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People strategy charts course for North P&I’s future

Established in 1860, Newcastle headquartered North P&I Club (North) is a world leading marine mutual liability insurer. From capsizing vessels and cyber-terrorism to stowaways and kidnapping, it provides insurance cover and loss prevention services to circa 5,000 ships worldwide, and, for the first time in the Club’s 159-year history, total entered tonnage has exceeded 200 million gross tonnes. Together with its subsidiary Sunderland Marine, a leading insurer of fishing vessels, small craft and aquaculture risks, North now employs almost 400 people across the UK, Europe, Asia-Pacific and the USA.

A successful global company, going from strength to strength, Global People Director, Dawn Robinson tells Nigel Wright how delivering HR transformation without a major “change catalyst” has been the hardest challenge of her 30-year career.

Dawn joined North in 2017, following three years at Nomad Digital where she’d led a successful cultural change programme across the UK, EMEA, US and Australia. Following Nomad’s sale to Alstom, she wanted to remain in the North East and was intrigued by an exciting approach from a business “practically next door” that she’d never heard of:

“I used to walk past North’s building every day but didn’t really appreciate what went on there. North’s not so well known in the region as most of its business comes from overseas, but the website was great – people were a prominent feature and there was an immediate warmth and personal touch about the organisation. It was a global role too, and once I’d met the CEO and my team, I knew I wanted to be part of it."

North provides specialist Protection and Indemnity insurance, otherwise known as P&I insurance, to shipowners, operators and managers around the world. In addition to P&I, it also offers Freight, Demurrage and Defence insurance ("FD&D"), a discretionary legal costs insurance that protects its Members' interests and assets. As a mutual Club, North is owned by and run for the benefit of its members, who can influence strategy and direction. It was a different stakeholder context to any Dawn had previously worked in. However, North’s priorities to address leadership and development, as well as ongoing change and global engagement, suited her previous international experience and skill-set.

The business was in the process of diversifying. It had acquired Sunderland Marine in 2014 and enhanced its capabilities and expertise within its specialist loss prevention team. The inhouse FD&D team, the largest in the industry, launched a new product offering in 2018 and this strategy has boosted membership numbers and revenues.

Development was key, says Dawn, to ensure North’s leaders were equipped for its next phase of evolution and growth. However, with no obvious change “triggers”, the immediate challenge was convincing North’s people that, despite the business’s success, they needed to keep moving with the times:

“Early on I presented to North’s leaders on the ways in which HR can influence people and get them to take responsibility for change. There was bemusement and a reluctance at first. I was from outside the sector, which is rare. And people had become used to HR following directives, rather than asking questions and influencing budgets. Acknowledging this and the fact that Maritime can be a slow-moving industry was important, to ensure the pace of change occurred at a manageable speed.”

With CEO Paul Jennings' backing, Dawn worked closely with the leadership community during the first few months. Paul wanted simple and visual objectives, she explained, and collectively, with the Leadership Team, they re-defined the Club’s purpose, vision and the key strategic goals to be achieved by 2023. This approach led to the creation of ten top priority initiatives that would facilitate the Club’s success during the next five years.

From this process, Dawn conceived a People Road-Map and set expectations for the next three years.

Year one, she explained, was about addressing basic processes and policies, as well as putting a strategy and framework in place. This included transitioning the HR team into a ‘business partnering’ function across North’s global office network. She created a preferred supplier list of recruiters too, ensuring North only works with agencies that truly understand its proposition. Training modules for resourcing were introduced alongside hiring specialist roles in IT and marketing. A restructure within the marketing team also gave Dawn access to a communications specialist to assist with internal engagement.

These may be considered basic steps in other industries, Dawn highlighted, but for North, it was a whole new way of working:

“The HR Team here continues to grow and I’m proud of how they’ve enhanced their learning and evolved into true Business Partners. Along with the Pay and Reward team, we’re becoming more strategic and proactive in our approach. Our international offices feel less isolated from the Newcastle headquarters. A CIO who I hired is improving North’s cyber security and data protection, while the digital presentation of our marketing materials is more professional and consistent, using simple and clear visuals and information that is easier to understand.”

Leadership development has been the focus in year two. Dawn notes how several of North’s employees – including underwriters, lawyers, insurers and claims experts – are regarded as some of the best minds in the industry, offering unmatched technical expertise on the complex cases the business deals with. Many typically have legal backgrounds, though few may have experienced leadership training as part of their learning and development.

Consistent behaviours, tools and materials would help to “unlock North’s true potential,” says Dawn, and further “steady our ship through ongoing turbulent waters in the industry.”

Working with training partner, Roffey Park, leadership development kicked-off with a bespoke two-day programme of blended learning. Called Navigating North, it focused on leadership from a personal, people and business context and provided a balance of theory, pragmatic tools and opportunities for ongoing 360-degree feedback. As well as equipping leaders with the tools, skills and experiences they need to lead and motivate their people, the programme also helped North develop a behavioural framework – True North – that ensures leaders adhere to the same standards, service, quality and performance wherever they’re based.

According to Dawn, the structure and delivery of the course was as powerful as the content. By mixing focus groups with local and global leaders from different operational areas of the business, it enhanced informal networking and cultural diversity, while reinforcing a "One North" mentality.

Moving forward, a Roffey Park specialist will continue working with each leader on their feedback and development interventions, which will further embed the required behaviours and expectations and help identify other development needs. Furthermore, a recent global leadership event offered "closure" to the experience by getting each leader to talk through their learnings and changes they’ve made, as well as the impact it had on their teams:

“Navigating North and True North have had a huge impact on the way our leaders work together. Engagement has increased throughout the business too and we’re now aligning True North to all people practices in a collective way – shaping questions for recruitment, performance reviews and many other processes. It feels like we have a common purpose. There’s a strong ethos for caring and doing the right thing – an upbeat personality seems to be the order of the day.”

Dawn confirmed that planning for the next chapter in North’s transformation journey is now underway. Taking the learnings from the leadership development programme, a new initiative called Magnetic North will focus on ‘Development for All’ North employees. Enhancing learning and development across the business featured highly in a recent people survey, says Dawn. And although it's still a work in progress, over the next 12-18 months it will evolve into a personalised and localised offering.

Linked to this is North’s efforts to hire junior solicitors and paralegals and train them internally. This is a new approach by the business, confirmed Dawn, as North previously recruited “ready-made” specialists because of the complexity of its cases. She added:

“Development for everyone is a key focus moving forward. Magnetic North will become a great success story to add to our recent leadership programme. It's global and different from what we’ve tried in the past. Throughout, HR will work alongside the staff liaison committee and executive team to ensure alignment with our priority initiatives. We’re already getting some great results and I expect they’ll get even better – so watch this space.”

As the second largest P&I Club, North does attract talent through the strength of its brand and from referrals within the sector. However, it acknowledges that more needs doing to raise awareness about employment opportunities at the business, particularly in the North East.

Humility is definitely an aspect of the culture, says Dawn. Compared to other Clubs, North doesn’t celebrate success in an overt way. In recent years, however, it has gained a reputation for its CSR activities – donating £700k to local health, education, environment and social deprivation causes in nine years – as well as award-winning Health and Wellbeing initiatives such as group meditation and yoga at work, free fruit and an allowance for gym and sporting club memberships.

In addition to emphasising North’s benefits, Dawn confirmed the business is working on improving its public profile to better reflect the company today amidst changing markets. It will do this by rejuvenating communication of its core values and conveying the strength and quality of North’s people. The next evolution of North’s brand will also introduce a new vision and brand to drive a greater sense of unity across the business.

HR Strategy

She added: “The brand has served us well, but because we’re diversifying it’s time for a refresh. It’s almost there, and we’re hoping that it will be revealed very soon.

Maintaining a great service and retaining fantastic people, whilst offering quality with humility, is the “magnetic force that draws new members and employees to us,” says Dawn. Moving forward, her priorities over the next 12 months are working on the people Road-Map, focusing on development and enhancing collaboration across North. Helping her CEO continue making a difference is important too. Ongoing diversification of the business is important, she notes. Though by ensuring he feels confident, has all the required support mechanisms in place and a competent leadership around him is critical to North’s ongoing success:

“We want North to be the Club that everyone wants to join, she says. “And it’s my job, along with my team and our leaders, to create the right environment so that the vision can be realised."

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