Celebrating the innovators, risk-takers and change agents that are building the products of the future within large organizations.

Q&A with Ronish Pahwa

Insurance and innovation haven’t historically gone hand in hand, and that’s what Ronish Pahwa loves about his job. At Northbridge Financial, he’s taking an age-old industry and flipping it on its head, helping to pioneer a bold, customer-first approach that builds trust and positions Northbridge as more than just another insurance company. So, how does a young and ambitious person get a mature and traditional business to change? Read on to find out how Ronish innovates from within a ‘sleepy’ industry to create something fresh and relevant.

Can you talk a little bit about intrapreneurship and what it means to you? How would you define it?

Intrapreneurship has become the new buzzword lately, but it still very much resonates with me. It’s along the lines of an employee of a large corporation who’s been given the freedom, authority, and financial support to create new products and services to solve business or customer problems. It relies on a network of support, strategic thinking, and risk-taking.

Tell us a little bit about how that plays out in your current role. How does intrapreneurship and innovation impact your day-to-day work life?

I work in customer research and innovation for a large Canadian insurance company, which is kind of an oxymoron, in the sense that insurance is not typically seen as innovative. And that’s what I love about it.

There’s so much that can be improved in the industry that I work in, and the ability to drive meaningful change really motivates me. I really am an entrepreneur within my company of 1,400 people. It’s a hard job, but it’s also exciting to take this age-old industry and flip it on its head.

In my role, I get a lot of opportunities to work on interesting, unsolved problems, but I’m also faced with challenges that relate to the slow-moving nature of our industry. I’m constantly learning how to persevere, stay positive, stay opportunistic, and work with a variety of people within an organization.

Can you talk about a recent project you worked on that put those values of intrapreneurship into play, and how that worked out?

My most interesting project recently was actually something Symbility Intersect helped us with; the development of an insurance coaching tool for small business customers. It was our first foray into creating a really great digital customer experience, and it broke the barrier of how we communicate to our customers. We went from communicating in a very traditional, ‘insurance-speak’ kind of way, to a more conversational, ‘human’ mode.

Starting out, I went right to the top to get approval, because it was important to have buy-in at that level for this kind of project. As I shared our tool and what we were doing with more and more people, there was some nervousness – ‘Did legal approve this? Are you sure you can do this?’

I had to help both legal and operations understand our goals, and find the right stakeholders to work with, because if you don’t have the right partners, it can kill your project. In doing this, we truly challenged the status quo with the kind of messaging we brought forward to our customers online.

That’s an important concept, challenging the status quo. Can you explain a bit more about what that means in your industry?

If you think of insurance, people don’t really know what they’re covered for. They’re getting hundreds of pages of legal wording and they just don’t understand what they’re buying. That’s part of the reason a lot of customers don’t even have business insurance. We wanted to take that information and present it in a way that people would understand. Rather than saying, ‘you may be covered for this if XYZ happens’ our goal was to be upfront and say, ‘when this happens, we’ll pay up to this amount.’ We wanted transparency. That was a good exercise and a step forward for our organization.

What are some of the conditions that are necessary for intrapreneurship to occur in large organizations?

Companies struggle with innovation because they focus inward, and don’t put the customer at the centre of what they’re doing. You have to listen to what your customers are telling you. With the project I just mentioned, we had proof of concept: videos of actual customers saying, “I really love how this is being presented. I really understand what you’re doing here.”

I think in an organization that wants to drive innovation, you need to have processes in place to help people manage change. That’s where a lot of the resistance comes from: people are used to doing things a certain way, and innovation challenges that.

You also need an environment where failures get celebrated along with wins. You want people who are afraid to get slapped on the hand by their boss to feel they can experiment. You want to encourage people to fail fast. Get in, and if something doesn’t work, get out.

We brought in Symbility Intersect to challenge our thinking, make us more nimble, and I look to our Intersect team for inspiration on how we could be operating better.

And, of course, depending on the type of innovation you’re doing, you may need some money. Having a commitment to fund experiments and test ideas is going to be key.

The elements we’re talking about here, they’re all part of a very specific kind of entrepreneurial mindset. How do you identify that kind of mindset in a potential employee?

Something we’ve actually struggled with is finding entrepreneurial talent as insurance is not seen as entrepreneurial. To me, a good candidate and a potential intrapreneur within a company should proactively identify a problem and proactively find a way to fix it.

I always look for good communicators, both written and spoken; people who understand the corporate mindset and can navigate around it. Someone with a startup mentality. Startups don’t sit around tables overanalyzing things. They wear many hats and make decisions quickly. When I think about how we need to set up and operate, I look to the startup community. Are there some common mistakes or pitfalls that you’ve seen other organizations make, in terms of innovation? How do you overcome those barriers?

As a leader, I’ve seen other leaders – not necessarily within our company, but in other large organizations – say they’re committed to innovation, but they don’t live those values. I’ve also seen scenarios where the people tasked with innovation are not necessarily empowered or trusted to drive that forward. There’s a quote that says, ‘you hired good talent to tell you what to do, not for you to tell them what to do.’ That’s a common misstep – you’ve got to trust your people, and the magic will happen.On the flip side, some leaders very much fear making a decision, and end up over-analyzing an idea – they end up with this analysis paralysis. This is a road to nowhere. A big part of innovation is really about combating the overthinking piece: Get in quickly, take a chance, know what your risk is when you’re going in, and just do it.

Can you talk about your attitude to risk and how it plays out in your work? How do you define risk and how do you measure it?

We’re actually in the business of insuring risk. You would think, since that’s what we do, risk-taking wouldn’t be a problem. But there’s very much an industry-wide habit of being risk-averse especially when it comes to innovation.

Being comfortable with failure matters too, because there’s so much experience you can gain from failing. Many great innovators have said, you learn more from failure that you do from your success. I very much believe that.

Is there one key piece of advice you can pull out for readers – one thing you absolutely must do to nurture innovation?

On my wall, I’ve got a poster called the Ten Commandments of Entrepreneurs. The one I like to follow is, ‘come to work each day willing to be fired.’ In other words, don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo, but at the same time, respect the people you work with, especially your sponsors. One of the key pieces of advice that I could give for an entrepreneur is to find a sponsor, someone who can help you champion your ideas, ideally someone more senior who you respect and can count on to help drive innovation forward. It’s been critical to my success.

Is there a company you look up to in terms of innovation? One that makes you think, “Man, these guys really get it?”

Quite honestly, I’m inspired by boring industries. I love companies that take something boring and make it really interesting.For example, Wealthsimple comes to mind: they’re a company in the Fintech space that has taken a somewhat boring product – investment – and made it interesting.

Another one is Nest. Who thinks of a thermostat as being an interesting product? Nest took one of the most boring products on the planet and turned it into something interesting and engaging for people. That’s a really great, practical example of innovation and how it works.