“The need for flexibility today has to go beyond high performers to the whole organization; that’s how you create resilience”
Today’s complex landscape demands adaptive, empathetic leaders, who accelerate decision-making to navigate opportunity and mitigate risk. In an exclusive series, Boyden's data-driven 2023 research on Exploring adaptivity through strategy and talent is complemented by in-depth interviews from trailblazers across the globe, sharing their perspectives on core issues across organisational strategy, leadership and talent.
Boyden: With sustainability concerns, rapid AI developments and geopolitical risk, how does adaptivity impact leadership today?
Barbara: Outstanding leaders are always highly adaptive, it is part of their skill set. With sustainability, AI and geopolitical risk, you have to think differently from a leadership perspective, teaching adaptivity through example and identifying what it means. Remember how you were on your first day in the job – always asking why, making things more efficient, having no biases – and show people examples to help them understand how to be more adaptive.
If you are not adaptive, it’s evident from low performance. What are these leaders not doing? Despite working harder they are not working flexibly; they are not as reflective in understanding the implications of what’s ahead without a lot of direction.
The need for flexibility today has to go beyond high performers to the whole organization; that’s how you create resilience. The more we stretch, the better we will be and the easier it is next time. It’s about viewing differently, from a leadership perspective, what we are doing when times are hard and exactly how we are pulling on the band. Pinpointing and articulating exactly what’s happening, and how we are responding, helps people to understand how to be more flexible and adaptive in achieving their goals.
“Articulating exactly what’s happening and how we are responding helps people to understand how to be more flexible and adaptive in achieving their goals”
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Boyden: Is today’s disruptive environment changing the relationship between the board and the leadership team?
Barbara: HSB Canada set an ambitious growth target for itself in 2020, to double revenues by 2025. This has required the company and its leadership to do things differently and some things it has not done before. As with big ambitions, some adjustments have had to be made. It requires the board to push leaders to do things differently, as well as being supportive and encouraging. While the leadership team adapts ways of working, there is value in the board in holding them accountable. It’s a partnership, rather than oversight, presenting options to the CEO so they get the best value in helping with a very aggressive goal.
We certainly see a change in relationship with the board. The organization wants more than fiduciary fulfilment; outside directors have expertise and the executive wants to engage with it. Organizations need help with innovation, growth, being on track strategically and getting away from unconscious bias. Boards can alert the executive, have deeper questioning, dialogue and discussion – that’s the exciting part – if you have the talent and expertise at board level, it’s a waste if you don’t use it.
“The organization wants more than fiduciary fulfilment; outside directors have expertise and the executive wants to engage with it”
Having said that, it is easy to overwhelm the board. With talent issues, we look at just the top tier and high potentials so we are comfortable there is a good succession plan. If the executive wants to share everything, we push back to what the board needs to focus on. For example, in insurance the regulatory environment continues to impact the business, particularly IFRS 17. So, there is a balance between knowing the executive is doing a great job operationally, ensuring regulatory compliance and strategically asking selective questions.
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Boyden: How would you characterize the talent market at board level?
Barbara: From HSB’s perspective, with our growth targets the board knew they needed different thinking, so they went to market with a search firm to look for expertise in IT, talent and the insurance sector. The caliber of candidates was surprisingly impressive. We have perhaps talked ourselves into believing it’s a tough environment; our parameters have been set by it being harder than it was, because we are not seeing each other as much, and using executive search is extremely effective.
Of course, sometimes there is a talent issue, but some organizations would be amazed at the people wanting to make an impact who could come to the table, including cross-border candidates, say between America and Canada. There are a lot of us out there wanting to contribute in a positive way. You might have your eye on somebody and not be able to attract them, but there is definitely talent in the market.
“Some organizations would be amazed at the people wanting to make an impact who could come to the table, including cross-border candidates... There is definitely talent in the market”
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Boyden: How is today’s environment affecting decision-making? Are you relying more on particularly people or roles?
Barbara: The obvious issue is understanding analytics and AI more deeply. Leaders are trying to understand AI’s impact and continuously talking about where it’s going. We need individuals with that skill set operating at a high, strategic level in order to understand the implications and impact on the business.
This is driving structural change, in that we need to recruit experts in AI/robotics/analytics at a more senior level to reflect the strategic importance of these developments. This shifts the organizational structure to give the leader of this area seniority and have a specialist team.
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Boyden: Are you seeing any change in leveraging HR expertise?
Barbara: HSB is doing a lot here. We have typically conducted a compensation study every three years, but our head of HR is now doing it annually because of the changing environment relating to Covid. This ensures we are on top of trends in the market, but it’s also important to look more widely than compensation to consider development for high potentials, robust leadership and how we can leverage the entire global organization in terms of talent. This reflects your research finding of capturing ideas from all parts of the organization to prepare for recession. It’s a question of balance and deciding where to invest.
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Boyden: How does this aggressive goal impact HSB’s people strategy?
Barbara: We need more talent relating to initiatives in the digital and analytics space, and new distribution individuals, and this needs to be accelerated. Today’s ‘tough environment’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; there is lots of talent out there and people are choosing organizations that align with their values. We have to ask ourselves ‘how do people see our values and therefore want to join our organization? Using executive search provides a really valuable picture of how a brand is received in the market and can be truly illuminating.
With the need for new skills, we have to be competitive in compensation but it has to be sustainable. From a board perspective we want to invest more in performance to get to where we need to be; high performing executives respond positively to leadership development with a big impact on loyalty. If someone wants to work for our organization and we invest in their development so they can achieve and ask for more, then it becomes sustainable.
“If someone wants to work for our organization and we invest in their development so they can achieve and ask for more, then [higher compensation] becomes sustainable”
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Boyden: What is your organization’s most favorable opportunity through 2024?
Barbara: A bigger market and new products launched more effectively, with wider distribution. We did some restructuring to bring in a marketing distribution executive, changing the reporting structure to elevate the position with different people reporting to the role. Like the AI/robotics/analytics role, the distribution role is not at the same level that it was. I think this is done more often now; I have previously done a restructuring with forty thousand people that was a much longer process. Different organizations take different amounts of time in adapting to new developments and structures.
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Boyden: What do you expect HSB to look like in five years’ time?
Barbara: HSB is a solid company that’s been around for many years. I am hoping it will be close to its growth goal with no rapid changes externally. In five years I would see perhaps more agility and flexibility in terms of what it might be doing, but I don’t see it looking radically different to how it looks today; the full leadership competencies are there and accelerating.
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Barbara Bellissimo is a Board Member at HSB Canada, a Munich Re Company, and President, Barbara Bellissimo Consulting. She has previously been a Board Director with the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario (FSRA) and Insurance Bureau of Canada. A collaborative change leader, Barbara focuses on strategy execution, change management, business transformation and turnarounds. As an innovative thinker, Barbara is passionate about talent, leadership development and diversity.
As Senior Vice President at Desjardins, Barbara played a pivotal role in the successful integration of the entire Canadian branch of State Farm Canada Insurance Companies into Desjardins.
Barbara has extensive executive experience in property and casualty insurance and the financial services industries. She is a former head of one of the top P&C insurers in Canada and is an active community leader with board affiliations in the health sector, the arts, academia and the International Women’s Forum.
This interview was enabled by Michael Lewis, Partner Canada and Global Practice Leader, Financial Services Practice.