Interview with Georges Pigault
Hi Georges. So, why do you have an “s” at the end of your first name?
That’s the French spelling of my name. I grew up in Paris. My parents came here in the mid-80’s because my father had a commission with an art gallery in New York. He was an artist. We later became naturalized citizens.
Do you still speak French?
Yes, French and Bulgarian. My mom is from Bulgaria. She came to Paris in the late 60's to study art at the Beaux Arts. That's where she met my dad. We always spoke both French and Bulgarian at home and I spent summers with my Bulgarian grandparents as a child. I'm very lucky to have had exposure to both Eastern and Western Europe early on.
Tell me about the role that “luck” played in your life.
He was my moral compass growing up
Now that so many of us are separated from our older family members in the COVID pandemic, I really treasure what my own grandparents contributed to my life. My grandfather was a professor of classics and epigraphy at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria. He invested a lot of time in me during our summers together. He was my moral compass growing up. Luckily, we also spent time together in the U.S. after we left france. He was a visiting scholar at Princeton, so I got to see him more often.
Did you follow in your grandfather's footsteps?
Yes and no. I did graduate from Princeton, but I did not study classics. I studied mechanical engineering. Even though that's a pretty practical area of study, I had a hard time when I graduated into a very tight job markets in 1992. Many of my engineering class-mates went on to graduate school, so the job market did not affect them as much. I think my son, who will be graduating next year, is going to face the same challenge as a result of COVID and its impact. He and his generation have already experienced unprecedented change when all their classes became virtual.
Why didn’t you go to graduate school like your class-mates?
I really needed the income to support myself
The truth is that not every Princeton student comes from privilege. I had worked throughout college, and when I graduated I really needed the income to support myself and pay off some loans. It was not an easy time, but I consider myself lucky that I didn't have the crushing college debt that many people have these days. I never thought that I should count myself lucky for having an uninterrupted 4 years of college with in-person classes, professors I can talk to and counselors to ask advice.
It takes a lot out of you - holding down jobs while doing an engineering degree. What energizes you now?
To me routine is the biggest barrier to staying sharp
Improving on the status-quo. I work in the Insurance industry, which is still pretty traditional, but on the verge of disruption. There is so much innovation going on all around us. I’ll take every opportunity to modernize the way we work internally and with clients. As a manager, it’s really important to me that people on my team feel they’re doing value-added work. Change can be an uphill battle, but to me, routine is the biggest barrier to staying sharp. Fortunately we have some autonomy to do innovative work. And we’ve inspired other teams with some of the advancements we’ve made. I do like to push the envelope, however.
I noticed that you use the word “we” a lot. Why is that?
It's actually been an evolution for me. Early in my career, and for quite a few years, I needed to be the one with the solution. To some extent that’s still a reflex. But over the years, I saw the kind of success that can come from a collective effort if you let people support you. There’s huge value in the support you receive, both intellectually and emotionally. Going it alone is possible, and at times I'll admit it can be more efficient, but it definitely has diminishing returns. As a manager, I now take much more pride in group successes than in individual successes.
It sounds like you have collaboration down pat. But then what is your view on conflict?
You need to have trust first or it becomes an obstacle to progress
People should have the opportunity to own their views, even when they’re in contrast to others. I think for conflict to be productive, you need to have trust first or it becomes an obstacle to progress. I manage people, so I manage conflict. I’ll admit it can get uncomfortable and difficult to resolve, mostly because it's difficult to remain objective and see clearly.
How often are you wrong?
We don't get feedback quickly enough to course-correct
Not often enough. Hahaha. Let me explain. In the insurance industry the decisions we make on risk play out over a long period of time, so we don't get feedback quickly enough to course-correct. By the time I find out I was wrong, years have passed and I can't change much. With different business models, new technology platforms, and better data, this is changing.
Is your industry being disrupted by technology or Artificial Intelligence? Do you think COVID-19 will accelerate this transformation?
Yes, in large firms, I'd say we are seeing the beginnings of AI. It's being used to solve for productivity enhancement and reducing "non-value added" work. I've seen it do pretty impressive things. It hasn't been a smooth process, and there are costs. It can be disruptive to people at all levels. There is often not enough of a runway of time and money to get the technology to an optimal state. This causes inefficiencies where we have to re-hire people or off-shore the work. And yes, I am sure there will be significant appetite and accelerated investment in technology as a result of our experience of working through a global crisis. By the way, those who can leverage technology to keep working during a crisis are quite fortunate.
How are you dealing with our global crisis? What changes do you see?
It will leave an indelible mark on us
As I said, I'm one of the lucky ones in that I can still work. I'm in awe of healthcare professionals globally. My daughter has been planning to become a doctor since she was little. She now has thousands of role models everywhere in the world. However, now we need to lay down the politics and do better than we have done. I have a lot of family in Europe, and they are very concerned for us in the United States. As far as change, it will leave an indelible mark on us, and we will not be the same as a society or as a workforce.
OK, we've come to my favorite part of the interview. In honor of James Lipton, I'm going to fire 5 questions at you, which you have to answer very quickly and succinctly - with one or two words. Ready?
What offends you?
What’s one lesson do you feel most qualified to teach another person?
What makes you cringe?
When you're at your best, you're...
What change are you working on?
Thank you, Georges. It's been a pleasure. Stay safe and be well.