Nimbla’s CCO discusses the unique trajectory of her insurance career, and what she’s learned on The Insurance Coffee House Podcast.
Elizabeth Jenkin has cut a unique and stratospherically successful path through the insurance industry, spending 19 years at AON, where she ended up as Chief Broking Officer for EMEA. After a senior leadership position as a Lloyds Broker at RFIB, Elizabeth joined Nimbla just before the Coronavirus lockdown. During the course of this interview with Insurance Search CEO Nick Hoadley, Elizabeth discusses how her work in Women’s Football has influenced her leadership, her transition from corporate insurance into insurtech, and a career characterised by hard work, leaps of faith and constant learning.
NH: [Introduces Elizabeth.]
EJ: You pretty much summed up my career, I don’t know what to add. I came out of school, went to university and dropped out so I haven’t come across the normal route. If you like, I took the stairs rather than the elevator, and went into customer services in insurance. That’s where I started. Which was a good way to cut my teeth really, to actually understand what the customer likes. Then I was transferred up to Canary Wharf with that company to go into underwriting, and I underwrote commodities for a number of years. And then Aon knocked on my door and said ‘Do you want to do broking?’ And I thought ‘That’s actually a really good idea’, because I wasn’t a very good underwriter! I liked to say ‘Yes’ as much as possible like brokers do. So it probably wasn’t going to be a long-term career for me. I didn’t get found out at the time, but who knows what I left behind in terms of underwriting performance. Then I went to Aon and started as a junior broker, and just worked my way up through the organisation and stayed there 19 years, and my last role was as the Chief Broking Officer for EMEA. And I loved my time there, I loved Aon. It was during a very transformational time, with Greg Case being there as well so I learnt a lot about how you can take what was basically a cluster of different companies – I think it was about 800 acquisitions that Aon was made up of – and unite that. Which is no mean feat and he did the most fantastic job.
I then had a reflective moment really; ‘Do I stay with Aon for the rest of my career, or do I take the leap and move somewhere else?’ The opportunity at RFIB came up, and that was particularly interesting for me because it took me into the world of reinsurance, which I really didn’t know very much about. It took me into the world of strategy, which I had been doing at Aon, but I hadn’t really been able to spread my wings on it. So I was able to learn reinsurance. I was able to implement some good strategy, along with the CEO at the time Stephen Beard, who was fantastic. I really enjoyed working with him. We then managed to sell the company to Tysers, another Lloyds broker, and the CEO stepped down and so did I.
I was going to take six months off, and I thought ‘Great! I’ll spend some time with my family’. And then Nimbla kind of knocked on my door and said ‘Would you be interested in coming to speak to us?’ and I said ‘Yeah ok, why not?’ And then literally just before lockdown I agreed to go and work with Nimbla. So strangely I haven’t met a lot of the team I’m working with. I did do some technology projects at Aon. I really enjoyed them but they were some of the most challenging things I got to do in a big organisation. That was what drew me to Nimbla. I thought it would be really interesting to see how startups work. How it works getting investor funding, how it works scaling a business. I’m learning that very quickly but also bringing the experience (we were talking about this a little bit earlier) of what a big company looks like to Nimbla as well. So as we’re scaling it making sure we’ve got the right systems and operations as well as the right go-to-market strategy. So that’s where we are at the moment.
NH: It could be argued that it wasn’t the best time to start working with a tech company, but it sounds like it’s going really well.
EJ: Yeah, there probably was a moment about a month in when I thought ‘Oh lord this might not have been the best move!’ But actually if you’ve got the right product the product wins through any storm. Flemming who’s the CEO there, his brainchild was single invoice insurance. He was working on something else actually and looking for something and couldn’t find it, and thought ‘Alright I’ll build it then’. And the demand for it – the SME sector is so badly served in terms of trade credit – it tends to be very expensive for them, it tends to be very complicated, lots of red tape, it can be very confusing. So we take all that out and they can pick and choose what they want to insure very easily and digitally, and within 3 to 4 minutes get their invoices covered. Whereas before I used to take a week to two weeks of to-ing and fro-ing with your broker and your underwriter. And it’s a frustrating sales process both for the broker and for the underwriter, and for the business actually. So it’s nice to be able to cut out all of that noise.
NH: Do you work directly with the policyholder or does it go through the broker?
EJ: It depends. We have a number of distribution channels. Brokers are one of our distribution channels But the way that we’re able to work with them is we give them a specific link which they are able to use, and all their customers use the link and we’re able to feed back to the brokers’ Bordereau what their customers bought and the relevant commissions around that.
NH: I imagine with everything that’s going on in the world, brokers are looking for a simpler process, and if they can cut their costs, then I’m sure it’s a good time to be in the market.
EJ: Yes, one of biggest channels for us is what we call ‘general brokers’, I’m not sure they would thank us for that phrase, but they’re able to bring our product to our customers, and trade credit’s always been one of those ones that’s a bit complicated ‘I might trip myself up, I don’t really like it’, so this actually ticks the boxes, Particularly at the moment because of the government backstop. The government has given the insurers the state-backed guarantee, so we’re having a moment in the sun if you like. Finally after 25 years or something of working in trade credit we get two weeks in the sun! But it is a really good product for SMEs. It helps with funding, it helps with cash flow. We’re able to get it to the front line quickly and easily with the general broker channel. They are clamouring for it.
NH: What do you do personally on a daily basis that helps set you up for success?
EJ: I don’t think there’s going to be anything too exciting in my answer to this I’m afraid. I want to be honest about it. I make my bed that is one thing that I absolutely do every morning and I make it in a very specific way, and I think there is something about that that sets me up for the day. The cushions have to be right and the covers have to be right. I do tend to read several different news channels in the morning; The Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times. Just to see what’s been going on in the world in the last 24-hours. So I don’t tend to watch the news, I don’t watch much television. I have a cup of coffee, obviously, I have my skinny flat white in the morning. I check my to-do list. Although I work for a tech company I actually still love a bit of paper and a pen. At the end of every day I create my to-do list and then I check it the next morning and I prioritise when I’m going to do that day. I use a very simple ‘1, 2, 3’ system. One I really have to do and get it done by lunchtime, and two and three can wait for the rest of the day or even possibly tomorrow. I like to have breakfast with my children where possible, which has been a joy of lockdown every day. But as and when things ease a bit I’ll probably do that two or three days a week, and that keeps me nice and grounded, it sets me up nicely for the day. You know, check my diary. I don’t meditate or anything like that. I’ll sometimes go for a run, probably about three times a week, but it’s more likely I’ll do that on the weekend than on weekdays.
NH: What’s been your biggest achievement so far in your career, and your largest setback and how did you overcome that?
EJ: I thought a lot about my biggest achievement and I wouldn’t particularly say it’s any role that I’ve had. I narrowed it down to two. The first one is being able to raise a family and still keep a meaningful career. And I do think that is an achievement, I think very often professional women forget to pat themselves on the back about that. And my other achievement is to start my own Not For Profit company, Lift As You Climb, which is a women’s network that goes across all industries and all generations. It’s about three years old now, and when I see some of the conversations that go on through it that enable women to further their careers, that’s way more exciting than a lot of the day-to-day things that I could be doing in insurance. So I think those two I would narrow down as my biggest achievements.
In terms of adversity or setbacks, I’m not really sure it’s a setback, but at some point, and I think It was when I was raising my family, I moved away from front line client work, and in doing that it somehow made me less valuable in an organisation. I didn’t have any pound notes attached to my head. That being said, I was able to go and work on strategy, I was able to work on leadership skills, I was able to work on project management, I was able to work on technology. So actually it skilled me in a really different way. But at the time I remember it being quite an anxiety-inducing moment. ‘I’m going to be losing value because I haven’t got that group of clients’. I’m not sure I really dealt with it, it’s just I’m skilled in a slightly different way from other leaders. So I’m not channelled in one area. I’m able to bring enough to be dangerous in conversations about technology, about leadership about operations, about risk and compliance. These are things I’ve touched on throughout my career in a meaningful way. I’m not just that person who can broke marine insurance who happens to have got to a leadership position, and I think that makes me stand out. It was a bit difficult for three or four years. I was wondering what my value was, but in hindsight it stood me in really good stead. It makes me a much more versatile leader.
NH: When was that ‘eureka moment’ when everything clicked into place and you realised you could be successful?
EJ: I think for me, it was when I stopped behaving like a man. As I was growing up in the industry, I was surrounded by a male cohort and I felt I needed to behave like them in order to get on. And actually Aon invested in me to go on a year-long female leadership course, and it was during that year that I really found my own voice and felt that I was good enough. I didn’t have to pretend to be one of the boys. I emerged from that not different, but I had a different view of myself, and I wanted to be viewed differently. It’s that age-old adage ‘I am enough I don’t have to pretend to be somebody else’. I think that was my eureka moment. I think that was when I started to do things in my own way and plough my own furrow. I can’t thank Aon enough for having put me on that. I had a senior sponsor called Dominic Christian and I was the guinea pig to go on this leadership course called Top Flights, run by a company called The Pipeline, with the fantastic women who run it, Margaret McDonagh and Lorna Fitzsimons. Over that year, I learnt and grew so much. And I can take that to Nimbla and be looking at the investment in people, not just young people. I wasn’t young when I went on that, I was in my early forties. So it’s never too late to start learning and adapting and finding your own way of doing things.
NH: Have you had an influential mentor who has had an impact on your career?
EJ: The one who stands out for me is Sue Campbell, who’s currently the CEO of Women’s Football. As you mentioned at the beginning, I sit on the leadership board of the women’s FA, but I actually met her on this leadership course and heard her story about her career journey. She’s unique and I don’t use that word lightly, I think it’s overused. She has this incredible steely tenacity, she is such kindness running through every vein, she’s got a razor sharp intellect, and she’s got a true passion for what she does. The thing that I’ve learnt from her is the power of Team, and how everybody plays their part. She celebrates all of her team, she doesn’t have politics, she just looks at the goal, and then individually hires the best people with the right values in the right ethics to execute on that strategy. She’s now – I’ve never asked her – but I guess she’s in her early seventies, and she’s got more energy than the Duracell Bunny and she’s so focused.
And it’s not just about football. She would put it that we can make more social change than governments by keeping women and girls in sport. It reduces their propensity to self harm. They have better relationships, reduced numbers of eating disorders, all of those kind of things, better mental health, that come with playing sport, good coaching, being in a team. It’s been remarkable to be part of it, I’ve loved it. It’s a really good example of playing the ‘long game’. It’s not always a sprint. Some things are a sprint -hackathons are a sprint- but some things are slower but purposeful. It’s been a real lesson for me watching the growth strategy, which we’re just coming to an end of, we’re announcing the next one later this year and that’s being rolled out, and the work that goes into setting strategy. I’m there as a non-exec to challenge them, but I certainly learned a lot too.
NH: Over the next three to five years, how do you see the insurance world changing, and what should business leaders be doing to adapt to that environment?
EJ: Honestly I’m not sure that it’s going to change a massive amount in the next three to five years having been part of it for the last twenty-five. Everyone says ‘Next year is going to be the year of disruption’, but I’m not sure it is. It’s not set up to be disrupted: there’s so much compliance. When you’re the little guy standing on the outside looking at all the big organisations, it’s difficult to get things done because quite rightly there’s so much risk and compliance and due diligence etc. I think there’s a lot of hurdles to doing things differently in the industry. I’m keeping a very watchful eye on the Lloyds blueprint, I think there’s some very exciting things in that if John Neil is successful in pulling them off. And there are individual companies as well who are doing things around technology. Particularly Brit, I think they’ve got some great people, who are really pushing the boundaries of how we can put policies together and bringing data into it.
When I think about this question I came back to Nimbla’s values which are trust, care and courage, and I think we need to trust people more. In big organisations people talk about wanting to be innovative and wanting to do things differently, but there is a fear around doing that as well, a fear of failure. So trust the people with the ideas. It’s okay if you don’t always win. Care about your staff, care about your team, especially at the moment – goodness, who knew this was coming – and the power of the team as I’ve seen with Nimbla, it’s so important at times like this to work effectively together. And courage to try new things. And courage to say no, to say yes, to try and see things differently.
I also think from a talent point of view, look wider and deeper than the insurance industry. Some of the best people I’ve hired in have been from outside the industry, and they bring a really great and new perspective. Actually not all the answers come from within the industry. It’s helpful to have an understanding of it, but if you’re hiring intelligent people, they can pick it up pretty quickly so look wider and deeper than the immediate talent pool. I think we probably brand ourselves quite badly in the insurance industry and the press don’t do us any favours either. I can’t remember who I was talking to but they said we should get rid of the word ‘insurance’ and just call it ‘risk’, it sounds more exciting. I guess for the school-leavers and university-leavers ‘insurance’ has a connotation with it. I think it’s telling those stories that will inspire people, and the big brands are getting much better at it if you look at LinkedIn etc. It’s looking a lot more appealing and a lot more diverse as well. That will absolutely help.
NH: What is your favourite success quote?
EJ: “The harder I work the luckier I get.” – Samuel Goldwyn Meyer. It’s so true.
NH: What is the number one thing you see holding back insurance professionals?
EJ: I would say, don’t be scared of technology, technology can enable you. What I see a lot of the time is that there’s a lot of fear around it: ‘it will take my job’, ‘it’ll cut me out of the loop’, ‘my customer won’t value me anymore’. I see the opposite in what I now. I think technology can make insurance professionals look great. We know that there’s a layer of the insurance industry that doesn’t want to embrace technology, but now they’ve had their arms put behind their back, and it’s working, customers are getting their risks placed. Lloyds have shut their room for the first time in their history, but things are still happening. Maybe not in the best way every day, but things do still happen.
NH: How do you drive forward the industry standards at Nimbla?
EJ: We pay all valid claims. That’s what we’re there to do. If something goes wrong we pay the claim. Risk and compliance aren’t considered a chore at Nimbla, it’s at the heart of what we do. The risk and compliance people sit around the table with the leadership team for all big decisions. It’s very much integral in what we do, so we’re protecting our customers along the way. And the third one is around diversity. We’re constantly challenging ourselves around making sure we have a diverse range of opinions when making decisions in the business. So I’ll give you a good example – we’re going to pick three charities that we’re going to donate to every time somebody buys an invoice and we wanted the customer to have the choice, so we put it out to the whole company: ‘What are your nominations?’ and the most fantastically diverse amount of nominations came in. If we’d been a panel of two or three people just trawling the internet for charities, we’d never have come up with that. They [the charity choices] then run through our values as well as well, because they come from our people.
NH: What does Nimbla do to develop talent and maximise their potential to be successful business leaders?
EJ: I think the first thing to recognise that not everybody wants to be a CEO or CCO. But you can turn it around: we would want everyone at Nimbla to be leading their own careers. With our help and with our encouragement. So rather than being leaders of the business if you like, they lead themselves. We give every employee at Nimbla – regardless of the role that they’re playing – an amount of money that they can spend every year to invest in their own up-skilling. I really like that because having worked for big organisations, you only had what was in on offer in terms of training. That could be from Excel spreadsheets to all sorts of other things and they might not be enough places for you to get on to it, and it might only be run twice a year. Which can be really frustrating if you really want to know about these things. So we give every employee a certain amount of money and they’re able to go and spend it in any way they like, as long as it’s on some up-skilling or training. We don’t over-manage people. We try to employ people who are quite self-motivated, quite self-managed, so we don’t have a heavy management structure. Obviously we set strategy, we set direction and everyone knows what their role is within that strategy. It works. We measure things like how many introverts and extroverts we’ve got in the firm. So we make sure we haven’t got a lot of people shouting the loudest who get heard. We make sure we’ve got a mix of people involved in decision-making, and we make sure that everyone has had their say. I think we get much better decisions that way.
NH: If you woke up tomorrow with all the knowledge and experience you have but your company wasn’t there, how would you start your career again?
EJ: The first thing to say is I’d be ok. I’d be really gutted if Nimbla wasn’t there when I woke up. I’m assuming all the people would be there, that’s what matters. I’d probably use that as a moment of reflection and say, ‘Okay, well that came to an end, what’s next for me? Is it going to be insurance?’ which goes back to something I said earlier – I’ve worked hard on my transferable skills – on strategy, on risk and compliance, on diversity, on leadership, which I could take to any industry. That said, my heart is in insurance really, I’ve done 25 years and I would like to stay there. So, what would I do? Think do I build something new from scratch, or do I join another organisation and think about how I can help them?
You can listen to the original podcast here.