Cigna Taiwan General Manager and CEO Tim Shields doesn’t mind making mistakes and encourages his team members to make them, too, as long as they can turn those mistakes into learning experiences. A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, Tim has been working in insurance for almost three decades, the vast majority of that time spent in management roles internationally. Taiwan is the latest installment of his journey.
Tim took some time out of his busy schedule this month to talk with Taiwan Business TOPICS Deputy Editor Jeremy Olivier about his educational background, his transparent approach to management, and his views on the Taiwan insurance market.
Your university degree was in civil engineering and math. Although you changed careers, was the engineering education good training?
Yes, it was. I have always been interested in math, geography, construction – I see myself as more left-brained and I feel like those things are part of my DNA. My degree in civil engineering and math, then, posed some great challenges that required problem-solving skills and logic. That was really good training because part of the role of a leader is about driving change, resolving issues, and using data to make important decisions. It doesn’t matter what line of business you’re in; those attributes are essential.
I also have a creative side. I was accepted into and almost went to study fine art at Glasgow College of Art. However, my father, who was a famous artist in Scotland at the time, advised against it because he didn’t see a career in it. Obviously, the world’s changed now.
What brought about the switch to insurance?
After graduating from university in Scotland, I moved down to London and began working at a big international advertising agency. I started out at the bottom and worked my way up to a director of the firm.
During my time at the agency, I worked as what is called a “suit” in industry lingo. I would first talk to clients about their brand, and then go and translate that into brand campaigns for the copywriters and designers.
At one point, I went to do a pitch for the new CEO of a large insurance company in the UK. After the meeting, he took me aside and said, “Tim, I don’t want to hire your ad agency, but I do want you to come work as our marketing director.” That was the switch, and I’ve been in the insurance industry for around 27 years now, with experience in life, general, and health insurance. My first six to seven years at that first company, though, was some of the best training I’ve ever had.
Were you always attracted to the international side of the business?
I think it’s in my blood to go travel and see the world. Living and working abroad has a huge upside, but I also recognize that being an international manager is not for everyone. I’ve lived in eight different countries now and spent 23 years overseas, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m constantly learning, adapting to different cultures, sharing knowledge, and building things.
What appeals to you most about the insurance profession?
Although I didn’t initially seek out a career in insurance, I like the fact that it’s an intangible service and it’s all about the people. One of the things I’ve always said at town halls, or at meetings with my board or my leadership team in any of the markets I’ve worked in, is that the biggest asset we have is our people. It doesn’t matter if you’re frontline or in support services, the people make the difference.
Insurance – whether it’s property and casualty or health, whether it’s a US$50 million policy or someone who’s paying US$50 a month – it’s there for the unplanned events in life. No one plans for catastrophe; no one plans for the risks. You can never bring a loved one back, but with insurance, you can take away some of the pain and give the policyholder some piece of mind.
I also think it has been an underrated industry because if you look closely, most of the funds in most of the stock markets around the world are owned by insurance companies. In that way, insurance is a means by which governments can help boost the economy and ease some of the taxpayer’s burden. If you look at some of our neighbors in Asia – Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia – these emerging economies are really embracing insurance, and the governments understand the power of insurance to help protect the economy, consumers, and industries as well.
Do you have a particular style as a manager?
In general, I put an emphasis on communication, collaboration, transparency, and openness. I am very energetic in my management style, and I always lead from the front. I would never ask my people to do anything I haven’t done. I also encourage mistakes. Failure is good! Try things, be agile, learn from the times you don’t succeed, and move on.
As an international manager in particular, you’ve got to listen to your local team in order to understand the market and the culture of a place. You’ve got to have patience; don’t rush in. One size does not fit all. If you follow this approach, you will grow as an individual, personally and professionally.
Being a CEO is a lonely job sometimes because the buck stops with you. You need to gather information from your senior team and be the ultimate decision-maker. That’s why it’s important that you put the right people in the right roles, and it’s also why I support sending members of my Taiwan team on overseas assignments. When they come back from their time abroad, they have a broader mindset and are the ones that really drive change in the operation.
What have you found to be the most significant characteristics of the business environment in Taiwan? What are the main ways in which it differs from other markets?
The talent in Taiwan is highly educated and very loyal. The workforce is also diverse; for example, 75% of my team here are women. The regulatory system tends to be conservative, but the potential that Taiwan has is huge. It has one of the strongest health care systems in the world and there are very good opportunities for public-private partnerships. I think the government is recognizing this and they are very carefully coming to embrace those opportunities. One of the reasons why I, through Cigna, am a co-chair on AmCham’s Public Health Committee is that we can influence the government on different ways we can work together to protect Taiwanese consumers.
One of my roles as CEO is to sell Taiwan to my global board of directors. Taiwan is the most insurance-penetrated market in the world. The question, then, is how do you grow within it? Before I came to Taiwan, the company’s sales were stagnating, but for the past three years, we’ve had around 17% year-on-year sales growth. Outside the U.S., we’re the third largest market internationally.
Finally, as an international industry leader, I’ve made a point to be involved in networking, advocacy, and government affairs, especially through the AmCham organizations in the different locations I’ve lived and worked in. I’m very impressed with the Board of Governors at AmCham Taipei, as well as the Chamber’s in-house team. It really is a group of innovative, well-educated, vocal, and energetic people. They are setting the professional bar for AmCham organizations in Asia very high.
What are the main pluses and minuses of leading an expat life?
In terms of the advantages, the places you get to experience, the culture, the people, the food, and working with a great bunch of diverse colleagues around the world make it all worthwhile. Also, the ability to travel and share your experiences is just so rewarding.
I have friends in Edinburgh who’ve spent their whole lives there, and they think I’m crazy for living this kind of lifestyle. However, what I’ve seen and experienced and what my family have seen and experienced have really shaped us. I think it’s given my children a very high level of confidence, internationalism, and diversity that they can pass on to the next generation.
However, there are downsides. You spend enough time in a country to fall in love with it, put your heart and soul into developing the business there, only to have the company move you on to your next assignment. It’s always hard to leave a country, friends, and colleagues behind.
If you had one piece of advice for young professionals in your industry, what would it be?
I have three brief recommendations. First is to try and get some experience outside of your home country; next, find a mentor because it’s always good to have some kind of guidance or coaching; and third, always challenge the status quo and keep asking questions.
How do you like to spend your leisure time? What do you find is the best way to get “recharged?”
I used to play rugby in Scotland, and I’ve been involved with playing and coaching rugby in all of the different places I’ve lived in around the world. I’m also a great believer in maintaining health and wellness. A healthy body and mind are extremely important, especially for being a CEO. I go to the gym most days for fitness training and I am also an avid cyclist. Of the world’s bicycles, 60% are manufactured in Taiwan, so I have two Taiwan-made bicycles here, a road bike and a mountain bike. Most weekends, you can find me out cycling somewhere among Taiwan’s beautiful natural scenery.