Interview with David Richards from Allianz

Hi, welcome to High Definition You. It’s Gitanjali here, and I am joined by the wonderful David Richards from Allianz to discuss effective leadership teams. Welcome, David. Hello. Tell us a little bit about who you are in the world and your role…

So I’m David Richards. I’m the Director of IT at Allianz, UK, responsible for the technology estate that runs all of our businesses in the UK.

And how many people are in your team?

In my team directly, I’ve got about 100. But then with suppliers and stuff like that, both in the UK and offshore, the whole team, the technology team that I’m ultimately accountable for, is probably about 400-odd people.

So quite a lot of lives that you are responsible for. Tell me a bit about what the particular challenges were for you, when we first spoke ahead of the session that we did, what were the operational challenges or the struggles that you and the team were facing at the time?

I think the big thing for us was that as a team, I was fairly new into my role. We’ve got some long established people within the existing team, and some new people have come in as well. And I think the thing that we didn’t have, as an IT management team in the UK, was a set of sort of cohesive ways of working, building that trust amongst us, understanding where we were coming from.

And I think one of the reasons that I wanted you to come in and help me was to establish us as a team, so we could start to build that trust amongst us and look at the different ways that we interacted in order to be much more effective as a team. So we got on as a team, and ultimately, if we get on as the management team, that means that drives effective leadership thinking and performance.

And they all have direct reports under them as well, right. So it’s that cascading effect.
Why me? What was it that you thought I could bring to the table? What did I do differently?

I think because we’d work together in the past when I was at MS Amlin. And you’d actually helped in a similar type of situation whereby there was an extended management team within the operational area that I think had some challenges around trust, had some challenges around the dynamics and the way people were working. And I think the tools that you had used and the particular the ‘Whole Brain Thinking’ tool that you use, resonated really well with me personally.

And I saw how people used it in that environment. And my sense was that we don’t use that tool, where we are at the moment. And the fact that you were someone new and different coming in, as opposed to our established HR and the other providers, not to say that they’re not super; they are. But I thought given my newness to the organisation, and just somebody brand new coming in and mixing it up would have a big impact.

I like that. I feel like a DJ like mixing it up, coming in with a new set of songs.

Was there any resistance? I mean, we were spending a day together. Was there any resistance to saying “yes” when we spoke, perhaps it was time or money? Anything like that?

No, none whatsoever. And I think if anything, the team were probably, why the heck aren’t we doing this a wee bit quicker than we’re doing it? Which is probably more my issue. So no, absolutely. Absolutely no lack of support to do it. My manager, who’s the COO, was very, very supportive of that coming in. The team were really looking forward to it and embracing it.

And what was great was that actually we had HR colleagues, so the HR rep who looks after IT, she was really keen to be involved as part of the effective team leadership session as well. So absolutely no resistance, full support to do it.

I thought that was great. That was a great dynamic to have there, because obviously that, as ongoing support, so she’s aware, as you said, we used a psychometric profiling tool, the Whole Brain Thinking tool, and she was a part of that conversation.

We spent a day together. It’s an investment of time. What were the results that you and the team experienced?

Definitely trust was established and almost the legitimacy to be vulnerable really helped with that because you only get trust when you start to be vulnerable and feel that you can kind of open yourself up. And I saw very quickly after the session that there was more one-to-one sessions going informally with people. You suggested a couple of tools and techniques, and actually, one of which we’re still running with is a weekly session that I don’t run; one of the guys runs, and we just get together, and we talk about what are our challenges, what’s good, what’s bad, what’s indifferent? And, frankly, it’s a whole bunch of people just moaning and complaining about stuff.

But actually, it’s very constructive. Because these are the challenges; can we join up and make things work. And I think that then brought about much more of a unified focus and approach. And probably the biggest testament to where that’s ended up is that at the time, the overall engagement results within IT were pretty challenged and were pretty poor at the time. We just had those announced result in a previous year. Now, when I look at where we’re at this year, we’ve got a super high performance.

You know, we’re now back up to average for us as a business. We were way behind that. Now, can I put all of that down to that one intervention and working with you through that session? Absolutely, no I can’t. But what I do know is that helped the management team create a sense of unity, which they were then able to sort of build on with all the super hard work that the team have done this year. So all these bits of the jigsaw come together. And I think without it, I don’t think it would have been as effective as a leadership team.

I’m so grateful we’re doing this now, so that we can see what the engagement survey was, actually, sometime later to actually see what the tangible business outcomes are. Because sometimes I had it in my 15-year career in banking, you go or you have leadership days together; you have high-performing and strategic team focuses. And then, actually, what is the business outcome and the results? So I’m thrilled to hear that.

You mentioned vulnerability, which I love, and trust and that permission to be vulnerable. What was it about the way that I worked that allowed you to get the results that you’ve just talked about for the team?

I think you just have a very nice and easy style. And you’re very good at being able to suss out people very, very quickly. So, you had no relationship with the colleagues who we did the session with. Sure, I’ve given you a little bit of background as to who they were, and stuff like that. But, what you see on paper and what someone describes someone like is very, very different. And I think one of your strengths, Gitanjali, is your ability to just work out where someone’s coming from, reading the mood in the room and actually changing things.

So if you recall, you actually did change a bit of the schedule about because certain things you had some ideas as to just getting a bit of better team engagement. And that’s something that you’ve always done. And certainly when I was at Amlin, I noticed you doing that, your ability to go no, hold on, this isn’t working. Let’s just try that. So it’s not, this is a script; stick to it. You read the people, you read the situation and I think that’s for benefit.

Thank you for that. What was the aha moment or one of the aha moments, either on the day or something that occurred to you afterwards where you thought, aha, yeah, that’s something new or that’s, I know, it’s working?

I don’t think there was an aha moment, per se, because I’d seen the way you’d worked previously and the way that kind of people were interacting. I think the thing that I was really pleased with was that the best facilitator, the best coach, the best sort of learning professional, if you like, if you haven’t got and you’re working with a group of people who are prepared to listen, and who are prepared to think and reflect and adapt, it doesn’t matter how good the individuals are.

And I think it’s a credit to the guys who I’ve got working for me, who they responded, they listened, they adapted and wanted to create a better relationship, more trust and a spirit of actually sort of working through. So you start to see that and, you know, to a degree, it’s binary, right? People are either going to start to want to do something different, or they’re going to go, well, that was a nice day out. And, you know, we met a lovely lady who, you know, gave us some ideas, but I’m not going to use them. But to a woman and man, they all kind of took away the ideas and adapted them and started using them. And that was great.

That, as you know, is really the thing for me at the core of everything I do. I mean, I don’t want to waste my time any more than anybody else’s, right. To just have it as a one off, well, that was a jolly. I can’t even do the jollies anymore, right, off to some amazing venue. To actually have that sustained application of what they’re learning, then that’s where the brain is going to change. And that’s where the relationships are going to change. And a few of those Whole Brain Thinking monthly reminders, I think were designed the brain mail to just say, hey, don’t forget about this, and there’s this little thing here. You might have already covered this, actually, because you’ve just mentioned something there.

But I’m always intrigued to find out what surprised you about the day.

I think the thing that surprised about the day was there was a couple of people that are quieter in the team, and even those guys made more of a contribution than I thought they were going to, which, again, was great. And I think, again, a lot of that down to the way that you run and facilitated the session.

It was great to see them. And there was open debate as well that people were having and willingness to share and willingness for you to listen to that as well, because that was quite — you were new to some of them as well. So it was so great to see that dynamic.

I think when I reflect back on the effective team leadership day, if you recall, I had one individual who was operating in an acting-up kind of capacity. And he clearly felt comfortable enough to be able to say, you know, hold on, you know, I’m maybe not an established part of this team. But I think this is wrong, or I think there’s a different way of doing it.

And I think that to me was an indication that it was a very successful session that when you’ve got perhaps more junior people and people who are new into the leadership team, they feel that they can challenge some quite fundamental things about the way people think and the way they operate and what have you. That was good.

Well, you know, I call myself a Possiblist because it’s not about positivity or negativity; it’s about possibility.

So when you think about that day, but also after that, in terms of the team’s development as a result, what is possible now that seemed impossible before our session?

I think the ability for everybody to feel that they can challenge. Perhaps due to my predecessor, there was a view that people couldn’t challenge and the environment was such that, you know, it was just kind of get on with it. And it wasn’t kind of a unified team, where people could go, no, we’re not going to do that, or there’s a different way. I’ve certainly seen an ability to, you know, be much more challenge.

And what’s been, again, during the COVID crisis — we can’t put all of this down to one session. Going into March of last year, people really were aware of how to support people, and all of the team have done such a super job last year of really looking after everybody that works for them and taking that seriously. And again, knowing that they’ve got the support of their management team, I believe went a long way to actually help them do such a great job last year as well.

I think the psychological safety piece of it is crucial as part of that conversation, and that just boils down to the things we talked about around, actually, who are we? How do we connect? What are our thinking preferences? Where are they potentially different? And then how do you create that environment where I can challenge with a level of psychological safety, where I know that it’s not going to be a detrimental either to my career or to my mental health? So we’re thrilled to hear that.

Let’s take a big view, one step back and think about how you would describe the leadership team in one or two adjectives before our session, and how would you describe in an adjective or two after our session?

So I wouldn’t describe them as a team before the session; I would describe them as a team afterwards. It’s probably as simple as that.

What’s the definition of a leadership team for you?

I think it’s the ability to be vulnerable. It’s the ability to challenge. It’s the ability to question. It’s the ability to know that you’re there for everybody. And, you know, you’re not an individual; you’re collectively kind of working towards the same stuff, but recognising that sometimes, you know, that’s difficult, and there are things that we’ve got to do, but, you know, that would be my definition.

Great definition. You should write a book I think, David. I feel like there’s a co-author maybe. Finally, if someone’s watching this, they’re feeling inspired. They want to do something for their teams on the effective leadership development side or strategic leadership, high-performing team side, and they’re weighing up the pros and the cons. What advice would you give to them, David?

Firstly, probably don’t overthink it; get on with it. It’s very easy to do that. And obviously, there are budgetary constraints and stuff like that, you know. Get all that stuff sorted quickly. And, you know, frankly, get on with it. There are lots of different tools that individuals can use. The tool that we used, I like it, but there are others that are very, very similar.

I think the the richness comes not in the tool itself, but it’s in the interpreting of the tool and actually making people think about the fact that when you’re in a team, you’re in a unit or what have you, people have a different locus and a focus, and the willingness to realise that you maybe have to adapt to realise that they’re coming from a different place. And I think it’s, you know, if you simply want to do this as an exercise to say, oh, we’ve done the team thing or what have you, you’re not going to get the benefit out of it.

You will get the benefit out of it if you recognise you’re going to hear home-truths about your team or you as an individual that you’ve got to adapt and do stuff differently. If you’re prepared to go into it, then crack on.

Love it. Crack on. I like that as a summary, crack on. David, thank you. It was a pleasure to spend time with you and the team, and I’m thrilled to hear the results. And as always, I wish you well for whatever the future holds. Thanks, David.