Yabantu speaks personally to Insurance Times about the group’s strategy and lessons learned from experiencing racism
Michael Yabantu, Aviva director for UK mid-market, schemes and regional specialty, is channelling lessons learned from playing team sport and his aspiration for improved diversity and inclusion to achieve strategic goals in his new role.
Yabantu initially joined Aviva back in February 2018 as head of trading for north region and – after bringing Scotland and Northern Ireland into the business – climbed the ranks to development director, before being promoted to his current role in October 2022, taking on responsibility for covering up to £250m of annual turnover.
Speaking exclusively to Insurance Times, Yabantu explains that he was an avid footballer growing up.
His commitment to his sporting performance was a catalyst to the beginning of his career in the insurance sector.
While studying at college in 2000, Yabantu started his first job at Endsleigh Insurance Brokers’ call centre in 2000 because the firm provided flexibility in working hours, enabling him to balance his training and studies.
Although Yabantu has now passed on his studded boots to his eldest son, who currently plays for returning Premier League side Burnley F.C’s. academy – of which, of course, Yabantu is a fan – Aviva’s director says business, much like football, is a “team sport”.
Success in business is “not about me as an individual – whatever role I’m doing – it’s about us”, he adds.
“How we pull together to [achieve] a common goal” is what defines success, he says, and that depends largely on “representation” and “inclusivity”.
One goal for Yabantu, Aviva’s leadership and the insurer’s wider group is to achieve its four-pillar plan.
He explains: “So, have we delivered the best outcomes for our customers? Have we delivered and deployed the breadth of our appetite? Are we delivering an even better and more consistent service? And have we supported brokers and customers on sustainability by continuing to deliver more tangible underwriting solutions?”
In terms of the progress made so far, Yabantu highlights that Aviva has enabled 400 technical license increases in 2022 – this is a “record number” for the insurer over the space of a year and enables brokers to “talk to people that have got the most authority they can”, because “we know that speed of response [and] access to decision makers is really critical”.
To “remove” trade “friction”, Yabantu adds that the insurer has also invested in self-serve capabilities for “brokers to be able to lapse or renew a policy from a regional perspective or to make simple changes to multi-fleet policies without the need for underwriter”.
However, if a “broker still wants to speak to us, we are there”.
Six country qualification
With his focus on helping Aviva to achieve its goals, Yabantu believes that representation across the whole range of diverse characteristics is vital to success.
He explains that bringing in and empowering a “real diverse range of people in your organisation” brings “diversity of thought”, as well as experiences.
“People from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of life experience – as well as business experience – will [provide] a better outcome when thinking about a new product or a new proposition, because you’re bringing a broader range of thoughts, inputs and insights into whatever you’re looking to develop,” he says.
Additionally, Yabantu believes that inclusivity “drives the culture” of a business to improve, even though “we’ve got an awful long way to go in the [insurance] industry”.
From a personal perspective, Yabantu shares that, “coming from an ethnic minority and being very diverse in my heritage”, he has an “opportunity” to share his experiences and help educate the firm’s teams.
Yabantu was born in Wales and left aged one to move to Lancashire. His dad’s side of the family originate from South Africa and his mum’s side of the family are from Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Yabantu’s mother was sent to the UK by her grandmother so that she could study.
Yabantu’s grandad, on the other hand, returned to South Africa to work under the education minister as part of Nelson Mandela’s government after having previously fled the country during apartheid in the 1970s with Yabantu’s dad and two aunties
As a result of his diverse heritage, Yabantu says that his career icebreaker for the last 20 years has been “if I was good enough to play international football – which I’m not – I’d qualify for six different countries”.
In educating the insurance sector on the importance of diversity and inclusion, Yabantu says that he can bring a fresh perspective on the difficulties of encountering non-accepting behaviours, precisely because he has experienced them.
He explains: “What I have learned, particularly in more recent years, is [that it’s not so much my] heritage [that I can speak from the perspective of], but [my] lived experiences throughout school and college of some of the non-inclusive behaviour and racism that I’ve encountered.
“[I didn’t encounter this behaviour] in work, but I use those lived experiences to share with people in work.
“That connectivity and that relatability to a smaller population of colleagues or to people [who may say] ’oh my gosh, I would never have any idea that you could go through that’ – it really helps education and understanding.”
Yabantu praises Aviva’s open culture on issues of diversity and inclusion and notes the firm’s race and ethnicity disclosure stat currently sits at 89% in the UK.
When it comes to conversations around raising awareness of the importance of accepting people, Yabantu says “the bravery to say ’I want to talk about this and I want to learn’ is probably the biggest thing”.
He says: “Step into conversations and be curious – people will say the wrong thing or make mistakes along the way, but as long as it’s well-intentioned, it’s acknowledged and you move on, that’s fine.”
An example of this approach that Yabantu cites is solution to avoiding the “common microaggression” of his name being spelt or pronounced incorrectly, which “isn’t [necessarily] an insurance thing”.
Internally at Aviva, staff are provided with a function that allows staff to display their names phonetically, which Yabantu says “allows our team to communicate and relate to each other”.
However, he says: “If you’re not sure, ask. Anybody would rather you ask and get it right than not ask and get it wrong.”