HR Insider Jan 13 2012

Can't Work at Google? Try This Insurance Company

Marsh & McLennan Companies, the New York-based professional services and insurance brokerage firm, has had a tough few years. Until 2010, the company was busy restructuring its core operating units, making divestitures and acquisitions and dealing with lawsuits. Since then, it's focused on growth and hiring for its risk and insurance units, revenue for which rose 11% in the third quarter.

The risk and insurance units have roughly 27,000 employees, up 1.3% from the year earlier period, and the company expects to add to that amount in 2012 as it capitalizes on opportunities in emerging markets.

FINS caught up with Orlando Ashford, senior vice president, human resources, to find out where the company plans to hire in 2012, why a rising risk profile means more business and why Marsh & McLennan wants to be like Google.

Julie Steinberg: Has the company been hiring since you came on board in 2008?

Orlando Ashford: Yes, we've been hiring. Even in the toughest part of economic downturn we hired about 8,000. The net ended up about even. People left through the restructuring but there has still been a constant flow of new talent. We've been focused on talent with sales capability and connected to potential sales growth client development.

I've been in this role since 2008. When I started out we were about 52,000, we dipped to 50,000 now we're back at 53,000 people.

JS: How have your HR strategies influenced the company's turnaround?

OA: When I joined in 2008, the company had its challenges. We were aggressively managing expenses. We were cutting costs, cutting investments, cutting jobs and being very judicious where we did people bring back on.

Our results have started to suggest that we're stable and now we're focused on growth. We're going to take employees and place bets on some of these opportunities. We're trying to create a culture of innovation. Can we identity and cultivate some of those ideas that maybe we wouldn't have thought of?

We've looked at some of the things Google does. How do you take high energy culture at Google and create a version of that that works in a 100+ year old risk, insurance consulting type environment? This is the bridge between HR and innovation. We're using it as a talent development vehicle. We're taking some of our big-thinking employees and giving them opportunity to incubate this idea. Here's something we think this a neat idea, we take five people with investment from the parent company and tell them to go off and make a plan that would take this concept into a $500 million business.

JS: Will the risk and insurance businesses grow this year?

OA: Risk is a hot business these days across multiple industries. Will that continue into 2012? MF Global and UBS show us absolutely it will. There are upside opportunities of companies managing their risk. The definition of risk is starting to broaden. You've got human capital risk, you've got strategic risk. I've done four presentations talking about human capital risk and tracking and measuring and protecting our organizations around those dimension of risk. Some of the challenges Lehman and AIG had, a lot of that stemmed from a small group of people that were aggressively pursuing growth and revenue and margin, getting into business models that were ultimately destructive to multi-billionaire enterprises. Jon Corzine did that.

JS: Do you have plans to hire in emerging markets?

OA: We've started to move away from the term "emerging" markets and call them hypergrowth. They're maturing at a much faster rate. As these markets mature, they need services that are more established. Figuring out to how to get expertise there and quickly is a challenge. We're sending expats over, but the business model has to adjust a little bit in order to be successful. There's a lot of opportunity and our ability to make the most of that opportunity hinges on attracting good talent.

We're spending a lot of time in Asia-Pacific, Latin America, South America and the Middle East. These are hypergrowth markets that are maturing quickly. There's lot of investment and with that comes risk. As the risk profile increases, there's more business for us.

JS: What do you look for when you interview people?

OA: There are two things I look for when I interview people.

Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Give me a scenario when you had this challenge and how you overcame it. Depending on how big the role is and how concerned I am, the more drilling I do. You may have one story, I'll want four.

The second is being learning-agile. Most people when they hire people look for someone's who's smart, went to right school, is motivated, worked at the right company. They absolutely may be. But the biggest predictor of effectiveness is people skills and learning skills. How flexible are you in assessing your environment, assessing the situation and pulling your experiences to come up with a strategy in that situation? In today's business environment, that's critical.

I used to live in Turkey and ran HR in Eurasia and Africa. How do you run human resources in 90 different countries with different laws and languages? I couldn't mandate everything based on my paradigm because it was based on the US, which wasn't going to work. Having people who are aware and can be flexible made it work.

The end goal might be the same, but the way I do it may need to be tweaked a bit. The cultural nuances are different. I needed to figure how to work within those contexts. Here's what I'm trying to deliver, here's how I try to create an open dialogue on how I can make my solutions relevant to your local market

If a person is sitting across for me, and they're too prescriptive and thought "I would know how to do this across the world," I'd be a little nervous.

JS: What else is important to you when making new hires?

OA: I'm a big fan of collective genius. Research shows that no matter how smart a person is, they're not smarter than a group. In today's business environment, someone's who comfortable tapping into the power of the group will deliver better. That's a shift. In this many businesses, in "I-cultures," you may have helped execute and deliver that value, but you had to have done it with others.

We tend to hire with an expertise and knowledge base in an area. We still need that, but we also want to bring people with enough openness to take their expertise and connect with another person's to result in an even bigger idea. That hasn't always been part of the environment.

JS: Are you looking for people with experience or do you take new graduates?

OA: In the risk and insurance space, we tend to hire people with experience but we do have opportunities for people who come right out of graduate school. We have a risk analyst program that allows them to rotate. As an industry we've undermarketed the profession. Our friends in investment banking tend to be perceived as sexier. I think the things we do are mission critical to governments, cities and industries. We should be a little more assertive and proud. It's very rare that I meet a person who pursued insurance broking in college and is now at Marsh. Usually they bumped into someone, they saw an opportunity and just ended up here.

How can we make this industry more appealing to a broader group of people? We need to get more than our fair share of people thinking about this industry as an attractive place to invest their career.

Write to Julie Steinberg at

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