Cultural change in a pandemic

In the throes of a pandemic, Markel International launched a global framework in H2 2020: the Markel Style in Action. In today’s Avencia Consults article, Jo Browning, HR and Communications Director, Markel International, offers an insight into the Markel Style in Action, what it means for employees, and the impact it has had so far on the organisation.


The Markel Style and it’s guiding principle of ‘Bold Ideas and Honest Actions’ was first launched 35 years ago. The ethos of the Style in Action is to amplify the existing culture by “creating an environment where people are able to authentically bring their true selves to work”. A powerful call to action for all employees to “Get involved. Be the culture. Drive the change”.


What is the Markel Style in Action and what does it look to achieve?

Early last year, Markel was making good strides in diversity and inclusion. We reviewed our family leave arrangements, talent programmes, diversity, and data. However, when we took a step back, we realised we were very HR driven and our progress was narrow and top-down.


Our focus was on what the company assumed our priorities were, and we realised we needed to take a more holistic approach, making our diversity and inclusion priorities employee-led so they reflected the priorities and interests of our people.

Markel’s Style is fundamental in everything we do, it has been part of the culture since 1986, and is what makes us unique. To form the Style in Action, we have broken the Style into five main pillars of activity: diversity and inclusion, community, wellbeing, recognition, and innovation.

Each pillar intersects and consists of its own network and activities. They are broad in design so they can adapt and evolve. For example, diversity originally had a focus of gender and ethnicity, resulting from data insight such as gender pay gap reporting, but as a result of listening to our employees, social mobility became
a key area of focus.

The leaders of the networks are not HR or leaders of the business, they are people from any part of the organisation who are passionate about the topics. Markel’s aspiration is to be one of the world’s great companies, so it is important the Style in Action is employee-led.


From a HR perspective, how do you measure if initiatives are working?

As part of our response to the pandemic, we have been running a fortnightly pulse survey to track wellbeing. These have provided us with brilliant trend data, enabling us to see which teams are struggling, who needs additional support, where communications have dropped, and who is experiencing technical issues.

We are data-driven in everything we do, but we ensure it is well balanced with anecdotal feedback. We look at the data in our talent programmes, talent pipelines, and pulse surveys. Equally, back in February the wellbeing tracker highlighted anecdotal feedback on the struggles of home schooling. In response to this, we shared a brilliant webinar on how working parents and carers could balance home schooling and work – the feedback was fantastic! We try and combine the use of data and listening to the needs of our people.


What has been the impact of the community pillar so far?

The Community network was set up late last year and focuses on charity, social (internal social), sustainability and environment. It is still in the early stages of planning, but the response so far has been great. For example, the sustainability and environmental angle came from employee demand, and now with the rise of ESG, it provides us with a natural channel for this work.


I am very excited to see what comes out of the community network over the coming months.


How do the pillars intersect?

While each pillar has its own network, we are creating a Style in Action Group which will sit behind the scenes, providing oversight and governance, ensuring actions are in line with the HR strategy, budget is being controlled, and event sign-off is as smooth as possible. The helicopter view provided by the Style in
Action Group means that the ideas and activities which complement each other are shared.

I am pleased to say that so far, considering how complex Markel is as a global company, every time we face a challenge, we figure it out. The positive intent behind the pillars has been brilliant.


How do employees become part of the network and what does it entail?

There are a variety of routes to take to get involved and each network looks slightly different. Employees can proactively apply for the different roles to suit various backgrounds and preferences. The network is also made up of allies and champions who make sure the events are being promoted and feedback is
coming through.

Our fortnightly Style in Action newsletter offers people the chance to sign-up and provides an opportunity for feedback.


If you become a leader, does it rotate?

Yes, we are expecting every role to have an 18-month rotation. There is a structure in place for each network to ensure they remain fresh, with representation across many international offices. We are always looking at ways to bring in new people and make changes.


What role does a people manager have to play in the Style in Action?

For most member roles, employees are committing to one meeting a month. They might also get involved with events; however, the lead roles hold a greater responsibility. There is also a senior sponsor for each pillar.

When employees apply to the network, they usually check in with their managers beforehand to make sure it’s possible alongside their day jobs. We often find that the people who get involved are so passionate they make it work. Managers see this passion and encourage them as best they can.

The Style in Action offers a great opportunity for employees to balance their job and develop new skills, with giving something back to each other and the company. 


Are there any initiatives you are personally proud of?

In September/October last year, we received feedback from our teams in the pulse surveys that our communication had dropped. Our employees were feeling disconnected and needed something to look forward to.

In response, we put on a panto and a magic night. This received great feedback; people were happy that we had put something on that their flat mates and kids could enjoy and get involved in.

We also repurposed the Christmas party money and provided everyone with a gift which could either be from a chosen website, an Amazon voucher, or employees could decide to donate money to one of Markel’s supported charities. Employees were not only happy that we were saying thank you, but most importantly, that we had given them a choice.

We saw the gap, we listened to what was important to our people, and we did something about it.


Pulse surveys have played an important part for you in 2020. Who is responsible for going through the results?

They are co-owned. The HR Business Partnering team look through the results to see where there might be any employee wellbeing and management questions/concerns, and they follow up with these on a personal and confidential basis. Heads of department also see the high-level trend data, so they can of course correct if needed. 


Did you have an engagement survey in place before the pandemic?

Yes, we run a global engagement survey every two years. It provides us with rich data that we work through for several months to determine a corporation-wide plan. Each team owns their data, and we require every team to have an action plan in response to the trends that come up in their area.

We are looking to run another engagement survey towards the end of this year. We take them very seriously. They prove invaluable and help us to assess the trends, helping us to make changes for the better. They also provide HR with metrics that are implemented within the HR strategy.


What has been your biggest challenge with diversity and inclusion so far?

Diversity and inclusion are two very different things, and while the Style in Action is very much focused on inclusion, diversity is and continues to be our biggest challenge.

Markel, like many insurers, is not great with the diversity characteristics; something which was really highlighted during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. We have conducted several town halls and round tables over the last year to be sure we are listening to and addressing concerns of our people. The insurance industry in general needs to focus on building a real broad balance of people across all areas of diversity.

We are also struggling to make a dent in our gender pay gap. The ratio of female and senior leaders and our low turnover means progress is slow. We are always looking at ways to improve this through our HR programmes, particularly leadership development and recruitment. 


How can companies best approach diversity and inclusion?

My advice is to figure out what is right for your company. Remember, what is right for one company, may not be right for another.

I have always been a firm believer that diversity and inclusion must be authentic. You can’t have a senior leader who doesn’t hold true to what you are trying to achieve. Focusing on inclusion, employee experience, and utilising the Markel Style was the right way for us, and in time we hope to see our diversity profile change.


Where would you like Markel to be in their diversity and inclusion journey in 6-9 months’ time?

There is still the tendency to have a very traditional mindset when recruiting for specific skills. Of course, there are technical aspects to a job but I would like us to be more open minded with skill sets and industry experience. By doing so, I believe we will have better access to more interesting and diverse shortlists.

We recently presented our HR strategy to Markel’s President’s group with a focused discussion on Talent Acquisition and the importance of pipeline. William Stovin (President of Markel International) referenced how having Avencia as our strategic RPO partner has been an absolute game-changer, noting that the quality of
the recruitment we have now is “streets ahead of where we were previously”. Avencia is making a real difference in supporting us to achieve our goals.

Diversity and inclusion are a journey, and the Style in Action is very much a work in progress. We deliberately chose not to produce a finished article; the company is evolving, our culture is evolving, and we want our employees to drive our diversity and inclusion journey.

We are very much learning as we go, but I am so proud of what the Style in Action is already meaning, and the energy and collaboration it's achieving - it feels very natural. 


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