Alison Gill identifies a new breed of strategic account manager within the re/insurance sector.

Until recent times, the subject of risk was not one to be found at the top of the board agenda, let alone at the dinner table of the populous. However, diverse events such as September 11 and Enron mean that the word `risk' has taken on emotive proportions greater than ever before, and it now sits high on every board of directors' priority list.

This change in mindset has launched an interesting challenge for the re/insurance industry: the need to provide global advisors who can operate within the corridors of power, navigate complex organisations, develop long-term value-laden relationships and orchestrate the activities of their own organisations to provide expert support at a moment's notice.

The industry's vision and mission statements and strategic documentation are cluttered with the words `client-focused' or `clientcentric'. Every risk management and re/insurance company in the world aspires to become the `trusted advisor' which protects its clients from the jaws of disaster, mitigates risks and thus ensures their long-term success and survival. The question on the tongue of every client is: "What is being done to ensure that these laudable goals are being met and, more importantly, which of them is the `advisor' that I can truly trust?"

Research has led to the slightly surprising conclusion that the answer is to be found within the sales function of organisations. What is required and what is evolving within the industry is a new breed of strategic account manager. The concept of strategic account management is one espoused by many of the large global players, but this crucial concept is not yet fully developed and is unexpectedly undervalued by the organisations themselves. Several of the biggest players know intuitively that their strategic account management is far from ideal and they attempt to adopt the concept, but to little avail: The title of strategic account manager (SAM) has little internal support. Fiddling to create better support for the concept from chairmen and chief executives rarely results in a satisfactory conclusion and usually leads to confusion, both within the organisation and externally, in the market.

The concept of strategic account management is a simple one. As big players get bigger - providing greater offerings and taking control of greater market share - their global clients want and need a single point of contact to navigate and leverage the plethora of services that offer them protection from disaster. In reality, the capabilities required to achieve this and to give clients desired levels of service on complex long-term deals extend far beyond the boundaries of traditional global, key or strategic account managers. To enter into a paradigm of best of breed strategic account management, the first challenge is to engineer the strategic account management function so that it is not affected by the traditional sales or client service operations of the organisation. The second challenge is to find the people that can perform a role that requires exceptional `strategic diplomacy'.

Strategic diplomats
Strategic diplomats are the `Men in Black' of the re/insurance industry. They appear when needed, seek no recognition for their efforts, are rewarded by the output of their and others' efforts, and they have the knowledge and insight to see how each component part fits into the whole offering. Identifying these individuals and retaining them is an absolute science, and re/insurance and risk management organisations that are serious about leading the charge must engineer their processes to identify, nurture and leverage these strategic diplomats.

This new breed of SAM differs from the traditional strategic account manager in a number of ways. Firstly, they are not super- salespeople and they are not found through typical sales promotion mechanisms. Also, they have a different profile to traditional key, global account managers or even entrepreneurial chief executives.

Strategic diplomats have a unique motivational profile: they are individuals who shy away from overt recognition and who are modest in acceptance of praise; they prefer to pass recognition to those around them who have seen the importance of their work and have committed effort to make it happen; they are heavily motivated by understanding the links and connections between different characters, organisations and issues; and they thrive in conditions of extreme organisational complexity. They are comfortable with high levels of ambiguity, extreme complexity and genuine uncertainty, because these provide factors them with the opportunity to expand their horizons. This Zen-like quality is slightly paradoxical, causing strategic diplomats to resist mental overload and busyness except where it has the potential to be catalytic to the formation of new concepts that are of value, in the broadest sense, to both their clients and the organisations that they represent. This motivational profile is not that of an expert who is valued and recognised for the depth of his expertise; it is not the profile of a typical client service director who is motivated by the relationship. Rather, it is the profile of an unusual breed - the strategist to whom knowledge and the generation of concepts are a means to an end for the greater good of all concerned.

A simple conclusion would be that the strategic diplomat is of extraordinary intellect. However, our research shows this not to be the case, at least not in the typical sense, which uses measures of educational status or standard IQ. Strategic diplomats have an extraordinary thirst to learn, and fill their world with information that will provide the connections and links to evolve the answers that they need. They see things that other people do not and act upon those insights to create new value. They are numerically minded but only in the context of value. They create clarity by reviewing balanced performance metrics regularly and without remorse. This rational and logical approach is not tainted by hard-nosed calculation but is a lever that promotes openness, clarity and absolute understanding of value-add.

Ways of working
Strategic diplomats prefer to work alone but much of their time is spent with others. They are not driven by social interaction but the power of their social capability means that others are drawn to them. They are skilled facilitators who understand the linkage between individual behaviour and the quality of decision taking in a group. They will frequently be found orchestrating dialogue or facilitating interaction between the most diverse parties. Their facilitation is transformative and leads to `just-in-time' decisions as well as recommendations for critical changes in an organisation's systems and processes. Strategic diplomats are never satisfied with a decision if they can see the potential for the issue to recur.

Strategic diplomats are experts in human behaviour, and recognise that different risk appetites among individual members of a board provide the single biggest hurdle to finding the right solution. The strategic diplomat is able to recognise the level of sophistication that the client's management team possesses and knows how to improve the sophistication of their decision-taking without ever crossing the invisible divide between advisor and client. This complex skill is gained by knowing how organisations, and the boards that run them, develop. The stages of individual and organisational development, and the type of interaction that a board possesses underpin the strategic diplomat's modus operandi and call to action.

The role of the strategic diplomat spans the boundaries between his own organisation and that of his global client. The strategic diplomat is as likely to understand the implications of an organisation's next action on the accounts clerk as he is to understand the impact on the organisation's position in the marketplace.

Although strategic diplomats operate under conditions of extreme organisational complexity and are comfortable with high levels of ambiguity, complexity and genuine uncertainty, their role demands that these factors be ironed out as far as possible. They always try to create clarity where clarity can exist and to identify trends and causal links where systemic risks have the potential to create ripple effects across borders. They operate with a high degree of autonomy but are relied upon to facilitate the interaction of others, to ensure that team thinking occurs and that issues and conflicts are explored and fully resolved. They are early adopters of organisational ways of working because they know it makes sense to use what works. In a chameleon-like way, they can rearrange their interactions and ways of working to fit these of their clients. Yet, they retain the ability to fit in with their own organisations' systems and processes. In short, they operate with the highest degree of autonomy possible while leveraging existing processes to ensure that both clients and their own organisations functions optimally.

Identifying and developing
The truth is that strategic account management in each organisation will look slightly different. Getting it right means looking at your people's capabilities, the realities facing the customer's business, how they work together, and then identifying the strategic diplomats who are best placed to work for you, given your stage of development.

You will be lucky if you can find strategic diplomats promoted through the ranks in the traditional manner of the `unspoken code of honour' so typical of many of the world's leading insurance and reinsurance businesses. Rather, they will begin to emerge through the use of a diagnostic process focused on a well-rounded but stretching definition of the capability you seek. It is almost certain that they will have spent time outside the industry and that they will have a broad spectrum of interests in business, individual and organisational development.

You definitely don't want an organisation full of strategic diplomats but in the current climate, and with the growing sense of urgency from the most senior corporate representatives to adequately protect their organisations from disaster, the role of strategic diplomat has a new sense of importance: it is vital for riding cyclical challenges and leveraging structural challenges within the re/insurance industry. Every serious challenger must act now to understand the processes required to select strategic diplomats and to find a few who are highly valued for their capability to make the most of the potential of your organisation.

In an industry where men in grey suits are more renowned for their high salaries, extraordinary personalities and social charm than gracing the boardroom with long-term strategies that impact across continents and diverse populations, there is an immediate demand for the social charm to be replaced by the skills of a strategic diplomat, who has high levels of business acumen and an inherent knowledge of what makes an organisation and its board members tick.
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  • Alison Gill is a founding director of Getfeedback, a web-based, human performance profiling, reporting and feedback company. Further information can be found at getfeedback.net.

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