October 2012
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TD Magazine

Learning Your Way Through Crisis

Learning Your Way Through Crisis

Whenever catastrophe strikes an organization, a good insurance policy provides valuable peace of mind. But when the calamity is an uninsurable blow to the bottom line, sometimes the only solution is to revise the business plan—even for risk experts who run a leading insurance provider.

It was a classic one-two punch that befell the nonlife-insurance giant ICICI Lombard General Insurance Company (ILGIC) and other India-based insurers four years ago. The global recession, combined with India regulator-imposed losses, produced negative growth at ILGIC and its worst-ever financial performance in fiscal year 2009. Compounding the industrywide slump was a destructive price war among frenzied competitors.

For ILGIC, a young company accustomed to doubling itself annually, it was a rude awakening. But for the Deeksha Learning Centre (DLC), the company's learning brand co-headed by the risk and HR units, the crisis represented an opportunity to help the firm strengthen its foundation and create a new business model. DLC was asked to help lead an effort to transform the corporate mindset.

Official kickoff of the initiative was an exercise launched in 2010 to develop a five-year plan for the company. Appropriately named Vision 2015, it began with a workshop attended by about 60 senior managers—the firm's first-ever meeting of the executives.

The Vision 2015 exercise was a pivotal moment for the company, says Rajkamal Vempati, head of human resources, which includes the DLC. Leadership wanted to figure out what needed to be done and to create a common, compelling vision for the company, she explains.

"Before this meeting, the concepts of profits and growth were considered an oxymoron," Vempati says. There was a lack of understanding about how the two growth concepts—top and bottom line—could be achieved together, she explains. Eventually a corporate vision that merged the two concepts with long- and short-term milestones was drafted.

The resulting plan was a three-point agenda that began with a revision of the company's entire growth strategy. Prior to the regulatory changes, ILGIC enjoyed a period of escalating revenue by focusing on the sale of insurance products to individuals and business customers. Sales professionals' efforts were targeted exclusively to building the company's top line. That worked well with a sales team that was primarily young and new to the industry, with little understanding of the concept of risk upon which the insurance industry is built, says Vempati.

But the concept was no longer viable. The company's focus needed to shift from the top to the bottom line so that it could grow sensibly but profitably. That meant revising the corporate "mantra" in how employees behaved professionally, and the decisions taken by sales professionals to underwrite risk.

Second, it needed to create a new emphasis on succession planning. As the industry's largest player in India, 11-year-old ILGIC in effect operated as a "leadership factory" for the talent-starved insurance sector. Indeed, a large percentage of its leadership team, including its founding CEO, moved on during the upheaval.

Acknowledging this export of talent as a given, and as a way to enhance the industry, the management team decided that the entire succession planning and talent pipeline had to become more robust to lessen the risk of future personnel losses. New structural changes had to emphasize knowledge transfer and growth from within.

Last came a transformation of the sales mindset from product to solution selling, to differentiate beyond price. This approach required an intense training initiative to enhance the knowledge about risk among sales personnel so they could better serve their increasingly demanding customers. The customer's perspective became paramount in the company's new growth model.

"Learning and knowledge enhancement is a critical strategic agenda for me to drive the envisaged transformation in all parts of the enterprise," says CEO Bhargav Dasgupta. He should know. Dasgupta is directly engaged in the new learning strategies, and personally anchors the leadership class for middle management. He says the learning role gives him an opportunity to gather insights and share the company's strategy.


Of the numerous learning initiatives that ensued, one is especially instructive. "A deep understanding of underwriting and risk is imperative for us to succeed in this environment," explains Sanjay Datta, chief of underwriting and claims. "Very few people had this level of knowledge at the corporate office."

As the ranking officer and subject matter expert concerning risk, Datta helped create the curriculums to train sales and risk personnel and trainers. He says the challenge was to change the mindset from products to encompass risk, products, service, and profit and loss. Only through such comprehensive knowledge could they customize solutions across products and services, he says.

To instill sales teams with this deeper knowledge, the DLC employed a variety of learning ladders and certifications. Employees could progress from a basic knowledge certification level (code orange) to an advanced proficiency level (code maroon). The process requires individuals to take three rounds of rigorous knowledge aptitude tests to become maroon certified, where they reach the coveted level of "knowledge champions." At that stage they are deemed top performers and future leaders within ILGIC.

As a result of learning being co-owned as a strategic agenda by business and HR alike, risk management is today a threshold competency critical to the basic code orange certification.

The development of such multidimensional capabilities is understandably a principal mandate for the DLC. To achieve it, Vempati's team created an individual competency development plan, known as the learning ladder, with modules from functional and behavioral programs. "We divided the entire organization into 27 capability ‘pockets' or centers of knowledge across four responsibility levels," she explains.

The integrated ladder contains leadership and functional competencies, along with other management competencies deemed necessary for a particular responsibility level within a capability pocket. Employees progressing up the ladder encounter the full gamut of blended learning methods, including instructor-led and e-learning courses, on-the-job training, and mentoring.

Vempati says a critical key to success has been follow-through of Vision 2015 from conception to implementation. She says the team of 60 managers would meet every quarter (every two months initially) to pursue the vigorous agenda, carrying with them a sense of urgency, excitement, and momentum. Vision 2015 was cascaded across 315 locations involving 3,457 employees. "We stayed with it. People owned it. We didn't just leave it at the vision end," she says.

About the Author

Paul Harris is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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