Q&A: Rising high in the world of finance

SME catches up with Jazz Gakhal, Director of Direct Line for Business

Jazz, tell us how you made it in the commercial insurance sector

I first joined Direct Line Group in 2005 in a junior role in the general insurance team. I have worked in the business since then and in 2014 was appointed Director of Direct Line for Business. At the start of this role we were a small team of four people, but now I have responsibility for leading over 250 employees. I graduated with a degree in mathematical sciences and went on to qualify as a secondary school maths teacher before deciding to pursue a career in business. I want to share the story of how I got to where I am to inspire other women looking to become business leaders.

What exactly does Direct Line for Business do?

We provide a range of business insurance products to all sorts of small businesses in the UK. So anything from hair salons, retail shops and B&Bs to residential and commercial landlords, tradesman and small business owners. We take pride in our products and do our best to connect with our customers so that we can help them to create personalised insurance products that are just right for their business.  

What do you like about the role?

I love the variety of my role – it means that no two days are the same, and I can go from being knee deep in financial information to talking about marketing creative or from talking to an actuary to being out with small business owners.  I also like the fact that I work with so many smart and interesting people, and I love the customer-centric nature of what we do. Building products for small and medium sized businesses means we need to work closely with customers, which I find hugely enjoyable.

What is the biggest challenge?

I find the work-life balance can be tough. As is often the case, my team is spread across multiple locations. I live in Leeds but commute into London almost every week mostly on a Tuesday morning, and then return on Thursday night. I also regularly travel to Bristol, which is not easy from Leeds. Managing a team across a number of different locations comes with its challenges, but over the years I have learnt to use my time more effectively. I also trust my team to do a great job, so that helps alleviate some of the stress.

What are you most proud of?

I am pleased to be leading an inspiring team that is the driving force behind Direct Line for Business’s growth. The brand has evolved so much in the last couple of years and I am so proud to be at the forefront of these developments. I am also proud to be honoured on the Northern Power Women’s list of ‘Top 50 To Watch’ and more recently named on Green Park’s BAME 100 Board Talent Index.

What do you wish you’d known before starting your career?

I would have loved a crystal ball that would have allowed me to see how digital technology and the internet would have influenced society and the way we all live our lives. Things have changed so much over the last 12 years and it’s transformed how we interact with each other and conduct all of our daily transactions, meaning entire businesses and business models have had to adapt. In the last couple of decades, the pace of change enabled by tech feels to have been exponential. I think we have now caught up on the idea that things can change very rapidly, so we are getting better at adapting rapidly and planning for ‘unknowns’ – but 12 years ago I definitely did not understand that.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

I would tell them to own their career development and have a plan. Sometimes unexpected opportunities present themselves and that’s great, embrace them, but you can’t rely on that.  You need to think about where you would like to be, at least five  years out, and how best to build up the skills and experience to get you there. It’s great now for me as a leader to work with and hear from members of my team that really understand and have thought about what they want from their careers and we can think about how their ambitions may be achieved in their interest and in the interest of the business. I would say an organisation will have the best relationship with their employees if they provide them with the right tools and resources to develop, but you can’t rely on that, it’s your responsibility to own your own career.

I would also say you can’t do or know everything yourself. It’s about building and being part of a great team and trusting them to do their work well. Delegating is really important, as well as remembering that just because someone didn’t do something exactly as you would have, it doesn’t make it wrong.