Key to Good Leadership: Honest Self-Appraisal – Part 2, Catlin Interview

By | August 16, 2017

Good leadership is essential if the industry is going to successfully navigate the challenges ahead, Stephen Catlin told Insurance Journal during a recent interview, as he looked back at lessons he’s learned during his 40-year journey from junior underwriter at Lloyd’s to retiring executive deputy chair of XL Group.

Some of his leadership lessons include: acting confidently, no matter how great the stress; choosing your fights; learning how to deliver difficult messages; and being brave when difficult decisions are necessary. (Part one of this two-part series is: Industry Relevance and Expertise ‘Ours to Lose:’ Catlin).

“Leadership is leadership, whether you’re running a company with thousands of employees or whether you’re simply a mother or father trying to set a good example for your family,” he wrote in a book he has just published which provides an insider’s view of the industry. Co-authored by James Burcke, the book is titled “Risk & Reward – An Inside View of the Property/Casualty Insurance Business.”

“Some of my biggest regrets in life relate to times when I have led badly, which usually means that I behaved poorly in a certain situation or that I have been unnecessarily unkind to someone,” he said in the book.

Indeed, he told Insurance Journal that one of the true signs of a leader is the ability to own up to a mistake. And the first step is to admit it to yourself.

He learned a powerful lesson about the ability to self-appraise when he and Sir Graham Hearne, the former chairman of Catlin Group, flew to New York City on a Saturday about 15 years ago to meet with the company’s private equity partners.

Stephen Catlin

At an all-day meeting, Catlin listened to their complaints and became “increasingly frustrated by the style and nature of the questioning.” He got the feeling that they intended to sack him.

“I thought to myself: ‘I’ll take this for another 30 minutes, and if it doesn’t stop, I’m going to walk out the door and will take the consequences of that action,'” he recalled.

Perhaps it was telepathy, said Catlin, but within seconds of his coming to that conclusion, from nowhere, the chairman began shouting at these executives, knocking them down verbally one by one, “as if it was a 10-pin bowling alley.”

In a weird turn of events, by the time the chairman was finished with his tirade, the equity partners were “backing me to the hilt.”

As they left the meeting and were descending in the elevator, Catlin thanked Hearne for his support because they had achieved what they needed to achieve. But when they got into the car to head back to the airport, Hearne put his hand on Catlin’s arm and said, “Stephen, I could have done that better.”

“I was just spellbound by that remark. He had come out of the meeting having won, but his immediate reflection was, ‘I know I’ve won, but I could have won in a different way,'” said Catlin.

“The ability to self-appraise and recognize, even when you’ve won, that maybe you could have done it better, and then be able to verbalize that to people around you so they can learn from your experience, is by far the best way of going forward,” he said.

It takes honesty and integrity to acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake – sometimes at a personal cost – but it has tremendous value, Catlin emphasized. “A great weakness in a leader, to my mind, is when they won’t admit when they’re wrong,” he said in the book.

“The bottom line is that people learn the most from the mistakes they make, not by the things that they get right. To learn from a mistake, a leader must take ownership of the mistake, first and foremost. To be an effective leader, you must communicate to those around you that you have made an error, you’ve learned from it and the actions you plan to take to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again.”

He said he has had a lot of mentors during his career, and each one has taught him something different. “We can all learn from other people’s experiences. Even the greatest leader in the world is not perfect, each with strengths and weaknesses. We can learn from both.”

In part one of this two-part series, Catlin discusses his career, what is ahead after his retirement and some of his concerns about the industry’s present and future.

A version of this two part series, first appeared in Insurance Journal’s sister publication, Carrier Management.

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