Resilient workforces trust their employers to make good decisions. In order to look out for employees, you must be responsible and act in a way that has a positive impact on society.
Building and maintaining this trust requires businesses to treat their employees consistently and in line with a clearly articulated purpose. In a competitive recruitment environment, employees are also looking to employers to lead on the social issues that affect them. A business that refuses to engage with these challenging questions will find its employees looking for answers elsewhere.
Last year saw huge turmoil and change.
The pandemic’s arrival in 2020 upended traditional ways of working with employers and employees forced to adapt to a ‘new normal’. Wellbeing alarm bells were soon ringing in boardrooms across the world as employees struggled to maintain productivity working from home, while also educating their children and looking after their families. Others faced challenges of having to travel to their workplace – an environment with an increased risk of transmission – making the prospect of bringing infection home to vulnerable family members a very real and stressful possibility.
For forward-thinking business leaders, the turbulence may have proven pivotal, but could their reaction to COVID-19 and the social unrest that followed present an opportunity to realign their businesses, and as a result become future-fit?
In this article, we look at why it is critical for business leaders to support employee wellbeing in line with business purpose and vision. We explore how such actions helped Aon emerge from the pandemic with a stronger, more united, more resilient workforce.
With insights from:
- Lisa Stevens — Chief People Officer, Aon
- Jim Winkler — Global Chief Innovation Officer, Aon Health Solutions
- Stacey Smithers — Chief of Staff, People Organization, Aon
- Greg Case — CEO, Aon
- Dani McCauley — Senior Vice President, Customer Experience Leader, Voluntary Benefits & Enrollment Solutions, Aon
Treat people as you would like to be treated
Regardless of size, sector or industry, every business generates income by providing a product or service. To do that successfully requires loyal employees who are happy, focused and productive. Simply treating your employees with the same respect and care that you expect them to treat your customers or clients is a crucial step in creating a resilient workforce. Whether your team or your client, consistently putting people first powers success. Lisa Stevens, Chief People Officer, Aon explains:
‘We can't do anything for our clients without people. And so that interdependence between clients and colleagues is undeniable. What we say at Aon, is that there are only two roles in the organization – you're either serving clients or you're serving people who serve clients. And so the role of the people organization is to help every single colleague be their absolute best, every single day.’ Lisa Stevens — Chief People Officer, Aon
As a global professional services firm, Aon is committed to protecting and enriching the lives of people and organizations around the world. Internally, the story is no different.
In the knowledge that success is built on people, and better decisions can only be achieved by questioning your approach. While Aon might enable its employees to achieve good health, equity, wellbeing and development, they also recognize it is not a straightforward journey. As a result, Aon is continually asking questions of itself, as Jim Winkler, Global Chief Innovation Officer, Aon Health Solutions points out:
‘How do we create a company that has at its core a foundational belief that wellbeing creates a resilient workforce which will drive the business results for our clients and for our shareholders?’ Jim Winkler — Global Chief Innovation Officer, Aon Health Solutions
Culture change starts at the C-suite level
Setting the cultural tone for any business starts at the top. The responsibility for creating an environment where every person can be their best and authentic self rests with the business owners and leaders — nobody else.
Fortunately Aon’s CEO, Greg Case, leads from the front. Rejecting the idea that COVID-19 meant accepting the ‘new normal’, he and the Aon leadership team chose to take the pandemic as an opportunity to make big positive change. To create, as they called it, ‘a new better’, they began to focus on building resilience and operating with greater clarity and intention with a ‘one firm’ mindset. This initiative was named Aon United.
‘We committed that no one at Aon will lose their job because of COVID-19. Bringing the best of our firm to clients requires every single one of our colleagues. We are committed to an approach that allows all of us to continue supporting that mission — that’s the core premise of Aon United.’ Greg Case — CEO, Aon
As the COVID-19 virus outbreak reached unprecedented impact, Aon acted quickly to safeguard colleagues, clients and the firm.
Investments were made in workforce resilience, which helped colleagues to make the best choices for their changing circumstances. A New Better Leadership Toolkit was created to sharpen leadership skills and empower people to experiment with new ways of working and collaborating. All the while mental health support was increased.
Aon’s response to the social unrest the US experienced during the pandemic was to prioritize its continuing commitment to diversity and inclusion. This resulted in the creation of the Global Inclusive Leadership Council and an inclusion and diversity subcommittee of Aon’s board, making the business fully accountable for any work carried out around diversity.
An Ally Guide – a document which sets out how Aon colleagues can actively support underrepresented groups – was produced, helping Aon colleagues learn about and support liberation of the oppressed and marginalized individuals and become active in the fight for equity and justice.
‘That's been a huge hit with all of our colleagues across the organization. I think we're up to 65% downloads from colleagues who are using this guide and recognizing it. Greg Case, our CEO, was recognized as Ally Of The Year – through Evolve. So at the top of our organization, our highest level is saying, allyship is important and we have to be allies.’ Stacey Smithers — Chief of Staff, People Organization, Aon
Building further on the opportunity to educate its workforce on specific diversity issues such as Black culture, the business held a virtual Juneteenth event which proved incredibly popular.
‘We only had a maximum of 1,300 spots – it filled up within the first five minutes, and it was from all around the world. Globally, people wanted to hear about the history of Juneteenth, and they wanted to hear the stories of our colleagues, of what our colleagues have gone through, what their stories were. So, the reach for us has been huge and that vulnerable piece, that ability to be authentic, that's carried on.’ Lisa Stevens — Chief People Officer, Aon
Rather than cancel its intern program during the pandemic, the company leaned into the opportunity to create virtual internships. This allowed them to enhance existing relationships with historically Black colleges and universities, and increase the racial and ethnic diversity of Aon’s 2020 intern class by 7 percent.
Of course, it is easy for an organization to say that it wants to look after its people. Doing it when it matters most is what matters to employees most. For Aon leader, Dani McCauley, the pandemic was the backdrop to a terrible personal tragedy as she lost her son Sean to cancer. For Dani, the way that her employer cared for her during this time demonstrates very clearly how the business embodies the values of Aon United.
‘Aon legitimately feels like my family, and that took on new meaning last year. In the middle of the pandemic, our son was diagnosed with cancer and died very suddenly. Our team confirmed the value of that family with my son's death, because they could not have supported me more – even without being able to see me in person. From my boss to colleagues across the world, I felt held up in emotional support by my Aon community. When we had a celebration of life, our team created an incredible video compilation to let my family know we were not alone.” Dani McCauley — Senior Vice President, Customer Experience Leader, Voluntary Benefits & Enrollment Solutions, Aon
To help her find purpose after her son’s death, Aon supported Dani in her wish to join the board of Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation. She explains further:
‘I'm targeting an initial collective $100,000 sponsorship within our industry that is focused on diversity, equity and inclusion within the Children's Hospital Colorado network. This is an opportunity for me to be a champion of health and wellness for all children, delivering Aon United right here in Denver. When Aon says, “We support you to join the corporate board and we're interested and how can we help the Denver community?” I am clear that the company supports me in action.’’ Dani McCauley — Senior Vice President, Customer Experience Leader, Voluntary Benefits & Enrollment Solutions, Aon
Use data to drive accountability – provide support and demonstrate progress
Delivering clarity and purpose goes beyond engaging leadership. It is critical that business leaders support the creation of a more diverse and inclusive workforce, but once that support has been given, it is equally important to take the business with you on the journey. Here is where data comes into play.
By providing access to a whole suite of purpose-built dashboards, the people organization within Aon allows managers and leaders to clearly understand the impact that their actions are having in helping the organization achieve its goals.
‘People can see the metrics. For instance, how are you hiring, how are you promoting, how are you recruiting, they can see all of this data on one page. We started to provide tools to our leaders and said, “Here's what you need to see”, and we literally moved to this, we shifted the ownership, but it shifted the ownership into the business.’ Lisa Stevens — Chief People Officer, Aon
This use of data allowed the business to offer incentives linked to diversity and inclusion, providing managers and leaders with all the tools, education and support necessary to track their progress against given targets. Once this became second nature to Aon leaders, measurements held managers accountable, turning diversity and inclusion into an organizational goal, as opposed to a HR goal.
Be sensitive to cultural differences
For HR leaders in a global organization, it is important to understand and respect the nuances of regional colleague communication.
Rather than trying to reach colleagues around the world with a generic corporate approach, involving regional leaders will ensure that initiatives are delivered in a way that resonates perfectly with the local audience.
‘We really have to spend a lot of time listening and a lot of time letting people put their fingerprints all over it, so that it's something that doesn't feel corporate like, “Oh this is coming from Chicago, this is coming from London.” But this is coming from the people, right? It's about the people, so what are we doing to help the people?’ Lisa Stevens — Chief People Officer, Aon
Aon’s response to the seemingly endless COVID-19 situation in India clearly demonstrates the importance of being sensitive to cultural differences. Due to the company’s work modeling the potential impacts of a novel variant of COVID-19 on employee populations around the world, Aon was in a useful position to help when the Delta variant was spreading rapidly in India. However, rather than imposing its expertise and knowledge, the company took an inclusive stance by approaching Aon leaders in India and simply offering to support them. By leveraging region-specific insight from the start, Aon ensured that their efforts met the nuanced needs of the issue on the ground, helping to save time and lives.
Live the brand
How leaders want their organization to be perceived and experienced by clients and other external stakeholders is known as brand identity. If company culture is aligned and integrated with that identity, employees are more likely to make decisions and take actions that deliver on the brand promise.
Creating a workplace environment that fosters trust and allows people to be open, vulnerable and true to themselves is an essential part of Aon United.
‘Aon United is about you and I. When we think about a client, we think about a business. That means considering how we can help them to be the best, while also helping them with what we don't know, and being curious in filling those gaps. Because that's the thing – there are so many things that Aon does, that to truly understand every element, we have to implement them internally first. To do this, you have to build a culture where you have this one mindset, where you trust each other, where it feels like an inclusive environment.’ Lisa Stevens — Chief People Officer, Aon
Supported by a 50% male and 50% female Aon leadership team as of January 2021, Greg Case, CEO, has been deliberately purposeful in his actions, aligning the internal culture with the external brand and creating an inclusive, balanced and united leadership team. The move also reflects what Aon’s clients want.
‘Our clients want a workforce that’s engaged – they want to see a workforce that’s diverse, and has different opinions.’ Lisa Stevens — Chief People Officer, Aon
Of course, there is still a long way to go to achieve everything for which Aon United stands. The leadership team readily acknowledges that it does not have all the answers, but it is honest and open in its determination to support all colleagues on the journey and to communicate progress clearly. Whether by taking a strong stance on key social issues or supporting individual employees in the most trying of circumstances, Aon is creating a more resilient, engaged and united workforce that trusts the business to do what is right.
‘I’m proud of Aon. I'm so proud of how they showed up for me. I have a huge network and it makes me excited about bringing people into the organization because I know they'll be taken care of.’ Dani McCauley — Senior Vice President, Customer Experience Leader, Aon
Delivering clarity and purpose – the next steps for people leaders:
- Treat people consistently whether employees or external stakeholders
- Engage business leaders to change work culture
- Use data to measure impact of initiatives
- Be sensitive to cultural differences and changes and respond appropriately
- Connect brand with company culture
If you invest in the wellbeing of your people, they will invest in the wellbeing of your business.