Hazel Johnston Q&A
Women are the backbone of the work we do at Legal & General, with many prominent female-figures in leadership roles throughout the business.
Supporting and encouraging women is part of our ethos and we're proud to do this year-round, not just on International Women's Day.
Marked annually on 8 March, International Women's Day (IWD) is one of the most important days of the year for shining a spotlight on women.
It's a day to celebrate women's achievements, raise awareness about equality and gender parity and focus on women and everything women do; whether it's through charity work, leading change, female-founded businesses or inspirational female figures around the world.
We grabbed some time with Hazel Johnston, Legal & General's Marketing Development Manager for Adviser Protection, to discuss what it's like being a woman in insurance, the changes in the industry and future innovations, and to take a look at her successful career so far.
Hazel has worked in a variety of roles, from being a front-line adviser selling protection herself, all the way through to Regional Sales Manager, so she knows a thing or two about the industry and what it takes to make it as a woman.
Please tell us about your path to insurance, and what attracted you to the insurance industry?
I started off my career working in an estate agency when I was 19 and I loved the buzz when people found their place to call home. Then came an opportunity with Nationwide Building Society to become a trainee mortgage consultant so I jumped at the chance to be put through my exams and start helping people more directly with the financing of their homes. In Nationwide, I worked my way up fairly quickly and became a regional manager.
The bit of the role I enjoyed most was coaching, mentoring and inspiring people to do more with their customer appointments. I especially found an interest in this when it came to insurance and I think this is because both of my parents have suffered cancer so this hugely shaped my thinking. I really do worry that so few people in the UK are protected and it is a genuine passion of mine to try and change this. It truly is something I wake up in the morning and feel good being part of.
When the role of Market Development Manager came up within Legal & General, I was very fortunate that it combines my love for inspiring others alongside my want to grow a number of people with protection and makes use of my strengths and skill sets in sales, marketing and stakeholder management. It allows me to meet loads of different people across the UK and develop and shape content to deliver to advisers. Ultimately, the goal is to encourage them to do the right thing when it comes to robust protection conversations.
What positive changes have you seen since you began your career?
I think it would be naïve of me not to recognise that when I started my career, gender equality in the workplace (on the whole) had come quite a long way from where it once was despite more work still needing to be done. It is great to see more and more female leaders taking on CEO and senior roles within the UK, not because they are female but because they are the best candidate for the role. In 2021, the FTSE 100 saw the highest figure for females on executive boards since the report was first published. There is still a long way to go on this but it is reassuring that this is on an improving trend.
More recently, I have also seen improvements in Paternity leave across organisations meaning that men can share the responsibility of raising a family and it is great to see people from all genders taking time to learn about things like menopause, post-natal depression (just to name a couple) through both internal and external media campaigns. These campaigns weren’t happening when my career first started, and I believe only through seeking understanding do we become more diverse and inclusive of one another so that we can work in complete collaboration.
What do you find the most fulfilling about the work you do?
I love creativity and really enjoy work that requires me to think outside the norm. I feel within my role I get the chance to experiment with new marketing angles and try new ways of communicating with advisers. This is exactly the type of work that keeps me happy and thriving! It is even better if one of the approaches works. If I can go to bed at night knowing that I have encouraged even one adviser to help a customer with a protection product then I know that it is a small gain towards my goal of more of society being adequately insured.
What is the biggest challenge facing the insurance industry right now?
Personally, I feel our main challenge will be linked to the increasing cost of living and decrease in disposable income. Society tends to treasure and value the things they see, not the money they payout and don’t get any immediate gain from (if ever). My worry is that as society’s belts have to tighten, more people may be tempted to let their policies lapse and/or cancel them. We need to face this and support advisers to think about how they will follow up if they notice any lapses or cancellations then also how they will re-advise to a new budget if necessary. Some protection is better than none!
The insurance industry is increasingly focused on customer-centricity and digitally transforming the way that protection is marketed and offered. Can you talk us through some work you do that puts your customer at the heart of what you do? And secondary, how does digital literacy form part of that strategy?
Traditionally, the role I have was conducted in face-to-face workshops and meetings however this has now progressed to us delivering coaching and development via webinars, virtual workshops, animation videos and we are looking to expand this even further. We want to make it as easy as possible for advisers to learn how they can engage their clients when it comes to having a robust conversation.
By using a variety of platforms, social media and options such as webinars, teams’ sessions, animation videos on YouTube, our adviser help pages I feel we are able to captivate audiences with all learning styles regardless of which life stage they are at. I think this is an area where we constantly need to be reviewing and adapting to the new technology and media platforms available.
What do you think the protection industry will look like in five years?
It’s hard because some of the roles I have had during my career didn’t even exist 5 years ago! However, my hope is that we can really start appealing to the younger generation rather than people only thinking of insurance when it is too late as when I speak with my younger sister and her friends it seems that insurance is seen as “an older thing” to have. I hope that we can make use of digital strategy and social media to try and capture the attention and relate to this generation.
What advice would you give to the next generation of women considering a career in insurance? You had mentioned mentoring, do you think this plays a pivotal part in career development and progression for women?
So I think regardless of the career aspirations, the most important thing is to get to know yourself. It sounds silly and you may be sitting there thinking “of course, I know myself” but I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to take time to establish what your core values and moral compass are.
From there, you can then get a real understanding of the situations you will thrive in and the ones which may trigger negative thoughts or behaviours. By being mindful of this, you can find a role which matches what gets you up in the morning and truly matters to you. It also helps you stay true to yourself no matter the situation which helps you develop a strong personal brand and helps with your confidence in disagreeing or speaking up. In some of my previous roles, there has been a mismatch between the senior team’s values and my own.
Looking back, they are the roles I have found most mentally tough. Likewise, if you are having a tough day, knowing your values and moral compass helps you to understand why and how you can coach yourself to bounce back.
I am also always a huge advocate of finding yourself a coach, a mentor and a sponsor. Throughout my career, I have had all three and other times just a mentor however they are all hugely valuable when it comes to working out a career plan, and for support along the way. It is a known statistic that women feel less confident than men on average. I have always personally found that if there is a situation where my confidence is knocked, speaking to either a coach, mentor, sponsor or all three has been a huge help. Talking it through with them and having someone championing you put any situation into perspective.
Having said that, one of the questions I asked in my interview when joining Legal & General was “what support do women get in the company when it comes to career progression?” and the response I got was one of the reasons I was so thrilled when I was offered the job. I was told that the company value all opinions and work hard to ensure that the right person gets the job every time.
Why do you think there are so few women in senior leadership roles in the insurance industry as a whole? Can you talk a little about the differences you see at Legal & General with prominent female leaders across the divisions?
Generally, when it comes to hiring and picking colleagues to work alongside, I have observed that most people will immediately be drawn to those who are most like themselves. I believe that unless unconscious bias is called out and the use of a diverse hiring panel is at the forefront of individuals’ minds when they are hiring, then change won’t happen.
As the insurance industry is mainly made up of men, and due to the unconscious biases that occur naturally within us all, I feel it is only natural that more men are hired and then progressed more easily. They are easily able to make chat about common interests and therefore build stronger relationships faster. Something that would potentially be harder for them to do when hiring someone of a different background, gender or race.
Having said that, one of the questions I asked in my interview when joining Legal & General was “what support do women get in the company when it comes to career progression?” and the response I got was one of the reasons I was so thrilled when I was offered the job. I was told that the company value all opinions and work hard to ensure that the right person gets the job every time. I have only been here 4 weeks and I can already see that clearly being put into practice. As a female in business, I have never felt my opinions being so valued nor felt support like it within a team as I have done in my first 4 weeks at Legal & General.
Which female leaders do you admire and why? (generally speaking, not just at Legal & General)
The first who comes to mind is a lady called Elke Edwards and she is the founder of a company called Ivy House. They specialise in leadership development and I was fortunate to gain a place on one of their programmes. The minute Elke Edwards entered the room you could feel her presence and her ability to inspire through her use of story-telling and animation is incredible. The thing I admire most about her is that she has chosen to centre her life around helping others pursue their dreams and become the best version of themselves. She has such genuine care about this. She has written books and has an Ivy House youtube channel with lots of helpful tips.
The other is Kris Jenner (yes that lady who is the “momager” of the Kardashian clan!) Behind the billion-dollar empire that are the Jenner/Kardashian businesses, sits the brain of Kris Jenner. Many believe that Kris is “famous for being famous” however when you look more closely into her background and the way she has been able to market and create the Kardashian brand, there is no doubt that she is a very clever businesswoman and fantastic branding professional. She has no qualifications and when she met her first client, her husband at the time Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner), she only had $200 to start her PR business.
She saw potential in Bruce when it came to public speaking so managed to use her $200, marketing skills and negotiation to bag Bruce contracts with huge companies such as Coca-Cola and Visa. Now 20 years later, she has helped her children grow businesses with a combined worth of over $1billion. My favourite quote of hers is ‘If somebody says no, you’re talking to the wrong person.’
If you are interested in marketing strategy and branding, I would definitely recommend reading, listening to or watching some of her individual business themed interviews.
Do you think the pandemic has changed the gender balance in the insurance industry?
In some ways yes and in others no. I do believe with the rapid evolution of technology, many roles are no longer limited by location which in the past would maybe have prevented many people (not just women) from going for them. I think everyone has the responsibility to seek development and consider options that maybe didn’t present themselves before and I would hope wider role availability would help with gender balance.
However, for those who have had to balance homeschooling, childcare, work and running a household during the pandemic, I don’t think this is sustainable. Statistics do say a large portion of that balancing was done by women and that on average women are feeling more burnout than men are following the pandemic. I feel this could potentially result in more women feeling they need to weigh up their options and feeling like they need to decide on family life or a career which is a real shame.
Please can you talk through some challenges you’ve faced in your career, and how you overcame them?
I have learned over time (and with my coach's help) to see challenges as just your perception of a situation. Looking at any barriers or challenges in this way, helps you then think about the other possible perceptions or viewpoints and usually helps me navigate around them. I would say the biggest and most consistent challenge of my career has always been being that “young blonde female” to the point it actually led me to dye my hair dark after a comment made by a much older male colleague (not at Legal & General might I add!) many years ago.
When I got my first management position, I was the youngest by a number of years and one of only a few females in the team. I did find myself losing a bit of confidence at this stage of my career and this resulted in me putting in longer hours and offering to take on extra tasks to prove that I could do the job and build up my credibility. However, looking back these were the pressures I was putting on myself as I felt I had to do it to prove something to my teammates. My manager hired me because they felt I was capable, and I wish I’d spent more time reminding myself of this rather than feeling the need to convince others of what I could be capable of.
What achievement are you most proud of, and why?
I always find this question really hard to answer as I didn’t graduate from university, I haven’t got children and I am not the type to have conquered mountains or run marathons (and I feel they are the type of things people say!). In both my personal and work life I’d say one of the scariest times has been when I took the leap and moved from Edinburgh to Bournemouth for my career. I had come to the end of a leadership secondment and when I asked my manager the scope of if I could continue the role (before Teams existed!) he said he had a vacancy in Bournemouth he wanted me to take to see if I could improve the team performance there. I’d only ever visited once for a training course, I knew nobody and I was leaving my partner James back up North.
However, it was one of the best experiences I have ever had both personally and work-wise. I have so many fond memories of visiting the Dorset coast with friends and family on visits, I made friends who I’ll now have for life and I managed to improve the protection performance of the team within my first 3 months. It was during this time of my life that I met Lorraine in Legal & General (the account manager at the time) who was the one who ended up recommending me for my current role. Therefore, if I hadn’t been brave to take that risk and make it work, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.
How important is introducing greater gender diversity to the ongoing relevance and success of the insurance market?
I read an article last week that stated that 40% fewer women buy protection than men. At first, I was surprised by this statistic however, when reflecting on this and linking it to the gender split of those working in roles across the sector, it isn’t so surprising. These are products where there has been a predominantly male perspective in designing, marketing and selling them. I think it is hugely important that there is a diverse range of people in all aspects of the product journey from initial development all the way through to the advisers who close the sale. I believe the more diverse we can be (and not just with gender), the wider a market we can appeal to which in turn only strengthens the financial resilience of our society.
Is there a particular part of the industry that interests you the most, and why? Please can you also tell us what excites you the most about the insurance industry today?
For me, there are two parts of the insurance industry that I find really interesting. The first is the psychology behind why people walk past insurance. Why do they not see this as something that is hugely valuable to them and what is the barrier to them purchasing it? Especially when they are happy to spend X amount on a gym membership or sometimes up to £50 a month insuring their pets! I love listening to advisers' points of view and trying to help them change their customers' mindsets.
The other part of the insurance industry that interests me is the rental market. My background is in an estate agency and so few renters ever took out a form of insurance despite the fact that they have even fewer options than a homeowner should things go wrong. It worries me that by 2025, 50% of UK adults under the age of 40 are expected to be privately renting yet only a very small portion are even aware of insurance products available to them.
What excites me most about the insurance industry is the evolution of our digital strategy and how we can use this alongside social media platforms to change the mindset of society when it comes to the importance of insurance. I think as new generations of both customers and sellers come through, it is exciting to develop new ways how we engage with them and keep up to date.
There is so much room for innovation in the insurance industry. Do you see innovation being used to provide opportunity and push the insurance industry forward?
I think innovation is the most important aspect of any business that wants to stay ahead of its peers. Especially in this day and age when technology and digital are progressing at such a pace. Looking at Nokia as an example, they once had the majority of the mobile phone business but didn’t innovate fast enough. I think as an industry, we need to constantly be thinking of the next generation and what will matter to them.
This is important from the product design right the way through to that endpoint sale. The children of today will not prioritise the same things as our current customer base do, so we need to think about how we engage with them and have products to meet their needs. Even when we look at the influence of the app Tik-Tok, almost every song which trends on that platform ends up in the UK Charts.
This was an app that didn’t exist 6 years ago. It is about thinking about how we can use these growing platforms to engage with wider audiences and establish what their wants are.