Quin Lovis, active underwriter at Highway, explains why insurers and brokers need to overhaul their training programmes and give greater responsibility to staff....

One of the most common phrases used in business is: "Your staff are your most important asset." However, if you look under the surface of a company, and indeed many insurers and brokers, you will often find that their words are louder than their actions.

Compared with other industries, the insurance sector is perhaps not seen as the most dynamic and exciting. Some of this criticism is unfair but not all. Perhaps a key reason for this negative perception is that staff are not empowered enough and they are not given a remit to really make a difference to the company they work for.

In allowing them to go that extra mile, not only will new exciting ideas be generated, it will also help ensure that insurers and brokers keep their recruitment and employee-absentee costs to a minimum. Companies must realise that if they want to attract the best people, motivate and keep them, they need to ensure that they feel challenged and important. With this in mind, the new buzz-word for training and employee relations has to be "empowerment".

One of the biggest obstacles to empowerment is senior management being concerned for their own jobs. However, delegation and staff development are a crucial part of being a senior player and if it works, everyone can enjoy the success and no one should feel that their job is threatened.

Highway recently challenged its junior management and section leaders to tackle eight key issues affecting the company. They had to demonstrate that they understood the issues and then make recommendations. The areas included evaluating how our service levels impact on profitability, developing a new underwriting product, making recommendations for future working practices and drawing up a new system for measuring workflow and performance. Of the eight recommendations made, six are being implemented and two are being developed further.

However, good ideas are not only to be found at executive and management level – something insurers and brokers need to wake up to.

A working environment that looks to improve and, where necessary, challenge the status quo should be developed, but staff need to be provided with the skills and knowledge to do this. This is essential when you consider that we are in the midst of major changes in the insurance sector and that no one can afford to stand still in today's environment. Despite this, there are far too many insurers and brokers that do not offer a large section of their workforce training of any sort. At Highway, we now ensure that over 95% of staff – including part-time and casual workers – attend training courses every year.

Perhaps a catalyst and driver for developing training programmes would be for insurers and brokers to spend more time and money evaluating how successful their programmes are in this area. If they were to do this, they would realise that this is one of the best ways to spend management time and money. For example, complaints against Highway reduced by 3% in 1999 and have fallen by a further 20% so far in 2000. The key reason for this is our training programme and providing greater responsibility to our staff.

Many people in the industry reading this may feel that I am being too harsh in my criticism. However, Investors in People (IIP), is a benchmark for measuring the quality of the training and overall support provided by a company to its staff, but very few insurers and brokers have qualified for this. We were awarded this in 1999 in just four months – a record we are extremely proud of.

I challenge all companies operating in the sector to apply for an IIP award and see just how much work they have to do.