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HR director profile - Henk-Jan Wesselink, Marsh 26/11/2010

Henk-Jan Wesselink, HR leader for CEE/CIS regions and senior vice-president of Marsh, talks to BIE Interim Executive about his challenges, maintaining the employer brand and what the future looks like for HR in testing times.

HR director profile - Henk-Jan Wesselink, Marsh

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  1. Tell us about Marsh & your career
  2. How can HR be used as a strategic business weapon?
  3. What does a good HRD look like?
  4. How do you develop your people?
  5. How do you approach talent?
  6. How do you plan ahead in times of change?
  7. What's the future of HR?

Tell us about Marsh & your career

Established in 1871 and trading continuously since, Marsh is one of the best-known global names in insurance and risk services. Today, the business employs 23,000 people serving customers in more than 100 countries. Marsh is part of Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC), a global professional services firm that includes Guy Carpenter, Mercer and Oliver Wyman. MMC has approx. 52,000 employees and $11 billion annual revenue.

I am HR leader for Central Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and a senior vice president. I work closely with the European Works Council of Marsh.
My HR career started over a decade ago in the Netherlands, I ended up in HR by coincidence by working on a major HR related project and I loved it. Ever since then I have worked in HR. I started working for Marsh in the Netherlands in 2004, and moved with my family to Hungary in 2006 to set-up a Financial Shared Service Centre and become head of HR for the Central European Region for Marsh. Currently, I am still in Hungary, now looking after the full region of the CEE / CIS countries.

How can HR be used as a strategic business weapon?

Although it’s a bit of a cliché nowadays, and many organisations say this, ours truly is a people-centred business. The exceptional skills, knowledge and outstanding reputation of all employees are the factors on which Marsh stands or falls. We in HR are the guardians of that talent and the supporters and advisors to our leaders in the implementation of our talent strategies. So HR is a strategic business weapon by definition. It is at the core of all we do.

As HR is a critical business function, and our colleagues and leadership determine the success of our firm, our activities revolve around creating the best possible value we can to the business by supporting and enabling our leaders to execute the HR part of their roles. We bring a long term HR vision, a clear and practical people strategy, and we bring the voice you might expect from a ‘critical friend’ to the board table.

What does a good HRD look like?

In general, it's all about helping the business to succeed against whatever factors are set by the leadership team. In Marsh, we have a clear vision and strategy focused around ‘building the best’. The three key pillars are: 

  • Clients (deliver exceptional value)
  • Colleagues (make Marsh a great place to work for outstanding people)
  • Financial performance (drive profitability and growth).

A good HR director is expected to set the direction for HR, aligned with the company vision, using clear and ambitious but achievable targets. He or she should provide simple, transparent metrics that HR can be held accountable to, and regularly track progress towards achieving them. I think it’s fair to say that HR should be a true business partner, not just an HR business partner. At Marsh, our HR value proposition is delivering what we promise focused on:

  • Knowing external business realities and driver
  • Serving external and internal stakeholders 
  • Crafting and developing the best in HR practices 
  • Ensuring HR professionalism, as it continuously evolves


In principle, the HR director should not be afraid to ask any questions, even (or perhaps especially) questions outside of the standard realm of HR. We should also ask basic questions such as “does this make sense for the firm now and in the future”, “if we do this, does this match with the organisation’s core values?”, and an occasional “I don’t understand, please explain.” This last question requires some courage but I use it for two main reasons: when I really don’t understand what is being said, and want to; or when I want to test whether something still makes sense if we strip away all the jargon and ‘inner circle’ talk.

How do you develop your people?

We don’t - people develop themselves. But we do provide a top-flight learning environment for our colleagues and leaders: both structured, via personal development plans and career paths, as well as unstructured and on-the-job. We provide traditional classroom education (in-house and externally, with world renowned institutions), cutting-edge leadership and professional learning platforms, and we have a fully Web 2.0 / social media-enabled interactive platform in our Marsh University. The latter is a great example of where everyone is both pupil and teacher at the same time. Furthermore, we have active mentoring schemes, on-the-job training via stretched assignments, graduate programmes and management traineeships. Plus we have one of the best e-learning tools and systems available 24-7 to all our staff. Whether they are in the office or at home, they can access this great learning environment. 

We have a mixed but integrated approach to career development, where we both grow our own talent and acquire the best people in their fields from outside. We have equal career paths that can be roughly distinguished as technical career paths and managerial/leadership career paths. Both being equal, and equally important to the firm.

How do you approach talent?

We prefer to grow our own talent, but if there’s a specific need we cannot fulfil internally, then we will recruit the best talent available in the market. As one of the top firms in professional services, we have the advantage that many of the best and most talented people already want to come and work for us. But we complement this with an active recruitment strategy where we work with external partners and network in professional institutions and universities.

We use both traditional and newer methods of recruiting through the likes of social media and special recruiting events. And we have recently agreed a unique partnership with Heidrick & Struggles, one of the world’s leading search firms, to focus on growing our multi-talented and diverse work force across the world. Its aim is to help us to deliver leadership, people solutions and knowledge worldwide.

We are at the vanguard of change in our industry, we have the best talent and resources in the world, and with 23,000 colleagues working across 100 countries there is always a challenging and satisfying job available for outstanding people.

How do you plan ahead in times of change?

Like many others, we have gone through a number of turbulent years. We have re-invented ourselves during the last six years because our industry had a number of business model issues to deal with. So we are better-accustomed to change and have shown we can be flexible and versatile during challenging times. We also have the resources and development structure in place to reflect this. But of course we keep a very keen eye out and instil in our people the dangers of complacency.

We have two major future HR projects. The first involves work on a significant acquisition and all that this entails in terms of successful integration and reaping the identified synergies. Secondly, we are establishing an updated agreement for all 29 countries in our European Works Council.

What's the future of HR?

We will see the need for a different kind of HR, less focused on US / Western business models and cultures, and more aimed at integrating the ways and practices of upcoming economies. In our firm we already see that shift. Where the US and Canada once accounted for the majority of revenue, people and profit, we now see a shift to at least 50% coming from our international division comprising all countries outside North America.

And personally, I hope to see an end to the use of the term ‘HR business partner’. Either you are a full grown, mature, value-adding business partner helping the business succeed, or you are not. There is no room for a special HR category.

For further informtion about BIE interim executive, visit the BIE website

BIE Interim Executive

BIE Interim Executive

BIE provides interim management and change management executives to plcs, private companies, Government, Not-For-Profit organisations, private equity and venture capital firms for assignments in the UK and overseas.