Leading in Changing Times

On April 23rd we had a first .. many UK business women are regular attendees at Lady Val Corbett’s legendary London networking lunches where she invites fascinating and high profile keynote speakers like Channel 4’s Jon Snow, national treasure comedian and global traveller Michael Palin and the colourful cook Prue Leith. The money raised from the lunch events funds the Corbett foundation and their important work in supporting ex-offenders creating a new life. So with the Lockdown and our West End lunch venue closed for business, our ladies lunch was held online .. we brought our own lunch at home and 60 of us settled in on Zoom to listen to our speaker addressing us from her own home. Lady Val was rather apprehensive how this would go but it’s fair to say it was a roaring success. We all now seem to be discovering how much can be achieved, and conveyed, through a screen and no travel! We still get the buzz of connection.

Dame Inga Beale, first female CEO to lead Lloyd’s of London in over three centuries

Our speaker was Dame Inga Beale, DBE, a British businesswoman who became the first female CEO of Lloyd’s of London. After leading the global insurance and reinsurance market for five years, embedding modernisation and cultural change, she left in June 2018. She has spent most of her career in the insurance industry and described herself as “a bit of a change agent for most of my work life” with many difficult challenges.” She seems to thrive on taking on transforming businesses and particularly changing the way people work by using technology. But the challenge of taking on the modernisation of Lloyd’s was the most difficult of her 38-year career.

You can see how the scale of the task was daunting and the successful outcomes was accomplished without a Global Pandemic-like crisis to spur it on!  Dame Inga explained how a forward-thinking Edward Lloyd first started the business (and the insurance industry) from his modest coffee house on Tower Street back in 1688 and, after 325 years, the way business was traded was basically the same. Even though the current building was one of the most modern in the city, the $40 billion of business traded on an annual basis was still done on paper slips. Dame Inga was brought in to change this extraordinary situation and move Lloyd’s from a paper-based environment to digital, hopefully succeeding where several predecessors had failed. She called this “the most complex and difficult transformation I’d ever taken on.” The time span seems to have been done within five years and it is a saving grace that this was accomplished prior to the Covid-19 pandemic which has forced everybody to shift online. Imagine the additional crisis if Lloyds still lived on paper slips! Here is how Dame Inga performed this business miracle:

  1. Inga said her first step was to LISTEN. She spent hours, days, weeks talking to hundreds of people to understand them, their practices and their needs. “I had to ask them what they wanted, what was so precious, what couldn’t be kept ad look at what could be kept, what could be changed. I had to understand why it had failed before.”
  2. BARRIERS had to be broken down. There was a great deal of separation with top execs hidden way on the upper floors and her own huge office having wonderful views over the city but no windows out into the business so she could see the people. She knocked down those walls replacing with glass and created an open plan environment, a clear signal that everything was going to be opened up.
  3. The HIERARCHY had to go. Centuries of male and patriarchal leadership kept the business structure old fashioned. She said she “had to try and reduce hierarchy, because it was stifling the ability of the whole organisation to change and to modernise. People weren’t engaging in conversation and they weren’t listening. If you were up in the clouds in this secluded executive zone, you weren’t in touch with the employees, you weren’t in touch with what was happening.” Many decisions were referred up to committees which made things sluggish so they had to go.
  4. The CULTURE had to have a major shift. People had to be empowered to make their own decisions instead of handing them off to a committee. She had to almost encourage people to do this and to step up and make bold decisions. When this happens, mistakes can be made so she had to allow a culture where people felt it was OK to make some mistakes. 
  5. Break RULES: People were used to feeling that they had to conform to everything. Now the culture was shifting to encouraging people to start breaking those rules! Creativity and good decision-making was stifled. Inga established an Innovation Lab to help move forward.
  6. Pick your BATTLES: in her quest for relaxing the rules and stuffiness, Inga sought to bring in more informality to the dress code of suits, ties and jackets always on .. however hot the season was. One hot Friday she allowed suit jackets to come off … that was a new rule that only lasted an hour. It seems it was one change too far. That was not something that had to be forced as there were other wins happening throughout the rest of the business, particularly where young tech folk were being recruited into the Innovation division. Slowly slowly change happened.
  7. Understand the FEARS: of course humans resist change, it’s natural. Digging in to find out why and where the fear is coming from is important. At Lloyd’s, it was not just the older generation that was resistant to change, the under 30s were also trying to hold on to the past. It turned out they were in fear for their jobs, livelihoods and career prospects so they were trying to stick with the old ways. Once that was known and the gaps understood, then reassurances could be made with the right delivery of new skills training. New tech advances and more equipment don’t necessarily remove all jobs, they simply require humans to skill up in new and different areas. Humans need to be helped to grow alongside the progression of technology.
  8. Being INCLUSIVE was key: in order to move forward and bring everyone along, Dame Inga highlighted that everyone had to be involved in designing their future. It is clear that as the commercial landscape changes jobs change and some disappear but new roles appear and it is vital that people are re-skilled for the new future. Roles that have not been thought about before are now emerging and so everyone has to be flexible in being open to learning and for providing the means for staff to grow and learn.

The project of taking this institution from its seventeenth century roots fully into 21st century digital paperless efficiency was colossal. How did dame Inga cope and get all this done with five years .. and stay sane? She became very focused and said she “Just had to keep going.” The missiles kept coming (she said she simply threw away the hate mail) and obstacles kept appearing but she did not let those distract her. She stayed on course with the support of trusted colleagues …. “You need allies, you can’t do everything on your own”. 

With Dame Inga’s expertise in insurance, she is always looking at emerging risks and the current global pandemic is really highlighting where the world is vulnerable and where resilience needs to be increased.

In the near future areas of concern will potentially be:

  • food shortages 
  • water shortages
  • the increased risk of living in cities, areas of concentrated populations
  • global supply chain vulnerability and the need to buy local
  • maintaining healthy work / life balance
  • mental health 
  • inequality and the ability of the poorest to cope with disasters

Dame Inga said it is amazing how so many people and systems have adapted so quickly to handle this current global pandemic. Yes many have struggled, and continue to do so, but society has done remarkably well with personal and national resilience high. We have been forced to take on new ways of working in days when businesses might have struggled for a few years to adapt and produce the same results and enabled working-from-home.  The investment Dame Inga made in her time at Lloyd’s was well-spent in helping this historic institution handle the emergency that we have all been going through. The lesson now is, whoever you are or whatever you do, get ready … work out ways that you can make yourself and your business be as resilient as possible for future emergencies.

The next lunch with Lady Val will be on June 18th