What does it take to lead a business during a time of global upheaval? For many leaders across the insurance profession, it is a question that, until the COVID crisis hit, could comfortably remain unanswered.
COVID-19 has impacted countries, industries and individuals across the world and, in doing so, shone a spotlight on the qualities required to achieve the suddenly elusive standard of ‘business as usual’. With workplace mental health now catapulted to the top of the management agenda, the question of what characteristics define strong leadership and support employee wellbeing has been under increased scrutiny.
It is a question that has long been considered by Ingrid Russell (pictured), lead client partner at the professional services firm Genpact. Russell, who will be co-chairing a discussion on ‘How insurance leaders can make a difference in mental health’ at the upcoming virtual Women in Insurance Boston conference, highlighted the key attributes that she believes are consistent among great leaders in times of crisis.
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“The first is being able to pick up things about people from their voice or from how they answer a question,” she said. “And it’s strange but I feel like, during COVID, I personally have an enhanced way of picking up how people are feeling. As a leader, I believe you’ve got to be very aware of how to pick up on the little signs about how people are really feeling, and you’ve got to be open to seeing things and hearing things that aren’t necessarily in front of you.”
The need for leaders to have empathy is at an all-time high and Russell noted that this goes beyond just saying ‘we’re in all this together’ and encompasses being genuinely judgement-free and understanding that individuals deal with challenges in their own way. Trust is another essential factor, she said, and insurance leaders need to unlearn micromanaging behaviors and give their people the space and the freedom to work in the way that suits them best – whether that means adapting work schedules or increasing remote working flexibility as the COVID crisis abates.
“You’re going to have to trust people to get work done without monitoring them,” she said. “[It is] that trust factor in your team that builds contentment. People need to know that they count and that they matter and, when you show trust, it shows that to them. And then another attribute that your people need is for you to be forward-thinking when it comes to career progression and for you to be able to pull remote working teams together and make sure everybody feels united even though we’re all in different areas.”
Insurance leaders must lead by example, she said, and this is not just true when it comes to operational metrics but also when looking at wellbeing concerns and putting the right structures and supports in place to protect mental health. But the responsibility for looking after a team also includes the obligation to follow your own advice and look after yourself as well.
“And if you are taking care of your mental wellness then it’s not about being [completely] mentally well all the time but rather about the fact that you are working on it and dealing with it, which puts you in a good mindset to help others,” she said. “It allows you to be so much more open and unselfish and it’s good to open up and show your vulnerabilities and I think that’s it’s huge for your people to see that. And if you’re closed off and you’re not dealing with that, then I don’t know how you can be empathetic.”
Being a leader is essentially about accountability, Russell said, and this is the word senior insurance professionals need to have in mind while holding wellness discussions. And that means making sure that these conversations become more than just words and are translated into practical, actionable steps that will better the lives of your teams. Genpact has seized the opportunity that the COVID crisis has afforded to pour resources into setting up sustainable employee wellbeing programs, supported by services such as access to the Headspace app and interactive virtual events aimed at preventing feelings of isolation during this challenging time.
“And I feel like there’s a stronger bond because of COVID in that sense,” she said, “which offers a positive twist out of what could have just been a bad situation.”
To hear more about supporting mental health initiatives from Ingrid Russell you can register for Women in Insurance Boston here.