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Fernando Villar: Leading from the front

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Fernando Villar may have a master’s in international leadership, but Insider Engage finds that his willingness to "get in the trenches" stems from his belief in an engaged workforce

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Fernando Villar, COO and head of P&C solutions for EMEA, Swiss Re
- Credit: Andrew Perkins

When interviewing executives, it can be an interesting exercise to uncover what words they use most when describing themselves and their experiences.

While tone and delivery are important – and can paint a picture about how confident they are or the sort of leader they present themselves as – the language they use provides a different level of insight.

Certain annoying management-speak buzzwords aside, there is a lot to be gleaned about a person’s personality by assessing their speech.

Some, for example, will constantly refer to how lucky they are, how fortuitous their journey was, how indebted they are to those who opened doors for them.

Others will speak in somewhat dispassionate terms, referring to frameworks, patterns, applying a sense of logic and process to everything.

Others will talk passionately about themselves – “I worked hard”, “my experience showed”, “it was clear to me” etc.

But what strikes you when you interview Fernando Villar, chief operating officer and head of P&C solutions for EMEA at Swiss Re, is how he is clearly driven by two things: people and data.

His character combined the unusual mixture of putting numbers and outcomes on an equal plane with people and staff satisfaction.

“As a result-oriented leader, my first reaction is to think about numbers,” he says when asked about his greatest accomplishments, before rattling through some statistics about quadrupling the new Client Solutions results in only in three years.

But in the same breath, he’ll talk about how numbers can’t be the biggest achievements on their own, and relates instead how a recent major success was seeing one of his staff being promoted into another division within the company.

“We want to be a talent incubator for EMEA, Swiss Re and the industry,” he says earnestly.

“For me, my biggest achievement is when I see people developing and following their passion, their dreams. When I see colleagues that I coach, mentor or hire and see them progressing in the business and personal lives.”

He goes on to recall a recent roundtable with new joiners at Swiss Re, and beams at the fact that one of the new hires, who had joined from a top tech company, had commented on how the culture at Swiss Re was “amazing”.

“He was telling me that Swiss Re and its leadership really care about people; how he feels colleagues at all levels are approachable, [and] the people are tech savvy, smart and open to sharing their know-how,” Villar says. “This is just great, and such things keep me going.”

Engagement is key

As with many executives, Villar found that maintaining those touchstones with staff is getting harder as he progresses further into his career.

When asked what was the hardest career lesson he has learned to date, he answers honestly that it was that engagement can’t be delegated.

“Engagement makes such a difference – when you feel engaged, you may believe you can do the impossible [but] when you are disengaged, well, it might even be difficult to get up in the morning to go to work.”

In his first major leadership role, Villar oversaw more than 100 staff, and struck lucky – putting a huge emphasis on ensuring the team remained highly engaged, with positive results in his first year. But he’s also seen what happens when engagement misses the mark.

“Once, I joined a new department and the first survey showed average results. After assessing the situation and looking at root causes, it all came down to understanding that it's not only the leadership guidance and motivation one can give to your direct reports,” he says.

“It is extremely important that the leader is in the trenches regularly, talking to the teams, being there, sensing what it is happening in the organisation, sharing experiences, listening and learning or just finding out what people were up to on their weekend.

“In the current fast-paced environment taking this time for an executive is challenging but, in my view a ‘must have’.”

However, engagement isn’t just essential for managing your internal resources, he argues. It is just as important for external partnerships too.

“We all need to partner to succeed – it's impossible to innovate on our own, [when considering] both the cost and speed. At Swiss Re we help our clients to find the right partners, and the topic of partnerships definitely is very high on our agenda,” he says.

Technology technician

It seems that much of the success Villar sees is driven by partnering with the right technology.

“I am convinced that technology can open up new opportunities to close existing and potential protection gaps,” he says, addressing one of the biggest concerns facing the (re)insurance market.

These gaps widen due to a lack of affordability, awareness, trust, or too much complexity when it comes to technology, he argues, but big data and data analytics, the digital consumer and the increasing digitisation of insurance all play a role in providing new answers.

Villar cites a “concrete recent example”. In August, Swiss Re and OneConnect Financial Technology Co, a unit of China's Ping An Group, announced a collaborative agreement to bring a digital end-to-end solution called ‘Swiss Re Smart Claims’ designed to make motor claims faster, easier and more accurate to process.

The platform allows insureds to upload images of car damage and identify the appropriate repair stategy and cost, as well as offering immediate cash payouts. This, Villar notes, is all about supporting the reinsurer’s ambition to make insurance more accessible, with “frictionless interaction”.

It’s not all about the tech, of course, it’s also about the data. We all agree that companies using data analytics have a distinct advantage and can harvest data for more accurate and earlier insights – but how do you make sure your company is getting the most out of it?

“Wherever you do with data, it needs to be impactful, useful for the client,” says Villar. “You need big volumes of data, and to put technology like AI on top of it – but it needs to be of value.”

Villar also talks about how Swiss Re recently partnered with Microsoft to create the Digital Market Center to develop new risk management products.

One such product is dubbed ‘digital twins’ – harnessing AI and the Internet of Things technology to create replicas of risk, whether that is something as small as an engine, or as large as a whole production system.

This, he argues, is an example of using state-of-the-art data-science capabilities to equip insurance clients with actionable data insights. Because what good is data if you can’t use it?

The big picture

We move on to a discussion about the best piece of advice he was given by a fellow CEO, which was to look at life like a chair with four legs: your loved ones, your health, your financial situation and your job or passion.

You should try to keep them in balance, and only ever take risks with one of them at a time, Villar says.

“If one leg of the chair is broken, you can still balance and hopefully fix it… but if you are missing two legs, the balancing act becomes very difficult.”

This advice has gone on to inform much of how Villar sees his leadership style – being visionary and innovative but placing people at the centre.

“It is important to give people the big picture, the purpose, why their job matters and how they make a better world every day.

“You must be innovative, think of new ways – better ways – to do things. And you can deliver this by having people at the centre of what we do. We usually talk about AI, machine learning, but this is the tool, the vehicle, the core is the people.”

More recently, Villar has found himself focusing a lot on change, and how as a leader, he can drive change forward.

“There is a quote from Darwin that resonates with me a lot: ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one that is most adaptable to change’,” he says.

“To be a good leader… every day you need to educate yourself, you need to try to learn about something new and learn from your team.”

Humble beginnings

As a youngster, growing up in Buenos Aires, Villar got the grades – and the hard-working parents – to get into a well-respected school.

But once he left the confines of the classroom in the afternoon, he saw the reality of growing up in a developing nation.

“When I was playing football, I was with kids who were growing up in much more difficult circumstances than I did,” he recalls.

“We collected money every summer to buy a football, and at the end of the month one of the kids was regularly trying to get some extra money, helping at the local grocery stores, so that his family could cover basic needs such as food.

“This helped me understand the real world, the real problems, how it is not always that easy for a kid to have a happy life, [but also] how you can be happy even if your situation is not the best.

“If I have a bad day, I remember those simple afternoons. It helps me understand what it is really important in life: as we all know, especially now in the situation of Covid-19, it's health, and to be surrounded by those who mean the most to us. What is truly important, is people – the people you care about and that they care about you.”

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