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Big Interview: Admiral Founder Henry Engelhardt On The Secret To Organizational Success

He spent 25 years building Admiral into the UK's largest car insurer and one of the best companies to work for. Now Henry Engelhardt reveals key leadership secrets in his new book 'Be A Better Boss'

Thu Jun 29 2023

This month, Henry Engelhardt published a new book: ‘Be A Better Boss’. Part instruction manual, part memoir, and part management philosophy, it offers an insight into the life and leadership style of the founder of Admiral Insurance. 

Admiral, a motor insurance company based in Wales, is one of the UK’s most valuable companies. A winner of the Sunday Times award for Best Company To Work For/Best Leader on three occasions, Admiral has appeared on the UK’s Best Workplaces list for more than 20 consecutive years. 

Today, it employs more than 10,000 people, but Admiral began with a team of just five. Engelhardt and his cofounders launched the company in 1993, where he remained CEO until 2016. 

BusinessBecause caught up with Engelhardt recently to talk about the new book and his journey in business. Engelhardt—an INSEAD MBA alum—also shared some of his secrets for effective leadership, and revealed the impact business school had on his career. 

The opening of the book describes the buzz that comes with a career in business. Tell me what business means to you on a personal level?

In big part it’s the intellectual stimulation. I just love talking to people about their businesses and trying to understand them, asking: ‘What can you do? What would I do here? And how should that be organized?’ 

Business is exciting. It doesn't matter what area you're in, everyone has challenges. It’s the intellectual stimulation that really gives me the buzz.

Your journey started at the burger joint, Poochie’s, since then you've gone on to have a successful career. At what point were you inspired to choose business as a career? 

It was an evolution. I went to work because I wanted to earn some money, you know, it wasn't because I wanted a business career. It just grew and grew as I found it more interesting. 

Business taught me that everything is a learning experience. When you go to the corner store, what do you buy? Why don't you buy more? How nice were the staff? You can learn from all the things you do as a person and consumer. 

You write about the many management styles you encountered in your career, including your father's, who would often yell at his staff. What are some of your do’s and don'ts of effective management? 

Management is very difficult. You're dealing with the human element and there's no formula for that. 

Everybody's different, the people we manage are different, the businesses we're in are different. So you throw out all the formulas and it's an evolutionary process, you're learning all the way. 

As a leader, you can never really remember how important you are to the people you manage, but you must try.

Think about your own experiences when your bosses or teachers said you did something really well. You went home, you told mom, dad, the dog, everybody, right? If somebody says you're not doing well, you're mortified and maybe it takes days to get over it. So it’s really key to make sure you are aware of that. 

Another thing which is very simple: when people like what they do, they do it better. If you believe that then you've got to focus on helping them to like what they do. 

People often ask why we developed the culture of Admiral the way we did, and I say it’s very clear: better economic results. It's not altruism. It's not because we're nice guys— even though we might be—it's because that culture will give us a better economic result. 

If we have that, we can continue to grow and prosper, employ more people, and do more good things for customers. 

If enjoyment is a key priority at work, what would your advice be for those looking to take the next step in their career?

You cannot be unhappy in your job at probably any level—certainly at senior level—and go home and flick a switch and be a happy camper. So if you're unhappy at your job, you're probably going to be miserable at home as well. 

The most important thing is to get in with a company that has a culture you think you can work in. It is super important. 

You attended INSEAD—a highly international business school—and experienced various cultures while living and travelling in different parts of the globe. How do you see the importance of cultural awareness in business? 

It's huge. Being at a place like INSEAD, where people are from all over the world, made my team really interesting culturally because it was so different. 

What it teaches you in particular is tolerance. It teaches you to investigate: ‘Why do the Japanese do it this way? And why does a Lebanese person do it that way?’ You find that there are other ways to think, because other people in other places are doing things in different ways and getting good results.

That's important to learn, because a very big part of business is creativity. And if you're blinkered, you can’t really be creative. When you sit down with an idea and talk to somebody who's from a different culture, they look at it and go: ‘Well, I’d do it this way', that could be a different approach and you can use it to make your idea better. 

How much of an impact did studying the MBA at INSEAD have on your career? 

I went to the MBA because I had risen to a senior position in the futures markets of Chicago, but I didn't want to stay in that industry. I knew anywhere else I went I would have to start towards the bottom and work my way up. 

Studying an MBA, you learn about finance, accounting, strategy, marketing, you learn about processes, about people, all the different disciplines, and all of a sudden you have a bit of knowledge about all of them and you can join an organization without having to start at the bottom. 

The other thing with the MBA is the people you meet. It's where I met David Stevens who was one of the original five of us who wrote the business plan for what became Admiral. He became the CEO when I stepped down. 

Those connections are invaluable. You're sitting all day, every day, for one or two years, with really bright engaged people who have a similar interest in business to you. It's a very valuable pool of friends.

A standout story in the book involves a final exam at INSEAD. The professor asked each of the class to make their essay stand out—you got the top mark after writing it in rhyme. What advice do you have for people to channel that kind of innovative thinking in their own business careers? 

Don't be afraid to be different. You've got to make yourself stand out in some way. 

The teacher told us before the exam that he had to grade 172 papers, so we had to try to stand out. I like to rhyme so I thought I’d try it for 20 minutes and if it didn’t work I’d stop, then I just kept going. 

My answer wasn't stupid or ridiculous, the content of the paper was still pretty good. But he had 171 other normal exams, and he had only one written in rhyme. So don't be afraid to be different.  

Be A Better Boss is published by Whitefox and available now. 

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