Turning massive structures has always proven to be difficult. Oil tankers are the perfect example of this and it would be natural to assume that steering a multi-billion dollar organisation must be equally difficult.
But what if it doesn’t have to be?
On March 17, 2020, Barbados’ healthcare system would enter into a watershed moment as it experienced its first 2 cases of COVID-19. Within 2 weeks in a quickly devolving scenario, Barbados would enter into a limited curfew on March 28th and then in an unprecedented move, the Government of Barbados placed the country on full lockdown in the wake of surging cases from April 3rd, 2020.
By then Sagicor General Inc., one of the largest insurance providers in Barbados and a regional player, had already opted some weeks before to ‘Close to Protect’ while remaining ‘Open to Serve’. Over the next few months, businesses and other organisations would toggle between remote working, modified in-office arrangements, attempts at e-commerce and other less face to face means of engaging customers. In contrast Sagicor General stayed a course that had been set very early in an experience that was still unfolding as new information came to light. How was the organisation able to adapt so swiftly? How were decisions made when many believed there was insufficient information to act? These questions and several others relating to the organisation’s approach to strategy and the way in which the Human Resource function was central to its execution are discussed in an interview with Mr. Keston Howell, President & CEO of Sagicor General Insurance Inc. and Mrs. Paula Walcott, Assistant Vice President – Human Resources. We share edited excerpts from the interview below. To watch to the full interview, check out our YouTube page https://youtu.be/3TMnbgXlcpM
The impact of COVID-19 on strategy
Shane: Did COVID impact your ability to execute your strategy? If so, how?
Keston: In one word, I’d probably say no. I could frame that response in the context of Sagicor’s strategic objectives, which we established in 2017.
When our management team was looking to craft a strategy to deal with the new environment, we focused on four key objectives: We wanted to engage our employees. We wanted to delight our customers. We wanted to improve efficiency and it was important for us to preserve capital. In terms of achieving those objectives, there were some, some key pillars we felt that our strategy would be built around.
First and foremost, we wanted to develop the right culture.
First and foremost, we wanted to develop the right culture. That was important. We also felt that we needed to do some work in terms of developing our team leaders so that they would be enablers of the right culture that we wanted to promote. Communication was key for us in terms of building that culture. So in terms of leadership development, as well as our interaction with our employees, communication was key in terms of consistency of communication and meaningful communication. We also felt that we needed to empower employees because they would be integral in helping us to find solutions to the problems that the organization faces. In the environment in which we are operating digital transformation was also a key part of that strategy. So in the context of what I’ve just laid out, when the pandemic came, I would say that our strategy enabled us to pivot very quickly to deal with the important aspects of what we needed to do at the time. The priority at that time was really to protect our employees as well as to protect our policyholders.
The work that we had done from 2017, really facilitated not only our ability to pivot quickly, but to operate relatively seamlessly as we did that pivot to what I suppose we now refer to as a remote environment.
So in that sense, I would say it didn’t inhibit strategy, but I suppose it enabled the work that we were doing to come to the fore to really enable the organization to respond in a positive and meaningful way.
Shane: Are the changes you made permanent, institutionalized changes or temporary?
Keston: Definitely permanent as far as permanent can be in the context of COVID-19 be for any business. It’s important for us to be dynamic in terms of response to the environment. But we do feel that the changes that we have implemented or the strategy that we’ve laid out provides a very solid foundation for us to deal with most environments.
If we look at the remote work environment, what we have been able to do is transition to a remote model relatively seamlessly and the data that we collect, because we try to be a data driven company, has demonstrated that that change really has not negatively impacted (1) our employee engagement or (2) our customer experience. The data we’ve collected demonstrates that both in terms of our net promoter scores for customer experience, as well as our employee net promoter scores in terms of employee engagement, have in fact increased during the period that we’ve been operating remotely. I think what we need to do now is to recalibrate the remote model as we eventually transition to what could be described as a new normal to see how that model would operate in that type of environment. It has enabled us to improve our efficiencies because we’ve been able to consolidate office space within the Sagicor group, and we need less square footage, so that’s an obvious benefit. Additionally, notwithstanding that we are operating remotely, we are communicating far more frequently, which I think has benefited the organization as we have moved to that kind of hybrid.
Shane: Following from the above, how did you determine what took precedence in your change efforts?
Keston: Our people always come first. I make the point that if you don’t have a happy employee, then we won’t have happy customers. Everything we do revolves around our people. Employee engagement is important to us. Fortunately, we have in Paula, an HR professional who thinks very strategically and has enabled us as we develop our strategy to really build a culture and activities around employee engagement, so that people are the very centre of what we do and really, I don’t see that changing at all.
Our people always come first.
We were first movers in the context of remote work – before the governments across the region decided to lock down, we had made the decision given there was so much unknown at the time, to operate remotely. Our tagline was ‘Closed to protect. Open to serve’. We were able to do that because of the work that we had done before. So people, both our employees, as well as our customers are at the very centre of what we do, we really believe that.
Shane: Were there any changes in the strategic value of certain competencies or roles as a result of Covid?
Paula: We would have established as a part of our cultural transformation 10 leadership principles that would guide behavior for all of our people leaders, regardless of where they sat to serve the team. If I look at those 10, certainly we needed to draw a lot heavier on some of them after the start of the pandemic.
Agility would have come to the fore. Our principles include ‘fosters communication’ and ‘inspires trust’. Imagine everything you could have done in person pivoting then to a remote world and why those particular things had to come to the forefront. The good thing about it is that we had already started that process.
Educating our people leaders about what was required, what was important and how they too can help us to support the strategy by prioritizing people became a lot easier. Therefore, it’s not necessarily that we had to find new competencies. It was about digging into who we were as a people, who we have said we would be as leaders and then prioritizing accordingly.
Educating our people leaders about what was required, what was important and how they too can help us to support the strategy by prioritizing people became a lot easier.
Leadership in a Pandemic
Shane: Leadership was tested arguably like no other time in recent memory. Did the COVID experience impact the way you lead? If so, how?
Keston: I really can’t think of any one change. Very early when we transitioned and I made the point that we communicate more frequently.
One of the things I established very early on would have been weekly management meetings. Prior to that we probably had met maybe once a month and then in the various departments we met maybe more frequently. I thought that given what was happening and the fact that we were operating remotely it was very important for us to be in regular contact and just give updates in terms of what’s going on as well as give people an opportunity to share what the experience was like.
At those sessions we encouraged the team leaders to have similar sessions with their respective groups. So I think in the early days, it really facilitated a closeness that in an odd way we didn’t have before we migrated to the remote work environment.
Now that things have settled down, we still have maintained that structure. We’ve just kind of adjusted the frequency as we begin to be a little more comfortable in the environment. So if I were to identify one aspect of my leadership style, I would say it would be communication. The communication was far more frequent than it would have been, certainly in terms of with the management team pre-COVID.
Shane: There has been quite a bit of talk about trust recently. Trust in the information being released about the efficacy of vaccines, trust about the motives for decisions being made. Do you see trust within the organisation as something requiring attention and if so how was it impacted at the beginning and throughout this COVID experience? How do you build trust especially in a remotely and largely unstable and unpredictable environment?
Paula: Trust is foundational. It’s absolutely critical. The thing about trust is that it’s gained or lost one interaction at a time.
The thing about trust is that it’s gained or lost one interaction at a time.
The relationship that we have with our team is built on several interactions and all those moments that matter. If you don’t have that pre-crisis, so pre-COVID, if that did not exist and was not a focal point, our business would not have been able to pivot the way we did. You heard Keston talk about how seamless that transition was. That happened because trust was embedded into the culture that we were building.
And as I alluded to, it’s actually identified as one of the leadership principles. The fact that we’ve prioritized that specifically as something that we had to do before helped us when we made the change. What becomes difficult in a remote environment is where you’re now onboarding new people into your culture and feel like you’ve lost some of those moments that matter. So we’ve been very, very intentional about how we onboard, even how we recruit in this environment. Our onboarding into our culture happens from the moment you accept our offer. A member of my team who supports the Eastern Caribbean has not physically been on a plane since COVID to travel. During that time we’ve onboarded at least four people, including a people leader and all of them, every one of them has said, this is the best place they have worked. They are obviously looking at their own experience, but they can also gauge it from the indicators of the team members in their locations, what they say about the company and what’s prevailing because the culture really will speak for itself and it can live remotely if the foundation was already set. The difficulty that some organizations may face is that they are now trying to build this from scratch without having the benefit of investing that level of work and intentionality before.
Mental Health and Strategic Resilience
Shane: Have you personally or among your team members noticed any mental health impact as a result of the pandemic?
Paula: I would say definitely. That’s because uncertainty breeds anxiety even for the most resilient human being. We’re all different individuals, but we’re facing very similar circumstances in the sense of COVID being an unknown. So in the initial stages, we got in front of this. We reached out to our team to find out who actually had comorbidities provided they wanted to share that with us. What that allowed us to do was the minute that the first cases came to Barbados, we were able to prioritize who could get out of the company and start to work remotely. Even before that happened, because we were proactive, we were able to get our asthmatics and our pregnant team members to work remotely before cases were even recorded in-country.
Things like that we were able to do because we reached out and were proactive. Now to link that back to mental health, understand how the additional impact would be on someone who is hearing all of this rhetoric around a virus that we don’t know much about and the impact specifically to people who are vulnerable. This was now heaping some additional anxiety on top.
That’s why we prioritized that group very early on. We also took the decision to extend our employee assistance program. Previously we had given a finite amount of sessions per year, per employee or per employee and their family members. We extended that and we made that very clear. We also onboarded an additional employee assistance program provider who was able to serve Barbados, the Eastern Caribbean and Trinidad because of the virtual employment environment that the provider was able to comfortably operate in.
There were several things we did to further support. When we finally closed our doors, but remained open to serve, our HR team took the entire staff list, split it up, and it was our job, part of our actual job every day to make contact with the people on our assigned lists and that was so we could check in. A lot of times people prioritize those who had to home-school, and the single parents. However, some of the research is coming back saying that people who are single, live alone and have no kids can be more vulnerable to mental health challenges because of the isolation.
A lot of times people prioritize those who had to home-school, and the single parents. However, some of the research is coming back saying that people who are single, live alone and have no kids can be more vulnerable to mental health challenges because of the isolation.
So potentially, that one person they spoke to outside of a customer that day was an HR person which is fine because we were very intentional about how we were going to support the team.
Shane: Reflecting on the past 3 years, and I’ve intentionally gone beyond the start of the pandemic, based on what you know now, what could you have done differently if anything to be more resilient in the current environment?
Keston: I think the key takeaways for me are the importance of (1) employee engagement and (2) building an environment where people feel safe emotionally and are able to share without any fear of judgment in the context of their own vulnerability. That is easier for some and more difficult for others. I think if you build an environment where people feel safe doing so, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be to the CEO or even to the HR, but in terms of the smaller groups. We can see in our teams that we have developed a culture where people feel comfortable in doing that. Therefore there are various levels of support for persons throughout the organization.
I think the key takeaways for me are the importance of (1) employee engagement and (2) building an environment where people feel safe emotionally and are able to share without any fear of judgment in the context of their own vulnerability.
It has proven invaluable as we move into this kind of environment which allows persons to operate, but feel connected and feel valued. So in that sense, I really think the work that we’ve done in terms of building our employee engagement, empowering our team leaders to understand what are the key competencies that are required to treat with the whole concept of leadership in a changing environment has reaped dividends, which in my mind goes far beyond coping with the pandemic. I am also one of those leaders who understands that as people go on their journey they move on and I think we can feel a great sense of satisfaction that persons may leave and go on to other organizations as they fulfill their own dreams and would look back with fondness relative to the way in which we equipped them to handle different scenarios or environments.
Shane: It’s sometimes argued that Barbados doesn’t have diversity issues. At a time when more organisations have been focusing on diversity throughout the organisation, COVID has disproportionately impacted some groups where those with child or parent care for example, oftentimes women are faced with care responsibilities during these difficult times. How has the business responded in the face of this?
Paula: I always say to people, when you bring up diversity challenges, where is the inclusivity? My focus is always more on inclusivity. Let’s have that conversation. How are we allowing these people you have identified to participate and show up as their best selves in the process? So for us, that was a factor.
We would have made allowances for persons who have elderly parents at home to continue to work from home. We’ve made allowances for people who have to deal with homeschool. I myself have to deal with it once we’re doing online school. We have made those allowances, but we’ve also taken it a step further because we have identified we’re trying to allow them to be able to straddle and balance their life. The question was ‘Are we helping them with these skills?’ That’s where we’ve had several sessions where we’ve had professionals come in to talk to our team members. We’ve addressed all kinds of topics including ‘mom guilt’. That is, we found that people started to struggle with trying to balance self-care, homeschool, dealing with an elderly parent, and still deliverables for their job. We’ve had a trained psychologist take our team through guided meditation and how to include that in their daily living. We have taken the conversation beyond just identification because with diversity, you identify yes, these are the groups that exist, but then what? We’re making sure that we’ve put actual steps behind it that allow us to really support these persons having identified who they are.