AmGeneral employees celebrating their successes at a recent sales conference.
New CEO of local insurance company talks about leadership today
By SANDY CLARKE
As the number one private car insurer in Malaysia, AmGeneral Insurance Bhd (AmGeneral) insures one in every six cars in the country. It is one of the leading general insurers in the industry which underwrites policies under its two well-known brands, AmAssurance and Kurnia Insurans.
Backed by one of the largest banking groups in Malaysia, AmBank Group, and Australia’s largest insurance company, IAG, AmGeneral employs over 1,500 employees that operate out of its new head office in Menara Shell as well as its 32 branches nationwide.
Also making up the company’s extensive network is their partnership with over 7,000 agents, which serves as the main distribution channel for sales of the company’s insurance policies.
Under the leadership of new chief executive officer (CEO) Derek Roberts, AmGeneral has set itself a clear goal in helping to make Malaysia a safer place to live and work.
Its plans for 2016 are resolute – AmGeneral strives to create a stronger customer-centric foundation on which to build a balanced portfolio of products that will best serve the needs of its growing customer base with ever-changing expectations.
The man at the helm
For Derek Roberts, the imperative lies in effective communication to strengthen the bonds between the AmGeneral team and its customers. The accomplished insurance executive began his professional life as a chartered accountant, with the last 13 years in insurance, holding an array of roles at leading organisations in Australia, UK, the United States, South Africa, and now Malaysia.
AmGeneral’s chief executive has clearly learned a lot from his global business experience. There’s a strong, genuine desire to continually improve customer relations – a passion borne from Roberts’ habit of self-reflection, which he believes is a vital component of effective leadership.
Roberts’ perspective on insurance today
“In any jurisdiction, I think insurance is more of a ‘grudge purchase’ than anything else. We have to have insurance from a motor perspective, and I think you see very low penetration rates around home insurance, which shows the perception people have towards insurance when you don’t have to do it,” he says.
“Educating the community on how insurance is going to help them – in this perspective, reducing risks – is very difficult, because most people take insurance expecting never to claim.
“The real challenge is showing how insurance helps an individual, a family and/or a business manage some of their risks, and changing people’s view about how important insurance is from an overall personal perspective.
“The ultimate test is when we start to get higher penetration rates in things like home insurance when people start to see the value in it and how it can help them through their life’s journey.” – Derek Roberts
Short Q&A with Roberts
What are the key qualities to have for someone who takes on a leadership role for the first time?
Constantly challenge yourself. Review situations and see if you could have done things differently to achieve better outcomes, or the same outcomes more efficiently.
Here’s the thing, I don’t think we as leaders (new or veteran) can say we get everything right every time, and so there’s a lot of pondering and pontificating over the weekends to ask if there might have been a better way to deal with a particular situation, or if a better outcome could have been reached. To be able to view things from different perspectives and look at ways to improve, is absolutely crucial.
2. Courage and openness
Don’t be afraid to ask team members for feedback – get different points of view. You will get things wrong more than right if you believe you are always getting things right.
It should be noted that leaders should never be too proud to ask for advice and seek different viewpoints regardless of position; I think it’s quite important to have the confidence and a good network of people around you to enable you to do that.
It’s also valuable to have discussions with peers and people in your team about different situations, because often a small comment from them will open up a gem of an answer in terms of how you could’ve approached a particular situation differently.
What is one of the biggest challenge facing leaders today?
Attracting and retaining talent. At AmGeneral, this is a continuous and ongoing area for us to work on. We have come a long way to get to where we are today. We have included young and vibrant people into the leadership team, which includes secondments from our partner, IAG, to ensure that we can bring fresh ideas to the table.
The end goal is to create a high-performance culture which would involve attracting the right kind of people with the right kind of attitude for this industry.
Just last November, we signed a memorandum of understanding with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, to sponsor four of their final year Actuarial Science students for an internship programme. The high potential students will then be sponsored for a Financial Sector Talent Enrichment Programme with Bank Negara and offered a full-time internship and employment with us.
What can graduates do to ensure that they stand out as top talents to be hired by leading companies such as AmGeneral?
Develop a can-do attitude. There are a lot of skilled people out there and it can be difficult to distinguish yourself from the pack in terms of skills.
It’s the positive attitude, the extra effort and the willingness to step up to the plate that will get you noticed and provide you with a lot more opportunities. That’s how you stand out from the crowd.
New CEO opens up about plans for the company
Employees and their leadership
For AmGeneral’s new CEO Derek Roberts, a central aspect of ensuring continued success and improvement is the empowerment of team members across the entire organisation.
“I think we’ve got it right in pockets across the business where we have seen people making decisions of their own, particularly in the digital space which is a new and an unchartered territory for this business. It’s this kind of empowerment that we are keen to cultivate and encourage in the company,” he says.
“It takes a lot of leadership courage to let go and to allow people to make decisions even though some of these decisions may fail. If you give some broad boundaries and there’s a level of trust, and you’ve got the right capabilities, it’s a lot easier. But to bed that across the whole organisation, those are the companies that are really successful, the ones that can actually empower their employees.”
The company culture
Empowerment of employees is reliant on a strong culture within an organisation, and part of Roberts’ success as a leader is in his openness and encouragement in inviting employees on all levels to share their thoughts and ideas with regard to the direction of the business.
He says, “If an organisation doesn’t get the culture right – the can-do attitude, the competitive spirit, the inquisitive approach – then I don’t think as an organisation you’re going to excel. Empowering people to challenge the status quo, to speak up when they don’t feel comfortable on an issue, and to see the customer as central to everything they do, is absolutely crucial.
“The other aspect from a culture point of view is to ask how can you move a lot quicker and empower people to make decisions and implement them a lot quicker. For a big organisation like AmGeneral that has been around for a long time, that’s often a test and a real challenge, but we’re starting to see successes where we have allowed people to run with an idea, particularly in the digital space where we’ve started to expand our reach on social media.”
The business model
Roberts’ passion for providing unparalleled customer service is underpinned by the purpose of AmGeneral’s business model, which is geared towards its employees as much as its customers.
“We’re really focusing on what we can do to make Malaysia a safer place,” he says. “That’s not just in terms of, say, houses not being flooded, it’s about raising awareness on the roads, giving a peace of mind to customers who have a strong organisation to support them, and it’s about providing our employees with a safe working environment both physically and mentally. That’s the core of what we’re about – to help Malaysia become a safer place.”
Unique selling proposition: Customer service
Roberts is very clear about the importance of improving customer relations. He says, “The key behind customer service is the awareness and the attitude of all 1,500 people within the organisation. Hiring of employees is vital, making sure you’re not just hiring for capability but for attitude as well.
“We know that we haven’t always gotten it right where our customers have been concerned, but we want to make that right and we are serious about building a customer-oriented organisation. We now have a team in place to focus on customer experience and to ensure that as an organisation, we are clear that customer service is fundamental. This includes enhancing and improving the services and experience for our agents, brokers, banks, franchise and partners.
“Besides that, we use regular customer feedback to talk to our employees, to explain to them where the service is either right – and celebrate that, or where it’s wrong – and see what improvements need to be made.”
Plans for the years ahead
AmGeneral’s plan of action sees a range of key focus areas marked for development in an effort to ensure its vision of becoming Malaysia’s most trusted insurer is achieved.
Although the insurance industry has faced difficult challenges in recent years, primarily due to a soft economy and the implementation of the goods and services tax, the AmGeneral team have used those challenges to bolster its position within the industry, and to find new ways of enhancing customer experience.
Roberts has been able to put his vast experience to good use in bringing together a team from two distinct cultures to achieve the aims and objectives of the organisation.
He says, “In all the places I’ve been, there are subtle differences in how business is done and how businesses are run, so you have to be able to adapt your style and the way you operate and interact with people.
“AmGeneral’s business has come together from Kurnia Insurans and the AmAssurance business, and bringing those two cultures and ways of working together has probably been the most challenging aspect, but also the most rewarding as we began to see people of all different backgrounds working together as one.”
AmGeneral has put in place a robust three-year strategy that strives to fulfil key initiatives to grow their top line and to focus on their customers and employees.
In regards to customer relations, the company is intent on ensuring the best experiences for people who have traditionally viewed insurance as a ‘grudge purchase’ – something that Roberts understands, yet sees as a vital part of AmGeneral’s work to engage with customers on the importance of insurance in helping to manage their day-to-day risks.
The three-year strategy is targeted to position AmGeneral to become Malaysia’s top insurer when the insurance market is liberalised; a move that is expected to be announced by Bank Negara this year, starting with motor classes.
“As AmGeneral deals predominantly in motor insurance, it becomes crucial that their new pricing models, product strategies and marketing approaches are able to meet market demands.
Roberts is unfazed by the change to the industry. He says, “our preparations for detariff are on track and we are confident that we will be ready to take the lead and compete when the market opens up.”
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Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.