Brokerage Ops the December 2022 issue

Driving a Talent Advantage

Q&A with Sue Davies, Chief Human Resources Officer, Markel
Sponsored by Markel Posted on December 1, 2022

Leader’s Edge caught up with Davies to discuss how to attract the world’s top talent and think differently about recruiting and retaining best-in-class employees.

At a time when many companies are losing people, Markel continues to add them, with more than 1,000 hires in the last year. How are you doing this?
I think it starts with recognizing the special importance of talent to our business. I’ve worked in other industries, and I can definitely attest that insurance, in many ways, is a uniquely people-driven business. People are so central to the products and services we provide. And so I believe companies benefit from having a value proposition and a culture that expressly recognizes the importance of people. At Markel, for example, our culture is clearly defined by a document that dates back to 1986, called “The Markel Style.” It establishes an atmosphere where managers and leaders encourage employees to reach their full potential, as a natural part of the way teams are managed. That really gives us an advantage when we’re recruiting new employees, but equally, if not more importantly, in retaining our existing talent.
Recruiting talent remains a challenge for industries worldwide. In fact, 82% of respondents to The Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers’ Q2 quarterly market survey said “recruiting and developing talent” was a top-three challenge. What can the industry do to close the talent gap?

People often focus on the competition within the insurance industry, but I think part of the solution is for the industry as a whole to better tell our story—explain why insurance is an exciting business to work in, and the diverse career opportunities that exist.

When attracting employees, it does help to have a strong company culture demonstrating a commitment to community. And I think that’s increasingly important for all of our leaders. It’s also smart to recruit from a broader pool of talent, looking for more non-traditional candidates, and utilizing new and diverse sources of talent. And relative to retention, we certainly invest a lot in career development and make sure that we also think carefully about workplace flexibility. That’s obviously become a much bigger issue over the last couple of years.

With so much competition for talent, how can the insurance industry use its unique story to its advantage?
Many people don’t recognize the major role that insurance plays as a facilitator of the future. Insurance is central to advancing pretty much every industry, and businesses can’t make major advances without risk. Insurance makes it possible for businesses to develop new technologies, new approaches, and better, more sustainable ways of doing things. We find that our employees are very much energized by the central role insurance can play as the backbone of the economy and the future economy, and are excited by the variety of opportunities day in and day out. They’re working with people in virtually every industry—construction, technology, life sciences. So I think that sheer diversity and variety is an important part of the story we need to tell.
Our view is that creativity is best achieved through diversity of experience and diversity of thinking. Diverse perspectives are important in achieving the kind of innovative, tailored solutions that are increasingly critical in addressing customer needs.
Sue Davies, Chief Human Resources Officer, Markel
How can the industry better stand out to young and diverse pools of talent?
Telling that story, especially to people who might not otherwise be aware of what goes on in the insurance industry and the opportunities, is critical. Until recently, Markel has tended to draw much of our early career talent from colleges and universities that have strong risk management programs. Today, we’re trying to really broaden that out and look at more of the non-traditional candidates, graduate hires and experienced hires—from a broader range of backgrounds and perspectives. Our Markel Specialty scholarship program, for example, really tries to build students’ awareness of the industry’s opportunities through partnerships with colleges and universities. It gives tuition aid to rising college seniors at partner schools. We’ve also expanded our internship program, which is a great talent pipeline and a good way to educate and share more about the insurance industry. And finally, we’re also training experienced candidates from outside of insurance. For example, we have a veterans program which offers insurance industry training to those who are transitioning out of the military. I think attracting talent from all those different angles definitely helps.
Why is it important for companies across the industry to more often consider non-traditional candidates for jobs?
As we look forward, the world is going to have ever more complicated challenges to try and solve. I believe that’s going to put a premium on innovation and creativity. And our view is that creativity is best achieved through diversity of experience and diversity of thinking. Diverse perspectives are important in achieving the kind of innovative, tailored solutions that are increasingly critical in addressing customer needs. That’s especially true in a business world that’s rapidly becoming more diverse. Think about the increasing number of women-owned businesses and the growing number of minority business startups. Companies that are embracing that kind of gender and ethnic diversity are going to outperform in the modern world. Also, as a global company, our employees are increasingly serving on global and cross-functional teams. So leveraging diversity, and developing stronger cross-cultural capability, really enables us to better understand and provide solutions to our clients.
Markel does considerable work in the D&I space and is a sponsor of the global Dive In Festival, promoting diversity and inclusion in the industry. Talk about how D&I in recent years has changed the paradigm of what talent is in the industry today.

Diversity and inclusion are critical to us. For the last seven years, Markel has been a global sponsor of the Dive In Festival. We also support the diversity-focused events of the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation, and have been a signature sponsor for a number of their conferences.

We’ve also done a great deal within the company itself. Our global D&I steering committee ensures that senior executives are directly engaged with our D&I strategy. We’ve engaged employees through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and an international inclusion network. We work to embed D&I in all of our talent and business practices, including talent sourcing and leadership development. We’ve definitely seen some success over the last few years in terms of expanding our recruiting pools. Our hiring of individuals who identify as an ethnic minority is currently running at about 34%, up from 26% back in 2020. So we’re seeing some encouraging results, and we’ll continue to build on those with additional initiatives.

What would your advice be to companies that don’t have such expansive learning and development resources?
There are multiple approaches to leadership development. Technology tools can definitely help. There is so much available now online, whether it be coursework, audio books, or videos. Coaching is also a key tool for development. Leaders can help employees extract learning from their everyday work—what’s going well, and where they could make adjustments and corrections. So training people to be effective coaches can be helpful. Similarly, mentoring—both traditional mentoring and reverse mentoring—can help with training and developing employees. Another idea is to encourage employees to serve in leadership roles in the community, on boards, not for profits, or on leadership teams in ERGs. Those are ways of developing leadership by giving back and supporting those different organizations. There are a number of ways that you can get creative without too high of a price tag.
How does having purpose as an employee and a presence in the community play a role in Markel’s recruitment and retention?
We believe that commitment to the community is critical to attracting and retaining great talent. Across the insurance operations at Markel, we are broadly and actively involved in efforts to improve the world and the communities that we live and work in. And we really try to support those organizations whose missions align with ours. We undertake annual corporate giving, but also encourage employees to give of their time and donations through matching gift programs. We provide volunteer time off, where employees can take a paid personal day to support a cause, either individually or with a work team, on something that’s important to them. As the world is opening back up, encouraging volunteering as part of team building, and making sure that we put the power of philanthropic activity in the hands of our employees, helps reinforce our culture and provides that broader sense of purpose.

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