Leadership Lessons with... Sabine Seggelke, Head of Public Affairs EMEA at Zurich Insurance

This month we interviewed Sabine Seggelke, Head of Public Affairs EMEA at Zurich Insurance. Sabine shares her thoughts on virtual leadership, the importance of employee wellbeing in the workplace, and adapting to the current changes happening in the Public Affairs sector.


After two years of leading organisations remotely, what have you learned about virtual leadership?

I think we all learned a lot during this time. It showed how important it is to stay very close to your team and that you should never assume anything. Never assume that someone has fully understood a brief, or that they have all the insight and connections to work on a project. It became really important to ask questions all the time, about people's motivations, their wellbeing, how they were managing on a daily basis and understanding that things can change from one day to the next. It was imperative not to shy away from being the one who asked these questions again and again.

As a leader you also need to have a very good insight into yourself and whether you have sufficient positive energy to bring to your team. I think that's even more important in this hybrid or virtual environment we are operating in, because you are not going to be able to inspire and motivate others if you are struggling.

With an increasing focus on workplace mental health, how have you seen the industry supporting the wellbeing of its employees?

In the insurance industry there are daily constant pressures – for example the pandemic, war and climate change. All of these external issues impact everyone in the company, regardless of their position and can affect everyone’s mental health. Companies play a very important role in terms of communicating about mental health and raising awareness. I'm very proud that Zurich Insurance takes this very seriously. With the Zurich Foundation, we have collaborated with UNICEF on driving awareness of the challenges of mental health for our young people. I think it is a very good example of what companies can do in a very concrete way.

Post ‘the great resignation era’ – what challenges do you think leaders face in 2022?  

Public Affairs is highly specialised and within Public Affairs there are so many subcategories and skill sets. There are people who specialise in thought leadership, people who work in external communications, and then you have other people who are much more comfortable assessing complex legal documents, who might feel closer to legal or compliance teams. For me, talent retention is key, as if you lose someone in your team, it's difficult to replace that person either internally or externally. In addition, in a small team, if you gain or lose someone this is going to affect your team culture and team dynamics in a massive way. I think it's always important as a leader to think constantly about motivation and what makes people tick.  We need to look at giving people autonomy and recognition, as well as making sure that what we do is in line with our company purpose. As a leader you always have to be aware of what is happening both internally and externally.

What do you think are the key qualities needed from leaders in 2022?

Key qualities for me are good listening skills and humility. With remote working it's very important for a leader to detect issues as someone may not openly share that they are unhappy in their current role. You need to be brave and know how to manage uncomfortable situations and ask questions about someone's motivation or personal family situation. You also need to understand yourself and any potential blind spots you might have, maybe because of your cultural background - cultural awareness is very important. I always refer to a very good book about leading in different cultures, “When cultures collide”. For me it’s understanding what makes individuals tick, what gives energy, what drains energy, and understand that it's going to be very different from one person to the next. As a leader it's very important to keep checking in on a regular basis because it might change.

What skills sets do you think businesses within the Public Affairs sector will be looking for now and in the coming years?

There is a lot of change happening currently in Public Affairs and I think it's a good time to be in this profession. One area where a lot is happening is the crossover of Public Affairs and Sustainability. There’s a lot of legislation in the ESG, sustainable finance space, with more and more requirements when it comes to reporting and governance. Public Affairs professionals, regardless of the industry they are in, need to understand these shifting patterns and obligations.

Another area and where there is more interest in the business community is geopolitics. Everyone now draws lessons on Russia’s war in Ukraine and looks at other geographies as well. What does that mean for supply chains? What does it mean for the relationship between European headquartered companies and China, for example? In the future, I think Public Affairs will play a more important role navigating these very challenging conversations internally.

Another area that has kept most of us busy for the last few years is digital advocacy and leveraging social media platforms. For example, corporate affairs teams make great use of leaders’ LinkedIn presence, but what's next, what's the next trend after this? I think you need innovative and creative thinking in this space, and overall in the Public Affairs profession. Continuous learning is really key. I'm very happy that I left my comfort zone of food & beverage and biotech, and I now focus on financial services. I think it's healthy to do this. It’s important to learn about a new industry and apply lessons from your old industry to the new one. To understand similarities and differences. You have to be in the driver's seat as opposed to just watching what’s happening.

There is increasing expectation on companies and CEOS to lead on sustainability practice in line with 2030 Global Goals. What ESG strategies can leaders adopt for sustainable development and purpose?

The traditional CSR programme is not impactful anymore, as stakeholder expectations have changed. The ecosystems we operate in now are very different compared to let's say, five years ago, where you could still lead a traditional CSR programme. SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are an excellent benchmark for every company, to drive ambition as a responsible corporate citizen, especially in the climate / environmental sustainability space. I recently read a very inspiring book “Net Positive” by Paul Polman and Andrew Winston, which describes how a company can improve wellbeing for everyone.

Looking back at my career I've seen great contributions to SDGs when it comes to addressing hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition. When I was at DSM I worked a lot with civil society organisations, and now at Zurich Insurance I think it's even more rewarding because there are more SDGs we can contribute to as a company. Three great examples are ‘good health and wellbeing’, ‘decent work and economic growth’, and ‘sustainable cities and communities’. So, there's a lot to get our teeth into.

 As an insurance company we can do lots drive better awareness and understanding when it comes to customer’s financial planning. For example, if there is a loss of a breadwinner in a family, due to illness or death, how can their life insurance help? We can also do a lot as an insurance company on improving financial literacy and creating new solutions. There’s also the SDG I mentioned earlier, ‘sustainable cities and communities’, that brings us back to the climate / environmental sustainability space. There are lessons we have learned from cities in developing countries which have had terrible flooding. We can use this learning and our work with NGOs, via the Zurich flood resilience alliance, to prepare cities elsewhere for the effects of climate change. I think it’s both important and rewarding for us as well.

Posted on 22.11.2022

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