It is inevitable for corporate politics to make a tangible presence, especially in big companies, and it its part of the COO’s job to keep it in check so that the company can focus more important things. Tom Wolczik has done a great job in doing this as COO of Group Claims at Hiscox, a diversified international insurance group. A global operations executive with over 17 years of leadership experience, Tom possesses a relentless and energy in leading cross-functional teams to drive transformational change. Joining Cameron Herold for a conversation, Tom talks about the struggles he has gone through over the years and how he created strengths through Hiscox. He also talks about the conflict resolution processes that help the company rise above corporate politics and focus on the internal movements that really make a difference in getting things done.
Our guest is Tom Wolczik. Tom is a Global Operations Executive with many years driving transformational change for both casualty and specialty insurance carriers. Throughout his career, Tom collaborates effectively with all levels and possesses a relentless passion and energy when leading cross-functional teams. He continues to manage large-scale operations and complex portfolios while producing results that have exceeded expectations. Tom is the COO of Hiscox, a diversified international insurance group. Tom, I’d like to welcome you to the show.
It’s nice to be here, Cameron. Thank you.
I like to get a little bit of background from you first off on what Hiscox is. You can walk us through a little bit about the brands. We have a little bit of perspective as to exactly what the company is and how that operates. Maybe give us a little bit of some background in how you got to where you are now.
Hiscox is a global insurance carrier that writes business in a lot of different markets, such as the US, particularly London markets, Europe. We’re at eight countries across Europe. We also have a presence in Asia as well. The company prides itself on primarily working closely with our brokers, as well as our direct customers in the underwriting, servicing and claim handling of their policies. We have been in business for a number of years, upwards of close to 100, if memory serves me, largely originating out of the UK and London. We have grown to expand into these other geographic locations over time. At this point, we have developed into one of the leading market players out there in the insurance space.
We specialize in a lot of different risks. We were the largest writer of kidnap and ransom. We also are big in the cyber insurance and professional lines as well as small business insurance, more on the commercial direct side. As far as the other item relative to my background, I am the Chief Operating Officer for a function within Hiscox, particularly it’s the claims function. That involves the oversight and management of our claim operations, our technology and innovation, our quality assurance and compliance practices, as well as our change and operational excellence that we call it within the company.
In particular, my background when I got into this industry several years ago out of undergrad, I spent a lot of time searching where I wanted to first jump into the market. I had a great opportunity to step into a role in claims at that time, learned a bit about the business and realize that it was something that was interesting to me. It led to an opportunity where I began to quickly move throughout the company in terms of leadership positions. I worked in a lot of different cross-functional departments. I worked with contact centers. I worked in finance and IT and did a myriad of things before landing where I am now.
I’ve worked at a number of insurance companies across the industry, three to be exact, throughout that time. I’ve had the opportunity to step into this role working with someone who I strongly consider a mentor and someone who’s guided me to where I am now. The opportunity here is massive in terms of global exposure. What I’m trying to do is bring the best of practices across some of the most mature business units, as we call them, across the entire group or the global practices.
I know you are a publicly-traded company. Can you give us some sense of perspective on the number of employees in all? Is that something you can talk about?
We have 3,500 employees across the group.
You’re in a huge company with 3,500 employees. That’s an enterprise-level, but it’s not huge considering there are companies out there that are tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, but it’s still a massive organization in terms of the politics and the complexity. How do you rise above that? I read a book years ago called Orbiting the Giant Hairball. How do you rise above all the corporate stuff to be able to get stuff done, work on the critical few things and see your efforts produce results? What lessons can you give us there?
Hiscox, one of the things that’s exciting, but equally challenging is we are in some respects a matrix organization, given the nature of the business units and how we operate in the US, EU and elsewhere. Being in a role like I’m in, which is a group and broader, it does require building strong teams and then being collaborative with a lot of the leaders that are steps sit within those business units to get things done. The way we achieve success is by being linked closely with what the mission is of each of those business units, and then being able to devise a plan in conjunction with them to be able to move that business unit forward. A lot of it comes down to structure in terms of how you structure your team, making sure you have the right people in the right positions. The people that are providing the support around the core team are in support of that and have buy-in, all of those together have proven to be successful and will continue to be.
From your bio picture, I’m going to guess that you’re about 40-ish?
I’m a little bit younger than that but close.
Being younger than that, that’s even more impressive. To be a COO at this level in this size of an organization at a relatively young age, why do you think that is? What skills have you been able to develop over the years or where do you think you’ve been able to grow over the years to get there?
The biggest thing for me has always been my willingness to take on roles that might not always necessarily be the biggest paycheck, so to speak, but much more about the opportunity to develop skills at a younger age. When I was out of college, I remember there were a couple of opportunities I had to take lateral positions, which on paper as a young kid out of school, you’re trying to address all the things that we all dealt with school loans and such. Being able to think bigger than that and saying to yourself, “I want to develop a certain competency and skillset.” In order to do that, I’m going to need to take certain risks to get there. Over time, I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of great leaders.
A lot of people have taken me under their wing and given me direction on where I should, for example, further my education, which I did and got my MBA to getting into more project management philosophy and methodology, which I pursued my PMP, Project Manager Professional into the Lean Six Sigma and Six Sigma Black Belt approach and also working more on insurance, operational designation. Collectively all that built a strong base, and being exposed to great leaders and great projects, and people and my teams that have helped groom that case.
You listed out as if OG shucks your way through some major skill base areas and training programs. Was that something that the companies were pushing on you or was that something that you were out seeking on your own?
The companies I worked for have always been supportive of professional, personal and continued education. I, by default, am someone who always has tried to pursue things, even when people don’t necessarily lay it out in front of me. There are a lot of reasons for it. You clearly make it a mark that you are someone who’s proactive and is looking to improve not only yourself but the company by doing those things. Most of the leaders I worked for and worked alongside, I was able to make the case as to why I felt that was the appropriate thing to do. For me, they were supportive about it.
Do you proactively hire for those people as well, those self-driven learners?
I have a soft spot for people who have that passion. I don’t know if we necessarily seek out those roles. I’ve only been with this company now for a short period of time. It’s been much adjusting to all the things I already mentioned. As things become more stabilized in terms of the role and some of the additional responsibilities I’ve been asked to take on, it will be clearer to me. When you’re seeking out the top leaders in this trade, there is a specific skillset that goes along with it and passion, which is something that to me is imperative to be successful at this level. You have to be able to motivate people and be motivated by things that might not always be the shiny toy. Fortunately for me, I have a lot of people around me that are skilled in that regard.
I’m thinking of something. We have an organization called the COO Alliance, which is the only network of its kind in the world for the second in command. In an event in 2019, one of our members, we were talking about how the leader’s job is to grow people. Our job is to always be working on growing the skillset of people in our teams. One of the ideas that came out of the group was to hire self-driven learners. I was like, “I never thought about it that way, but it’s important that people are driving themselves and driving their own learning instead of waiting to be taught. I wonder if that’s more of a real core behavioral trait now, even more than maybe in the last years, because the world, the industry and business is changing quickly that many years ago, you had to be the person who had to learn a bunch of stuff. That what you based off of, but now businesses completely change every 48 months, it seems.
If I were to look back, even before I came to Hiscox, in terms of one of the things I’m most proud of, it would be building out a true career development framework for the teams that you support. What I mean by that is oftentimes it’s easy to say to someone, “Go back to school and get further education, get your MBA, go to law school,” whatever it may be. That to me is only a piece of the pie. You need to have people with the right mindset, then when they do achieve that important designation or degree or whatever it may be, they now know how to apply it.
It’s like my former company. We build out a career development framework. It was imperative to do that given the state of the department at the time. What I can tell you is in the end, I remember saying these exact words to everyone, which is, “Myself and our leadership team will support you to achieve your goals, but you need to want it. You need to push it and you need to drive that agenda.” I totally agree. It’s not something that as a manager, you can make everybody want to do, but those that have the passion and interest to do it are the ones that, in my opinion, become the most successful.
Where do you think you’ve struggled in your career in getting to that stage you’re at now?
I feel like maybe a little bit about delegation. That’s been a little bit of a struggle for me over the years because if you know the right way to do something, oftentimes you want to try to steer it and what I’ve learned as I’ve advanced my career is you don’t have the capacity to take that every decision that may or may not require your involvement even in a stressful situation. You have to build a strong team around you to help with that. You can think right above the clouds a bit and be able to drive results that you wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve developed a lot in that regard over the years because of the support that I’ve gotten from a lot of my mentors. The things they told me, “Step out of the weeds a little bit. You are a detailed, analytical person. You don’t always need to be right. You need to surround yourself with people that can provide that skill. You need to be thinking more strategically.” Over time, that is helpful.
It’s interesting when you come to that perspective or when you gain that perspective. Talk about your day-to-day then? What do you focus on now day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month?
We’re trying to build out more of a strategy around how our group or global function supports the business units that are much more focused as you would expect on their own P&Ls, for obvious reasons, that’s what they’re accountable to. It’s trying to extract a lot of great ideas as it relates to target operating models, looking at the people involved in terms of, are they in the right roles? Are we maximizing the value that all the great people we have in our organization that have to bring to bear and also the technology piece in process?
Figuring out is this the right process that we should be following for this particular, in our case, claims scenario, or is this the best experience that we should be giving our customers thinking of all those components. Lastly, using technology as an enabler where we can. You don’t throw technology at every problem because then that you essentially blow up your budgets. You have to be wise about how you allocate dollars when you’re investing, especially when we have a budget to manage too.
When you’re getting these ideas from the team and when they’re looking at opportunities in the organization, how do you decide what to say yes, what to say no to, and what to say not now?
You have to set clear expectations. If an individual brings a problem or maybe a solution or whatever it is to me, oftentimes I ask myself and I ask them, “Did you think through all the scenarios that I would want to know before we have this discussion?” In the case of a business, a need for example, if a particular project, if we want to take it off the ground or we want to make a pitch to an executive team about a certain initiative. The understanding and buy-in as to how you’re quantifying the benefit we’re going to gain from it and the ROI that we expect to yield and by when, the Internal Rate of Revenue or the IRR.
That’s a big part of what we’ve built in terms of a discipline that didn’t exist before. We’re not complete with it yet, but we’re going to be working towards it. Creating more standards and expectations around how people should approach, whether it’s interviewing to define business requirements, whether it’s process mapping, workflow out and providing the appropriate call-outs that are impactful and not more noise, all those things. Gradually over time, you start to realize and frame what you expect from your teams, and then they come to you with things that are pretty much fully baked. That’s a simple decision. It’s an evolution. It’s like forming a team. You go through the whole five or however many steps there are in that process.
Did you think through all the scenarios that I would want you to think through or that I would be thinking through? That’s a strong leadership position to come in from versus where most people go is a layer down from that where we say, “Did you think about this? Did you think about that?” You don’t even go into those specifics. You keep it at the level of like, “Did you think of everything I thought through?” How did you learn to do that or to stay there versus getting into those specifics, not micromanaging, but involving yourself where they don’t necessarily need you to be involved and forcing them to think?
A big part of how to be successful in this, in my view, is you have to know your audience. If I do my job and set the expectations clear enough, then they should be able to execute on it. This isn’t like overnight, these things happen. Over time I’ve seen that it’s been successful and teams that I’ve worked with. If you don’t set clear expectations, then you may have wasted weeks and months of time that result and throw away work. To me, that is a direct reflection on the manager and their ability to lead teams. There is a moment where I do want to get in the weeds and understand the thought process. When I get a comfort level with someone in my team and I understand where they’re going and how they’re thinking, it’s pretty easy.
I’ve learned over the years to be able to figure out if they’re thinking of things the way I would want them to. The way my boss and the managers will be wanting as far as the information. The other piece of it too is in the environment we’re in and the matrix organization, it’s critical to be engaged with the teams that we support. As long as we’re working closely and being collaborative with those leaders, then the output that comes to me should be more tinkering and not rewriting.
You mentioned the whole matrix organization a couple of times. That starts to kick in when you get over a couple of hundred employees or when you’ve got teams of teams or multiple businesses that you’re running. For some of the people that maybe don’t know the term matrix organization, can you describe what that means to you and then give us some of the tips of working within that framework?
I’ll break it down to the core. A matrix organization is you may report into someone that let’s say sits in a group role. Let’s use the claims department. We have heads of claims for each business unit and they report in through our chief claims officer that sits in London, which is my boss. That individual in the business units, the head of claims, they’re also part of a leadership team that involves the senior leadership team of that business unit, which would involve underwriting, finance, marketing and so forth.
It’s imperative to be able to navigate and work across those teams. A vision of a group leader is much thinking about how to take the best of best practices and blend them across all of the business units. To do it with the best cost benefits, the best speed to market, and the scale benefits if we ever were to grow in different markets. If you’re in a particular business unit while you do most certainly, and we at Hiscox do things beyond. I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s only the business unit that’s cared about, but it is their primary function to make that business unit successful and profitable. There is an element of it, but the group role is a little bit different.
The success is making the sum of all the parts most successful. It’s a little bit different. In terms of answering your question about how do you make that work, it’s important to be transparent. To work closely with the leaders across those different teams to make sure that expectations and what we’re delivering for those specific business units are crystal clear and there are no unknowns. If those things are all aligned, which takes a lot of work, it’s not easy and being in a matrix organization. If you’re more of a functional type of an organization, you have a manager and that manager is accountable for everything that flows through that pipe. It’s more challenging when you have more of a federated model that requires more cross-collaboration for decision making.
I’m curious on dealing with conflict management. In the functional model, it’s hard enough. We need to have that healthy conflict and good debating and engagement. How do you deal with the good conflict? You’re disagreeing on something with somebody who’s in the matrix side of the organization versus one of your direct reports, how do you approach that? Do you have a model that you use or a methodology that works for you to deal with stuff like that, where you disagree with them or someone’s frustrating you or a team is not getting stuff done? How do you deal with that stuff?
I try to bring people together to talk about what’s the issue? What are we trying to solve? Is it important? There are a lot of things sometimes with conflicts that depending on the person, may make something bigger than it needs to be. Being in a leadership position, it’s imperative and important to be able to navigate through a lot of these different conflicts and determine whether or not it’s something that requires a steer such as this is how we need to solve it together. If it requires more of an individual offline discussion with that direct report or a person that you’re working with, or if it’s something that involves something an HR team to being exposed to. It’s something that is developed over time to know when to say when. That is an exciting part of the job. It creates some excitement and challenge every day.
I like the whole, “Is it even important?” That’s something that happens often. It would happen in the corporate world as well, but often in the entrepreneurial companies, in the 10 to 100 person companies where people are passionately engaged in some idea they have, and they hold onto that versus taking a couple of steps back and looking at it from the bigger perspective. Talk about choosing your team and recruiting key employees to come in and work with you. What do you look for?
You hear different responses to that. Some people say, “I look for people that are similar to me.” Some people might say, “I look for people that are completely different from me.” I try to find individuals that have that relentless passion to want to do great things, to be part of something bigger than themselves and be part of a high-performing team. If I see individuals or feel that individuals are not up to that or not someone during the interview process that I feel could take that type of work on, then they’re not right for the role. The other thing that I feel critical, especially as you advance in your career is being in a position where you’re surrounding yourself with individuals who bring skills to the table that you don’t possess.
For instance, this is a very simple example, but if I have an important need for MI, Management Information reporting. I have specific requests that are dependent or give me the information I need to make a lot of important decisions. You need to bring in the right person that understands the business, but yet also has that competency to be able to go out and be able to extract the information from various systems that might not always be simple to pull from. If you’re in an insurance space like I am and you’re the regulatory focus. We have a lot of things that we have to do for our customers and for our brokers. From that standpoint, you need someone that is a strong compliance leader that understands the nuances that may exist, for example, in the US and the statutory side or regulatory, or if you’re looking over in London. There are different avenues depending on what the whole is you’re trying to go.
It is based on a function by function basis as well. Different functions have completely different behavioral traits you’d be looking for. I was telling someone that there’s not a single salesperson that exists that would ever get through an HR screening process. HR loves policies and procedures and dotting the I’s. Salespeople are supposed to wing it and shoot from the hip, make it up as they go, problem solve and be gregarious. That would scare the heck out of any HR person.
Talking about the eight different countries that you’re operating in, what can you give us in that perspective of lessons that you’ve learned from operating in Europe and Asia? What do you see them doing differently at the leadership level? Let’s start with Europe first, and even maybe naming a couple of countries that you operate in. Have you seen anything that in Switzerland, they do this or in France, they do that?
I personally have not worked yet with Asia. Our claims function has not necessarily been exposed to that yet. In business style so we can focus on Europe, we operate in eight countries and it ranges Benelux, we have that wing. We have Liberia, which is obviously a piece down in the Southern part of Europe, with Spain and Portugal. We’re also in France, Germany, Ireland and so on. It is something that I have not an opportunity necessarily to work a ton with our Europe-based employees in each of those countries yet. I’ve worked a lot with the leaders that are managing those teams. There are challenges with that in terms of different cultures and in terms of language. There’s a number of things that you have to work through and make sure that you’re aligned on. To me, it’s exciting.
Do they lead people, make decisions, or approach culture differently at all?
The level of information needed to make decisions may differ to some degree. I’d need to dig into that a bit to provide more specifics. There is a different way to work depending on possibly the country you may be in. That’s the same way as it is in the United States in terms of the way we operate here. The way you communicate, terminology, the laws and the way we operate from a regulatory standpoint. It is a bear when you’re trying to figure out exactly how you need to function in these places. That’s why it’s so critical that you have the people, the compliance people who understand the countries that we operate in or the staff that has worked in that country for their careers, for example. They understand the dynamics of how you best should communicate with a customer on a particular issue, a claim or whatever it may be. I’ve only been here now for about several months, but I can tell you that a year or two, I’ll be able to give you more.
I’ll circle back in a couple of years. We’ll go for a beer in Scottsdale. You started in the claims space almost right out of college, is that true? Did I hear that right?
I came out of college and I remember there were a couple of opportunities that I remember clearly. One was more on the sales side and the other was more on the insurance side. At the time, you got out of school and I was trying to think of, “What’s the closest location to my parents’ home?” I had the opportunity to pay off loans and do all this stuff that we all have to deal with to a certain degree. It was a company I walked into that gave me a good opportunity. I learned quickly that it was an exciting field if you were willing to take chances and learn different things. To answer your question simply yes, that’s where it started.
Do you think that’s part of why you’ve been successful in your career is that you would have been able to stay in a niche and you’ve gained a lot of domain expertise, or do you think you would have been successful had you worked in 3 or 4 completely different industries? Do you think industry experience has played a role at all?
When I got into the business I’m in, I don’t think anybody goes to college, maybe some people do. I know I didn’t go to college and think when I graduate, I want to work in the insurance company. Out of college, I want to be a claims adjuster. You’re out of school for the first six months. I don’t think that was ever in the back of my mind. I feel like the piece with me is I’ve always been interested in learning about different things. While I have been in the insurance space for the majority of my career, I would say that I’ve always operated in different functional areas. I’ve been in finance. I’ve been in IT. I’ve been in underwriting and had done a bunch of different areas. I’ve learned a lot about the business itself.
Oftentimes people in claims functions may have a good understanding of what we call bottom-line results and expense. The individuals that are able to understand the top line and how the P&L works and all the pieces that tie into the ratios that we use in insurance. Those are the individuals that can create that pocket of opportunity for themselves. Also on the side, on that point, I focus a lot on real estate as well so that is a side passion for me where I didn’t have any experience whatsoever when I moved out to Arizona. Within a short period of time, it’s something that I’ve slowly developed. An example of when things create excitement for me is something I typically will march right at as opposed to shying away from because it’s not something I’m used to.
I love that you’ve had the leadership expertise in many different functional areas of the business as well. Were there any of those areas that were harder that maybe developed some different skills for you?
I’d say when I worked in the teams that were more technology and IT-based. If you come out of college and you’re dealing more with customers, servicing and more of that side of the equation and more legal types of reviews. You go into more of a system and the huge technology transformations, engaging with the business that’s operating in those future systems against what they’re operating in now, you start to learn a lot of different skills and how to pull it all together. To me, I’d say if there was one thing that I jumped into that probably allowed me to get the opportunities that have resulted would be that role where I was able to roll out a number of systems that were big in our industry. As a result of that, it created opportunities, which proved that I could do more than that because I’ve already done it. It grew to the point where my role became much broader and exposure followed.
Talk about the willingness to take on roles. What was the mindset that you had in doing that? Was it something like you knew intuitively that if you took on those roles, it would help you in your career, or was it more the excitement of something new that you wanted to try out? What gives you that opportunity?
It was a combination of both. I was thinking of it logically. At the time I was out of school, I was younger in my career. I wasn’t the person that people were going to with looking for information on big decisions and direction. I made it a point to always try to get time with the people that I aspire to people in terms of their professional careers. As I started talking to them more, I started learning about how they got there. I started saying, “How can I use what I’ve learned from them to then maybe someday be in a role like theirs?” Gradually, it snowballed to the point where now I’m at a point where if I were to think throughout my career, that people I’ve worked for, I could tell you each person I worked for and what I took from each of them in terms of what I wanted to mold my career around. I haven’t mastered that. I don’t claim to do that. It is something that I purposely try to seek out the advice of those that I find to be overly successful, to understand how they got there because how else to learn then from the people that have already made it.
If Tom was talking to himself back at 21, 22 years old, you’re graduating college, you’re getting ready to embark on your career. What word of advice would you give for yourself back then that you know to be true now, what you wish you’d known back when you were 20, 21, 22?
I would be even more willing to take risks when you’re early on in your career. I made those choices and they were successful. In hindsight, it all worked out, but I could have even accelerated it faster if I was willing to be a little bit more aggressive in terms of trying to take opportunities that I thought were maybe not the right ones. It could be a piece to add to your resume and to build that foundational knowledge of the business. With that being said, I did do that too. Maybe I’m being more of a hypocrite. For me, I could’ve done better.
You didn’t have the conscious competence. You were doing it but you didn’t even know you were doing it. Now when you have that conscious competence, it can move to the unconscious competence. Maybe you’re doing it well, but maybe now you wish you knew you were doing it. Tom Wolczik, the COO for Hiscox, thank you for sharing with us on the show. I appreciate your time.
I’ll talk to you soon. Thank you.