Lessons from the C-suite: We must constantly evolve to meet new challenges

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For our new series we grill senior leaders on life, business and HR

I started out…

In India, where I grew up and went to university. I spent the first part of my career there, primarily in corporate finance, before joining Prudential’s UK and Europe business in London, where I held a number of senior leadership roles.

I knew this was the right career path for me when…

I moved from my first job in a consulting firm to being in a big business. I loved the thrill of spotting the opportunity to create value and being able to follow it through to completion.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way…

It’s all about the people. There are three aspects to leadership: having a well-informed point of view on the change you seek, having the drive and resilience to stay the course, and most importantly being able to mobilise those around you. Especially as you get more senior, being able to hire and work with other leaders who want to work with you is essential.

My proudest achievement...

I really enjoy making a difference in my current role where we have integrated three distinct businesses, all operating in a highly-competitive market context. This has been tough and to see the positive effects of our strategy in the numbers and the increasing confidence of our people and the market is great.

My biggest mistake…

Recruiting someone who came with the reputation of being a star; I thought it was the right thing to do rather than trusting my gut. I am now always cautious about making sure it’s the right person at the right time to have a positive impact.

My biggest inspiration…

My mother, who is a well-known sociologist. She’s not shy about telling me exactly what she thinks of the various big companies she deals with. When I am thinking about customer issues in our business I think about how she would react.

Keeping me awake at night right now…

We are determined to improve D&I across our industry. Part of that is about fostering a culture where people feel safe and respected and prepared to call it out if they don’t. We’re making strides but there’s still a lot to do.

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be…

Ensuring we move with sufficient pace and energy to capture the opportunities technology offers to improve our propositions to customers. The insurance industry in the UK has a rich 300-year history and its longevity is due in no small part to its ability to consistently evolve to meet new challenges. There’s an opportunity for insurers to embrace new technologies such as AI, but we need to do this with pace and momentum.

I need my HR director to…

Be my trusted counsellor and guardian of our culture.

It annoys me when HR…

Sees its role as ‘serving’ the business. This results in sometimes over-efficient execution and poor outcomes that damage the brand (usually in cost-reduction situations), rather than them engaging strategically in a way that puts the people agenda at the heart of every business decision. Every HR director should be thinking: ‘my job is to create a climate where the very best people want to work here’.

More HRDs would become CEO if…

They invested in getting experience across the business early in their career – ideally with some experience of finance – and were seen as having a solid understanding of the business and the ability to shape strategy and drive execution. Ultimately being CEO is very much a people job so an HRD should have a head-start.

What I’m reading right now…

I have just started Finding my Virginity by Richard Branson and am waiting to get my hands on the new Jack Reacher. I am also dipping into Seamus Heaney’s The Spirit Level, which I bought at an exhibition of his work during a trip to Dublin. The best business book I’ve read in recent years is Shoe Dog by Phil Knight – fantastic.

My top leadership tip…

Getting the right strategy is all about the quality of input you receive and your connectivity at all levels within and external to the organisation.

Tulsi Naidu is CEO of Zurich UK

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