Placing a Premium on Talent

UK insurer Aviva combines mentoring and talent management in its new succession-planning programme.
Janet KersnarNovember 5, 2007

Aviva, a UK’s largest insurer, surprised the markets earlier this year when Richard Harvey, its deal-making CEO for the past ten years, announced plans to leave the firm to work on development projects in Africa. Despite the turmoil this created, it was good news for finance director Andrew Moss, who beat out two other heavyweights—Patrick Snowball, head of Aviva’s UK operations, and Philip Scott, head of Aviva International—for the top job. Scott was appointed CFO; Snowball resigned.

Because such high-level departures can strike a heavy blow to companies, thoughtful management teams plan ahead. At Aviva—which has nearly 60,000 employees and 40m customers worldwide—a key part of the plan installed before Harvey’s departure includes job rotations and mentoring. “Over the last year, we have completely overhauled our approach to succession planning and talent management in general,” says Arvinder Dhesi, Aviva’s director of talent management. That included a pilot mentoring programme last May at Aviva’s head office, which had executives from finance pair up with non-finance managers.

Dehsi says there are three key themes running throughout Aviva’s talent-management revamp. The first is “involvement.” As he explains, “Aviva’s old process devoted more time to talking about people than it did talking to them.” Now there’s some push back on to staff, encouraging individuals to get a clearer picture “about their own achievements, aspirations, strengths, weaknesses, mobility and so on before having an in-depth conversation with their line manager…These feed into review conversations where leaders at each level in the organisation come together to talk about the talent in the organisation at the level below.”

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Another theme is transparency. Notably, line managers are now required to feed back the outcome of the reviews to staff. “Obviously this takes a great deal of skill on the part of line managers but we believe this is an essential skill of people management,” says Dehsi.

Finally, there’s consistency. “We look at performance over time—both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ over at least three years—and ‘learning agility’—that is, the ability to adapt, adjust, respond and be resourceful in the face of change…We know that one of the riskiest career transitions is the move from leading a function to leading a business and this is part of the logic behind our focus on learning agility.”

As for Aviva’s finance executives, they have faired well under the new talent regime. Several recent high-profile finance rotations include Siobhan Boylan, previously Aviva’s director of group financial reporting, who took up the post of CFO at Morley, the group’s fund management arm, and David Watson, Morley’s former CFO, who became CFO of Aviva Europe.

What’s more, the deep pool of finance talent at Aviva is being tapped for a variety of functions in executive suites across the group. As Dehsi notes, along with Moss, a number of senior directors came from finance including Igal Mayer, now chief executive of Norwich Union general insurance, Mark Hodges, chief executive Norwich Union Life, and Simon Machell, chief executive of Aviva Asia Pacific.

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