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"By allowing people to take control of their own roles (and careers) we are building the next generation of leaders," says Gordon Watson, who talks about mental health, diversity, and his 30-year career in the insurance industry, exclusively with HRO's Bridgette Hall.

Q1: For people that don’t think of insurance as rewarding, what drew you to the industry when you were deciding on your career?

I’ve been blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit and had the opportunity to work in many different markets. I’ve found insurance deeply rewarding because of the opportunities I have had, and the difference I have been able to make to employees, distributors, and, of course, customers.

Insurance is about providing a safety net that helps you to take care of yourself and those you love, when you and they need it the most. By pooling the resources of our customers, we can create life and health products for individuals who would not be able to afford the type of healthcare or post-life support for their family that they need if they were going it alone. Meanwhile, reducing accidents, improving health, and helping organisations better prepare for economic risks all improve the profitability of insurers.

To me, insurance is the ultimate shared value industry, where social impact is integral to economic success. As defined by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in their influential Harvard Business Review article, published in 2011, shared value is a business strategy that creates a competitive advantage by aligning profit and purpose.

In 2017, I founded Shared Value Project Hong Kong (SVPHK) with several other business leaders in the region. SVPHK is a non-profit membership organisation acting as a catalyst for shared value in the Greater Bay Area.

AXA’s work spans multiple areas, from risk prevention to addressing the needs of underserved customers and investing in support systems that help with prevention and protection. I can think of no better industry to be in – creating shared value and giving peace of mind.

Q2: In your role at AXA you oversee a very diverse set of markets. What are some of the challenges and advantages in leading such disparate teams?

I have been fortunate to work in many different markets throughout my career. I began in New York when I was only 21. A couple of years later I was posted to Nairobi in Kenya for three years and then back to New York. From there I moved to Dubai before moving back to New York again. I then went to live in Japan, South Korea, and now in Hong Kong, in my current role.

So, I see working with such a diverse team as a huge advantage. As CEO of Asia and Africa, I deal with people of many different nationalities, languages and local cultures, but we all need to come together as ONE AXA. We have a wide variety of experience, and can bring this together to tackle challenges and issues from many different aspects.

Speaking of diversity, I also have the privilege to work alongside a group of talented female executives who lead AXA Asia as functional heads and market CEOs. We’re proud to have achieved gender parity in our management team, with women comprising more than 50% of our senior executives in the region. This enables us to have leaders with diverse perspectives, attract the best talent to our company, and, critically, reflect the diversity of our customers so we can better meet their needs.

Q3: What are the most important issues you think leaders will need to tackle in the next five years when it comes to company culture?

History shows us that circumstances can completely change overnight; the latest being the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone in an organisation needs to be agile and move quickly to make the most of new opportunities or counter risks that arise.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the mental health of people all around the world, which we need to address. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1tn each year in lost productivity. With many companies returning to the workplace, offering necessary support is a top priority.

AXA Asia and Africa is fostering mental health among its own staff and agents, and has pledged to take concrete action to reduce the stigma around the issue and encourage confidence among our internal colleagues. Every employee and agent globally has access to our employee assistance programme which supports both mental and physical health. In addition, we have a digital concierge called Emma by AXA, which supports claims and processes, and offers more than 25 mental and physical health enablers.

Q4: What are some of the challenges and opportunities in tackling mental wellbeing in your markets?

Despite the scale and seriousness of burnout and soaring stress levels, many people still find it difficult to talk openly about mental health issues. In many workplace cultures, there’s still a stigma attached to admitting that you need help.

At AXA we want to create a space where people feel comfortable talking about mental health. Drawing on our expertise in health, I believe AXA is uniquely positioned to bridge the current gap in support, and address this pressing societal issue. In the recent past, the focus of company health programmes has been more focused on physical health. At AXA, we believe a person cannot have true health if their mental wellbeing is not being addressed as well.

Our internal health and wellness programme is called ‘Healthy You’ which provides a range of services to support mental and physical health. While this runs all year round, we have special focus months, and in August and September, we are hosting a series of health days across our regions, where all employees and agents will have an opportunity to participate in interactive sessions about stress reduction and take part in global webinars about universal health issues. We are also offering self-administered digital check-ups and ongoing access to our new online health learning platform. Some markets are offering in-office massage services to reduce work-caused tension.

We have an initiative called ‘Walk and Talk’ where we encourage our colleagues to take walks and enjoy a chat with each other – whether it’s about work or other topics. Walk & Talk V.2 is about to launch, in which we share a strong message that it is healthy to engage in an activity you enjoy to de-stress and free your mind after a day’s work.

We have been running these programmes for some time and, in fact, when we look at a recent employee net promoter score, AXA Asia came first out of all AXA entities globally. AXA Asia also topped other regions for ‘team connection’ and ‘overall mood’.

Q5: Are there any other issues that you think organisations need to address?

Embracing inclusion and diversity are paramount to the success of any organisation. At AXA, around the world, inclusion and diversity are closely linked to our values – we act for human progress by protecting what matters – and to our culture of respect for employees, customers, and the communities around us. We always aim to create an environment where everyone feels they belong, are included, and can thrive.

For example, we always mark Pride Month and IDAHOT. This year, to mark Pride Month in June, AXA Asia commissioned a study to better understand how companies can foster LGBTQ+ friendly working environments through I&D initiatives. We want to understand the personal experiences of people at work who self-identify as LGBTQ+, so we can ensure that AXA can better meet the needs of our own people. The same applies to the products and services we provide for vulnerable communities.

Q6: The pandemic has brought about some dramatic shifts in the workplace. What do you think the future of the workplace looks like, now that we’ve had this once-in-a-generation seismic event?

Prior to the pandemic, AXA initiated its ‘Smart Working’ policy, which we intend to continue in the future. Smart Working is all about our teams agreeing on a system of splitting their time between remote working and office hours – making the most of what each working style has to offer, and fitting local entities and jobs specificities and needs.

This means that we do not necessarily see our colleagues every day, so it is essential that we build an engaged team. At the same time, we are also creating a better work-life balance and more long-term resilience, as we work together to protect our sense of team spirit.

Q7: What was the hardest part of leading through the pandemic?

I think the uncertainty was – and remains – the hardest part of the pandemic. In Asia, we have been dealing with the pandemic since its first outbreak in December 2019, and being flexible with our work structure while ensuring we maintain the highest levels of hygiene and care for our colleagues has been vital.

Communications have also been key and we have upscaled the quantity and type of communications among our employees, agents, and customers to ensure they have the facts and information they need to keep themselves safe while we endure COVID-19.

These communications vary from emails, to infographics, and to webinars explaining the importance of hygiene practices: where to obtain help while working from home; alerts on interactive and informative events taking place online relevant to both mental and physical health, and the merits and implications that employees and customers need to consider when deciding to have their COVID-19 vaccine.

Q8: What have you been doing for your own mental wellbeing during this time of uncertainty?

I do a variety of activities to maintain my mental health. For example, I focus on breathing techniques, which I find incredibly useful. I try to empty my mind and go for walks on a regular basis. I also relax by painting.

Q9: What is the one thing you learnt or piece of advice you received coming up the ranks that you try to pass on to your team?

I am a firm believer in meritocracy. This enables people to be in the best roles. It’s my job and responsibility, along with the rest of the leadership team, to identify people with different strengths and ensure they are in the right role. I believe this is a key reason why we have so many women in leadership roles; meritocracy breeds diversity.

Q10: How would you describe your management style?

I would say fostering a strong sense of both empowerment and collaboration. They go hand-in-hand. By allowing people to take control of their own roles (and careers) we are building the next generation of leaders.

But, of course, collaboration is critical, which is why we hold so many cross-functional meetings and share the results of different departments’ successes (and failures) so we can all learn to excel. This sense of teamwork is exemplified by AXA being a training kit partner and training centre partner for Liverpool Football Club. LFC has shown us by example how empowerment and collegiality lead to great results and a winning culture.

Q11: If not this career, what alternative career path would you have chosen?

It is fair to say that I have considered other financial service opportunities during my career. However, after being in insurance for more than 30 years, I believe I am in the right role. The industry continues to grow and adapt to change; we only have to look at the use we are making of AI and insurtech to see this. It’s great to be part of an industry where the wellbeing of our customers is the number one priority. Our global purpose of ‘acting for human progress by protecting what matters’, says it best.

An excerpt of this article first appeared in the Q4 edition of Human Resources Online's North Asia e-magazine. View a copy of the e-magazine here, where you'll find power-packed features and interviews with leaders from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, the US, and more!

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