30 years in HR, part 6: HR for Prima Donna’s

Entering Aon

In September 1997 a search company approached me for an international job at Aon. I had never heard of Aon, but as my tenure at KPMG was coming to a natural end, I decided to be open to the opportunity. The job title was “International Human Resources & Development Manager”. Some quotes from the profile “The work of the IHR&D manager will have a strategic, policy-developing and policy-implementing character, as well as a clearly operational one”. “Candidates (…) are creative, show initiative and are capable of operating completely on their own”. “The successful candidate will work in an environment where a sense of humor and the ability to see things in perspective are considered important, as well as the ability to enter into the ‘insurance brokers’ mentality”.

This sounded promising, especially the ‘capable of operating completely on their own’… HR clearly seemed to have a solid embedded position in Aon! Luckily the terminology ‘Partner in Business’ was not yet fashionable in 1997. Already during the selection process it became clear that there was no idea what the IHR&D manager was going to do. Someone had sold senior management that they needed international HR (which was non-existent), but I was supposed to make my own agenda (good news!). The reporting line was also not clear. I met several senior executives, who had some difficulty to explain the structure of the organisation, and they all claimed to be more-or-less my future boss. Later I found out that org charts were implicitly forbidden at Aon, as this would make too many people with important but unclear roles uncomfortable. Two of my future bosses were based in London (heart of the Insurance Broking industry).

The “Aon-1”

For my interviews in London I was collected from City Airport by a driver in a golden coloured Jaguar with the number plate ‘Aon-1’. That did the trick. I worked my way through a series of interviews, was offered the job and I started on March 1, 1998. My office was in Rotterdam, at the international HQ of Aon. It turned out to be a fantastic organisation and a fantastic job. In those days there was a global HQ in the US (Chicago), but contrary to many American organisations Aon was very decentralised.

The founder and CEO of Aon (Pat Ryan) had a very liberal and clear view: let the people who know best develop their business, and we will not bother them will all kind of bureaucratic procedures. My real boss turned out to be the CEO of what was called The Rest of The World. 15,000 people in Europe (excluding UK), Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Australia. My English bosses left the scene within a couple of years, having some difficulty dealing with the entrepreneurial and opportunity driven style of the CEO of the ROW. For me this was an ideal opportunity. Total greenfield, non-bureaucratic, very international and no real HR tradition. In total I worked more than eight years at Aon.

The insurance brokers mentality

I tried to enter and understand the ‘insurance brokers mentality’. This mentality was very clear. Starting point was a big client focus. The words ‘no’ and ‘ impossible’ were not part of the vocabulary. ‘We will be able to find a solution, whatever it takes’, was the credo. Also individualistic, and certainly sometimes greedy. The philosophy that reward is secondary, a hygienic factor, was not visible in Aon.

Where at the other companies I worked, people were always very hesitant to bring up their package, in Aon this was no issue at all. Many conversations I had started something like “Hey Tom, good to meet you; I love working for this company, and, by the way, my bonus as you will understand is far to low, and Mr. X already promised me to fix this two years ago, so I am glad you are now here to arrange this”.

“We are all millionaires…”

In a meeting like one on the photo in this blog, my boss once said to me: “Tom, what I like so much about this company: we are all millionaires, and still we still work our socks off!”. I wish I was that rich, I thought… The international staff in Aon was a small team. I was responsible for HR, communication and knowledge management. Although I started on my own, I was able to build a small team with excellent professionals. Over the years the constellation changed. The insurance broking industry came somewhat under fire (Eliot Spitzer), and American legislation influenced the world-wide organisation.

The compliance elements of my job increased, and HQ in Chicago started to ask more and more questions, and introduced more and more processes. My favourite one was the “Everybody hired with a salary above $ 80,000,- list”. It was not explained why the list was needed (was it better to hire two people of $ 40,000 then one of $ 80,000?). With a lot of effort we compiled this list on a monthly basis (there was no global HRIS system). US would always come back with additional questions (can you split by gender, can you provide it every two weeks…). In 2005 Pat Ryan was succeeded as global CEO by a McKinsey partner, Greg Case. I was very enthusiastic about this, seeing new opportunities. He took a chance and I was appointed Global Head of Talent Management.

A wrong decision

This was a wrong decision (from me). I was mainly traveling between Amsterdam and Chicago, and the fit between me and the atmosphere at the Corporate Center in Chicago (Aon Center, right on the lake) was not very good. End 2005 I had been approached  for the global HR job at Arcadis. As I had just started in my new job at Aon, I said I was not available. In May 2006, sitting in a depressing room (actually a cupboard without windows) in Chicago, I called the headhunter and asked if Arcadis was still looking. They were, and so I got in touch with Arcadis.

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