, whatever it takes. And I think that's the amazing balance we've been able to find it. Kona is an outcome of purpose over profit business rather than a productivity one.

Daniel: [00:11:47] So how about your customers in the insurance space? How do they respond to the four day working week?

James: [00:11:53] Yeah, and I guess that's a multi faceted question. As far as current four day work week, I've got a lot of funny text messages when it was announced. Luckily no clients left us. We haven't had any. Clients blame the four day work week for any level of outcome or productivity. Just a few jobs from time to time and I've had to buy a few beers as well just to calm that calm that nerves as far as the work that coming is going to do for them as far as the industry goes and the recession, as far as us being an advocate for it, I think it's it hasn't really kicked up as much. It hasn't picked up as much steam as it has in Europe. Whenever a client asked me about a four day work week, I'll always reference the amazing work, the amazing work that was done over in Europe in the trial of this. And I have a lot of friends whose companies have trialed a four day work week who are much happier. And when I tell clients about the merits of it, I'm also talking to them about the merits of their internal employee value proposition. You know, they asked me, how can I be more competitive? How can I attract the best talent in the market, have the best benefits, and a great benefit is a four day work week. So it's it hasn't picked up as much in Australia as it certainly has in Europe and maybe the US. But, you know, it's a marathon, not a sprint. This is the way the world is going. I don't know if four day work week will be what the banking sector picks up, you know, and certain more institutional industry is not saying insurance isn't institutional, but I can see more companies, especially in the service. This sector looking at it as a viable option. And that's great to see. And we're very proud to be one of the only four day work week recruitment agencies and certainly allows us to battle it as well.

Daniel: [00:13:44] James Toth, it's always fun talking to you. Thanks for your time on Insurance Business TV.

James: [00:13:49] Thank you so much, Danny. Cheers.

Daniel: [00:13:52] And James Toth is a rising star, one of our insurance business, rising stars winners for 2022. You've been watching insurance business TV bye for now.