Rachel Turk: “People like to say you should think outside the box; I think that what’s in the box is just as important.”


5 min read

Rachel Turk is Group Head of Strategy at Beazley. Here, she shares her thoughts on female leadership, how boards can foster innovation within their organisation and — even — the emoji that’s transformed her ExCo meetings.

If you reflect back on your career, are there any defining moments that stand out for you?

  1. Before I applied for my current role I read the description and thought, ‘That looks fascinating, I could do that’. My next thought was not to bother applying as there were so many other people who were more likely to get it. Thankfully, our CEO convinced me to apply. However, I’d spent a lot of time mentoring other women facing the same dilemma, and when the time came for me to face it myself I didn’t want to follow my own advice. It brought home for me the fact that, although it’s very easy to give advice, it’s often difficult to follow it yourself.
  2. My first appraisal with the CEO after getting the role. He asked me what my career objective was. I said I didn’t really know and hadn’t thought much about it. He said “We’re actually not moving off this topic until you give me an honest answer.” Finally, I said that I’d like to be a CEO at some point. He said, “Good, great”. And we moved on. I realised that, as women, we are conditioned to believe that ambition is a negative trait, and you’re welcoming vulnerability if you ever utter your ambition. However, in saying it out loud it became a goal that is achievable. Being honest about my ambition helped to boost my own confidence and enabled me to ask for help from others in working towards it.

Which female leader you’ve worked with has inspired you, and why?

Bethany Greenwood, who I work with here at Beazley. She’s our Group Head of Specialty Risks. She is vulnerable and she admits what she doesn’t know while bringing her whole self to work. Her incredible skill is being able to have honest, constructive conversations with people, sometimes delivering tough news, and then develop those people on (rather than cutting and running and hiring someone else). How does she do it? Fact-based conversations. Role playing the conversations in advance. And delivery that is caring and calm, even if those she is speaking with may get emotional. She believes strongly that you can make tough decisions but enact them with empathy and thoughtfulness.

As an ExCo and board member, do you have any golden rules?

  1. Be present. Especially in virtual meetings, this is really hard.
  2. Have a conversation rather than just trying to get a point across. Being comfortable that if I allow the conversation to happen, the opportunity to make my “brilliant point” may pass — and that’s ok. (Side note: in our virtual ExCo meetings we’ve started using the “plus” emoji instead of a “hands up” to show that we have a point to build on the current point, rather than a separate point. It’s been quite transformative.)
  3. Be visible around the organisation. I make a point of chatting to everyone — even in the lifts! — so that I can hear “all the little things” that are worrying people, that they might not have formulated what to do about yet. A lot of great ideas (or spotting huge problems) comes from newer or younger people in the organisation who have a different perspective, so I need to harness that.
  4. Be aware of when to jump in, and when to rely on the work of others: the reporting approach we’ve used with you at Board Intelligence has really helped in this regard. In particular, the part on the Executive Summary that asks for “input received”. We previously used it to list the forums that the paper had been to before, but now we’re including bullets on the tricky/contentious areas that were discussed when that forum met. It means the ExCo or board know what concerned a previous forum when the topic was debated, so they can build on that discussion rather than starting again.

“Have a conversation rather than just trying to get a point across.”

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What’s keeping the directors of businesses awake at night?

  1. People and culture, especially maintaining company culture in a post-pandemic hybrid world. Directors are grappling with striking the right balance between allowing staff flexibility and taking action to preserve corporate culture in a new environment.
  2. Inflation and the impact it is having on a macroeconomic level. It represents a major opportunity to embrace automation to realise efficiencies and address rising costs. For example, take the insurance industry — it’s generally seen as being old-fashioned with ageing infrastructure, and likely needs a push to move on. I think the inflationary pressures to automate can provide that push, and looking back at my career I can see the huge changes technology has already made. When I was an underwriter, we had to physically stamp and sign everything, whilst today this can be done electronically, and the pandemic provided the push for much more widespread adoption of this technology. We don’t want to miss this opportunity to automate and take active steps to combat inflationary cost increases but there is so much going on that making time for this is a challenge as it’s not easy to implement.

Is there anything a board can do to help foster an environment of innovation?

Firstly, you should be using non-standard KPIs and metrics to measure and assess innovation, and it’s crucial that you not only tolerate but are supportive of failure. If you’ve been working on something innovative and get most of the way through and then realise it isn’t actually feasible, or there isn’t sufficient market demand, and subsequently decide to stop then you’ve made the right decision, even though it means you won’t be delivering it. Ultimately, you’ve made the right decision and organisations — from the board down — need to be fostering an environment in which it’s OK when ideas don’t work out as you would like.

“Organisations — from the board down — need to be fostering an environment in which it’s OK when ideas don’t work out as you would like.”

People like to say you should think outside the box; I think that what’s in the box is just as important. The box provides the framework around risk appetite, strategic direction, locations, etc. and we use these as guardrails to empower our employees to innovate within that framework. When everyone in the business understands the overarching direction we are moving in they are encouraged to innovate with their products in the normal course of business, and I think that empowerment enables your staff to be innovative, and to be agile in doing so.

How can directors navigate doing the right thing whilst also being a for-profit company?

For me, sustainable business and leadership are all about being prepared to take tough calls and make the morally right decision. You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, for example choosing the slightly more expensive contract because it has better ESG credentials.

As a listed, for-profit organisation we have a responsibility to our shareholders, to be here for the foreseeable future. Sustainable business is not a nice-to-have, it is absolutely a must-have. We need to operate in a way that ensures that we will be here for generations to come, and we will carry on innovating, paying claims, attracting and retaining the best talent because that’s what our clients and shareholders expect us to do.

“Sustainable business is not a nice-to-have, it is absolutely a must-have.”

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