Aviva: growing up thoughtfully

Written by
Mary Appleton

04 Sep 2015

04 Sep 2015 • by Mary Appleton

When Christine Deputy joined Aviva in 2013, the FTSE 100 insurance giant was behind the times and needed to change its culture quickly – which meant implementing a thoughtful talent philosophy that involved everyone. In this exclusive interview, Deputy tells Mary Appleton how she has pioneered an intensive transformation programme to move the organisation from a paternalistic business to one focused on trust, honesty and ‘adult conversations’.

On a bright May afternoon, I arrive at Aviva’s head office at St Helen’s in the heart of London’s City. I’m ushered into a lift. As I make the journey to the 22nd floor, I’m struck by the sense of friendliness that pervades the air. The occupants of the lift chatter about their day. They greet each other as we stop at each floor. People smile.

I’m here to meet Christine Deputy, who for the past two years has been group HR director for the FTSE 100 insurance giant. She smiles when I tell her about my experience. I get the sense that it hasn’t always been like this. “The execs used to use a separate lift,” she laughs.

“It was like the hallowed halls of the seniors! Thank goodness it’s not like that now – we’ve been working hard on creating a culture where everyone feels comfortable to chat to each other."

A business in turmoil

There was little to smile about when Deputy joined in March 2013, having moved from her role as HR director for Barclays’ global retail banking division. The insurance group was in the doldrums, having experienced a tumultuous 2012, which saw it sell off multiple businesses in order to simplify its activities and boost shareholder returns. In addition, it announced later that year that up to 800 jobs would be lost following a reorganisation caused by Eurozone turmoil.

Deputy had played a key role in Barclays’ cultural change programme, having been hired by Antony Jenkins in 2012, who at the time was chief executive of the global retail and business banking division. “We were trying to drive a customer-centric culture into the bank back then,” she recalls.

Prior to Barclays, Deputy had commanded senior HR roles at the likes of Thomas Cook, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Brands. So when the role at Aviva came along, Deputy was excited about the prospect of moving to an entirely new industry. “I knew nothing about insurance other than I had a policy on my house and car,” she laughs. “But actually, how we achieve shareholder value, customer satisfaction and how people like to connect with each other is very consistent. My challenge was to establish how to drive great people practices which would deliver great customer experiences to grow the business.”

When she arrived, Deputy was shocked. “It was 2013 – the financial crisis had happened in 2008 but didn’t really hit this organisation until then,” she says. “Insurance businesses have long tails, so I guess Aviva could make the best of that and didn’t have to deal with what was going on in the rest of the world.”

Aviva was suffering from a bad culture problem. Investors were unhappy, performance had dipped and there were big questions over the capability of some of the executive team. “We suddenly had to face the fact that we were not healthy as an organisation, both on the balance sheet but also in the way we dealt with each other,” she says.

Breaking down hierarchies

Getting employees back onside was the first major challenge for Deputy in an organisation where morale was low and frustration was high. “There was this parent/child-style relationship going on between the executive suite and the rest of the organisation, where people were constantly told ‘everything is fine’,” she says. “Employees thought Aviva was doing really well so they were shocked to find out that wasn’t the case. There were some really big holes we needed sorting.”

The company had already undergone a major cost-cutting operation in 2012, prompted by the arrival of chairman John McFarlane, who came in and “shook the foundations” of Aviva by making significant changes to the executive team.

A more streamlined employee structure was implemented, which resulted in no employee being more than seven layers away from the CEO. But this, says Deputy, left an organisation clueless on how to operate in this new way. “We had to keep cutting as we hadn’t got what we needed in order to deliver our promise to the investment community, but within that we needed to find a way to work better together,” she says.

While Aviva was effective from a front-line perspective and had developed strong customer relationships, there was an acknowledgement among the leadership team that the organisation needed to become more functional – with the right culture underpinning it. “We knew that we couldn’t continue if we didn’t sort it out,” she adds.

CEO Mark Wilson – who had been appointed in January 2013 – quickly announced plans to eliminate 2,000 jobs, cut the dividend by 44%, freeze bonuses for 400 managers and sell off or reorganise units. He subsequently challenged the executive team to oversee and implement a people thesis, customer thesis, investor thesis and a distribution thesis.

Deputy was tasked with the people thesis, and needed to come up with an operating model which would align with the new commercial reality that Aviva was dealing with – and deliver a much leaner, faster-moving, less bureaucratic organisation.

“In the first year, we spent a lot of time working out what we stood for – we had to reconnect with customers and employees,” she says. “We listened to them, gathered feedback on Mark, the group executive and the organisation, so we could understand how people saw us and our decisions.”

And feedback was intense. “People said: ‘we don’t know what you’re doing’, ‘we don’t trust what you are doing’, ‘we have no idea what the strategy is,’ ‘we don’t feel part of a global organisation’,” she reveals. “A significant amount of hard truths came out, and it was tough.”

Indeed, the numbers were not pretty. Engagement was at 56% and trust in executive leadership had plummeted to just 48%. Coupled with that, the share price had dropped to 373p. And for an organisation where business is built largely on the strength of front-line relationships with customers, something needed to be done – and quickly.

Stripping the organisation back to its roots was key for Deputy. “I started with a 300-year-old business which had been built on myriad acquisitions and mergers. We had to start our operating model at the customer and get the leadership team to build the story.

"The key to a successful change programme is to look at where your organisation is before you decide what you need to do. Your leadership, mid-management, market reputation, and turnover will all dictate what you need to do. If you don’t take time at the start to listen and be inquisitive, your interventions won’t necessarily stick"

Building the story of Aviva

So, the executive team spent time having a series of off-site conversations with each other about what they wanted to do, addressing big questions such as: ‘where is the world going?’, ‘what’s our role within it?’, ‘what is the strategy for the business?’, ‘what plan of action will deliver the strategy?’, ‘what culture will we need if we are going after that purpose and strategy?’ and ‘what matters here?’

"There was a lot of rebellion on the part of the execs,” Deputy reveals. “People were unclear why we were spending so much time on it. But from a leadership standpoint, if we were going to carry the rest of the 30,000 employees through extreme change with a lot of pain, we had to own it and do the work.”

Throughout the process, Deputy admits she felt pressure to ‘fix’ the culture. “There was this sense that, as the HR person, I could just roll out some new values and that would get the organisation going and everyone would feel better,” she says. “But when you’re tasked with cutting £400m costs in 18  months, there’s not a lot people can feel great about.”

Instead, Deputy held her nerve and focused efforts on establishing a new strategy and purpose before instituting new values.

Getting the leadership to work through these elements and discuss customer experience, desire and motivation was “transformational” for Deputy. Once the group had made several breakthroughs, the challenge was finding a way to get the rest of the organisation to buy into it. “If we simply said: ‘ta-dah, here’s our new vision!’ we knew our top leaders would reject it as they didn’t have any skin in the game,” she says.

So, at the end of 2013, Aviva launched its four theses and a new purpose to the top 100 senior managers in the business and asked for their feedback. “We told them where we wanted to be in 2020 and took feedback about what people wanted from the values and culture across the business,” she says.

Ideas were then rolled out to a further 300 employees, including key influencers within the organisation. Exhibitions were created to show the thinking the group executive had undertaken, and these employees were invited to view these and figure out what this meant for the business and themselves. This, in turn, helped to create a sense of ownership.

“Allowing people from the front line to sit with executives and tell them they didn’t like stuff was a big deal – and it was hard,” admits Deputy. “But the conversation and change in dynamic was a critical part of engaging everyone and getting the whole organisation to shift, rather than cascading the change downwards.”

It wasn’t until the strategy was firmly established that Deputy was comfortable in creating the values – which she argues had to partner with the purpose and strategy, otherwise they would have been disconnected from what the organisation needed to achieve.

Establishing new values

Creating the values – of ‘never rest’, ‘kill complexity’, ‘care more’ and ‘create legacy’ – was not an easy task. “Imagine saying ‘never rest’ to employees when you have just made 2,000 jobs redundant – they say ‘I’m working like crazy!’” exclaims Deputy. “But actually when you delve deeper, it’s about us not sitting back on our laurels, and constant dissatisfaction is really important.”

For Deputy, ‘kill complexity’ is perhaps Aviva’s most controversial value and it was almost rejected. “People said: ‘how can you have ‘kill’ in a values set?’” she recalls. “We could have called it ‘improve simplicity’, but we have to be edgy in our outlook so in that sense ‘kill’ really works.”

‘Create legacy’, she says, is about being a good ancestor. “We are temporary guardians of this organisation, so when you think with that long-term vision, you make decisions differently and don’t just implement quick fixes.”

‘Care more’ enables employees to go beyond their remit, offering more to the customer and helping their experience be more positive.

Conversations everywhere

In 2014, the top 150 leaders facilitated sessions for Aviva’s 30,000 employees to begin conversations about their personal motivations and how these might fit with the organisation’s values. “We had conservations about ‘this is where we are going so how do you feel about that, what do you like about it – and what does that mean to you?’”.

Soon after, three ‘strategic anchors’ were launched – digital first; not everywhere; and true customer composite – to help people think not just about what Aviva was doing as an organisation but focus on how it was going to be achieved.

“Digital is our enabler; not everywhere is about making choices – we don’t do everything, we don’t go everywhere; and we have all aspects to offer customers and it’s in the power of our composite that we can have a different relationship with the customer,” explains Deputy.

By working together and encouraging constant feedback, there is now an honest engagement with the group executive that is direct, though she admits there’s still a lot more to be done. “We have at least two to three more years’ hard work to build the muscle memory about who we are, but we have really positive engagement so we’re going in the right direction,” she says.

Indeed, trust in leadership has risen by 18 points to 66% and engagement within the organisation now stands at 65%.

To maintain a sense of constant communication and two-way feedback, the top 150 senior management come together at least twice a year; there’s also an annual CEO forum for executives, leaders and front-line people – key groups for Deputy as they are “charged with carrying the message forward”.

Since the change began, Deputy says the group executive team has evolved considerably – which she puts largely down to the fact that this has not been a “personality-led transformation”, but rather about the leadership team owning the change and leading it as a group, together.

Role of HR

So what, in Deputy’s view, is the role of HR in all of this? “It’s an overused phrase, but my HRDs are strategic business partners. They advise, counsel and support on decisions that will help move the business forward. We’ve worked hard to move from a transactional service to a partner,” she says.

To do this, the HR team had to undertake a lot of transactional work around HRIS, performance management, hiring and onboarding – but for Deputy this was crucial in building the foundations of HR. “If you don’t have your engine room running, what right do you have to be involved in the business?” she asks.

And this has served the function well. She says that HR is now seen as truly global – with a consistent strategy that is applied to each market in a specific way. “If you’re talking about talent in Poland or Paris, it’s the same conversation,” explains Deputy.

“It was difficult to move talent around before because we simply didn’t trust each other or know people outside our own function.”

Building trust and collaboration

Talking of trust, there has been more movement in Aviva recently – in April the company completed a £5.6 billion all-share takeover of Friends Life Group. So how has this affected employee morale and trust in leadership? While Deputy admits that there was a level of uncertainty among employees around the impact of this integration – which involved 1,500 job losses – she insists there wasn’t a big dip in engagement when it happened.

“People now trust that we will tell them first and we will go through consultation with them collaboratively,” she says.

Identifying talent tribes

Making the most of talent has been under the spotlight in recent months. In an organisation where many employees have worked for their whole career, Deputy needed to find a way to protect those people who were committed and had deep technical expertise, but ensure the organisation was being infused with new talent.

While engagement surveys provided some information, Deputy and her team found this gave only minimal insight, so three-month ‘snapshot’ surveys were introduced to try to develop more robust material. But these didn’t yield enough information to act on.

So earlier this year, using data around performance, gender, location, years of service and other demographics, Aviva began to correlate different attributes of various employee groups within the organisation and subsequently identified key employee clusters – tribes – so Deputy could implement tailored talent interventions accordingly.

Employer brand is also now high on the agenda. “We purposely didn’t do [employer brand] at the beginning because, until we could show up in a consistent way globally, we couldn’t claim a global brand,” she explains.

Deputy is also keen to improve the level of complexity in organisational design and to provide clarity over roles, responsibilities and career pathing. “For employees the question of ‘how can I contribute and move my career forward’ is still too complicated,” she admits.

'Adult to adult' conversations

Turning attention to her own career, Deputy announced in April that she is leaving Aviva later this year to return to her native US. She is keen to point out that the move is for personal reasons: “My eldest son is at the age where he needs to go back from an educational standpoint,” she clarifies.

She will be succeeded by Sarah Morris, previously global head of HR for a division of Thomson Reuters.

As a seasoned 21st-century HRD with an impressive track record of change journeys behind her, it will be interesting to see what Deputy undertakes next. For now, she is hugely proud of the progress Aviva has made in her tenure, and is hopeful that her people thesis, coupled with her aspirations around collaboration, achievement and potential, stay true over the next few years. “I want part of my legacy to be about this organisation embracing adult-to-adult conversations – I hope that the level of engagement, honesty and direct communication we have achieved will stay forever.

“We are still working the agenda to build a place where people feel free to take risks, fail fast and innovate in an exciting way for the customer, but we have made headway. You layer it on and build it, and it’s been quite a process,” she smiles.

When Christine Deputy joined Aviva in 2013, the FTSE 100 insurance giant was behind the times and needed to change its culture quickly – which meant implementing a thoughtful talent philosophy that involved everyone. In this exclusive interview, Deputy tells Mary Appleton how she has pioneered an intensive transformation programme to move the organisation from a paternalistic business to one focused on trust, honesty and ‘adult conversations’.

"The key to a successful change programme is to look at where your organisation is before you decide what you need to do. Your leadership, midmanagement, market reputation, and turnover will all dictate what you need to do. If you don’t take time at the start to listen and be inquisitive, your interventions won’t necessarily stick"