How prepared is the insurance workforce for a digitally-driven future? Are insurers equipped to attract new, more diverse talent? And how does it all feed into a sustainable future for the industry? Eric Joost on why innovation is non-negotiable—and why inclusion must be a personal priority.

Highlights

  • As insurers try to address an increasing talent gap, they must look to new sources of talent. In addition, with the shift toward more digital experiences, there are fewer entry-level broker or agent jobs available, which has far-reaching consequences for how insurers attract and develop new talent.
  • Having more diverse workforces is both a moral and business imperative. Having institutional policies is not enough; inclusion must also be a personal priority.
  • Four areas could become opportunities for the industry: improving the client experience; addressing the economic gap in insurance, especially around catastrophe coverage; increasing capabilities to cover intangible risks like intellectual property and cyber risk; and leveraging smart product extensions to innovate.
  • The insurance industry has managed well without much innovation—but in order to create an industry that attracts top talent and continues to be relevant, innovation is a must.

Inclusion and innovation, with Eric Joost

Eric Joost is the global head of property and casualty at Willis Towers Watson, the third-largest insurance broker in the world. Last week, Eric Joost explained how technology has changed the insurance industry, and the broker channel in particular—and how gains in efficiency must be balanced with context and nuance in customer service.

In this episode, he shares why diversity in the workforce requires individuals to lead by example. He also highlights four key areas where insurers can capture opportunities—and how many small steps can create change.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I want to go back to a point that you made [in our last episode], which was that at the end of the day, risk is about people.

And I’d like get to this idea of the broker’s skill set, which I imagine has changed substantially over the past 30 years, and recently with a lot of the technological shifts that we’re seeing today. I wonder if you can comment on the general talent pool and where some of the talent gaps may be in preparing for the future. Where are the opportunities to fill in those talent gaps?

When I first came in the industry, if you wanted to progress and get promoted, there was a lot of emphasis on, “you need to understand facets of the business, many of them.” Yes, at some point you needed to specialize and become deeper in one topic or the other, say a product or client relationship management, things like that. But you never really got very far in your career without having some balance there.

One of the things that has happened in the last 20 or 30 years, a lot of people, myself included, found this path of specialization was very effective to getting ahead. And it was really helpful––the clients loved it because when they needed a specialist you were there, you understood things much more deeply than the person who’s managing the whole piece of work that is going on. And so that balance got a little out of phase.

And so the main thing I’m working towards is, we have to spend a lot of time today to encourage specialization, but also teach, and train and reinforce the need for a holistic understanding of (1) our business and how it works; and (2) how to become better at understanding the client’s business in the right context.

So we spend a lot of time on that and we’re not perfect and no one else in the industry is. But it’s just something that got lost over the last 10 or 20 years. If you want to talk about people at risk, there’s only one way to have that conversation. And it requires you to understand how to talk to the client in terms they understand about their own business. And so that’s a real challenge.

There are other areas. We have an age / demographic issue. I’m in my early 50s and if you look at the industry, there’s a lot of people at my age and maybe 20 years older, and they’re aging out of the industry. There is a talent gap, roughly in that kind of 35-, 40-year-old range.

And then broadly, we have a tech maturity issue. And even in the millennial category, the millennials are great on some of the technology but not the technology we use in the business. So we’ve got to work on that.

So what do you do about it? I find the good news here: I spoke to a group of grads today, so by definition millennials, and the challenge is also the opportunity. This is exactly what we need to do to make the industry interesting.

If we believe it’s hard to bring younger people into the industry, there’s a wonderful opportunity here, as the industry shifts around and needs a more holistic or balanced business person in that space. Number one, that’s really good. The roles are shifting around a little bit.

And then the next thing, is if you if you think about inclusion and diversity, and you just take the gender dimension. (There’s obviously a lot more to it.) I mean, most of my career, I don’t think I’ve ever competed with a woman for a job. So almost half the population has really not been in this game, and if you start to think about that more broadly, you can really open a pool of talent––and you can obviously go down other dimensions of inclusion and diversity.

I’m very passionate about it as a moral, right thing to do. Everyone needs fair opportunity in the world. But if you just focus on, selfishly for our industry, it’s a very interesting thing to think about where you can bring people in. There’s a great need for wider thinking and it can be complemented by all the specialist expertise that exists here. And people can come out of the next five or ten years in a very different place.

That is fascinating. I’m kind of blown away by the fact that you’ve never competed against a woman for your job. That’s going to take a while to sink in.

Someone asked a question and I actually couldn’t answer. I mean I thought I had, but it’s nothing I set out to do. It’s kind of the ultimate standard of bias and not just our industry. Some areas of the world I think have gotten past it, some are still struggling with it.

Talent is easy: you need people and it’s just sort of like math, right? Why not. Why not look at the larger portion of the population? And then act differently as an industry than what I would have observed in most of my career.

What’s interesting to me, maybe not so much in the corporate-level work that Willis Towers Watson does, but maybe in the more consumer-facing tiers, is that there is very much the shift towards using more technology. [In our last episode], you talked about a semi-digital experience, so many people who will start their journey online or through mobile.

That affects the entry-level jobs—as a broker or agent—that I think many people used to rely on, especially if you are a student or if you were trying to juggle a few jobs. That was one place that many people looked to, and especially given some of the structural inequities at play, that that many women may have looked to. With that shift, what impact does that have on diversity within the broker workforce? And as you move up the scales, what effect does that have?

That entry-level piece is an issue that we’ve been in an active debate on, internally, for four or five years, for precisely the same issue. Typically, the entrance to this industry was through something like that [an agent or broker role] and that type of stuff is going away. We run a graduate program and it has some international diversity to it and that’s one small way to pick at the issue and make some improvement.

But to some degree, what we’re finding is getting at this through different avenues. We think about recruiting a little bit differently. We do some of the traditional things and I think if you look at our recruiting classes they would demonstrate to you a whole lot of diversity, well away from perhaps what the generation I’m in—between 50 and 60 years old, right. So, number one, we’re getting it at that way.

I think number two is, we talked about disruption [in the previous episode]. We have this sort of fancy term “insurtech,” which is code for technology. We’ve found it to be a great place to project what we’re doing as an industry into a different cohort of people. At least in the insurtech space, I actually find a lot more diversity than what I find in the traditional tech space.

I was at a dinner last week with the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, and somebody asked the same question but was a little less assertive. They said, “How do we change the perception of this industry so we bring more vibrant young people into it, more diversity?” And really they asked the question, “Mr. Mayor, how do you help us do that. How do you, as leaders of a city do that?”

And he had a great answer. I don’t know if you know him at all, but it was a little blunt––it was it was appropriate, but blunt. He just said, “I can’t help you with that. You have to help yourselves––but you’ve got to start looking at where you’re bringing people from.”  Look at the intake points, because if you’re chasing around the banks and the investment banks, the consulting firms and the law firms, around the same subset of universities in the United States, you don’t get the point. He said you need to look at some of these other sources, whether it’s universities and other sources of talent. They’re vibrant and they’re willing to work with you––but you need to engage with them and you’ve got to make that move.

I think that’s certainly a part of it. And to some degree—I mean we say this about everything—it’s a leadership issue. We have a lot of things internally around diversity and it’s a very big deal to us. But it’s lots of small things as well; it’s how roles get filled. Even when I assemble information-gathering groups in the company, for example, on the thousands of insurtechs––everything becomes that activity around diversity.

It’s about trying to bring some rough balance to any equation you’re in. Again, I’ll just focus on the female piece of it. I’ve noticed over a period of time that I can take a great room of 10 male brokers––and I’ve also worked at an underwriter, the same thing applied at underwriters––and as soon as I start introducing highly skilled female talent into that interaction, the interaction gets better. Everything from the simple stuff of the men behave a little bit better, but basically there’s a little competition in the room and it’s different. And people start getting sharper, their ideas are crisper, they’re less disruptive. And I just believe that in spades.

Now, I need to be going around to all sorts of leaders at my level and the levels around me, to encourage that, because in some cases it’s natural, and it’s organic, and it’s very easy for people to do. And in other cases it isn’t. And you just need to help encourage that in people so they do that.

Most people don’t wake up saying, “I don’t want a more diverse world. I don’t want a more talented world.” But they’ve never always had examples around to how to behave and actually make progress. And so you’ve got to show them the way. You’ve got to do the big stuff, you’ve got to do the institutional stuff, and you’ve got to do the little stuff every day. And as soon as people see that, it becomes easier for it to be natural to them.

And then the last thing I would say, is that all that may sound great, but in order to compete in a world that’s very competitive for people, we’ve got to go out and compete with a lot of industries. We have to understand why we’re interesting and different and what we might be able to provide people that others can’t.

That’s terrific. And I love that anecdote about introducing women into that group and how that dynamic changes. And, from what I gather, becomes a more productive or more effective environment?

Productive in the sense of the ultimate business outcome. Efficient from the point of view that the group tends to work more crisply together. And it’s just a very good thing. I didn’t force it on myself, it just sort of happened. And then after a period of time, I just started quietly demanding it. And I’m sure a lot of people are on this topic. I’m probably far from perfect.

But the point is you’ve just got to get in that fray. Don’t assume that my corporation will do this for me, my HR team will do this for me, there’s a department that helps me with that. Those all might be true. I still have to do it myself and lead and then leverage and use all that other stuff as a resource—not as an assumption that it will be taken care of by somebody else, because it won’t.

I like that a lot: as much as it is institutional and there can be policies and procedures, again at the end of the day it comes down to people. So the fact that you are advocating for that is, I hope, making a big difference in your organization.

Is there anything that we should talk about that we haven’t? I feel like we’ve really just scratched the surface on a number of really interesting topics.

The one part I would mention just a little bit, is “What’s the biggest challenge and probably opportunity for insurers?” Sometimes we, the industry, can talk about ourselves and then as a result of that, we end up talking about the things that are measurable across a whole industry.

So the quick answer on a lot of these things is cost, and that’s true. We have to become more efficient as an industry, particularly the insurers. But the thing we miss in all that is that we also have to make the client experience different. And while some of that will come out in the disruptive space, one of the biggest challenges is how do you manage a cost? We use cost ratio, but that’s code for 40 percent of every premium dollar, 40 cents on the dollar, goes for administration of insurance––and that’s distribution, that’s the insurers running themselves, settling claims things like that. That number is just far too high.

There’s good reason why it got to where it is—every part of the value chain plays a role. But that number is going to fall. We’ve also got to take the client experience and actually improve it dramatically. And so it’s something that is very, very difficult to think through, because you think of costs falling and experience going up. As an industry I think we still kind of suffer from the belief that we can only do one thing. If we want more and better client experiences, costs go up. If we want lower costs, then client experience, they don’t want to talk about it.

But just look at what technology does to every industry. It does both: it brings costs down and it makes the experience better. Now the application of it might be very different in insurance than a lot of other things. But if you think widely about, if you think deeply about who the clients are, what they really need and what problem are you solving, you’re going to get some interesting outcomes.

And if you flip it to the opportunity side, the flip side of this is that the industry talks about having to be more innovative, but we do a good job at talking to each other from a pulpit and we really don’t explain what that means. And I’ll just rattle off some things that I was thinking about before we got on this call, but most of this I’m going to go through is not necessarily new stuff. It’s adjacent to what we’re doing today.

This isn’t go and invent a product. This is, do things that are 20 yards to the right or 100 yards to the left, or connect it to what you do today. So here’s the list:

  • First, client experience. Just make what goes on today better—and there are lots of good ideas around that.
  • Second, the economic gap—the gap between the actual loss that was possible and who actually went about getting some insurance and some protection. Think of a big storm, say it goes through Houston and then the financial press will talk about, “Well, there’s a $40 billion insurance loss and then there’s $80 billion that people that should have had insurance but didn’t have, so the whole loss is $120 billion.” So we can start to go after that creatively—the economic gap.
  • Third, intangible assets. Most of the value in the world is intangible, yet we do very little in this business to help protect intangible assets. We do very well in protecting hard assets, the tangible things. That’s how the business grew up: boats, planes, buildings. But what do we do about intellectual property? We are in cyber risk quite a bit, but there’s a lot of opportunity. Insurance is there to protect value––so if we’re in business to protect value, how do we deal with what is the vast majority of the value in the world today?
  • Fourth, smart product extensions. There’s lots of really smart product extensions, where technology and the access to data will open up insurers’ ability to take on more risk without being risky to the insurers’ balance sheet. Things like: business interruption is getting better, contingent business interruption, things around environmental insurance, and there’s more and more.

But the challenge for the industry sometimes, and the leadership of the industry, if you look over not the single year––because the last two years were pretty rough in terms of storms and natural disasters––but if you look at the arc over 10 or 20 years, you can be very successful in this industry without forcing yourself to innovate a lot. There’s a lot of people that, for their company and for themselves, have made a lot of money and that’s terrific.

The point is, if you really want to make this an industry that 20-year-olds want to come in and work in, and make it new and different, you’re gonna have to innovate. And the good news is, most of what I went through isn’t about sending a rocket, go to the moon and sell insurance. These are things that are all around us. So, that would be the one thing I’d leave you with.

There’s a lot to be done and we need to work on the motivation throughout the leadership of the industry to do it.

That’s fascinating, Eric, and I wish we had more time to talk about some of those things. Unfortunately, we’re coming up to the end of our time, so I just wanted to say thank you very much. This has been a fascinating conversation.

Thank you for having me, I really enjoyed walking through all this with you. Hopefully it resonates with people.

Summary

In this episode of the Accenture Insurance Influencers podcast, we talked about:

  • The importance of insurers’ broadenening how and where they look for talent. More than a moral imperative, it makes good business sense—especially with new skill sets and innovative ideas in demand.
  • Personal responsibility in fostering diversity and inclusion within the workforce. Institutional or corporate policies are a good starting point, but it is short-sighted to abdicate responsibility to an organization.
  • Four key opportunities in insurance: improving the client experience; addressing economic gaps; better coverage of intangible risks; and developing smart product extensions.
  • Innovation as a key to the industry’s ability to attract and retain top talent, as well as to continue to capitalize on opportunities to grow market share.

To learn more about innovation and talent:

This episode wraps up season one of the Accenture Insurance Influencers podcast. If you missed our previous episodes, catch up with Ryan Stein on how self-driving cars challenge today’s insurance laws; Lex Sokolin on the AI-driven future of insurance; and Matthew Smith on how technology is both helping and hindering insurers’ anti-fraud efforts.

Many thanks to our listeners and guests for making time for the podcast. If you’d like updates when season two launches, subscribe on the platform of your choice (below). Thanks for listening.

What to do next:

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