The modern era of business is calling out toxic leadership as colleagues seek positive values from their bosses.

The idea of leading by example is close to the heart of Nigel Phillips, CEO of CDL. “Always do the right thing. That’s a guiding point for me in particular,” he says.

“[I aim] to operate in such a way that it serves as an example to others when it comes to the many facets of work and life. Enthusiasm, passion, positive attitude – they’re really important… I have an awful lot of energy and relentlessness! That can resonate and rub off on people.”

Phillips joined Stockport-based CDL in 1997 and was initially responsible for insurer relationships before moving into a business strategist role. Pivotal in making the company an early adopter of emerging technologies, he would become commercial director before being handed the top job in 2020.

CDL Group

Today its customers include major general insurers, financial institutions, price comparison sites and providers including Co-op Insurance, RAC Insurance, Sainsbury’s Bank, Swinton Insurance and British Gas.

The company – which provides the back-end technology for the modern insurance ecosystem – topped our sister publication BusinessCloud’s InsurTech 50 ranking last year. The firm employs 560 people and has around 300 partners.

Engagement & communication

“I’m fascinated by bringing back the intel of what is happening out in the wider world – both from the industry, other sectors and from the technology front,” he explains to TechBlast of his role. “I try to absorb all of that information. 

“I also take a great deal of time to engage with our customers, our suppliers and our partners.

“The final bit is, with as many colleagues as possible, to try and tell the story – to give a context of what’s happening out there, what we’re trying to do, and how that impacts the team and their teams. And what they need to do to help deliver on that. 

“I run sessions like ‘breakfast with the CEO’ – Ask Me Anything, totally open, totally relaxed: if there’s frustrations, problems, interest in where we’re going, I try to provide the opportunity for people to express that. 

“Engagement and communication is critical.”

How CDL innovation has transformed insurance

Culture & innovation

It is also critical to staff retention, he adds. “Being in the North West tech scene, it has been extremely challenging as organisations have moved out of London and been tempted to acquire our talent and skill-set. We have put a lot of resources into [training them on] cutting-edge technologies.

“Our culture is key – the way in which we operate, the way in which we try to support, listen and engage with people… so often, there are a number of different facets as to what drives people to stay with organisations. 

“I also think a big part of it is the innovation, the challenge, the factor of the success that you help to build. Seeing the results and knowing the impact of your work, and how it powers an entire industry, is quite significant. It’s extremely rewarding.”

Away from CDL’s modern tech campus, Phillips – speaking to me on this occasion from his home office, as the company operates a flexible working policy – is an adrenaline junkie. He and his family are keen downhill mountain bikers, while his other passion is being out on the water.

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Surf’s up

The CEO – owner of several boats – recalls an incident while windsurfing off the southern coast of Spain which illustrates his determination. “It was one of those unforgettable moments: blue skies, perfect wind. I was absolutely flying. I jumped a wave – and my mast broke.

“Once the sail and the board become separated, that’s a problem. The slight difficulty was that I was in the middle of the channel between Africa and Europe, and the tide was going out of the Med into the Atlantic… 

“What one should do in that situation is dump your sail and just sit on the board and swim back. But at the time I didn’t have a great deal of money so my windsurfing kit was extremely precious.

“So I tied the sail to my back and swam on a board which wasn’t really designed to hold my weight for three hours… I had a shorty wetsuit on so I lost all of the skin on my forearms. 

“You get tired after about two minutes but I knew that if I didn’t keep going, that would be it.”

CDL office

Asked for a nugget of advice for up-and-coming business leaders, he advises: “Don’t be frightened of trying something and, if it doesn’t work out, then figure out the next best option. 

“That’s what we’re trying to do right now in terms of our working practices – how to make best use of our creative office space [while allowing people to work from home when needed].”

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