The science of leadership

by Iain Hopkins13 Aug 2017

Brian Little has won industry accolades for his groundbreaking management training initiatives at global insurer Zurich. He shares his story with HRD

It’s rare that a solitary HR initiative can be held up as a defining achievement for an HR professional with a number of years of service under their belt. Indeed, for Brian Little, CHRO at Zurich North America, it’s been three key interlinked achievements that will ensure his legacy will endure. The first came six years ago when Little channelled his career-long passion for leadership development into a project called ‘the Development Curve’. The project aimed to predict the value that talent would bring to an organisation based on the quantifiable rate at which employees typically mature within a role. Its ripple effects have been profound. Not only has it changed how Zurich’s business and HR strategies are intertwined but also how the insurance giant invests in its employees.

Little also played a critical role in developing the ‘Skill Grids’ skill development tool, which has also been implemented at Zurich globally. Skill Grids define the skills and behaviours required for specific jobs, supporting the individual growth of employees while enhancing Zurich’s internal talent pipeline. Little and his team looked at 33 job families to understand what success looked like in each role, from the early jobs in the family such as entry-level college/graduate roles, to mid-career professional roles.

Springing from those insights was Zurich’s Oxygen Initiative, a development program that focuses on eight behaviours that great managers demonstrate. Launched in North America in 2015, the objective is to train 10,000 Zurich managers globally on what it takes to be a key influencer of Zurich’s culture and employee engagement levels. It has been estimated that Zurich North America experienced a 6% increase in engagement scores between 2013 and 2015 – thanks in part to Little’s executive endorsement of Oxygen. “Your leadership program has to be grounded in science,” he tells HRD. “It must be grounded in really solid research.”

HRD chatted to Little about these career achievements and his career journey to now.

HRD: Can you outline your current role at Zurich?
Brian Little:
I’m head of HR for Zurich North America. I’m responsible for the full cycle of HR here – talent acquisition, talent management, L&D, compensation, benefits, performance management. I also look after our HR business partners and we also have a shared services team that is split between Farmers Management Services and us. I have around 130 team members and we support approximately 9,500 employees.

HRD: You’ve had a passion for leadership development and more general L&D during your career. What sparked that interest?
My first job in HR was in a large utility company. I was in operations initially and then moved into HR in a career development centre and then an assessment centre. One thing I found very interesting early in my career was that in operations my chances of working with senior executives was pretty low. I could talk to my supervisor, my manager’s manager, but very few executives. When I started to work in the career development centre and career assessment centre I found my clients were primarily executives and that changed my view in terms of the type of exposure I wanted to have and where I could have influence. I really learned to enjoy HR and started to realise how important leadership was to the success of the overall company. Poor leadership and decision-making can destroy shareholder value and employee morale. What I found was that those organisations that had leadership as a core component of their DNA did better than those that didn’t. I felt I could contribute to that.

HRD: Why do you think leadership development initiatives often fail to deliver the expected return on investment?
A couple of things. One is you really must ground your leadership development strategy in the heart of your business and really understand where we’re trying to go with it. Where we’ve made some strides at Zurich is by thinking about where we really want to be in the next five to 10 years. The industry is changing quite a bit and we sat down a few years ago and said, “we need to make some changes”. We needed to prepare our organisation for the future. The type of people who work in our company will be different, but also the environment that we’ll be operating in will be different. Our leadership program needed to be attuned to that.

The other big reason why a lot of these programs fail is they’re too complex. Too many bells and whistles are added onto programs which sometimes are oversold by consultants. They must have very clear, actionable development plans and be able to reinforce the behaviours you want to see changed or at least replicated in the organisation. A lot of programs in the marketplace today look pretty on a piece of paper, but if you can’t execute them it doesn’t really matter.

HRD: Tell us about the Zurich Oxygen Initiative.
In 2009, when I started at Zurich, I worked with [current CEO] Mike Foley and undertook some research. We figured out something we called the Development Curve. This relates to the time and effort a person needs to be in a role in relation to the investment we need to make in them as a company. We did that for every employee.

However, we also realised our managers weren’t ready to take that kind of research and information and really take action on it. So we embarked upon something that became known as World Class Manager. World Class Manager was essentially designed to take those concepts we’d discovered and then apply those in such a way that every manager could be successful. To do that we split manager and leader behaviours into two buckets – because while we still want people to be great leaders, we also need them to at least be good, solid managers of people as well.

We created a required course for all managers to go through, which was called ‘The Successful Manager at Zurich’. What that program focused on was core management behaviours. It laid the foundations for us to build what we now call today Oxygen, which focuses on the eight behaviours that great managers show. The intention was to make our managers more flexible, more empowered, able to take greater accountability and ultimately drive higher performance. An example of that is we flattened the organisational structure down and increased spans of control significantly.

We couldn’t have done any of that without providing a lot of professional development in return. So we did that through World Class Manager, The Successful Manager at Zurich, and eventually Oxygen. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.

HRD: Would you say you’ve had great leaders in your career?
I have. I’ve been lucky. I had a chance to work with great leaders at a company called Amoco, which is now part of BP. Some of the smartest people in the world worked at that organisation – PhD geoscientists and engineers who were exceptionally bright.

I worked at HSBC with Sir John Bond, who was with the company for over 40 years. He was one of the finest leaders in financial services history. He’s an incredible man with an incredible story who started his career as a teller and worked his way up to lead one of the largest banks. The stories about John are fairly legendary – people talk about times they met him in the elevator and those kinds of chance meetings. I learned from him that being kind and caring but also being a great businessman was possible and not mutually exclusive.

I work for a great CEO today – Mike Foley. Mike is really a visionary, being able to take relatively complex processes and put those into real-life work scenarios over a period of time. Mike can take pretty far-out ideas and make them a reality, but he’s always driven by the immediate challenges his business and its people are up against. He’s been great to work with.

Zurich has taken the lead in its industry in terms of embracing flexible work. The company now provides the technology tools and flexibility to work from home or another remote location, as well as any location within a Zurich office, allowing people to achieve a greater work-life balance. However, Little outlines one other key factor:

“We’ve been allowing employees to work flexibly for quite some time and we’ve now got around 20% of employees with a flex work arrangement of some kind. I expect this to increase as technology makes flexible work easier for more people. The challenge sometimes is that the technology is pretty good but the mindsets of managers are dragging the chain. There are still some managers today who want you to be in the office when you don’t really need to be there. The reason we rebranded our flexible work program to FlexWork@Zurich was to change the mindset more than anything else. We had the tools; we needed to change the minds and hearts of execs and managers, and I think we’ve been quite successful at doing that.”

HRD: You’ve spent time as a consultant. How has that experience helped in your HR career?
For me it was a great opportunity to understand what lots of great companies are doing and discover what made them successful. I learned that there’s no one leadership style that works for everybody. I also learned that different organisations require different types of leadership styles at different times. Understanding that made me a better business person because as a consultant you have to quickly digest the organisation’s operating model and what’s important to them, and establish how you can actually help them. It’s a good experience for anyone who works in HR. They can take that knowledge with them internally.