Aegon's Siobhan Martin on pushing through the roadblocks
Aegon HR chief Siobhan Martin’s commitment to helping others achieve all they can is driven by a desire to engage on a very human level and make the workplace a better place for everyone.
Any good HR professional can empathise, sympathise and offer their support and guidance to an employee’s concerns, regardless of whether they have experienced them personally. But for Aegon Asset Management HR business partner Siobhan Martin, being a queer, single mother, domestic violence survivor and Australian immigrant means she doesn’t just empathise with hardship, she’s had her fair share of it too.
Of course, hardship is not a necessity for becoming a great leader, but it does demonstrate the character of a person and how they have responded to the obstacles life has thrown their way. Martin wears these hardships with candour, like a badge of honour demonstrating both how far she has come and her commitment to encourage others to speak up where she has been silenced.
Martin is currently based in Edinburgh, a mere 10,500 miles away from her roots in Western Australia, where she was raised by her English mum in the Australian Bush as one of four. She immediately describes herself as part of the “classic Australia/European diaspora” before rolling into an opinion on the colonial undertones of Australia Day and the sensitivities around it. Just minutes into the interview, it’s clear Martin isn’t here to toe the corporate line.
She has worked at Aegon Asset Management, a global investor managing $475 billion of assets, for two and a half years. During this time, she has overseen a major organisational restructure, from European setup to global HR framework. Previous roles at EY and KPMG have equipped her to deliver Aegon’s people strategy to its 1,200 staff, as well as heading up its inclusive leadership programme.
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Martin’s zest for the people profession is contagious, and her fervid smile when discussing her job is admirable, particularly on a wet and grey day in mid-February. She says: “The most important thing for me is being connected as humans and finding out what we have in common. We have many gifts, skills and abilities but it’s particularly great if we can use them to support other people.”
In the past year, Aegon has put its name to a number of big-ticket inclusion promises. In December 2020, it signed the Race at Work Charter, a UK government initiative designed to accelerate change for black, Asian and minority ethnic employees. It has also created a new role of global head of diversity and inclusion.
But Martin is keen to highlight this progression is far from just another corporate making a promise: in 2020 Aegon hit its target of 30% female incumbency in senior management roles. It has set a new target of 33% of women in leadership positions by the end of 2021.
The world of finance is often rocked with toxic workplace allegations, so can it be assumed there is an ethical imperative at play here to reframe this stereotype? Not necessarily, according to Martin, who insists all companies ought to be having conversations around diversity and inclusion.
She says: “It’s incredibly important that as good HR people and leaders, we should always be grappling with how we can make sure our culture is morally right and it reaches all the regulations.”
This sense of morality also influences the recruitment decisions at Aegon. Martin adds: “Our customers and clients have deep and important questions that need answering, so we have to ask how do we engage properly as human beings to retain and attract great talent?
“We have to be able to have that key sense of purpose and ask: why do you exist, what is that purpose, what am I here for? And that is absolutely critical in figuring out how you retain and attract good people and that strong sense of purpose and understanding and knowing what you’re doing is truly worth it. And not just worth it because you get paid to do it.”
Martin is clearly a deep thinker who constantly questions the norm, no doubt a symptom of the PhD in forensic psychology she took from Monash University, where she is also a fellow and former UK chair of the university’s Global Leaders’ Network.
This is just one of a number of roles Martin has been involved in outside of the nine-to-five.
She is also a member of the Market Development Board of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries and the Parochial Church Council of All Hallows by the Tower, said to be the oldest church in the City of London and where her parents married. Her previously held board positions also include Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, and as an advisory board member for the global Professional Women’s Network.
Our fast-paced, ‘always on’ culture can often lead to longer working hours, longer to-do lists and more priorities to juggle. In this context, it’s equal parts impressive and intimidating that a person of Martin’s professional level can make time for additional voluntary roles.
She says: “I’m not sure how I find the time. I guess I am constantly asking what do we exist here for and why are we doing this stuff? If you have that in your brain and heart, and then each day think about how can I move the barriers away from other people and myself, we can try to ensure what we are as people and as an organisation are doing is effective and impactful.”
Adding another hue to Martin’s coat of many colours is her recognition as one of the top 10 global LGBT executives by the Financial Times, plus her involvement in helping LGBT+ charity Stonewall on its development board. Yet Martin is quick to mention her sexuality is just one part of her being and does not wholly define her. She says: “I’ve never come out because I’ve always been out – that’s the brilliance of growing up in the 80s and the marvellousness and culture of being everything and everyone is out there.
“Yes, being a queer woman is an important part of my identity, as are all the other elements: leading a marvellous business, having colleagues doing all the great things they are doing.”
She has a similar attitude when it comes to discussing her past as a domestic violence survivor. She adds: “I purposely talk about it in the right circumstances. Yes, I am a victim but it doesn’t define me despite it being an important aspect. The beauty of age and being past all of that is knowing that it’s not impacting my career. But we [HR and leaders] need to be able to offer that gift to others. Not everyone will feel comfortable enough to share their stories, but if you see others speaking up, it can make a difference.
“Speaking up is one of the very particular things I learnt and experienced of myself going through the family violence and the impact that’s had on our family.” Martin’s two children were just one- and two-years-old when she removed them and herself from the family violence.
She adds: “One of the things that was very powerful to me and thank god I noticed it and could hold it, was that the worst thing about it was that people weren’t talking about it, so I stayed in this terrible situation for years. Part of that was the absolute shame and guilt that was attached to it, other parts of that were the sheer financial impact and the love I had for my husband.
“There was a terrible push and pull. Silence contributed to it so strongly, and that’s a key reason why I don’t allow the silence to continue for others now that I’m safe. It’s horrific to know that women and men have been locked in through the actual lockdowns and their abusers are right there.”
Martin is keen to question the assumptions made about those who find themselves in a domestic violence situation. She adds: “I particularly noticed that for well-educated individuals, women and men, it’s assumed it can’t be happening to you and I heard that a lot. I was disbelieved and doubted by police, by some friends and family but also a lot of people I knew through work, and that contributed to the problem. It’s important that those who have the opportunity to speak, do so, and support others. And I think as employers, that’s an important role to play in making sure we have support for people who are suffering in whichever way they are.”
Inclusivity seems to be a theme which runs through Martin’s professional and personal life, and she is evidently passionate about moving the roadblocks she has faced out of the way for others.
She adds: “If you have heard all of your life you aren’t worth it and there’s something wrong with you, I understand psychologically how that can be internalised and spoken back to you. It’s the things you do every single day that leads to the big-ticket items. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the big ones, but instead as an organisation and leader, you should always be open about issues and start to cover them.”
Martin is keen to acknowledge the messier obstacles of genuine inclusion and diversity in an organisation, which includes addressing what those in power have to lose by levelling out the playing field.
She says: “There is a vested interest in not changing, and it’s incredibly important when we work through issues of inclusivity that we recognise and understand what people feel like they will lose. I say feel like they will lose because they probably won’t, but let’s be honest about this. We won’t get anywhere if we don’t acknowledge that, and we say it’s all fine. This may mean acknowledging deeply held and sometimes very divisive points of view.”
One easy way to make sure workplaces are moving in the right direction is to gather comprehensive data of workplace demographics and a breakdown of where organisations can do better. In the US, Aegon already collects data on what ethnicity its leaders are, a move the UK part of the business will soon be replicating.
Martin adds: “All the leaders, and everyone who works for us, has to understand their part and we need to help equip them so they can have difficult conversations – a crucial part [of inclusivity progression] is encountering the lives of others.”
She is also keen to challenge the conclusions we have all jumped to when it comes to diversity. She says: “You can’t just look and say there’s another white man; he might be deaf, have a disability, be neuroatypical. You do not know that stuff until people are willing to share.
“There’s no use saying ‘we’ve got some of these and some of those so we must be alright’. It’s no good having diversity if you aren’t listening to those people and they’re not part of decision-making.”
When asked about the role of ERGs (employee resource groups) in tackling diversity problems, Martin is sceptical, arguing their existence runs the risk of allowing organisations to think they’ve ‘solved’ their diversity problem. She adds: “You have to ask yourself how successful are employee groups in making real change? One of the things you need to be careful about in ERGs is that it doesn’t come from a place where the larger organisation is saying: ‘it’s fine because we’ve got a group.’
“ERGs are an important place for people to be able to share and talk, but you then need to translate that and be connected and hear those stories and say what do you need to do about it? How can it be done? How can we make it together?”
A conversation with Martin prompts more questions, but perhaps that’s what makes her such as successful HR leader: she is not just willing to take on the challenges her organisation and society give to her, but also question how we work, how we can do better and how to take people along with us.
This profile interview appears in full in the March/April 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.