Risk-taking is vital for human progress. People succeed and businesses expand because of our determination to move forward despite uncertainty. The very existence of Swiss Re is predicated on protecting and enabling that progress. Their vision is simple: "We make the world more resilient."
So in this time of uncertainty for us all, we thought there would be few better people to ask about leadership in tough times than the Head of Legal for North America at Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, Steve O'Hern.
Q: In the business of commercial insurance and reinsurance, you've seen crises many times before. It is, in fact, your mission to anticipate and manage a wide variety of risks, from natural catastrophes and climate change to cybercrime and - we're guessing - even pandemics. Every business seeks to anticipate potential threats, but in your business, it's central. What do you think is the most important thing you can do as a leader when a crisis hits?
A leader has to recognize that business as usual will not work. Crisis breeds confusion - information is incomplete or conflicts with other information. Decisions have to be made faster and with less data. If you wait for total clarity, it's too late. The environment you're in changes faster than you're used to. For Covid-19, that means health information, the economic impact, and the response by government will never be certain and will change frequently.
Q: Before your post at Swiss Re, you served thirty years in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserve including an initial nine years of active duty and a deployment to Iraq in 2005 as the Director of the Strategic Counterintelligence Directorate. Can you share some specific lessons you still use today?
When I was mobilized I was working for GE Insurance Solutions as an attorney in its commercial insurance business, which was later acquired by Swiss Re. I deployed as the leader of an ad hoc intelligence unit in Iraq. It was a mixed bag - some active duty counterintelligence officers, national guardsmen pulled out of their lives, middle-age Arab-American shopkeepers and women who returned to Iraq as interpreters, and contractors providing logistics and intelligence analysis. Our logistics and training were put together on the fly after the 2003 invasion and our mission changed when the insurgency grew in 2004. By 2005 when I arrived, al Qaeda in Iraq - now known as the Islamic State - was the chief threat.
I learned to shorten and repeat my communication to our teams. It's harder to get across complex messages when you're moving fast and your team is anxious. In order to be effective, you need to change your leadership style. Someone who is normally a participative leader has to become directive. High risk demands clear, crisp instructions. People want a leader who takes charge.
Also, stress hides. Someone you think is unaffected may be on the edge. I had to relieve a few members of my unit because their emotional distress provoked strange, even dangerous, behaviors. Even in crisis, life goes on. A key player on your team may not be coping with stress from the combination of troubles at home, the faster pace at work and the anxiety of a life-changing pandemic.
Q: What's been your most rewarding moment as a leader at Swiss Re? Your most challenging?
When people you've coached or mentored do really well, that's very rewarding. When they get recognized by others for their achievements, it's even better. The most difficult challenges are facing problems that have no happy ending regardless of your action. Driving a solution that is a bad outcome but still better than the alternative is difficult.
Q: How do you think about public perception of your brand when you have to make tough decisions?
Twice a year I speak to insurance regulators from other countries who are participating in a program with the US association of insurance regulators. All of them have heard of Swiss Re and all have a favorable impression of my company. Working for a 157-year-old global company reminds me that organizations that survive must not only make correct business decisions, they must do so honorably.
Q: Your employees love working here as we see from the strong rating on Glassdoor. How do you make Swiss Re a great place to work day in and day out? What do you do to foster employee trust and engagement? And how do you help build a great organizational culture here?
Glassdoor's rating confirms what I've seen as a Swiss Re employee - focused, talented and engaged people thrive here. In my military career, I was exposed to senior leaders who had survived a gauntlet of selections during their careers. So I have a frame of reference for excellent leadership, and Swiss Re has it throughout senior leader positions. Trust and engagement are earned with fair compensation, a continued focus on communicating with employees, and giving employees flexibility in where and how they work, which Swiss Re did long before COVID-19 through its Own the Way You Work Program.
Q: What type of people do you like to hire and why?
Twenty years ago, I heard a Southwest Airlines executive speaking at a leadership conference say "hire for attitude and train for skill." I have found that to be great advice. Some people with superb resumes and education from impressive institutions fail because they can't relate to others. I like candidates who dig in and learn the basics of your industry and their new position before trying to advance their career. A retired officer once told me, "before you can give an order, you have to learn to take an order."
Q: What are some of your productivity hacks or ways that you manage your time?
Deep focus is a lost skill for most. Forcing yourself to not look at email, instant messages or texts for two hours while you thoroughly digest facts and then actually think about the problem makes you more productive than trying to multitask. Research shows the time spent reorienting and retracing your steps on a problem after a few minutes taken to read and respond to a couple of emails substantially increases the time to competently complete a task.
Q: Any advice for burgeoning leaders?
Tell the truth. Accept responsibility for taking on difficult tasks and things that go wrong on your watch. Be humble. Your reputation for these qualities is more widely known than you realize.
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