Employer profile: Russell Investments

by 03 Aug 2010

Russell Investments' Chris Corneil and Scott Ide tell Tom Washington how striving to create a unique place to work has seen the firm flourish in adverse times

Back in 2001 global investment firm Russell Investments awarded its inaugural Heart and Soul Award for Service to Community, given annually to the employee who emulates commitment, dedication and support to the lives of others.

That first award was presented to Jane Russell, an employee with the firm for more than 20 years, and wife of the chairman at the time, Emeritus George Russell.

Four years later, Jane Russell passed away after losing her battle with cancer, but the Heart and Soul Award, now commonly called the Jane Russell award, lives on.

“We are a financial services organisation and clearly money plays a big part in reward. But the real impact comes from some of the things we do that are non-monetary,” says Scott Ide, director of talent management at Russell Investments. “We have an annual associate’s summit that focuses on rewarding people from a leadership perspective. The Jane Russell Heart and Soul Award is very important to the culture of the company and carries significant weight around the place.”

This warm and fuzzy reward ethos may seem a little out of place at a financial services firm, but Russell Investments is steadfast in its approach to stand out from its considerable crowd of competitors.

The rate of attrition at Russell Investments is testament to this. Its turnover rate has for years been consistently between 10 and 12 per cent, compared to the financial services industry average of around 15 per cent. With the obvious financial benefits which come hand in hand with low turnover, Russell Investments has worked hard to keep this figure low.

Its primary means of retaining top talent is by developing it internally. A simple idea, yes, but one that is ingrained in the fabric of the company which employs 1,750 staff globally in more than 20 offices.

Talent review

The Australian arm of the firm, currently employing 225 associates, was among the first to implement a full-scale talent review as a means of managing the process of cultivating from within.

Commencing five years ago, the annual talent review cycle runs through the second quarter and focuses on development of Russell associates from a career perspective as well as helping them work towards their business goals.

“[The review] is about getting multiple inputs of data on our associates, so that we can help them grow personally and professionally within the organisation. We look at both performance and potential, and certainly from a performance perspective they have a very clear understanding of how they’re being assessed and the criteria being used. It helps us achieve our own business goals but also engage and retain our talent.

“Once we are able to indentify talent, someone with the ability to move up or across into a number of different roles, then we really try and accelerate that individual’s development. We’ll pay particular attention to that associate.”

This means of managing what is by its very nature a gifted and ambitious workforce could not exist without the help of the HR and talent management teams.

Workplace culture

But managing director Chris Corneil draws the line under HR’s influence when it comes to workplace culture at the firm. “I’m not a believer in HR driving culture. I don’t buy that,” he says. “I believe that it is the role of the entire business to drive the culture. HR can be the enabler and has a toolkit and a significant role to play. But I don’t look over my shoulder and look at my HR person and say ‘you are responsible for culture’ because it is not true. The culture and the tone start from the top.

“I see HR as a critical business partner in helping to steer the organisation, but there are lots of people driving the culture. In my view, a healthy culture is critical to business success. This means that I see it as one of the big rocks on my plate, as does the executive team.”

Ide adds: “I’ve worked with Chris for many years now and he does work very closely with the HR function. We can help him drive his business and support him from a communications perspective right through to helping him deal with organisational structure issues and particularly from a development perspective.”


Ensuring open lines of communication within Russell Investments is paramount to Corneil’s business ideals. He talks with genuine zeal about creating a culture that is low power, low hierarchy and informal, stating it is these attributes that over time make getting employee feedback open and unproblematic.

For example, each month employees are invited to morning tea where Corneil or another member of the executive team addresses them on any given topic. “It could be about an international visitor we’re having, it could be celebrating success, but it gives associates the opportunity to ask us questions too,” says Corneil. “We also hold meetings with each person from the executive team on a rotational basis. They meet with six or so associates and have ‘brown bag’ lunches, so it is a smaller forum and allows two-way dialogue. It doesn’t matter who you are in the organisation, we want to give people astrong sense of where we are going, and make sure they feel like they are contributing to it.”

The global financial crisis brought the need for honest communication further into the spotlight. “Russell is a broad-based financial services company so we were obviously impacted and as an industry we’ve gone through a very dark period,” explains Corneil. “But we have come out of it a more focussed organisation and structured to be more efficient, more entrepreneurial and innovative as we’ve learned to do more than less.”

“We tried to increase the level of communication to our client base to help them understand [what impact the GFC was having] and equally to our associates, so we have a clear line of site between where the business is going and how they can contribute to that.”

Adapting with the times

While the business has emerged remarkably well from the GFC in relation to the bottom line, it was unsurprisingly forced to make certain changes to adapt, and cuts were indeed made to personnel.

However, the firm was adamant that cuts wouldn’t result in collateral damage to the working environment for the remaining associates.

Ide says: “We said ‘we’re not going to stop spending’ and I think we were very clever in not stopping spending in the areas we thought really mattered, which was largely focussed around our associates. So we didn’t stop our associate health and wellbeing program, for example. We adopted a mindset of sensible restraint.”

In this challenging time for financial services, Russell Investments is operating in a high pressure environment, particularly in Australia at the moment with significant regulatory reviews on the horizon that will have great impact to the industry. In this context, striking a balance of being paternalistic while also driving high performance is the ultimate goal.

“We genuinely do have a focus on our people. We actually care and give a hoot that they have opportunities and that they develop. But that is not to say that we are softies because we do work in a meritocracy as well,” says Corneil.

“We’re in a fiercely competitive globalised industry, which is fast-paced, dynamic and ever-evolving. We have to adapt, change and be nimble, so we’re not a company where people can come in and loaf and have a great fun time. We’re here to do serious work in a serious industry but in a way that we think works.”