The Nine Habits of Trust in Action: Walking the Talk with Russell Atkinson – CEO, NAHL Group plc

Thank you to Russell Atkinson, CEO, NAHL Group plc for this interview with someone who is ‘walking the talk’ with the Nine Habits of Trust and leading the embedding of these behaviours at this market-leading organisation:-

How important is trust in your marketplace?

Our largest business is in personal injury, which is a sector that has been characterised by a lack of trust. This is because a lot of behaviours in that market over the years have been less than exemplary – exaggerated whiplash claims, fraudulent injury claims and so on. We, as an organisation, have set ourselves apart from the others and campaigned against this. For example, in the last few years, we’ve helped 2,000 people report cold-calling to the Information Commissioners Office. We also started a campaign’ a number of years ago where we signed up a lot of our competitors and other companies in the market to what we called the Ethical Marketing Charter. This actively contributed to the debate around Government policy which, ultimately, resulted in a ban on cold-calling being introduced last year.

People tend to forget that only a small number of personal injury claims are fraudulent in one way or another. In reality, more than 90% of claims are genuine and it’s the genuine claimants that sufferer because of the actions of the few. The people who have been a victim of an accident that wasn’t their fault suffer material damage physically, mentally, emotionally or even financially. Our job is to put them back to how they were before they had the accident, as far as we possibly can. If people don’t have trust in us to do that or in the lawyers that we use then you end up with what has happened in our market, which is that the Government overregulates it. Every business in our field is then perceived as bad and so on. So there has been a loss of trust in the nature of our market. We try to operate like a ‘white knight’ but it’s hard to do that. We’re a small company and the weight of insurer-led lobbying combined with easy media headlines makes it challenging to get a balanced message across.

What have been the benefits of focussing upon trust?

It’s hard to be precise except to say we have, over the years, developed market share and a reputation for leadership in our market which is a small sub-sector of the whole personal injury market. We are the market leaders. We specifically measure trust in our brand and it is the most trusted amongst all our competitors. It’s hard to say that means X, Y or Z on the bottom line but it’s also easier to say that if we didn’t have that trusted position, where would we be? Probably not the market-leading PI business in the UK!

Becoming a plc has helped develop a perception of trust. We’re a listed company and, therefore, we have strict governance guidelines to adhere to for our investors and that enhances the sense of trust. But, at its core, this isn’t about us being trusted by investors, it’s about being trusted by consumers, to handle their problems sympathetically, empathetically and in a positive way. We get incredibly good feedback on Trustpilot and, over the years, we’ve continued to build our reputation across all our divisions. Our Critical Care division, for example, is the market-leading provider of case management and expert witness services to severely injured individuals. We achieved this by building a reputation for excellence and independence.

Internally, we carry out an annual survey to measure employee engagement. Some of those questions implicitly involve trust so we do measure trust in the leadership in that survey – ‘My manager’s doing the right things’, ‘My manager cares about me’ and so on. We score very highly on that and, earlier this year, our PI division became one of The Sunday Times Top 100 Best Small Companies to Work For. I really believe that’s driven largely by trust in the brand, trust in the people, trust in the management.

Has the investor expectation regarding trust changed in recent years?

Yes, it’s subtle but there is a change. Our investors consist of literally hundreds of institutions and individuals and, in the main, they still worship at the ‘temple of profit’ but I do sense a shift. I’ve presented to City investors for five years as CEO of NAHL and a few years ago they wouldn’t have asked any questions related to trust, but things like corporate social responsibility are now becoming more important. They’re talking about CSR and ESG, people and engagement. A lot of the big funds are now looking at CSR and engagement and saying ‘We’ll only invest in brands that are trustworthy and responsible.

Investors have always had an interest in the trust in our brand because they know that the brand drives profit but I do remember counting up only a couple of years ago, in 31 meetings throughout the investor roadshow only one question was ever asked about our people and their engagement. This comes up much more often now and is a topic that people are willing to and interested in talking about, there’s a long way to go but I think there is a subtle change happening.

How can organisations build a high trust culture and what is the role of you as the CEO and your senior team in that challenge?

Implicit in trust, is living by our values. Many companies I’ve worked for, historically, have had what they call a set of values. If they make it to a poster on a wall it’s about as far as it gets. ‘These are our values but we don’t live by them.’ Whereas with our four values – unified, passionate, driven, curious – they imply trust. It implies that we’re unified, all working together, have respect for each other. It implies that we’re driven to find the right solutions, that we’re curious about doing things the right way to help our customers. To do all this takes a passion for what we do.

I launched those values when I became CEO and I was very, very keen to embed those and we did that by constantly repeating their importance. We also manage, measure, reward against the values. So we recruit by our values, we measure performance based upon values. Every quarter I choose an employee who has especially embodied one of the Values and each year I choose four values champions, one from each business in the Group representing one of the Values. They then become the champions of those values for the next year. They take the employee feedback we get from our surveys and they work on it with colleagues in small groups to look at things that can be improved, using the values as a basis for the change. It’s repeating that stuff, again and again, that builds it.

How have you worked with The Trusted Executive Foundation and the Nine Habits of Trust model?

We’ve completed two ‘Trusted Executive’ workshops with our leadership teams and we did another session at our annual management conference where everybody worked in small groups and talked about which of the nine habits they’d been working on. Where I am lucky is that because we have recruited against our values it has been really easy to get senior management buy-in. I haven’t been pushing against a closed door. Marcus, our HR Director, loves it all. Even our CFO, James, loves it. He gets involved and understands its value!

I think there are two of the habits that are already well well-embedded in each person. Habit No.5 – Being open with people and Habit No.6 – Being humble – knowing that this isn’t all about me. My own leadership is a coaching style (Habit no.2) because I know I’m not the best strategist in the world or the best marketing person in the world or the best salesperson in the world. But I like to think I’m reasonable at most things and therefore can have a view and I try to coach people to do that. So I use coaching, hopefully, a bit of humility, linked to a bit of openness as natural styles that I have and try and build upon. I think you have to walk the walk, there is no point talking all day about being trusted but if you’re not open with people, if you’re not honest with people, if you hide things or if you don’t tell them what it really looks like, then you’re in a bit of trouble trying to get that across.

I just see myself as a bloke from Newcastle who got lucky. You get into the CEO role and you’re thinking “I’m not quite sure how I got here but hey-ho I’ll do it my way and I’ll do my little bit.” I don’t always get it right I’m sure but there are certain rules I try and follow. I do recognise that my demeanour within the organisation, whatever I’m thinking of, whatever pressures I have, sets the tone. If you set a cheerful and reasonably positive tone, then that’s a positive. I never shout at people but I know some CEOs that do that or are unpredictable and it’s the unpredictability that’s the hard part. If they’re in a great mood and you think ‘oh this is brilliant, the best person I’ve ever worked for’ and then the next day they’re bawling you out for one reason or another, that’s dreadful. You’ve got to be consistent (Habit No.3).

NAHL has worked with the Nine Habits model through workshops, completing the trust survey and using the 360 feedback tool. How are the Nine Habits working for you?

We’re moving our business model from a cash upfront claims aggregator into a law firm. It’s like a Formula One car driving around a track – you’re changing the wheels and the tyres and turning it into a rally car – but still driving it. So I would say the habit we’ve done well is being brave (Habit No.8). I’m trying to make sure that we don’t get too bold. The danger of having a strength like bravery is that you might think “well, we’ve been impregnable, we’ve become untouchable and then let’s be bold about that and let’s be bold about this.” I have to make sure that our team are looking very carefully at things that they’re taking a proper analytical view, assessing the risks, then being bold. Don’t just be bold because you feel brave. Be bold because you have the right tools to do it.

Most individuals are working on all the three pillars – ability, integrity and benevolence. Some want to coach more, some want to be more open, some want to be more humble but the one, collectively, that I think is very interesting is the habit of evangelising (Habit no.7) and it’s something that we do well internally but we don’t do it externally. There’s a tension with the other habit of being humble (Habit No.6). We’re not very good at banging our own drum and it can cost us a little bit if we’re not out there saying “actually this has gone really well, we’ve made some good decisions here.” That works against me a little bit because it’s not my natural style to say ‘look how good we are’ but somehow you have to do it.

My management team has bought into the Nine Habits model as a concept. We’ve all got the picture of the model on our desks and walls and, from time to time, we will remind ourselves of why we are working in this way. If I see behaviours that are working against the Nine Habits or our values, then I will call those out. When we do our coaching and we do our appraisals, we do ask “how are you doing on our values and on the Nine Habits?” Simon’s a great example. He’s the CEO of our PI division and the area he wants to work on is his coaching skills (Habit No.2) and so we’re getting him some coaching to help him with his own coaching! He’s working on stepping back to coach as opposed to doing the tasks himself.

The kindness habit is interesting (Habit No.9) and the idea of practising random acts of kindness. Last year we gave all our employees an extra day’s holiday to reward their efforts. That was a gesture but I don’t think it was a random act of kindness because it was planned and it was motivational, so I don’t count that as a random act of kindness. However, if I make somebody a cup of tea (the word CEO does not mean I can’t make tea!) then I do think that’s a random act of kindness. It’s the little things, not the big things. I have a colleague who is a naturally kind person. Somebody came to her who was really struggling at home and she phoned me up immediately to ask if we could give them a loan. That wasn’t my random act of kindness, that was her saying how do I help this individual? And that’s true kindness.

You’ve had a 360 feedback using the Nine Habits model, what did you get out of that experience?

I think it was very, very interesting to see how the results compared and how people saw me against the Nine Habits and where people saw my team. The 360 reports helped me take a look at my team and say where do we need to do a bit more work? It sets the baseline for us to build from and it helps me understand the dynamic of my team. The biggest challenge we’ve got is to retain the levels of trust that we’ve already reached and making sure we keep an eye on all of the different habits because although one habit doesn’t make the model, I guess getting it really badly wrong on one habit can break the model.

How do you see that bigger picture in terms of what leaders need to do to rebuild trust, whether it be politically, in business or in sport?

It’s a massive challenge, isn’t it? The reason that this Nine Habits model appeals to me so much is that I believe we’ve lost trust in our institutions. And what that Nine Habits model is saying to me is that I don’t buy into the idea that we’re becoming more extremist. I think extreme views were always there but that social media is allowing people to “meet up with” people of similar extreme views and that then reinforces their views. It’s bringing to the surface what is deeply entrenched. I don’t think it’s changing people’s views. The solution does not lie at the extremes. The solution lies in the middle. Being able to be tolerant, being able to be balanced, being able to be proportionate, being able to bring stuff together, that’s what is going to solve the current political crisis. Because our long-term prosperity depends on finding reasonable accommodation to everybody’s views. It’s a difficult thing to do, no-one says it’s easy. There’s a lot of suppressed anger and resentment because we’ve never allowed ourselves to have those debates and social media is now allowing that to happen.

Find out more about the Journey of Trust and how you can get started with an individual and organisational trust survey based on the nine habits. Please contact The Trusted Executive Foundation for further information

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