S4 EP46: Unlocking potential with human-centric insurance leadership – Denise Nichols, Chief People Officer, Fortitude Re

“I changed the department from HR to People and culture. The term HR is a construct of an economist in the 1800s, talking about people as commodities, just like paper and pens. That’s not what this is about anymore”, says Denise.

“The world has changed. In order to unlock true potential of a company and its performance, you have to focus on the people, unlocking their true potential as whole individuals.”

On the podcast this week, Denise shares her journey from investment banking through Silicon Valley in to insurance.

“The consistent theme across my career journey is I’m a risk taker, which is interesting, given I’m in the risk business now. I always looked for additional challenge, something different, something that I could fix, launch or do differently.

I left investment banking in the dotcom era and moved to Silicon Valley area and worked for 2 different start-ups. I had the experience of taking them up, expanding and then dismantling.

Then through my network, I got a call from Marsh Mclennan and I took the leap. I was sucked into the insurance world. Once you’re in, you’re really never going to get out.”

Following a Head of HR role with Voya and launching her own executive coaching business, Denise was approached by an executive search firm to meet with Fortitude Re. The business operates in the Life and Annuity and Property & Casualty business in the US, Bermuda and in Japan. She joined the team in 2022.

Denise gives insight in to her role as Chief People Officer as well as overseeing marketing, communications, branding and CSR.

She emphasizes the desire to create a human-centric culture and the benefits of being a smaller reinsurance company.  

“Human-centricity and putting people as our priority and at the center of what we do, really helps us make decisions as a business in a way that enables our people to not only bring their whole selves to work.

But to focus on developing themselves across the spectrum of things that make them people. That unlocks such tremendous potential and their ability to perform at a level that you couldn’t really expect otherwise.

Human-centric leadership is not something that comes naturally to people who have grown up professionally over the last 20 years.

But if you think about authenticity and communications and transparency, you think about empathy and understanding where people are, being adaptive and being able to flex things, it starts to make sense in terms of why that works.

Because we’re a smaller company, we get to focus more on development. We get to experiment.”

Denise highlights the importance of finding opportunities for the team to unplug from the complexities of large reinsurance deals.

“If you think about investment banking as an industry, it’s very much a burn and churn type of reality. That’s not a sustainable model.

We’re really focused on trying to create balance for our people. The work is hard but we make sure we find opportunities for people to unplug from work.”

Denise talks about closing the whole business for a week in August and Fortitude Re’s Ignite annual learning allowance program.

“They can use it to develop themselves in any way, personally or professionally. We have people using it to go skydiving, learn a language or to get certifications that will help them professionally. It’s about developing the whole person.”

Highlighting the advice, she’d give to insurance leaders coming for interview, Denise says,

“Be confident yet be humble. Our CEO calls it a sneaker culture. We run really fast, we’re super aggressive but we like to be normal people. Being very confident in your capabilities and being able to convey your subject matter but being a humble human who can work in that flat hierarchical structure is important.”

As advice to her fellow insurance industry people leaders, Denise says the ‘how’ is more important than the ‘what’.

“How someone does their work, the behaviors they exhibit, the culture carrier aspect of an individual is not something that you can really train. I tend to emphasize what someone brings to the table there.”

In terms of working with an external insurance executive search partner, Denise emphasizes the importance of listening.

“An external partner who really listens and doesn’t assume in terms of what the realities are, what the needs are. Coupled with that, I really enjoy search partners who aren’t afraid to challenge or to have a perspective.”

Denise talks trough the tech tools Fortitude Re use to support hiring the best insurance talent.

“We’re also using a lot of video, to tell the story and our brand. That seems to be really resonating not only with candidates, but I always think we’re re-selling ourselves to our employees every day.

We’re using greenhouse as well. That has been fantastic, streamlining our processes which helps our candidate experience as well as our own hire experience.”

As for the one lesson her career has taught her, she thinks everyone should know, Denise says,

“It’s all about people, right. People are complex, yet predictable. They’re surprising and fascinating, all of those things wrapped into one. The potential for people to grow and learn, that is what keeps me so engaged in this type of role.”

Connect with Denise Nichols on LinkedIn or find out more about Fortitude Re

The Insurance Coffee House Podcast is hosted by Nick Hoadley, CEO of Insurance Search.

We are a global Insurance Executive Search Consultancy, supporting Insurance and Insurtech businesses to attract and retain the very best insurance talent.

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