Be Careful What We Wish For

We’re tech people. We’ve always thought we’re tech people so insurance people wouldn’t have to be tech people. And we’ve always felt like we were alone in that thinking. But the tide may be starting to turn.

The February edition of Best’s Review ran an article entitled, “Generation Next”, contending that the traditional focus of the insurance industry on technical competence (though not limited to technological competence) may be too narrow to carry it into the future. As Limore Zilberman, a consultant at the executive search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, put it:

People were hired because of their technical prowess and because of their technical acumen and their technical contribution … [but]  the landscape of leadership is going to change. The expectations of leadership are going to change. Our technical talent is not necessarily well-poised to take on broader leadership capabilities.

That seems about right. To put it another way: With all the bigger fish insurers have to fry, technical talent may be a red herring.

Leaders Lead

In arguing that the insurance industry focus on specialists needs to broaden sufficiently to include generalists in leadership positions, Zilberman elaborates on the characteristics of the people she believes are better suited to fill the leadership roles of the future:

They’re agile, they’re adaptable, they’re quick learners, they’re good problem solvers, they’re forward-looking … Those types of people can be put at the helm to manage the lower ranks of the organization that might carry more of that technical expertise.

At risk of seeming to quibble with terminology, we take issue with Ms. Zilberman’s notion of managing the lower ranks. (We even find lower to be a tad condescending; although, we do take her point.) We take issue because leaders lead. Managers manage. And those two jobs, along with their respective responsibilities, are quite different.

But that difference in perspective on vocabulary notwithstanding, Ms. Zilberman and the article are correct. The insurance industry does need to think more broadly. And it does need to embrace well-rounded, critical-thinking generalists as its leaders.

If continue to favor leaders whose strength are technical (linear) thinking, as opposed to general (conceptual) thinking, we should be careful what we wish for.

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