Clear thinker

Kate Markham, Hiscox London Market’s first CEO gives a wide-ranging interview on the job and what drives her.

Kate Markham has been appointed as Hiscox London Market’s CEO after success leading the group’s UK direct business for five years. Kate spoke to Hiscox Global Insight about the biggest lessons she’s learned during a diverse career, the importance of creating a strong culture, the challenges facing the market and how choosing the right strategy will be crucial in deciding who will be tomorrow’s winners.  

What attracted you to the London Market CEO job?

There were plenty of attractions. For the last four years of my time at Vodafone I worked in its version of the big-ticket business, dealing with the world’s biggest corporates. I found the work fascinating, so when I moved to Hiscox I was always intrigued by the London Market business.

Also, Hiscox has an amazing heritage in the London Market: it’s where the company started and it’s shaped the way the company is today. So I was keen to get under the skin of that business.

Throughout my career I’ve been attracted by strategic opportunities and I think the opportunities now for the London Market business are incredible, providing we place the right bets.  Our track record of taking the kinds of risk others don’t want to touch means we have a lot to offer in times of uncertainty.  Our expertise, capital and brand put us in a great position to be more innovative and to follow our gut instincts.

Much has been said about whether London is a ‘burning platform’, but I know the market must react or become extinct. It is rising to this challenge, but so too must all the companies in it. It’s this challenge which is really exciting to me, because I believe strategy will play a key role in deciding who are the winners.

Why have you been hired for the role?

I am not an underwriter, but we don’t need another underwriter – we already have enough good ones here. I’m a general manager with a track record in leading businesses through transformation. At Vodafone, I learned how to build profitable businesses in competitive markets, so I’m no stranger to the challenges we face here in the London Market. And, during my time at Hiscox’s UK direct business, I led a team of over 200 people through enormous change, including a move onto a new underwriting platform, which eventually resulted in us delivering a 40% increase in sales. So I think I’ve also shown how organisations can profit from change.

Our track record of taking the kinds of risk others don’t want to touch means we have a lot to offer in times of uncertainty.

What are your immediate priorities as CEO?

It’s a new position in our London Market business, but in other parts of the Group we have leadership teams combining a CEO and CUO, which have proven to be very successful.  So, one of my first priorities is to embed this new management structure within the London Market business. I also want to give Paul Lawrence [Hiscox London Market’s Chief Underwriting Officer] the space to focus on our underwriting strategy and make the most of the plentiful market opportunities we think are likely to arise from the recent very costly natural disasters. I’ll also be responsible for providing the overall strategic leadership for this business, as well as making it more efficient. As we all know, this has in the past been a challenge for companies operating in Lloyd’s.

I know immediately I can do a lot to support our team in providing continuity and stability in a changing market, helping to drive efficiency, and ensuring that we provide a great service to our clients and brokers.   

To begin, I want to get to know everybody and everything about the business as quickly as I can, so I can then work with the management team to outline a strategy for the business for the next three to five years.

I know immediately I can do a lot to support our team in providing continuity and stability in a changing market, helping to drive efficiency, and ensuring that we provide a great service to our clients and brokers.   

Where do you see real growth coming from in the next year?

We are working hard to be more responsive and to come up with innovative solutions to clients’ problem risks.  We have already started to see growing interest in FloodPlus, our flood policy for US homeowners. We have also been endorsed by the Aircraft Builder’s Council Board of Trustees to offer product recall coverage for plane manufacturers, so I think this will be another area where we look to expand. Cyber will also be a big area of opportunity for us next year, as we look to enhance what we offer to both brokers and clients. We’re keeping a close eye on the property market too following the recent upheaval caused by the hurricanes.  We are seeing what we believe to be the necessary price corrections so we will look to grow here.   

What elements do you want to bring from the UK direct business?

I think we developed a really nice way of getting people on board with the culture in Hiscox’s UK retail business, so I’m keen to explore how we can do do that in the London Market business. My business background is in managing operations and change, so I want to look at what we can do to work smarter and more efficiently. That is already starting to happen through initiatives such as the development of the Hiscox London Market Underwriting Centre, but I think I can bring a lot of experience in that area. 

How did you instill a strong culture in Hiscox’s UK retail business?

For me, culture is what guides the business when managers and leaders are not around.  You need to know that people will behave and operate every day in a way that aligns with what the business stands for, whether you're standing next to them or not.  To have a high-performing business that culture needs to be clear, consistent and universal – everyone needs to buy into it. 

We used a combination of the Hiscox values and our clear goal (Creating Customers for Life) to help us define our culture.  They guided our every move, from recruitment, to induction and training, right the way through to making decisions around the leadership table.  They weren’t just words on a page: we used them everyday and empowered our people to use them to guide their decisions, whether in speaking to a customer on the phone, or preparing strategy.  We celebrated them in our recognition and reward schemes, and used them in our performance development reviews.  A big part of creating a culture is defending the values on which it’s founded, so if something happened that was inconsistent with that culture, it would be immediately called out. 

How do you motivate people when they’re working in a challenging environment?

I think everyone in the business needs to wholeheartedly believe in where they are going and why. It’s not necessary for every employee to have the same reason for getting behind where the company is going – each person’s ‘why’ can be different.  So the first step is always to ensure everyone knows where the business is heading, and they understand why. They then need the opportunity to work out why this is motivating for them as individuals.  If you do these two things, then, in my experience, you can lead people through challenging times because they know why it’s worth it. If the goal is something everyone feels motivated about then the challenges are only bumps in the road, which we can overcome together.

Will you look to instill some of the direct business’s strong sales and marketing culture into London Market?

Yes, where it’s appropriate. That’s already happening: Mark Shaw moved from the retail business into London Market a couple of years ago to lead its sales and business development. He’s already doing a lot of sales training with the underwriters, but I’d be looking to enhance that.

Our broker survey tells us that we could do more when it comes to product innovation.  We’re already beginning to do this, but I’m keen to see how we can collaborate with brokers more to create the products and services that clients are searching for.  

How would you describe your management style?

I try to set very clear goals that are aligned with each other and then I empower people to deliver them. I spend a lot of time ensuring that objectives are synchronised so that by achieving their individual goals everyone helps the business to achieve its overall goals.

Once everyone understands what they’re meant to do and what success looks like I’ll then spend my time overcoming any challenges or blockages that prevent us from achieving that success.

The real power of strategy comes from making it happen, and what you learn during that process because you’ll never be able to completely implement the strategy you’ve devised on paper.

I’m a very present and approachable leader. I knew everyone who works in the direct business and I would sit out in the office with the teams because I wanted them to know that I’m just Kate, that I don’t do hierarchy and that people can come and talk to me if they have an issue. I’m very keen to build that same relationship with the London Market team from day one.

I’ve told the teams that I also want to come and sit with them at the Box in Lloyd’s. I’ll also be looking to build relationships with our key customers, including our brokers.

You’ve said that strategy is execution. What do you mean by that?

I learnt a lot about strategy during the first four years of my career, which I spent as a consultant. We would often go in to help companies and would inherit a strategy that contained a lot of good insights and clear thinking but which the company hadn’t been able to implement. It taught me that planning a strategy is a pointless exercise if it isn’t delivered.

The real power of strategy comes from making it happen, and what you learn during that process because you’ll never be able to completely implement the strategy you’ve devised on paper. The market will often react in a way you didn’t anticipate, so you have to tweak your plan to deliver what you’d set out to achieve. Strategy needs to be clear and logical but it also needs to be flexible so it can be changed in light of the experience of putting it into action.

You’ve also said you like to dream big dreams – what’s your big dream for Hiscox London Market?

Before I can articulate our big dream, I want to immerse myself in the business to get a sense from our people of what they think sets us apart from others. I want to hear from them about what sort of organisation we want to be and where we want to go. That has to come from within for it to feel authentic. I think we have plenty to work on but we also have a strong bedrock from which to work: a strong brand and history at Lloyd’s, great people and a reputation for being nimble and acting decisively in a market crisis.

What’s the biggest business challenge you’ve faced, and what did you learn from it? 

Last year, I led the launch of a new retail system in the direct business. But, when it went live our daily online sales numbers dropped significantly.  It probably goes without saying that this wasn’t what we’d been expecting to happen. 

I learned a couple of big lessons from that. The first is that when you make wholesale changes something is always likely to go wrong.  The second is that silver bullets seldom exist, and so the quickest way to solve an issue is to get together as quickly as you can a team of your best and most diverse brains to work on the problem. 

We formed a team consisting of people from across the business, to work out what had gone wrong and what changes we needed to make.  We worked through the issues systematically, and before long the business was firing on all cylinders again.

When you make wholesale changes something is always likely to go wrong. Silver bullets seldom exist, and so the quickest way to solve an issue is to get together as quickly as you can a team of your best and most diverse brains to work on the problem.

You’re very keen on hockey. How has it helped shape your life?

I played a huge amount of hockey when I was young, and represented Scotland as a schoolgirl before playing at university. I met my husband through hockey and it’s always been a huge part of my life. Now, hockey once again dominates our weekends, as both my son and daughter play. They’re both addicted to the game: when I get home from work I’ll often find them practising in the garden.

I took a break from playing when I had my kids but I’ve started playing again for enjoyment. I got drafted into the Hiscox team last year because they were short and they’d heard I used to play.

How would you have felt taking the final shot in the penalty shootout that won the GB women’s team the gold medal at the Rio Olympics?

 

I’ve been involved in many penalty shootouts and they are utterly terrifying. As you step up to the ball you feel an enormous weight of expectation to not let your team down, but then you just focus and commit to doing your very best. But the feeling after you’ve scored is wonderful, the sense of relief is amazing. I can’t imagine how she must have felt to score the goal that won the gold medal. But the keeper set it all up by saving a penalty – she’s just as much a hero.

How else do you relax?

I love the outdoors and I love running. I’ll run up to four times a week and always out in the countryside. Every Saturday morning I’ll go for a really long run on. I find it immensely relaxing, but I also do a lot of my best thinking when I’m out, so I’ll often work out a lot of problems while I run.

I was brought up in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, so I love being out in the fields and hills. We have a dog so we take her out for long walks, and I also enjoy horse riding. 

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