Fostering a Continuous Improvement Mindset: 7 Questions for QBE North America’s CEO Todd Jones

QBE’s Todd Jones reflects on his career, market trends and what it takes to build a talented team to not only work with but also grow alongside.
By: | June 28, 2021

When Todd Jones graduated with a degree in business, he wasn’t necessarily looking for a career in insurance.

 “I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be in the insurance business,” he said. “When I finished college, I went into the banking industry.”

But for Jones, banking wasn’t the right fit. Putting his ear to the ground and interviewing across industries, Jones eventually found himself working for Johnson & Higgins, a brokerage firm that was acquired by Marsh.

“I really didn’t know much, if anything at all, about the insurance industry, but I was going to work for an insurance broker. I really didn’t even understand what an insurance broker was at that point in time, but they had a training program that was very attractive to me.”

He hasn’t looked back since.

Thirty-two years later, Jones is the CEO for North American Operations at QBE North America. He sat down with Risk & Insurance to discuss his career, some key market trends and what he believes makes a great team to not only work with but also grow alongside.

Risk & Insurance®: You had an unconventional start to your career. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Todd Jones: I feel like the most fortunate person in the world that I was able to find this industry, just because I’ve had opportunities that I’m not convinced I would have had either in other industries or in staying the course I was on in my banking career.

I think one of the things I learned along the way would be that people tend to be very focused on the next thing, and they seem to live a lot of their day-to-day asking themselves “What’s next, what’s my career progression going to look like? What’s the next role or box that I can aspire to be in?”

Sometimes, those sorts of thoughts crowd out the here and now. What are you doing right now with the role you’re in?

I’ve been really fortunate, because I’ve spent so much of my career focused on what was right in front of me, that it actually allowed for other things to happen. My sense is that because my focus has always been on making sure I’m doing a good job with whatever role that I’m in, I’ve stood out as someone who’s a contributor and part of the team.

R&I: Let’s talk a little more about your here and now. What is it like working for QBE? What has made this company so special for you since you started in 2019?

TJ: There’s a number of things. What I’ve really enjoyed is this company has what I would refer to as a high level of organizational self-awareness. If you’ve ever studied the idea of emotional intelligence or just have an understanding of it, self-awareness is a key aspect of individuals who have a high level of emotional intelligence, and I think organizations can operate that way as well.

QBE really understands itself. It has a clear view on what it’s good at and therefore what it’s not good at, what it wants to focus on and apply maximum effort to, and what it does not. That’s allowed for a greater degree of focus on what’s important.

“Being within an organization, you’ve got to trust that this journey that you’re on, in terms of your individual career within a company, is with the right company that will put your career on their shoulders, create future opportunity — if that’s what you want — and interesting challenges — if that’s what you want.” — Todd Jones, CEO, North American Operations, QBE North America

From my experiences in a lot of companies, the “what’s important” and “what matters” can be very different, depending on what part of the company you work for. And so, I’ve been really impressed with how aligned QBE is organizationally on what we need to focus on.

Then the other piece that I’ve been really impressed with is the talent and the level of commitment and caring that exists within the organization. I will say before I joined QBE, I had a really small window into the company. I certainly knew the organization from my prior life working for a broker but, obviously, didn’t know as much as I have now learned since joining the organization.

There’s an impressive level of depth, in terms of talent, just across the enterprise. The emphasis around caring is unique. Now, it may exist in other places, but I think it is unique to QBE, and you can really see a deep level of caring across the organization in the things that we do in the community, the ideas we’re continuing to evolve around how to deliver better client service, around how to deliver better client interactions.

It’s really energizing, and as a result of that, it’s making a difference in terms of our business performance and also the culture.

R&I: How much do you think that the company culture has played a role in helping retain some of that great talent you are seeing?

TJ: Culture is definitely a big contributor to it. But I think an individual’s commitment to an organization is framed by so many different inputs. I genuinely believe that while compensation is important, and rewards are important, they’re not the most important thing when people think about their level of commitment to an organization.

It’s more about people asking themselves the question: is this a company I wake up every day feeling proud to be a part of? Proud to associate their own personal brand with the brand of the organization? Are they doing interesting and challenging work that is making a difference, and are they recognized for that?  Are they working with a group of like-minded people who can challenge them, respectfully, and push them to be the best version of themselves that they can be?

Then there is trust. Every organization in our industry goes through ebbs and flows, whether that’s on performance, whether that’s on strategy.

Being within an organization, you’ve got to trust that this journey that you’re on, in terms of your individual career within a company, is with the right company that will put your career on their shoulders, create future opportunity — if that’s what you want — and interesting challenges — if that’s what you want.

When it comes to the talent you keep, the question is, can we create an environment and a culture and an organizational direction that is a great home for all types of people, no matter how they think about their career or how they want to live their work life.

R&I: What are the areas of business that QBE is focused on? What are some of the areas QBE’s talent are able to get involved in?

TJ: In North America, we’re in a number of businesses. We run the organization in three distinct business units — our crop business, alternative markets and then specialty & commercial, which encompasses A&H, aviation, retail, property, casualty, business, a growing and high-performing financial lines business, a trade credit and surety business.

And so, as you can imagine, depending on where you sit within the organization, the priorities may look a little different. But the common thread is around customers and really being laser focused on how we’re advancing the customer experience.

Right now, in the market, there’s a heightened sense of anxiety — prices are going up, capacity is constrained, we’re operating with a pandemic as a backdrop to everything. People are more on edge, and in some cases, some of our program partners are delivering what is probably perceived as bad news, whether it’s around pricing or program design. You’ve got to manage through that. And the way you manage through that is by being transparent and clear around what to expect.

At QBE, we want to be really clear on strategy, we want to be really clear on appetite, and where we are from an underwriting perspective. We also want to be really clear on how we think about serving our clients, how we think about differentiation, what are some of the things that we’re trying to do to really add value to these relationships, beyond a renewal premium.

R&I: You mentioned the market and this heightened sense of anxiety. Are there any other trends or challenges that you’re currently seeing?

TJ: There are a couple of things I’d share, and none of these I would necessarily say are new. But they’re trends we’re paying a lot of attention to.

The first is this constant focus on raising the bar around performance expectations and continuous improvement. There’s this mindset around getting better and providing better customer service, providing better pricing tools, providing better insight for our customers, to make better buying decisions — a continuous improvement mindset.

It’s not new, but it’s something we’re super focused on.

Another area that has been around for quite some time now is this competitive landscape, where lots and lots of organizations are looking to invest. It could be Insurtech or technology companies, it could be private equity firms, it could be other investors that see insurance as an interesting place to invest, because they see some inefficiency to solve.

When we think about what a competitor is today, we have very different competitors than in the past, and we need to pay attention to all of them and really understand not just the competitive threats but also the competitive opportunities available. We have to think about how more broadly we can evolve as a business.

One of the really unique things about QBE is our group in Australia, which is called QBE Ventures. It’s intended to be our window, or avenue, into all of the really interesting stuff that’s happening outside of QBE. Some of that “stuff” can be around businesses that are being created to disrupt parts of the service chain or how we operate.

When I mentioned earlier about organizational self-awareness, this is a great example. QBE Ventures is keeping us on top of what’s happening and where we can improve. You have to be self-aware in order to embrace the idea somebody outside of your organization may know more about something than you do.

R&I: What are some of the ways you and the team at QBE are looking ahead?

TJ: Sustainability, climate change, and just the broader ESG agenda has become really front and center.

We’ve just launched our QBE Sustainability Self-Assessment tool, which we’ve created to give customers insight on their own sustainability agenda. It was created with the goal of giving them an understanding of where they are and then giving them ideas and tools on how they can make progress on the broader ESG agenda.

This was a collaboration within the organization of underwriting, as well as loss control, and other parts of the company coming together to create something that’s very client-focused and also addresses a critical need. Some companies don’t know where to start. Our hope is this will be a tool that will give them the insight they need to start.

R&I: Finally, what are you most excited about as we enter the second half of 2021?

TJ: Easy. Seeing people, I’ll start with that.

But in all seriousness, we’ve adapted to the work-from-home setting, and the world continues opening up a little bit more, so I am really hopeful that we can begin to migrate to a hybrid work model. I don’t think it’s ever going to go right back to where it was in February 2020. But I am looking forward to seeing people again and having those interactions.

I’m also excited for that continuous improvement mindset. We’ve got so many awesome things that are going on across the organization, whether that’s around technology investment or modernization activities that we’re doing, or whether it’s around some of the growth strategies that we kicked off at the end of last year, and they are really now hitting their stride in some of the businesses. I’m excited to see that effort pay off.

And I’d say, finally, we’re welcoming a new group CEO. Andrew Horton joins the company on September 1, and he’s somebody I’ve known for quite some time and knew quite well at his former employer, and we’re really excited about him joining the company. I’m personally excited to not only have his leadership but also his intellect and his style within the company, because I think he’s going to have a really big impact. &

Autumn Demberger is the content strategist at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

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