An Interview with Kate Markham
Did you always want to become CEO, when did you realise you were on track to become CEO, and did you take any pivotal steps to get there?
I’ve always wanted to be the best that I can be but at the same time I have also always questioned my potential and how far I could go. What’s driven me is the pursuit of interesting roles in interesting companies, rather than climbing the career ladder per say. I became really interested in becoming a CEO when I realised that I was really passionate about, and had experience in strategy, change and people. I think these are the three key components that sit with a role of this nature and hence for me there was a really good, natural fit.
There were definitely a couple of pivotal steps in my career. The first one was when I got a big break at Vodafone. I was given the opportunity to set up a new business which saw me for the first time in a true leadership position. I was in charge of everything from crafting the plan and selling the business case, to recruiting my own team and managing managers for the very first time. I learnt a huge amount in that role.
I think that the second key step was joining Hiscox and coming in to lead the direct business. This was my first true P&L and it encompassed everything that a general management position has. Again, from strategy, change and execution, and people. These are the two roles that really set me up for where I am today.
Having joined an industry known for failing to hiring from outside of the insurance industry, do you believe that we are now seeing the value that external talent can provide?
I think so. I reflected on this a bit actually and I think that the insurance industry gets a lot of bad press. I don’t think that insurance is unique in predominantly recruiting from within, as if I reflect on my time trying to join Vodafone, it took me a year to be successful in picking up a job there because I didn’t have telecoms experience. I therefore don’t think this phenomenon is unique to insurance. We need to stop beating ourselves up about it.
I do think that we are seeing a growing number of people coming from outside of the industry and we are at a stage where those people build stories which will hopefully encourage others in the future. It’s not yet common place but we can think of a few. For example, at Hiscox we would talk about Bronek Masojada and Steve Langan. Steve was a high profile hire for us when he joined from Diageo with a FMCG background. Elsewhere, Shirine Khoury-Haq as the COO of Lloyd’s is another great example because her background was McDonalds and IBM before she joined Catlin. There are others in the market who have come from different places and I’m sure this number will grow over the coming years. People will recognise the skills these individuals bring and see them doing well.
What was it that attracted you to the London insurance market and how do you think we can attract others with different backgrounds and skill sets?
I didn’t know anything about the London insurance market at all when I joined. I ended up working in insurance because I fell in love with the job, and then fell in love with Hiscox, who then happened to be in insurance. It was in that order rather than setting out to find a career in insurance. Having come into the industry I think that it is a fascinating world and therefore one of the biggest challenges we face is how we get others to know about insurance and what goes on here. I was attracted to working in the London Market once I had joined the retail division in Hiscox because it deals with the biggest, most complex, most volatile, most uncertain risks — it just piqued my curiosity.
One way to tackle this lack of awareness of insurance would be to do outreach programmes to try to attract more people at an entry level and inspire them to come into the industry. We need to go out to universities, schools and the community and share some of what we do. It almost needs to be a PR campaign but it would have to be a ground-up rather than top-down marketing campaign to raise awareness of the fantastic careers you can have. We need so many different skill sets in the insurance industry. There are probably a lot of assumptions made about who can have a great career in insurance; for example you must have a maths background and then you can be part of our pricing team or actuarial team or you can be an underwriter. But actually we recruit people with all different skill sets and trying to demystify some of that would be really valuable.
To bring this to life, I went in to my son’s school earlier this year and gave a talk to his year group about different careers including insurance. I turned up with lots of pictures — pictures of a space rocket, a big ship, a basketball player, and explained that this is what we’re insuring. I also asked them questions. For example I asked them about the hurricanes last year. I asked them what they thought we were doing when we knew that the hurricanes were going to hit America or the Caribbean, what were we doing when the storms were actually happening and what we did afterwards. It got them thinking about it. I think these types of questions allow you to get into their minds and make it much realer for them. They seemed to find it fascinating. Hopefully that’s a little group of people who might consider the insurance industry one day. It’s the power of storytelling, we just have to do it bottom-up.
What do you believe to be the biggest challenge faced by young professionals in the market today?
I feel quite strongly about this and I think it’s about not becoming siloed. So the dilemma we have is that being brilliant in the London market is based on having a deep expertise because what we do is difficult, complex and uncertain. Therefore, we rely on people who have years of experience handling a line of business and as a young professional I think that it is really important that you build expertise and are seen as being great at something, whatever that thing may be. What we need later on though, if you want to go on to a leadership role at least, is people that have done lots of different things. There is an inherit conflict therefore between building expertise and experiencing different things especially early on in your career. That’s the dilemma. If we are going to have a really successful industry in the longer term, we are going to need both types of people. We need people who have deep expertise but we also need those who have moved around and done different things. We therefore need to make sure that young professionals get a chance to broaden their experience as well as building up their technical knowledge.
Who has influenced you the most in your career?
Lots ands lots of different people. I am lucky that I have worked for lots of people and I have done many different roles. At Vodafone I did five jobs in 12 year and hence I was exposed to many different managers, all with different styles of leadership. In terms of the people who have influenced me the most though, there are two that I would pick out. One was the CEO that I worked for in my last four years at Vodafone. He was the best that I have ever come across in terms of having a clear strategy for building a business from scratch, from putting together a plan, selling the plan to the senior stakeholders, and then building a team of people around him who would ultimately deliver the plan. He did it in a very compelling way. The second person I would say is my previous manager at Hiscox, who I have worked for for the last five years. He was fantastic because he really encouraged me to be me. That’s the quickest way that I can say it. He encouraged me to bring my whole self to work — I know that phrase is overused, but I’ve been on a journey at Hiscox to discover what that actually means. I was encouraged to develop my own leadership style and find a way that was authentic for me.
In your opinion, what is the biggest change the London market will face in the next 5 years?
I think that in the next five years we will see the whole market go electronic — it just has to happen. And when I say electronic I mean everything from how we source business, to how we bind, to the back-end processes in terms of the underwriting data, claims data and all of the intelligence and analytics that comes off the back of that. All of that will come off paper and go electronic in the next five years. I’m convinced of it. It’s a massive change and one that will touch every part of the ecosystem so everybody will have to get on-board, something that is just starting to happen.
What advice would you give to someone who feels they have plateaued in their learning and is looking to change roles/departments. What actions could they undertake to successfully navigate in that scenario?
Always start with your line manager — I’m not a believer in cutting out your line manager. Always, always, have an explicit conversation with your line manager about where you are, your ambitions and where you want to go. The value of that conversation is that they can help you to understand your current skills and experiences, what you’ve got to offer and what your strengths are. Equally importantly, they can tell you what your development areas are so you can work on these so you’re in a stronger position when a potential new role comes along. That’s the first thing. I have always been incredibly explicit with my managers about my longer term ambitions. If you’re open in terms of the type of roles you might be interested in and put a timeframe on them (that isn’t tomorrow) it gives your manager time to work with you to prepare you, but also gives them time to work out who your successor might be.
The second thing I’d recommend is networking. I am a massive fan of networking but I don’t do networking for networking sake. If you go back to my earlier comment of pursuing a career based on interest, I have always sought out people who I think are doing interesting things in interesting parts of a business and asked them for a coffee. After meeting them and finding out what they are up to, I’ll ask them to let me know if an opportunity ever comes up. Again, this isn’t an immediate thing but it’s incredible how often those conversations come back to you because you have planted a seed with someone.
Those would be my two key things. Wrap those with great mentoring and keeping an ear to the ground so that you hear when great roles are coming up, and you should be in a good position for future opportunities.
Do you think there are currently enough leadership opportunities for young professionals and what key factors differentiate a good opportunity from a mediocre one?
I think that there are lots and actually, more than there ever has been before. It is easier now because there are countless industry networks and employee networks that people can get involved with. The Aon Next Generation event that I spoke at recently is a perfect example of where young people are leading the way; showing initiative, developing leadership skills, presenting in front of big groups of people. All of that is fantastic experience. So I think that there is a lot of opportunity.
In terms of picking a good opportunity, I would focus on the ones that you are really interested in, because if you’re really interested your passion will shine through. In terms of the criteria, I’d check that there is senior sponsorship, i.e. there is a senior leader behind it although they should be supporting it, not running it. I think it also has to have a really clear ambition and remit to deliver something tangible, something that makes a difference, something that’s going to have an impact. Finally, if it’s attracting other great talent, then that’s something that I would always want to get involved in.
It’s very easy to tie yourself up and spend a lot of time on things that aren’t adding value or aren’t going to provide you with the platform that you are looking for. These more mediocre opportunities will only serve to be a distraction to what you are doing back in your day job so be careful to avoid these. Look out for anything that is woolly in terms of what it is trying to deliver or something that is a talking shop. Clear tangible goals and outputs are key.
If you weren’t working in the London insurance market, what would you be doing?
So I’m a mum but I’m not sure that I would ever be a full-time mum. I would probably have what is called a portfolio career, so I would be mum, plus non-executive director, plus charity worker. I started my working career in Africa working for a charity so I would love to have that as the third string of my bow. I always promised myself I’d go back to charities one day when I have more to offer them. I’m sure I’ll do this one day.
Our next Senior Leader Insight Interview will be out in September so keep an eye out for the announcement of who it will be with!