In the drive to attract new talent to the industry, companies are neglecting to ensure that the talent already within insurance is nurtured and brought to its full potential. Terri Grainger reports

There has been a great deal of debate and press coverage about the issue of "talent" in the insurance industry and how to attract it to the market. However, to what extent is the industry really lacking in talent and is the industry as a whole really doing enough to look after the talent already working within it?

Further, do some in the industry have a biased view of what talent really is? Arguably, those companies that fail to adjust their expectations of what makes a talented employee will fail to be market leaders in the 21st century.

Guy Munnoch, general insurance chief executive of Zurich UK, recently made the point that truly successful companies recognise that to attract, develop and retain talent is the single most powerful differentiator they have. The plight of attracting graduates to the industry continues to be well documented, while the suggestion of recruiting from overseas has also been mooted.

Real challenge
However, an interesting and often overlooked point, is how companies are encouraging and facilitating talented individuals already working within the industry? Perhaps the real challenge is spotting talent or potential in those individuals we already employ.

Before looking to recruit graduates or people from other external sources, companies should aim to develop and maximise their own existing talent and consider the potential of the individuals the industry already employs as a whole. This approach should be applied whatever the age of the individual, from school leavers with only limited experience onwards.

For talent already employed within the industry, some companies do have admirable "fast track" schemes and training academies in place. However, more focus needs to be placed on managing the careers of these individuals in the longer term.

In particular young people are looking for a well-defined career path, training and reward structure. The CII's commendable efforts to attract graduates to the industry will be wasted if companies fail to adequately put structures in place to support them.

A recent Insurance Times survey confirmed that 80% of brokers are planning to address succession planning by developing and promoting from within, rather than preparing their business for a trade sale.

But again, do these brokers have appropriate employees, processes and strategies to get it right?

Recent figures regarding turnover of existing staff should not be ignored. The 2006 National Management salary survey revealed a labour turnover rate of 13% in the insurance sector compared to the national average of 11.9%.

A certain amount of labour turnover can be a good thing, but current trends suggest the need to invest, not only in the future of the industry but also in existing staff. If they are managed and trained correctly they could form the best source of talent for the insurance industry.

Inspirational leaders
According to research conducted by the Chartered Management Institute and Department of Trade and Industry, the most effective and inspirational leaders – a skill often synonymous with talent, combine innate ability with job experience, qualifications, in-house management and leadership development.

Yet the debate about talent often appears to take quite a youthful tone. With an ageing population and ever diminishing sources of talent and experience, the acceptance of an aging work force is essential.

There are around 19 million people aged over 50 in the UK – 40% of the adult population. By 2020 experts predict that the number of people who fall into the 50 plus age group will have increased by a further three million.

For the first time there are more people aged between 55 and 64 than there are between 16 and 24, and 45 and 59-year-olds form the largest age group in the labour force.

The population is slowly ageing and living longer and older people want to, and often have to, remain economically active longer. If consumers are age diverse, it is also logical to have an age diverse workforce.

Self scrutiny should be encouraged. The directors and managers of a company should know their own prejudices. Stereotypes of what talent means can influence behaviour. Managers should think about each individual, their skills and characteristics, then ask why they think as they do.

With age comes experience. While the average age of broking directors is rising, this does not mean they are less able to innovate. They are still looking to stay ahead of the game whether as an independent, through joining an acquiring brokerage (or insurer) or joining a network.

In respect of more youthful talent – credibility might be deemed important but what is that associated with? If it translates only to people of a certain age, this is the wrong approach.

Diverse workforce
Skills shortages will force businesses to employ a much wider range of people, but there is also a sound commercial case for a diverse workforce.

A European Commission report found that it produced "enhanced employee recruitment and retention from a wider pool of high quality workers, improved corporate image and reputation, greater innovation and enhanced marketing opportunities".

Often the most outstanding and talented teams are those which include a mixture of ages and backgrounds.

There is a more extensive exchange of ideas and experience within such groups and it also gives the company added value, providing a solid training ground for the younger employee.

Basing employment decisions on pre-conceived ideas about age, rather than on skills and abilities, is to waste the talents of a large part of the population.

A more varied work force will open companies up to a more diverse customer base. Of course, the commercial case is backed by legislation with the latest, introduced last October, banning age discrimination.

By avoiding unnecessary and irrelevant restrictions on their concepts of talent, a company is less likely to limit their choice when recruiting, training or promoting. IT

Terri Grainger is executive consultant, general insurance at Mansion House