Listen to your staff – their happiness can bring financial success

Company culture is not something that can be enforced. You need to listen to employees and create an environment in which they enjoy working

Feature image
Listening to staff and letting them air their opinions can boost morale and team spirit

When I took over as CEO of Nordic Guarantee in 2013, I got the chance to explore the field in which I thrive: working with organisational behaviour. I strongly believe that working in teams rather than individually is the solution to the challenges of a highly competitive environment. I had developed my views of Nordic Guarantee and its problems over the years as CFO, and I thought I knew where the problems were. The company had been fairly small and it was easy to get an overlook, even though we were, and still are, active in four countries and had personnel spread throughout the Nordic countries. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong!

When I was appointed CEO, the resigning Chairman said: “Just keep control of the underwriting and you will do good.” I was lucky to have our previous CEO take over as Chairman, and our cooperation was open and sincere. I wanted to become a CEO who was close to the personnel, and to be seen as a doer with focus on tangible results. But for each stone I overturned, new problems appeared.

A CEO’s job is to get teams to perform better, and to create a workplace that people enjoy. I had always thrived on creating tangible results, though it was now about company culture, which is fundamentally intangible. For me, the reward is now the feeling we get when we have reached a goal, and when I see the reaction from my colleagues. That rush of reaching a goal for the first time – that is what makes me try over and over again, and what makes me continue to work hard to reach new goals.

Out of a rut
At the time I took over as CEO, Nordic Guarantee had a company culture that was hard to define. We had different views in our minds as to what we were and what we wanted to become, but the previous year’s tough financial results had made us focus all our efforts on day-to-day business, and we had no time left to look ahead.

I strongly believe having fun, laughter, jokes and an open atmosphere inspires commitment

In late 2013, I started to form my own view of how we should work, and what structure was needed to make responsibility clear. I remember being in a café with one of my oldest colleagues, and we drew a new structure on a napkin. This was to become our new organisational structure, with clear responsibilities between teams and team members. At this time, our close partner South African Lombard Insurance had the same ideas as us, and the transformation started.

At the beginning of 2014, I started working with an external HR consultant who interviewed all staff working within our core processes, i.e. underwriting, sales and claims. The findings revealed we lacked a clear recruitment strategy in the past, and many of our staff didn’t fit the culture I wanted to build. The result was we had to lay off 25 percent of our personnel.

During this period sales were also going down. Not a good starting point, but, with a clearer picture of what we wanted to build, we managed to drag ourselves out of the gloom. During the spring of 2015, we started to see evidence we were on the right track. At a company conference, I asked the whole organisation what we needed to change, what we needed to build on, and what we lacked. This made it clearer to me what I needed to focus on. Three things came out of the consultation: information and communication, knowledge sharing, and team spirit.

Growing strong
One success led to another and we were in a positive spiral. We had monthly video meetings where all offices participated, and we celebrated victories both large and small. Getting these meetings to become relaxed and personal was important, and it still is – I want Nordic Guarantee to be a company where people can relax and have fun. This became the topic of the next company conference, which was held in the end of 2015. The theme for the conference was ‘what makes it fun to be at work?’, and once again we had group-wide discussions and involved all employees.

I strongly believe having fun, laughter, jokes and an open atmosphere inspires commitment, with personnel who want to come back day after day to see not just colleagues, but friends. We were now entering 2016 and our financial results were showing we were on our way to becoming what we all wanted to be – a profitable company where people thrive and have a lot of fun.

Working hard and generating profits for the shareholders should also give something back to the employees. Therefore, we set a number of really tough goals for the period from July 2015 to June 2016 in addition to our annual goals. This really put everyone’s focus on building the company and burning the midnight oil. All our teams could see our goal of growing the number of premiums written – based on careful and skilled underwriting that kept our claims ratio on a very low level – was possible to achieve if we worked together and focused on delivering quality to our customers and partners.

Continuous development
Many colleagues now tell me we have changed so much and become a different company. This is very touching for me, and I feel it’s proof of our success – proof of us becoming an organisation where we enjoy each other’s company and develop together.

We have worked a lot with our culture over the past few years, and we are still working on it. We will continue to build on our culture to become even stronger. It is my firm belief that an inspiring environment where people can relax and be themselves will create a more profitable company. I would say Nordic Guarantee is proof of that. If you cannot have fun and laugh, people will not enjoy working together. The best people will soon take what is of value to you and go to your biggest competitor. So, see to it that you understand what makes it fun to be at work, and guard it. Nothing beats a great time with friends and laughter, and that cannot be stolen by your competitors.

In a turnaround like the one we have done, it is important everyone buys into the plan. Not just your personnel, but also your board. A culture will not be true and strong if it does not come from within. Start here and you will soon have a culture that is felt by your staff, clients and customers alike.