A man with a mission!

– Thomas Erichsen, Group Chief Executive and CTO for Topdanmark, on going from strategy execution to “strategic execution”


March 2019

Download the article
Henrik Bjerg Tufvesson


The article was originally co-authored by Olaf Valentin.

We meet Thomas Erichsen at his office in Ballerup after three months in the role of Group Chief Executive and CTO for Topdanmark. Thomas has a clear mission and is focused on creating the changes that are necessary to make “a good business even better”, but also more robust in the face of rapidly changing technology and market development that speeds rapidly ahead in the Danish and international insurance market.

In the spring of 2018, Topdanmark appointed Peter Hermann as new CEO, and a new four-strong board of directors was constituted. Management quickly launched a new strategy which the entire organisation is now in the process of implementing. Thomas is responsible for the entire production chain from innovation to business development and technology, and this means that the approx. 500 people in Thomas’ organisation work hard on a daily basis to develop Topdanmark so that the company will be better equipped for an unknown future. In the future, however, major structural changes and a new mindset in the otherwise well-run insurance group will be required. Thomas radiates energy and drive to get ahead and seems, on the whole, to thrive well in a difficult role after only a couple of months.

Understanding that “tech” is more important than “fintech”

We start off with an apparently harmless question about when the spread of driverless cars will have an effect on insurance companies’ balance sheets. But Thomas isn’t interested in unreflective banalities.

His eyes light up when he responds in a keen and insightful manner, “Talking about driverless cars is talking about the wrong problem. When we look at the data, we can see that the majority of damages are caused by the driver. Each generation of cars comes with even more sensors. The point is that the sensors are going to mitigate the majority of behaviour-related damages that we have today. And that will have a much faster impact on our business than driverless cars.”

With reference to the legend about a Chinese emperor who paid his doctor to keep him in good health instead of curing illness, Thomas continues, “For us, it’s more interesting, if we can mature the market to talk about ‘safety’ rather than ‘insurance’. Technological developments will gradually give us more opportunities to help the individual so damage doesn’t happen. As consumers, we are mentally not quite in a place, where we want to share data from our Fitbits, step counters, fitness apps and other digital devices with our insurance company, but in the long run, technology can open up for insurance companies and their services going from low engagement to high value for customers.”

It can be difficult to put a timescale on the impact of technological opportunities. But the direction has been given, and Topdanmark will purposefully increase competences in data analytics so initiatives that can lift the bottom line can be identified more effectively. And get customers to appreciate – if not love – digital services. 

Challenges for Topdanmark – a healthy and well-run company

It’s easier to explain the necessity of change, if there is a so-called burning platform that can catch your eye. In a company that has been praised over the years by analysts, employees and customers, it can be difficult to explain why a transformation is at hand. But according to Thomas, Topdanmark is facing three very fundamental challenges that he highlights from the beginning of our talk:

  1. “Firstly, we have to ensure that we are close to and understand our customers and that they learn to love our digital services – in close collaboration with the physical service.
  2. “In line with using technology to service our customers better, we have to digitalise on the inside. We need to complete large renewal projects and generally automate and let technology work for us. We are looking into a world that is going to change significantly, which means that we have to develop ourselves as employees – both in terms of competences and new approaches and forms of co-operation. The new thing is that we need to create real digital services and not just digitalise the services we already have.
  3. “Last but not least, we have to change the relationship between the energy we use on development and operations respectively. Today, we use approx. 80% of our energy on operations. In the future, we should be able to use 60% of our capacity on development.

“We are, therefore, facing a very large challenge, and it has already begun to put pressure on the organisation.”

The changes naturally create a degree of uncertainty, and here, Thomas mentions one of the many dilemmas that he is facing, “We must continue being proficient at constantly adjusting to the market and customers – based on a philosophy of ‘dynamism as a strategy’. This is very important – in fact, increasingly important. But one of the dilemmas at the moment is that at the same time, we are facing a number of choices, not least technological choices that require a longer horizon (3-5 years) and which determine our competitiveness in the future. So more than ever, we need to work on multiple horizons at the same time. Here, as the executive board, we have a very important role, and we must ensure that we have very clear language, methods, processes and mandates.” 

I really believe in content leadership. In other words, being part of the work as a leader.

Thomas Erichsen, Group Chief Executive and CTO for Topdanmark

When we asked Thomas about how he specifically will approach this challenge, he mentioned “strategic execution” as the key.

A paradigm shift in management – from strategy execution to “strategic execution”

Thomas continues, “‘Strategic execution’ is about having a direction – not a fixed goal that must be achieved – and then ensuring that everyone understands and works in that direction. Here, it’s important that one understands and accommodates for the fact that changes will happen along the way. But fundamentally, it’s about people knowing where they are going, how they should work and that we have a large mandate – the rest is about trust, culture and competence. I really believe in outcome-based leadership, benefit and productivity, but I’m tired of all the buzzwords that ultimately mean the same: focus on execution.”

We then asked Thomas how he concretely will make sure to nudge people to follow a direction, where the focus is increasingly on productivity, benefit and execution. Here, Thomas told us about some of his methods, “I really believe in content leadership. In other words, being part of the work as a leader.

We need to move away from the escalation and reporting hierarchy, where we spend (too much) time in steering committees etc. without actually knowing the issues in depth. We need to have line management closer so that programmes don’t run like an organisation outside of the lines, as responsibility should ultimately reside inside the line. When we start a programme, for example, we should be able to have our most skilled people with the mandate ready, sitting beside each other and with the power and commitment to solve the problem along the way – not just involvement.

“And so, I’m trying to break away from the idea that is often found in organisations, where we draw a distinction between IT and business. It creates an unhealthy duality, which creates re-activity on one side. This is very dangerous and deadly for development. Technology, customers, mandates, roles etc. can be found, but at the end of the day, we are all part of the business, and we all have a responsibility for customer experience and ultimately, for our competitive power.

“I can see that all of this can seem like a bit of a mouthful for some, so I make sure to be very deliberate in my communication.”

It all has to start somewhere – with Thomas, there’s a plan

When an organisation experiences a number of large changes one after the other, it can quickly lead to change saturation.

Therefore, we asked Thomas how he plans on starting and driving the transformation to meet the challenges and the paradigm shift in management, which Topdanmark is facing.

“I have several plans in my drawer. One plan is about what can kill us within the next three months, so it’s primarily within operations and security here and now. The other plan is still in the sketching phase and is for the initial foundation of the transformation, where right now, I’m looking at the following three areas:

  • In terms of our organisational design, I’m looking at whether we are organised properly in relation to the responsibility we have in the group. Here, I’m looking at a value chain approach and a flatter organisation with a clear mandate based on teams.
  • Our portfolio management ensures that we become even better at prioritising across the board, selecting and driving our initiatives ‘shortly and thickly’.
  • A stronger and more transparent management of our competences, capacities and budget in my area.”

In line with the aforementioned initiatives, Thomas explains that he does not feel constrained by his role or the platform he stands on. However, he believes that he has a large degree of freedom, but that history, of course, must be respected.

“I have great respect for the legacy and history of Topdanmark, which is a very well-run company. But I also feel that I have to shake things up a bit in order to start some of the changes that I believe are needed and ultimately, the transformation that we are now facing. Topdanmark is well on the way in many areas, and we already have many good and fundamental discussions about it.

“For example, I have started to pull some small ‘behaviour hacks’ in my organisation, to loosen things up a bit. I tell them that if you are in doubt, then do it! If you are really in doubt, ask a colleague. It’s basically about taking the mandate and responsibility instead of constantly asking for permission or escalating. I also say that if someone sees a risk or a problem, then they should own it until someone else has agreed to take it on – we can’t just let it go and move on.

“In the same way, I try to turn the pyramid on its head for my management group and tell them that they are each responsible for making sure that the organisation is running – not just now, but also in 3-4 years so that we can ensure that we achieve our strategic goals. This means ensuring a balance between the short and long term. And here, I then ask them what is needed – and then we can start a dialogue. It’s a completely different way for them to approach their work than what they are used to. For most, it’s fortunately very motivating, but it’s also a bit of a stretch for people, and we talk about this a lot at the moment.”

The future for Topdanmark

Thomas looks briefly down at his wristwatch, while assuring us that we still have time to finish our talk before his next meeting, and we ask Thomas about the values that he regards as most important in the people who are to be part of the future Topdanmark. “I’m actually quite traditional. I value orderliness, integrity and honesty very highly. It’s also important for me that we speak to each other in a good manner and respect our differences. If we can spice up these values with vision, curiosity, courage and, of course, strong professionalism, then I believe that we will be in a very strong position.”