· 6 min read · Features

Interview with John Ainley, HR director of Aviva

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As HRD of Aviva, John Ainley's people strategies are driven by the rebranding of the insurance company and the over-arching 'One Aviva' mantra that applies to customers and staff.

If 2009 proved one thing, it was that talking up talent one day, and then making hundreds of these same staff redundant the next was never going to be a smart move. BT, Lloyds, RBS - they all did it and suffered brickbats from journalists as a result. But while many HRDs' preferred new parlance is for a more reserved 'top talent' or 'talent pools' - a cute trick for giving them the excuse they need to get shot of those who never really cut the mustard - this is no politically correct-mumbo jumbo John Ainley feels he will ever be forced to accept.

"We regard everyone as talent," says the HRD of the world's fifth-largest insurance company - Aviva (formerly Norwich Union) - unapologetically. "Gone are the days when staff are just a cog in a bigger wheel. People have an immutable need to feel significant," he continues. "HR professionals must acknowledge all employees really do want to give their best. They must all treat people as talent accordingly."

For a company that has seen its own fair share of job cuts (1,800 staff have gone since 2008 - Aviva called it 'rationalisation'; Unite called it 'brutal') these might seem like hollow words. But Ainley doesn't beat about the bush: "Everyone is talent, but not everyone is going to be the CEO," he clarifies. "We don't talk about a bottom performing 5%, but we know there is one, and these are our people that need to improve or go; because they're not the right people." For want of a better word, they are talented, but HR/line management decides just how talented they are.

It is not as confusing as it sounds. It is the train of thought behind Ainley's pet HR project called 'Talking Talent'. His ambition is that by Q1 of 2010 every member of staff (60,000 in total) will be guaranteed a twice-a-year conversation with their line manager, specifically about talent. One of these will be highly detailed. "Two areas will be covered: performance over time, and learning agility," he says. "They're not designed to be easy; they're designed to be honest. This can be difficult but we feel it's better for the overall relationship," he says. "Non-talented people should work elsewhere. A manager's job is to create significance for staff."

Ainley's no-nonsense approach to talent is not, he concedes, the result "of any great epiphany", ("I've been in HR for 30 years," he jokes), but it is more a reflection of the rebranding of the business - now the UK's largest insurance company.

"Insurance has historically been quite product-based, very technical, head ruling the heart stuff," he says. "The new Aviva brand is about providing individual significance for customers, to do good and have empathy for our customers. The only way we can do this is by sharing these same ideals with staff first. I spent a lot of time talking about this to our global top 1,700, about how this change can help bring the company alive."

Talking Talent exists under the new maxim 'In Aviva, I matter' - a motto used extensively in 'Aviva Days' leading up to the 1 June 2009 name switchover. It was also the umbrella-term used in internal communications and on the company intranet. On top of this, is another over-arching 'One Aviva' mantra - symbolising that there is just one Aviva way, whether for customers or staff.

Perhaps Ainley is a little too modest, because although Talking Talent may not be the result of a Eureka! moment, it is the product of his wisdom accumulated over many years in the profession. And he is not afraid to speak his mind about some of the areas in which he feels HR could do better.

"Talent conversations may not always be comfortable to have, but that's because I've spent a lot of time trying to develop measures that focus on real outcomes," he says. "Sometimes I think HR people today lose sight of this. When I interview new HR folk today they invariably launch into talking about competency models. This is when my heart sinks. Aviva is all about integrity and passion. My problem with competency models is that they become their own movement, a mantra in their own right, and HR becomes more concerned with the tool, and not what is actually means."

It is not till much later in his interview that this aversion to competency models reveals a very human side, though: "I remember we offered a job to a young girl who was covered in piercings," he says. "She had clearly been rejected by many companies before us, but we recruit based on strengths rather than competencies. She almost cried because she said we were the only company that had hired her for being her as a person, rather than what she looked like. She was over the moon."

It is no surprise talent remains so high on Ainley's agenda. Two years ago, the company announced massive investment in a new talent management system by StepStone to improve the number of internal promotions from 55% to 70% for senior roles, drive succession planning and introduce employee self-service on skills and objectives. This was rolled out to the first 1,300 members of senior management last year, and the next tier of 7,000 management are experiencing it now. On top of this, though, the system is being continually updated for the benefit of front-line staff.

In October last year, Aviva announced it was adding a service to 20,000 employees' desktops allowing them to see service-related alerts in real time. Since 2007, 23,500 staff have been able to access its AskHR platform by addressing questions direct to HR and getting an immediate response. On the day of the brand-name changeover alone, 7,000 questions were asked and answered, pointing employees to pre-prepared frequently asked questions. In 2009 alone, more than 202,000 questions were asked, with 90% of staff being satisfied with their response.

Initiatives such as these are designed to improve the efficiency of the HR function as well as the employee experience. Ainley has been able to redeploy 18 HR staff elsewhere in the business as a result of the efficiencies from Ask HR alone. "We now have about 60 staff for every HR person," reports Ainley. "That's less than the global norm of 73. In our other locations, though, the range is between 56 and 110, so we're almost world-leading."

As for getting rid of HR-speak such as 'competencies', this is part of Ainley's broader mission to what he describes as "de-cluttering and clearing out old HR legacy practices." For him, HR has to get back to its simpler roots.

For, according to Ainley, recruiting based on strengths rather than competencies has much wider, positive effects. "It improves the services we provide to our customers, but it naturally also improves Aviva's diversity," says Ainley, whose remit also covers CSR (Aviva can boast of being the first insurer to go carbon-neutral worldwide). "Five years ago, 90% of the UK executive team were British. Today it's 50:50 British and other nationalities. The ambition is also to improve the number of women in senior positions.

"The point is that because it's not a mantra in its own right, we don't have to positively discriminate. The ratio just alters of its own accord," he says.

Ainley says improvements such as these help explain the company's employee engagement figures - up from 58% a few years ago to 75% today. And, in the same vein of having regular talent conversations, Ainley says he also seeks regular feedback from staff about how his HR team is performing.

"We believe in asking people how we are doing," he says. "The main area is asking people how they think we're doing against our employee promise, but also whether we're equipping leaders with the right skills for managing them," (he is rolling out a project focusing on six main attributes). Tools helping him do this include a climate survey, which takes place in-between the main staff engagement survey and a pulse survey, running three times a year.

"In the last pulse survey we asked whether staff thought their contribution mattered," says Ainley. "I was actually nervous of asking this, but 45%-50% of people either agreed or strongly agreed." He continues: "I know it's not deeply scientific, but it is a snapshot, which is useful. Aviva hasn't got a long history of target-setting but today all of our leaders receive bonuses against these results and their service deliverables."

Employee involvement has developed with new initiatives such as its 'Customer Cups', where teams of six can propose ideas about how Aviva can remove barriers to creating better customer service. The top 10 teams were rewarded by being whisked off to a European resort last October. Staff can also be recognised as 'Everyday Heroes' by nominating each other for good service. Those recognised are awarded a variety of gifts, including the use of company-branded Minis for the weekend. "We even invite customers who have complained to us to come in and talk to our senior leadership team," Ainley says triumphantly.

In what was a horrible year for many financial institutions, Aviva finished 2009 leading the league table of FTSE 100 risers. In 2010 it is rumoured to be on the acquisition trail, and the company is actually recruiting. With staff being treated as individuals, supported by an HR team that rewards and recognises talent, the future seems a lot more secure for the company that is finally realising a dream of having a single, global outlook.

CV

Born 1956; educated at Huddersfield New College; University of Leeds - law degree

1977: Joined Marconi Elliott as senior personnel officer

1982: Employee relations manager, ICL UK

1983: Personnel manager, GEC Avionics

1988: Group HR director, WH Smith

1999: Joined Norwich Union as group HR director; held various positions within the group until 2006

2006: Appointed group HR director and member of Aviva group executive committee