Profile: Suzy Black, HR director, Lloyd’s of London

Lloyd’s of London has been an iconic City institution for
three centuries, but has only had an HR strategy since last year. Helen Williams talks to HR director Suzy Black about her plans to shake up people policy at the corporation.

The current Lloyd’s of London was built nearly a quarter of a century ago, but this startlingly original Richard Rogers-designed structure – the stainless steel ductwork and glass lifts are outside to free up the clinical space within – has not dated, despite now being dwarfed by newer, much taller tower blocks that have sprung up across an increasingly high-rise City of London.

The same cannot be said of Lloyd’s HR department, which, like the corporation’s natty top-hat-and-tails-clad security doormen, was until recently thoroughly traditional. Hence the appointment a year ago of Suzy Black as its new HR director, bringing with her a wealth of corporate HR and general business experience from MSN UK, Barclays and ICI, as well as public sector roles in the Cabinet Office and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Black gives as businesslike an impression as the building she works in, and in her first year in the job has made considerable progress moving the HR focus from process to business performance. “The HR function was operating more as a personnel office, with a predominantly transactional agenda driven by procedure and process,” she says.

“The CEO, Richard Ward, wanted HR to be more supportive of the business, hence the decision to hire externally to bring best practice in. My mandate from the off was to modernise the HR function, make it more business-relevant, more value-add, more cutting-edge in terms of the offer that we put out to the business.”

Perception of HR

And she has not rested on her laurels. Within the first couple of months, Black conducted a survey to establish what the perception was of the current HR offering among the corporation’s senior staff.

“With that data, we were able to set out what the agenda needed to be,” says Black, “People were very candid in their feedback, and it was quite a painful piece of work for the HR team here, many of whom had been here for a long time. It was the first time they had ever had that kind of mirror held up to them.

“We’ve got some excellent people in the HR team who now have the licence to operate, and are really firing on all cylinders, making a significant contribution to changing the HR function. It’s been more challenging for some, because the performance bar has changed – I’ve been quite clear about that. Some people have left, some have stayed, and we have some new people on board, which I think is the right mix.”

Black has little time for debate about strategic HR. “For HR to be seen to be more strategic, you’ve actually got to have a strategy. It becomes a bit of a non-debate, and if you are still debating it in your organisation then you’re obviously not doing it. It needs to be about action rather than talking about it.”

Lloyd’s had no HR strategy in place when she arrived last June. “I’m setting out quite an aggressive agenda for Lloyd’s in terms of what we’re trying to do around people over the next three to five years,” says Black, whose new HR strategy has several broad strands.

Her main priority is “operational excellence and getting the basics right”. “Until we get our operational platform solid, it restricts the licence we have to do all the really sexy stuff,” she admits. “We need to get the core HR cycle 100% right, and that ranges from the recruitment process, to absence management, how we deal with under-performance, how we manage the salary cycle, how we reward people – the foundation stuff.

“It’s about flexibility. You’re not going to get away from doing ops, but I believe you have to excel at that platform and have your eye on the future. HR provides a service, and has to prove its worth. We all know that it can easily be outsourced in most organisations. We’re not here to just have a nice time, but to do a job.”

Employer of choice

A second aim is for Lloyd’s to be seen as the employer of choice in the insurance market, and more generally within business. “That means ensuring that everything we offer around the employee is best in class,” says Black. “We had some excellent elements in place already – our leadership programme and graduate scheme are two best-practice initiatives – but there is more we can do.”

The aim of the graduate scheme is to create a talent pool for the wider insurance market as well as for Lloyd’s itself (the corporation functions as a market trading floor in which underwriters from more than 70 syndicates meet brokers to do business). “If one of our graduates goes to work in one of the insurance companies within the market, we think that’s a good thing, we don’t see that as a loss,” she says.

“The same goes for the leadership programme. We have corporation participants along with market participants, with the aim of trying to improve the level of leadership within the whole market.”

This collaborative working extends to an HR directors’ group, which meets quarterly to share best practice on a range of issues, including performance management, absence management, leadership, talent development and salary benchmarking. “Effectively, it’s a sounding board for the market,” she says.

The other core HR aims are around performance and reward, and engagement. Having formulated a clear HR strategy, Black then set about tackling the latter. Her team presented across the business through a series of road shows. “The HR function here has traditionally been seen as always saying yes, as being reactive, so the message that I had to get out quickly was: we would like to work in partnership with you, but sometimes we may have to say no and take a tough line. The majority of people in the organisation know what the strategy is now, and we’ll go out at the end of the year and tell them what we have delivered.

Adding value

“People really appreciated us going out and talking to them. It gave them the opportunity to ask questions, and for me to say why I felt this change was important and what the value-add was for them as employees.”

So have her previous roles helped her develop her tight focus? “I bring a lot of things to this job, but they are more about my life experience than actual roles. I’m quite a bold person; I tend to be quite visionary and out there.

“My former boss said that working with me was not for the faint-hearted! I challenge the status quo – I’m not interested in maintaining mediocrity, but in driving performance to get the best out of people. I’m also passionately committed to developing and supporting people who wish to expand their range and step up to greater challenges. This is the part of my role that I find most rewarding. I’m also big on rewarding and celebrating success, and have a constant stash of champagne at my desk!”

It seems it is the personal rather than career challenges Black has overcome that have had the greatest impact on her. Thus far she has come across as briskly efficient as the approach to HR she eloquently advocates. But it turns out this clear head for business has developed not from a privileged education but from the self-belief and drive that has stood her in good stead throughout her career.

“I left school with no qualifications, and didn’t go to university until I was in my 20s,” she says. “Things that are more personal to me have obviously impacted my career and the choices I have made. I’m a very determined individual.

“Another thing I’m proud of is that I do what I say I’m going to do. That can go from everyday tasks to much bigger things. The advice I’d give anybody wanting to go into HR is to build your reputation on delivery and results.”

Independent thinking

Another top tip for aspiring HR professionals is to work for a strong HR and business leader. “It might be challenging, but you learn a huge amount from HR and business leaders who are prepared to be independent in their thinking, say no, take tough calls, challenge underperformance, be bold, ambitious, operate with pace – all those things,” she enthuses.

“Those are the sorts of people I’ve learnt the most from in business, including Gillian Kent, who headed up one of the businesses at Microsoft, and the exceptional executive leadership team at ICI. I learned the most about leadership from my most challenging relationships, because you learn to challenge each other.”

Black’s own entry into HR was “purely accidental”, having previously worked in other areas of business. She nevertheless believes it is possible to work your way up in the profession. “I think you can do both. If you’re going to work your way up in HR, I would advise you to do it in different organisations – don’t stay in one place or in one market. But there are also plenty of people who have gone from business into HR. There are enough good people out there with both sets of experience to show that it works.”

But Black feels that a successful HR director, whatever their career path, must above all understand the business. “You need to be out talking to people all the time, be it the CEO, CFO, the leadership teams, and people generally in the business. That business acumen and relationship management is essential, because as HR director you work with such a broad range of people. You’ve got to be able to drive change, and provide thought leadership to your CEO, the executive team, your own team and the organisation.”

Black’s CV

  • June 2008-present: HR director, Lloyd’s of London
  • 2004-present: Governor, Court of Governors, London School of Economics
  • 2008: HR director, corporate, ICI
  • 2006: Director, diversity, Barclays
  • 2004: Director of people and change, MSN UK
  • 2002: Special adviser, Cabinet Office
  • 1999: Special adviser to Trevor Phillips, chair of Greater London Authority

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