In the wee hours of the day of my first board meeting at Future Generali India Insurance (FGII), my house was engulfed in massive flames, which took 2 fire tenders to put out. It was baptism by fire. In hindsight, perhaps it was also a sign of times to come. Just under a year later, I found myself attempting to put out yet another metaphorical fire—a crisis caused by a small virus that went on to create an unprecedented global pandemic that we continue to battle to this day.
By the first quarter of CY 2020, the world (including India) had woken up to the impact of Covid-19. Time was of the essence. With the dark clouds of a nationwide lockdown looming large over India, I found myself relying on gut instinct and acumen, garnered over the past 20 years to ensure that there would be minimum disruption in the business due to the pandemic. There were no easy answers. It was a combination of factors—plain luck and foresight, collaborative effort from a dependable team, and most importantly, FGII’s brand philosophy itself, which coincidentally aligned perfectly with my own line of thinking—that came to the rescue, ensuring not just business continuity, but also eventually enabling the company to close 2020 on a positive note and ahead of budget, despite the restrictions imposed by the extended national lockdown and the havoc it played on consumer sentiment and demand.
The human touch
In order to uncover the secret of how FGII emerged victorious from the unprecedented pandemic and the extended lockdown, one has to first unearth the secret ingredient that made all the difference: compassion. It is a word that finds a recurring presence in my dictionary, and also happens to be at the core of one of Generali’s brand values—human touch.
Early on, when I joined the company, and I was travelling and meeting colleagues across the country, I found myself at the receiving end of a very innocuous question from multiple sources, including juniors and seniors in both branch and corporate offices. The question was simple: ‘why should we increase the market share? How does it matter’?
The answer was simple enough too, and yet it stumped me—after all, isn’t increasing the market share the goal of every single company on the planet? So what made FGII’s goal so unique? I realised that in order to answer this question, it was important to delve into a deeper question: ‘why does Future Generali exist’?
It was important to give the world a clearer understanding of what FGII stood for; explain the philosophy that drives every decision in the company—from the kind of people FGII hires, to how the company deals with its stakeholders. It all emanated from a single innocent question, and I am happy we came out with a philosophy of being people-first as an organisation.
FGII is a brand that leads with innovation, simplicity and empathy. And while this is a policy that the brand incorporates indiscriminately in its dealings with employees, stakeholders, consumers, agents, and the world at large, the pandemic gave us the opportunity to show this by our actions and not just words.
Covid showed us the way to be compassionate
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Non-violence can never come from the weak, it has to come from the strong.” That goes for compassion too—it cannot come from the weak. Being compassionate is a difficult choice, and can only come from strength. And like muscle, it needs to be constantly exercised, so that we develop “muscle-memory.” For compassion to be effective, it must be backed by strength and skill.
In a way, FGII’s philosophy of ‘expertise with empathy’ was immediately put to test in the pandemic environment. It gave us the opportunity to reinforce our core values and show our “tough side” through compassion. Like businesses across the country, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted FGII as well. But we saw far lower lockdown-related disruption due to the fact that we read the situation better. At times like this, there is always the temptation to take the path of least resistance—for instance, take an impersonal, transactional call, cut one’s losses and move on, let go of employees, exit locations and LOBs, basically practice short-termism. These are easier choices. But to be compassionate is a difficult one.
Covid showed us the path to be compassionate. And so we put our employees first and didn’t take any of those seemingly easy decisions. I believed that just saying ‘we are an employee-first organisation’ wasn’t enough. It was time to prove it. First, we cleared all negative apprehensions around job instability and salary cut in the Townhall and various other communication forums. We made sure that every single employee got their due credit, bonuses and increments on time, just like any other year. We placed bets on increasing productivity and widening the gap between us and competition—any disruption was a great opportunity to disproportionately skew market outcomes in our favour. Distribution partners were enabled with tech and digital tools so that they could source policies remotely, and protect their incomes, and at the same time were offered free insurance—a lump sum benefit, in case any agent or their immediate family tested positive for COVID-19.
Providing a safe working environment was and continues to be a priority at FGII, where a very strict Covid protocol continues to be followed in light of the second wave of Covid in India. As a result, very few employees were impacted during the pandemic. Less than 250 employees (on roll as well as off roll) have tested positive since the start of the pandemic—a number that is far lower than other organizations.
Somebody I admire deeply told me this almost 2 decades ago: ‘The greater the power you have, the more compassionate you need to be. If you are a believer, imagine an all-powerful God with no compassion. What kind of a world would we be living in then!’
On a personal level, to me, Covid-19 emphasised the need to trust and be empathetic towards every individual, and at an organisational level, the ability and the courage to be compassionate became the chief differentiator for FGII.
Mental wellness for one and all
While we put to rest the job-related worries among employees, as a company we also took a holistic approach towards employee welfare by focussing on the mental health of all employees.
It is a fact that the pandemic has escalated the pre-existing mental health problem in the country. Concerns about physical health, extended lockdowns, long periods of social disconnection, increased stress due to new methods of working have all contributed to the problem. FGII employees are not immune to this either. Post pandemic, we—the working population of the country—haven’t really switched off. The space between professional and personal life is now blurred, and this has not only affected mental health but also negatively affected the quality of time that one spends with family.
That is why we initiated various employee engagement initiatives under health and wellness, employee assistance programmes, knowledge sharing, fun activities, etc, to encourage a healthy work-life balance. Some of our employee welfare initiatives included a ‘COVID 19 Webinar Series’, where external experts were engaged to counsel employees going through mental stress/anxiety during lockdown, including a One to One toll-free Helpline number (90 3535 8080 ), offering totally confidential professional trained counsellors to employees who sought help. We also offered Yoga and Zumba classes, talent competitions that encouraged employees’ families and children to participate, besides urging branch leadership to do localised engagement programmes.
As a company, we focused on the mental wellness of our employees. But that’s not all. We took it a step further and made mental health and wellness a key pivot in our brand story as well. Taking note of the increased incidence of mental health issues during lockdown, we took the opportunity to launch unique, industry-first campaigns like ‘HealthInsideOut’ and initiatives like ‘Total Health Score’, which sparked off the conversation around mental health in the hope that the hitherto taboo subject would find acceptance among consumers—with this we adhered to the brand purpose of being a lifetime partner to the customers and to lead with empathy, human touch and innovation. Incidentally, FGII is the only BFSI currently addressing or to have ever addressed the subject of mental illness!
A ‘Great Pace to Work’
From mental and physical wellness initiatives to ensuring job stability, promotions and increments, to enabling seamless transfer to digital technology and work from home opportunities, FGII’s investment in people, especially the employee-first approach in a year like 2020, definitely paid off. It is a matter of great pride that we have been certified as a ‘Great Place to Work’ for the 2nd consecutive year in 2020. I also find it gratifying that FGII is valued as a benchmark competitor—industry players look up to us for our marketing campaigns, financial performance and employee initiatives. The regulator seeks our views on industry and policy matters, and we have been the biggest beneficiary, in the industry, of positive media attention.
I credit all the success to the fact that the company has stayed invested in people—employees, customers and stakeholders. The human touch has made all the difference—proof of the pudding is the smile on the faces of our happy employees and customers, as well as in FGII’s increased productivity, and the organization’s growth in a year like 2020. FGII is now one of the top 10 private general insurers in India (currently ranked 9th). Our vision is to break into the Top 5 Private General Insurers by 2024, using product innovation and technology, and of course, human touch, and we are constantly striving to achieve this goal.
The good news is we already have a winning formula on our hands. And with the quality of our employees, the best raw material too.