THE INTERVIEW: DR HELEN PHILLIPS
Dr Helen Phillips – the first independent chair of the CII board
The CII’s inaugural independent chair, Dr Helen Phillips, talks to Luke Holloway about her new role with the Institute
The CII has an independent chair for the first time in the professional body’s 108-year history. In July, Dr Helen Phillips begins a three-year appointment working closely with CEO Sian Fisher and the CII president, in a position which members voted to create at the Institute’s last annual general meeting.
Dr Phillips believes the role of any board pivots around strategy, scrutiny and stakeholders.
“From experience, culture eats strategy for breakfast,” she says. “It is essential that boards are attentive to the culture of an organisation and the tone they are setting.
“While it is very important that the CII is diligent about setting the culture within the organisation itself, the more influential role we have is setting expectations for the culture of those working across the sector.”
Dr Phillips will lead the board to set the CII’s strategic direction and says that a good chair is respectful of the clear line between executive and non-executive. “It can be bad governance if the board is in the weeds. It needs to give executives space to plan, to create propositions and then, of course, the board can add value by challenging and bringing perspective. It is very important for the chair not to be meddlesome,” she says.
“It is also vital that the board understands the membership, the sector and the diversity of the players within that sector. At the CII, I will have to feel my way a little at first, as I am very aware that the president has a distinct, ambassadorial role.
“I have to understand what individual and corporate members think and make sure the CII continues to work alongside each, so we as a board have a shared understand of that context.”
Our role is about our impact on the sector, our leadership and our contribution to the profession
Dr Phillips’ career has spanned the public, private and not-for-profit sectors and she is currently independent chair of the Legal Services Board; chair of Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; and founding non-executive director of Social Work England.
“During my career, my major experiences have been about that interface between the private and public sector, and when you can get those two acting in society’s best interests you’ve hit a really sweet spot,” she says.
“A key motivation for me joining the CII is that through insurance and financial services, the opportunity is there to support the vulnerable, provide risk mitigation and business certainty to help individuals and businesses to flourish and make for a better, fairer society.”
Dr Phillips tells us she is not coming to the CII with a policy mission or personal agenda and fully appreciates the extent of the knowledge and experience already on the CII board.
“What is required of me as an experienced chair, is to make the board as effective as possible, bring out the best in everybody and create a safe space to tackle difficult issues, focusing on areas of difference rather than areas of consensus, in a productive, constructive way capable of advancing the cause.”
With an initial appointment of three years, Dr Phillips hopes she will bring continuity to a role that complements the CII presidents, who each serve a one-year term. She highlights the importance of stability and getting into a rhythm regarding what the board is working towards, helping the presidential and executive model to work in tandem.
“I am very struck by the extremely high quality of the work already being done by the CII,” she says. “Governance arrangements are very clear and good practice is evident, so it is really exciting to be joining an institute where all those crucial building blocks are already in place.”
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic means Dr Phillips joins the CII at a challenging time when it has adapted to new ways of working and serving its members.
“I believe the institute will be remembered in years to come for how agile, flexible and empathetic we have been to our members’ needs – both individually and corporately.
“It is important we play our full part, not only in recovering as an organisation, but in the recovery of the sector, because that is the most significant challenge.”
But Dr Phillips feels that the board can continue to strongly support the key purpose of the CII in building public trust in insurance and personal finance services.
“Well-led organisations are ambitious and create follow-ship in adhering to high standards – and that itself will build trust,” she says.
“Our role is about our impact on the sector, our leadership and our contribution to the profession. Trust is going to depend on what customers think of their insurers – that perception is a defining factor and can be hugely influenced.”
Dr Phillips concludes: “The public in general and consumers in particular should have an expectation that those advising them who are professionally qualified are competent and uphold the highest ethical and professional standards. A growing perception of the insurance sector as a distinct profession will build trust. In wider society, we have a very important role to play.”
Education: Helen has a PhD in freshwater biology from University College Dublin, Ireland and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology.
Expertise: She has served as board member at ECNC, a European centre for biodiversity, and as an advisory board member at Sheffield Business School.
Extracurricular: Helen also chairs the board at her children’s school, which is comprised of two independent day and boarding schools. She is also a registered beekeeper.
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