How to Maintain Your Focus During Periods of Disruption: An interview with RSA CEO Martin Thompson

"Ask yourself: am I driving my agenda or is my agenda driving me?"

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Image courtesy of Martin Thompson

Corner office dreamers, take note. When you move into a CEO role, be prepared for massive demands on your time, your energy, and your focus.

“Until you take the job, you don’t truly appreciate how many demands will be placed on you from people who want your input on how things are running,” says Martin Thompson, CEO of RSA Canada. “It becomes imperative to learn how to make good decisions and quickly figure out the best use of your time.”

Thompson faces a challenging journey to lead one of the oldest insurance companies in the country. With roots dating back to 1833, RSA Canada’s group now includes Roins Financial Services Limited, Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Company of Canada, Johnson Inc., and more.

In October 2016, Thompson’s climb up the corporate ladder continued with his move into the position of CEO, right at the time of a major sea change within his industry.

“There are many external catalysts at hand today,” he says. “We’re realizing that other companies are competing in our industry – banks for example- and they’re giving our customers alternatives.”

In such a paramount era of change for legacy companies like RSA, how does a CEO manage to focus their attention on the right things?

Thompson believes there are several important questions you need to answer and skills you need to develop.

“As you look at your diary, ask yourself: am I driving my agenda or is my agenda driving me? If other people start to drive your agenda, they’ll drive your focus, too. You have to be in control of that.”

Mastering the art of saying “no” is another crucial skill to staying focused. As CEO, you need to be crystal clear in terms of your goals and objectives or else you can be moved off course. “When there is a choice to say yes or no to an opportunity, and you realize a yes will detract from one of your core priorities, you can and must say no, without hesitation.”

Effective delegation is another critical competency for successful chief executives.  Thompson recommends asking yourself this question: “Am I the only person who can make this decision or complete this task?” If the answer is no, you need to bring in the key individuals to make the decision and draw up and manage an action plan to move forward. If the answer is yes, you need to have compelling reasons for taking this course of action, since the CEO should only be involved in the most strategic elements of the business.

Delegation is not just important for the CEO. “One of the most rewarding aspects of delegation is empowering someone else to make decisions for you” because this sets your team up for success in the future.

However, delegation alone is insufficient. Leaders also need to ensure they equip their teams to succeed.  “My ultimate goal is to efficiently supply our team with the tools and direction they need to go and deliver the kind of performance we demand.”

In today’s environment, there are rapid technological advancements, which provide innumerable opportunities to change your core business practices. “I think it’s easy to look out and copy what everyone else is doing; things that appear to be new, novel or different.” This leads to another important question: How do you know when it’s the right time to invest in a new technology or practice, or if you’re being swayed by a bright, shiny new object?

Thompson believes it is through listening closely to your customers and their experience. “After much research, we discovered that our customers wanted to open up further digital communication. As a result, in a span of six months, we’ve gone from 0 to 17,000 chats per month, which is enormous progress.”

How does he ensure that customer experience stays top of mind?

One critical practice, according to Thompson, is to focus on three or four key priorities per quarter. To do this, he meets with his executive team once a month to ensure they’re all on the same page.

He also conducts a weekly huddle with his executive team to review RSA’s performance on rising customer expectations. Instead of simply tracking customer service, they learn specifically where it’s lacking and then figure out what they need to do to fix it.

“On a strategic level, I make sure our team understands that meeting the changes in our customers’ needs is critical,” he says. “Failing to do this is the biggest strategic risk we face.”

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