The importance of being an authentic leader

Tuesday, 01 September 2020


    Richard Nunn, CEO of insurance agency MetLife Australia, says flexibility, integrity and inclusion are vital to being an authentic leader. He reflects on his key lessons.

    The seriousness of COVID-19 was in the psyche of the business early on, as MetLife has a big business in China. In January, we reviewed our business continuity plans in case the pandemic reached Australia and everyone had to work at home. It was the easiest decision to make sure our people were safe. Looking after our people first meant we could continue looking after our customers and partners and keep trading, because insurance doesn’t stop for a pandemic.

    I said to our leadership group: “You need to be visible and empathetic about how people are coping; you can’t guess — you have to talk with your people and include them, because it’s easy for people to get left behind”.

    I asked the leadership team to let people get on with getting stuff done for our customers, not sweat the small stuff. You can’t micromanage when you have people working remotely — you have to trust them.

    I’ve been running CEO lunches via video, checking in with our people and our customers, because we have some people doing really tough jobs at home, particularly in claims. We didn’t want anyone feeling they were doing it alone. And actually, it has been a positive experience for the organisation — our culture of inclusiveness came through.

    I got a sense early on that our people genuinely wanted to share some of the personal stuff. I don’t know how many times my kids butted in on video meetings, and others had their kids, dogs and cats there. I was very clear early on that it’s OK if that happens, we’ll take a time out. People enjoyed seeing that side of their colleagues. It’s been really pleasing to see our people are checking in with each other and continue socialising even though we’re all on screens rather than in the office.

    Around 70 per cent of our people elected to stay home for some time and I’m supportive of that. If you had a big commute previously, the fact you can now get up and do a workout, drop the kids at school and then get more work done because your life is more balanced is a good thing. We’ve broken down the underlying guilt associated with flexible working. We’ve seen that it doesn’t weaken the culture — that it strengthens our ability to work together and support each other. And we get better customer interactions because we have happier people.

    I didn’t have a grand plan to go into financial services when I graduated in 1988 during “the recession we had to have”. I got a start at National Mutual [now AXA], which had asset management, superannuation and a bunch of other things. It took me about a year to develop a sense of purpose as to why I should stay in the sector. I was out on the road a lot, learning from people who had been in the industry for many years, including early incarnations of financial planning. I had the opportunity to be involved in claims, which I probably wouldn’t have if I’d been stuck in the back office. So I learned about the products and the customer quickly — and we did pay a lot of claims.

    When I was delivering payout cheques, I developed the sense of purpose around financial services and wanted to be able to do more. I’ve worked in just about every part of the value chain over 30 years, from banking to insurance, and I think the insurance sector is a key pillar of our society, notwithstanding some of the bad press we’ve had. Over my time, I feel pretty comfortable with the decision I’ve made to work in the sector.

    Advice for new board members

    1. Know when to ask the right questions. The board’s job is to examine management, not do the job for them.
    2. Don’t overstep the responsibility of management. If you’re a CEO and a member of a separate board, it’s hard to not slip into CEO mode and tell them how to do it. Pull back from that. You’re there to provide governance overlay.
    3. Be clear where you can add value. You need to know where you have expertise that justifies having a board seat — but don’t try to add value everywhere, especially in areas where you don’t have expertise.
    4. Value diversity. It used to be all white males sitting on boards. That has changed, but there is a long way to go. My chair at MetLife, Geoffrey Brunsdon FAICD, said, “if you can’t get the gender diversity right, how are you going to get the rest of the diversity right?” Having diverse skill sets, experience, background, culture — all the data suggests those things add up to a richer experience and better results for the organisation.

    Industry challenges

    We’re seeing a lot of regulatory change from ASIC and APRA, and broadly, MetLife is supportive of the reforms. It’s a heavy burden and timelines are tight, so I’m delighted the regulators gave us breathing space to manage COVID-19 first.

    Income protection is probably the big one that needed looking at because the sector as a whole has been making losses. It’s just not sustainable. APRA intervened heavily, putting an impost on capital charges and clear direction around product design. The regulators are also looking for more transparency in how every player in the market gathers, interprets and disseminates data. In life insurance, that’s inherently complicated.

    Insurance has also lagged behind other parts of the financial services sector in providing a good digital experience for our customers, super fund partners and financial planners. Everyone wants to interface with us, and our industry needs to get better at streamlining those processes online, in real time.

    Meanwhile, navigating this pandemic means having a close eye on our capital position. We need to know the correlation between unemployment and claims, particularly disability and income protection. In Australia, mortality from COVID-19 hasn’t been a big issue. The big issue is managing income protection for our customers because of unemployment and mental health. And we just don’t know where unemployment is going to land.

    Leading with humanity

    For me, leadership is about being transparent and fair to people. I’m here to look after our people and customers, not the other way around. I spend a lot of time hearing about what they’re experiencing and responding where I can. Genuinely caring about staff and customers gets wrapped up into the “authenticity” buzzword, but I find it laughable that there are training courses on “how to be authentic”. People pick up very quickly whether you mean it or not. I’m judged on what I say and what I do, including the behaviour I accept or ignore. So, it’s about having consistency and setting the right standards for behaviour in the workplace.

    I’m a strong supporter of diversity and I want people to do the best job they can without putting up with crap at work. We spend a lot of time at work and people should not have to work in a place that’s like a war zone. We’re all adults, so we need to respect and care for each other — and that means including each other.

    On boards

    My first board experiences were more than 20 years ago when I was given a significant promotion at a young age. Suddenly, I was on a few subsidiary boards of AXA, with quite onerous responsibilities on the directors. I remember sitting in the first few meetings not knowing what was going on.

    I didn’t have any burning desire to be on a board — it just happened and then I had to get my act together.

    I went to Canberra and did the AICD course. It was a terrific experience that taught me how boards operate and what my responsibilities were. After that, I began to enjoy the governance side more.

    While many of the boards I’ve been on were in my industry, I’ve more recently joined boards of community organisations — my old school (Pulteney Grammar in Adelaide) because I’d been part of the foundation for many years; Botanic Gardens of South Australia because I’d always been interested in nature; and Glenelg FC, my local football club, of which I’m a hardcore supporter. Glenelg FC in particular, was in a lot of trouble, though we now have a really good bunch of people who’ve helped the club get into a better position. And the club won the Premiership last year.

    I thought that I could just turn up and give a lot of commercial value. However, I learned more from those experiences working with terrific people on boards who made positive changes happen.

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