By investing in employees, Zurich has seen increases in engagement levels and net promoter scores to boot.
By Debbie Bolla
Although his surname may mean diminutive, Brian Little has only done big things for Zurich North America. As head of human resources for the insurance provider, Little intrinsically understands the direct link between exceptional employees and satisfied customers. Striving to be “a company of choice for insurance in North America and globally” means focusing on what differentiates Zurich from competitors, and Little believes it’s how Zurich interacts with clients. That interaction is one of the main drivers behind his “Zurich Oxygen” initiative: a program that completely shifts how managers work at the insurance company.
Understanding the critical role managers play in supporting employees to be their best, Little developed Zurich Oxygen to help mold and improve the capabilities and people management skills of managers. Their roles shift from working supervisors to coaches and nurturers of highly engaged teams that hit business goals and deliver game-changing customer support. Little’s impact was recently recognized when he won a 2017 CHRO of the Year Award at the HRO Today Forum in May.
HRO Today recently spoke with Little about his transformative Zurich Oxygen initiative, employee development programs, and how the organization takes employee feedback and puts it into action.
HRO Today: How has Zurich Oxygen transformed your organization?
Brian Little: Zurich Oxygen is more than a training program; it’s a mindset and cultural shift. We have focused on training leaders for many years, but having the right mindset for leaders is more important than basic leadership and management skills. Zurich is a technical business so our managers tend to be subject-matter experts who have traditionally been promoted because of their expertise. Through Oxygen we saw the need to help managers be better coaches and champions of the culture.
Our culture is built around serving customers and making sure that we are the company they depend on for expert advice and service. We are fortunate to have many experts in managing risks in a complex world. Since we are a global organization, we have experts with a variety of experiences. Collaboration is the secrete sauce to our culture. Our experts need to work and share with experts from other areas of the organization. At the center of driving change now and in the future are our managers. A good leader ensures all of the talent is brought together to share knowledge in deliberate ways in order to bring the best service to our customers.
HROT: How did you enable managers through Zurich Oxygen?
Little: In order to make sure the initiative was a success, we changed the organizational structure so that managers are enabled to focus on coaching instead of being part of the delivery process. We wanted to provide more tools to improve effectiveness and to provide a better communication about the impact of their team members and how their roles helped provide service to customers.
Managers need to understand what behaviors bring the out the best in our employees. This includes providing an environment in which employees feel valued from a diversity and inclusion standpoint; providing coaching on performance that’s frequent and supportive; and providing a clear and concise interpretation of strategy and how their jobs connect to our business. Employees want to be a part of an ecosystem of delivery and understand that they all play a role in the overall success of the company. When employees are engaged and held accountable for their work, they will deliver what they are charged to do and then some.
Today’s workers want to have a sense of purpose, a reason to come to work, and to be part of something bigger than themselves. Organizations need to show employees how they contribute to overall success of the business.
I have found that there are three types of workers:
- Those who want a job where they get paid in exchange for time and effort;
- Those who want a career to grow with their organization; and
- Those who are on a mission to change the company, the business, or society.
The more passionate people are about their jobs, the more successful they will be. Zurich North America doesn’t want to provide just jobs; we want our employees to be motivated by our mission and have the chance to be the best they can be.
Our managers also attended storyteller training. Our business is built on complex actions and strategies. We invested in skills development that allows managers to use stories to simplify business language to help employees understand the essence of our work relative to the overall business strategy.
We also launched a management and professional skills academy as a place for managers to improve their knowledge. The academy is a suite of resources to help managers understand how best to provide direction and set objectives. There are also resources to help show care and concern for employees; coach and develop team members; and provide feedback, praise, and recognition. The Zurich Oxygen Academy is another resource—an online academy with information curated from experts inside and out of organization.
HROT: What are some results of Zurich Oxygen?
Little: Zurich Oxygen has helped moved the needle. In terms of improved cost and productivity, we are making quite a bit of progress. The initiative helped save expenses related to running organization. Customer service and employee productivity continues to go up.
We also measure the program through performance scorecards. We created performance measures for managers so they understand what is expected from them and how they are doing as it relates to new expectations. It is part of their annual review. We look at how often managers meet with employees, if employees have a development plan, if they have access to training—things of that nature. We also have an upward appraisal tool so employees can provide feedback to their managers.
Zurich Oxygen has helped retain the best managers and has helped them enjoy their jobs more.
HROT: What was the drive behind Zurich Oxygen?
Little: The drive behind Zurich Oxygen is the focus on helping us be at our best for customers—basically how to be a company of choice for insurance in North America and globally. We had to focus on what differentiates us from others. It’s not just our technology that is important. It is how we interact with customers. We learned from our customers about what they expect from us in the future. As a company, we wanted to ensure we are delivering on our promise. We felt the best way to do it is to help employees understand their roles and ensure managers have a laser focus on what is important. And it’s working. We’ve seen improvements in our customer net promoter scores.
HROT: What is another way you develop employees?
Little: Many of our roles require subject-matter experts with very intricate sets of competencies that need to develop over time. We’ve made a large investment in a multi-year project that helps every employee develop in their job. “Skill Grids” map out the continual development of employee competencies year over year. Managers are involved in building the Skill Grids. We are also putting a new tool in place to make it easier to access, record, and assess competencies.
The goal of the program is to increase retention, development, and employee engagement. We believe employees will stay with the organization if they are growing and getting better at their jobs. Organizations have figured out that top talent is hard to hold onto. Many top performers have skills that are marketable. So if organizations don’t have programs to create engaged and loyal employees, top performers will move on.
Another direct result has been an increase in internal promotions. By having career opportunities and plans, internal promotions have reduced the need to fill jobs externally. In fact, we seen an 80 percent improvement in our internal promotion rate.
HROT: What is HR’s biggest challenge right now, and what are you doing to overcome it?
Little: There is much more information that is available due to new technology. It can be hard to keep up with, but HR can use tools that can help provide the information employees need and not become overwhelmed. For example, at Zurich, “Employee Experience” is a recent, cross-unit effort to ensure we understand how to help our employees. With all the change in marketplace, we want to help employees understand what is relevant and necessary to their job and the future of the company. We also received feedback on what employees care about the most and if they were getting the services offered. We have started this process by interviewing more than 100 employees to understand what they really like about their experience and what changes they recommend.
HROT: Can you provide an example or two of an issue that came from the feedback and how it was addressed?
Little: Onboarding is typically a challenge in most companies given how much employees need to learn in a short period of time. Employees have to learn a new technology and get used to a new culture. This can be particularly challenging for us as a global organization. We have taken measures to provide more information on the company before new employees join. We also implemented new opportunities to connect employees within the organization, including a mentorship program, employee welcome events, and community service projects.
Employee interest in flexibility—the desire to work remotely or have a more personalized work schedule—also came up a lot in conversations. For years, there have been flexible working options at Zurich, but employee feedback drove us to better understand how to leverage our “Flex-Work” policy effectively and increase the number of employees who can participate. Zurich’s approach to flexible work arrangements is now very mindful and provides an opportunity for some level of flexibility to each employee. This makes us more attractive as a company to potential employees and more engaging for our current staff.