AXA spots successors in its talent streams

With annual revenue of about £66bn, AXA is the largest insurance company in the world, and the 13th largest company overall. But it has grand plans to take this further. By 2012, the company aims to double its turnover and triple its earnings, and improving its talent pipeline will be central to its success in doing this.

AXA’s growth has, in great part, been down to a series of acquisitions, creating a collection of ‘cottage industries’ around the business, with separate strategies for managing talent.

According to Kate Banks, group talent manager at AXA, there was historically very little movement between divisions. The company had run cross-divisional graduate and high-potential programmes in the UK, but these had met with mixed results.

Another issue was that there was a culture at AXA where managers would tend to source new recruits from outside rather than grooming internal talent, which was both expensive and time-consuming.

“We thought we could get the best candidates externally,” says Banks. “Managers felt their best bet would be someone they had met for an hour or put through an assessment centre.”

One of the first tasks for Banks was to conduct a talent review, with a view to establishing a formal framework for managing talent in the organisation. When Banks joined, there had been only one person in HR with responsibility for talent. Under the new regime, there is a separate centre for excellence in talent and leadership, which reports into AXA’s group HR director Steve Offord.

Lack of leadership

AXA’s talent review revealed that succession planning was a real weakness at the company. “We found that there was a predominance of managers, rather than leaders, insufficient strength below management level, and an increased risk of attrition,” explains Banks.

To deal with this, Banks and her team set up a series of branded programmes for different strands of the organisation. This included a programme called FastForward for middle managers in its insurance division, and a scheme called Accelerate for junior managers in its life insurance arm. The team has also developed a more formal graduate programme where new recruits undertake three placements, lasting eight months, each in different parts of the business so that they can gain more cross-divisional experience.

Greater mobility

The programmes have addressed the challenges head on, as the results show. Two-thirds of key senior roles in AXA now have a ‘ready-now’ successor, and there is much greater movement around the business. On the Accelerate scheme for junior managers, which started in the AXA life division but is now being rolled out across the UK, 50% of staff that have been through it have been promoted.

The programme has led to 19 senior moves or role changes across the business, but Banks is keen for junior staff to move around more, as there is less risk to the business in doing it at this level. Most importantly, managers now seek candidates internally, and AXA now earmarks certain positions as ‘red-flag’ roles that can only be filled from within. Banks has a philosophy on this: “You can have the best talent management programme in the world, but unless there’s a reason for doing it, you’re just developing people for someone else’s business.”

The challenge: succession planning

  • Disparate business units built up through acquisition created ‘cottage industries’.
  • Previous talent management efforts had met with mixed results.
  • Research revealed there were insufficient leadership skills below management level.

Lessons learned: Kate Banks, group talent manager, AXA

  • Senior buy-in is vital to success. I was fortunate to have the support of an HR director who was passionate about talent.
  • Sometimes you have to think radically – some schemes may not have a long shelf-life but work ‘right now’.
  • Be prepared to adapt to the business and listen to what managers have to say.
  • Look at your overall strategy – why are we doing this?

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