AIA: A New Generation Of Leaders Emerge

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Leaderonomics

17-04-2015

6 min read

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Accelerated growth

Even to a casual observer, the recent transformation of AIA, an insurance company that has been in Malaysia since 1948, is admirable. All the more commendable is the 34% increase in new business profits that AIA Malaysia reported against the backdrop of a two-year complex integration process.

In many ways, these changes mirror the transformation that parent company AIA Group Ltd has undergone in the four years following its initial public offering in Hong Kong, emerging as the second largest life insurer globally by market capitalisation.

As one employee aptly puts it, AIA has a great legacy from its more than 90 years of experience and yet, it operates with the kind of vigour and determination one usually sees in a newly created company.

During its IPO in October 2010, AIA set a clear vision to be the pre-eminent life insurer in Asia-Pacific. Ambitious targets were set across the Group, but with it, there was also the strong desire to create a new culture.

AIA group regional CEO Ng Keng Hooi says:

“We knew that in addition to clarity about the WHAT that we wanted to achieve; we needed to be equally clear about HOW we would go about achieving our business targets. Creating a culture our people could connect with was especially important for our business, which is essentially about people. We exist to help our customers and their families achieve financial security, even prosperity, and we do this by understanding their needs at different life stages.”

Cultivating a culture of meaningful connections for AIA employees and motivating them to do their best, combined with a clear execution focus has contributed to four consecutive years of record business results for AIA.

This track record of outperformance and great ambitions have produced leadership opportunities in the 17 markets in the Group’s portfolio, and is especially evident in Malaysia where AIA Group saw an opportunity to strengthen its business.

Integration story

The integration of AIA’s operations in Malaysia followed AIA Group’s acquisition of ING’s insurance businesses in the country in 2012.

The integration in numbers:

  • 2.6 million customers
  • 16,000 agency members
  • 2,300 employees
  • more than 100 operating systems

“In Malaysia, we took great care in choosing the senior leadership team, always ensuring we had a good representation from both companies with some of the best talents in the market. I am very pleased that the new AIA has not only integrated well, but delivered outstanding financial results in 2014,” said Ng during a recent interview.

Bill Lisle, CEO of AIA Bhd, has led the Malaysia team to undertake bold transformational moves in recent years.

“We agreed that we would provide regular updates and communications to all our customers, employees and partners so they would hear news first-hand from the source and this would help remove some of the uncertainties for them. The word ’over-communicating’ did not exist for us!” said Lisle.

“We certainly did give special attention to the people aspect as we have some of the best talent in the industry and we didn’t want to lose them. To alleviate some of the concerns, we set out a clear vision for the company from the start so everyone would have a shared purpose. In addition, we constantly engaged with our employees and sought their feedback so we could understand how our people were feeling,” recalled Lisle.

Lisle stressed the need for employees to be empowered.

“We needed them to feel confident about stepping up and taking ownership. This in turn encouraged them to make business decisions on their own, based on their knowledge and experience, and built confidence among the teams. From the outset, we also stressed that no individual is to be singled out to take the blame; instead we focused on finding solutions, quickly.”

People development

“Our emphasis is on growing our people. AIA is building for the long-term and is a platform for people to grow themselves – to be more than what they are today. People want to know where the future is, where they are going. There are lots of opportunities at AIA – they can grow within Malaysia or in other countries. We encourage mobility and have many examples of people moving from Group to Malaysia and vice versa,” said Ng.

“We look for people who are smart, dedicated and passionate about what they are doing.” – Ng Keng Hooi, AIA regional CEO

Paul Gerard Lim, director of human resources, group HR division, on what AIA looks for in new hires:

  1. mental potential – ability to learn and do more, with academic excellence as a foundation
  2. high ambition and action-oriented
  3. EQ – the ability to connect with people

Employee engagement

“We place a lot of importance on engagement. We want to ensure that everyone in the organisation knows that they play a role in developing and delivering what eventually goes to the customer,” says Ng.

Speaking about the aftermath of the two Malaysia Airlines tragedies last year, chief marketing officer Thomas Wong says, “Our people showed leadership during this time – from our life planners all the way to our employees who processed claims. Our senior leaders also made it a point to spend time with the family members of those affected – just to be there for them.”

Through various initiatives including its CSR programme AIA Touching Lives, AIA Malaysia encourages its employees to forge better connections by talking to customers and understanding their hopes and fears. “In this way, our people become more engaged and know how each of them in their own way plays an important role in AIA,” says Wong.

Melting pot of talent

Anusha Thavarajah was deputy general manager of finance and actuarial in AIA Bhd before she was promoted to the role of regional business development director in AIA Group from Oct 1, 2014.

“Today, AIA Malaysia is a melting pot of key talent, not just from within the industry but also other related fields. Over the last two years, the business went through a transformation and as a result, created a unique identity that is today the new AIA Malaysia.

“My biggest learning came from working with those around me as I was part of a truly great team. Our success can be attributed to our clarity of purpose, having the courage and drive to be bold when faced with roadblocks and finally, the focus on our people – always ensuring that they were in a good space as they worked hard and made sacrifices along the way.”

“Our people helped get AIA Malaysia to where it is today – an organisation that is best described as vibrant and filled with people who want to make a difference, not just from a business sense but in terms of helping people,” says Anusha.

From Brussels to Ampang

Julie Van Nuffel was part of AIA’s mobility programme and joined AIA Malaysia in March 2014 to head its acceleration programme office. She recently returned to AIA Group to take on a new senior leader role.

“I was excited but also a little scared when I was first offered the opportunity to work in AIA Malaysia: it was a new role, which came with high expectations. But there was also the very compelling prospect of learning and developing.

“The Malaysia team’s dedication and resilience never fail to impress me. Having delivered great results in 2014, while still working on the final steps of a major integration, one can only imagine the possibilities that lie ahead now that the team can fully focus on the future. I hope that one day I can come back and be part of that journey again.”

The best of me always

Elmie Aman Najas was chief agency officer at AIA Bhd overseeing its Life Planner network in the Klang Valley before his appointment to CEO of AIA PUBLIC Takaful Bhd in January 2015.

“My transition from senior leader to CEO was smooth because of good succession planning and strong support from AIA’s leadership team and employees.

“My advice to those with high ambition is that there is opportunity every day for us to learn and give our best. Seize the opportunities as they come and always give your best.”

“Do not overlook the importance of leadership. To climb up, you must first show that you can lead. For me, the new AIA is relevant, in touch with the new generation and vibrant – there is strong optimism for the future.”

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Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 18 April 2015

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