It is in difficult times that we identify the best managers. In good times it is much more complicated to find out which insurers have outstanding executives, since the whole industry tends to show strong figures not only in terms of sales but also in terms of profit. According to me an outstanding CEO should gather—among others—the following skills:

Humility: Managing an insurance company (of any kind, midsized or large) is a complex mission and nobody can achieve great performance alone. Therefore CEOs need to structure their organization optimally and find the right people for each strategic position. The choice of adequate human resources is particularly important in core areas such as risk management and IT since the main business of insurance consists in managing different types of risks and analyzing risk requires mastering data qualitatively and quantitatively.

Vision: The most important key role of a CEO consists in defining a relevent strategy, communicating it appropriately at each level of the hierarchy and delegating optimally the implementation of corresponding actions. There are many ways to define a strategy but there are not many executives combining outstanding reasoning ability with a deep vision of the future. Understanding (or feeling) what the future holds is a strength that only a handful of CEOs in the insurance industry have been able to demonstrate in the past decade.

Focus: As soon as a long-term strategy has been determined and appropriate goals defined, CEOs should keep focused and avoid changing their perspectives if no external factors alter significantly their actions plan. Of course, a high level of reactivity is necessary when parameters influencing a business model become very volatile but overall insurance companies that have meticulously evaluated all external factors through different scenarios do not generally need to change drastically their plans but will be just required to proceed with tactical adjustments. “Focus” means also being determined to achieve long-term objectives. In other words, CEOs should avoid getting trapped in a logic consisting in guessing only what the company figures will be at the end of the next financial quarter. This is certainly one of the most difficult constraints today’s CEOs in all industries have to face: impatience of shareholders.

In summary, a great CEO should be at least a great visionary, demonstrating outstanding skills at finding the best people and appointing them where they can bring the highest value for the organization. In addition, he/she should demonstrate a strong ability to articulate logically a strategy and to communicate it appropriately down the hierarchy levels. Finally, he/she should keep a strong focus on established plans and long-term objectives.

Since the beginning of the financial crisis back in autumn 2007, I have been thinking many times about which financial companies will get out of this crisis as the winners and the losers. As months have passed, we have seen many CEOs in the financial services industry being under pressure, stepping down or even being sacked. Even though it might be too early to give awards taking into consideration that the economic crisis we are currently experiencing could generate additional surprising news, I strongly believe that Zurich Financial Services is one of the insurance players that have managed to take advantage of this difficult and uncertain environment so far. According to me, its CEO, James Schiro, represents a good example of an executive demonstrating a high level of humility, vision and focus.

This blog has been reprinted with permission from Celent. Nicolas Michellod is a senior analyst in Celent's insurance practice, and can be reached at nmichellod@celent.com.

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