Creating strong teams at Zurich North America
By Kimberly Olson
Early in Brian Little’s career, conversations with senior leaders caused something to click. “What I really liked at that time was being able to talk to a CEO or CFO,” he says. “I enjoyed learning about their work and how they saw people.” During his 25 years in human resources—from customer service to operational roles—he’s been on a mission to create a positive work culture that supports employees and sparks collaboration.
Now head of human resources for the North American division of international Swiss-based insurance carrier Zurich, Little was previously senior vice president of corporate human resources at HSBC, the world’s largest international bank, and director of leadership development and manager of organizational learning at Ameritech.
He is also passionate about giving back and has worked with various nonprofit organizations, including the Oakton College Foundation, where he is a vice president emeritus. Little was recognized for his leadership with a prestigious Eagle Award from the National Eagle Leadership Institute in 2012. He has an MS in organization communication and development from Illinois State University and holds an executive certificate from the Kellogg Advanced Executive Program.
Diversity Woman: What goals did you have when you started at Zurich North America?
Brian Little: I wanted to create, as I nickname it, the Zurich talent machine. I wanted to ensure that we were finding ways to be an attractive company, so we could get some of the best people. In a statistical sense, we accept fewer people than Harvard. We’re picky.
It’s about making sure that they are able to learn and grow. One way is to create an internally developed talent view of the workforce. We’re able to see the development of our folks, understand their performance over time, and turn that into useful information. We have skill grids, and we have 32 job families. The skill grid lines up from early entrance to that job family up to senior positions. We had subject matter experts work on this, and it’s a pretty sophisticated tool.
DW: What do you think is the key to building a great team?
BL: We look for that person who’s inquisitive and wants to do things a little differently, that person who sees things from a slightly different angle and makes a difference. We’re a large global company, and it’s a pretty exciting place in that it isn’t unusual for a claims representative from Omaha to go work on a project in Australia.
We’re focused on making sure there is equal opportunity for all people who want to work in our company. We [hire people who] are team oriented and are able to take accountability and be focused on our customers.
DW: What are the biggest hiring challenges you’re facing right now?
BL: There are a couple that are a challenge in a lot of industries right now. The baby boomers are retiring relatively quickly. As that starts to pick up, organizations aren’t really structured today to make the transfer of knowledge. As people with these unique skills retire, it’s been challenging because the next generation is much smaller. Also, they came through when there was lots of unrest. And then you have the millennials, who are really large as a group, but they don’t have a lot of experience. So it’s important to make sure that those generations are able to work together, and that millennials are able to digest the information and take it forward.
DW: What are you doing to help employees of different ages and backgrounds work together?
BL: There are lots of things we do. We have two award-winning programs—our underwriting training program and our claims training program—that can help people early in their career learn the insurance industry and get mentoring. It speeds up their learning curve quite a bit. We have people who have been with our company for five years, but they seem like they’ve been in it for 10 or 15.
Our employee resource groups do quite a bit of mentoring. I’m the sponsor of our largest employee resource group, the Women’s Innovation Network [WIN], which has 1,800 members.
The thing that really helps more than anything else is that when we design programs, whether learning or benefit programs, we make sure that we use diverse teams to come up with the design. Those teams reflect the employee population or our aspirational employee population.
DW: How would you describe your leadership style?
BL: My style is to encourage, support, develop. I like to ensure that people learn, whether it’s through storytelling or taking accountability, and doing it with my support. I’m a big cheerleader. I think people can live up to expectations rather than living down to them. Most people with the right skills and the right attitude can do well.
DW: What advice would you give men who want to help women succeed in the workplace?
BL: One, don’t assume you know everything about women. But, also, don’t be afraid. I think that the opportunity for men to learn about women on an individual basis and collectively is there today, whether it’s through networks like WIN—and we include men—or other opportunities.
DW: You’ve said that diversity means recognizing a person’s many facets. Why is that important?
BL: We all are many things. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m an executive. I’m an African American. Not one in particular provides my definition. When diversity programs focus on one element, they miss those things that bring it all together. All of us are unique, but we have some commonalties as well.
We can help people connect. We did an exercise in our office in New York. People wrote what made them different [on a white board], and we took their picture. Some people wrote, “I’m tall.” “I’m short.” “I’m gay.” It was from their perspective and, to a certain degree, what they wanted to be appreciated for. People want to be recognized in many different ways. People didn’t know all of these differences, because many of them are invisible. We may miss things that can help us work better together. This was an easy way to talk about it.
DW: What advice would you give recent college graduates on the job hunt?
BL: Be open. Try to do things that will introduce you to new topics and new people so that you can grow. There’s a professor named Brian Uzzi at the Kellogg School of Management, and he does studies on networks and how people can be influential. He tells a story about Paul Revere. There were two riders. Paul rode half as long and talked to half as many people [as the lesser-known William Dawes]. But Paul had a very eclectic network, and because of that, people told others. When you start your career, be like Paul Revere. Have an eclectic network, perhaps it’s a hobby—maybe you like to ride bikes. Having networks of people who are different from you and developing authentic connections will help build your career.
DW: What’s coming up at Zurich North America?
BL: We’re trying to make insurance cool. People don’t think about it as a cool environment, but it is here. We do things differently here. One thing that’s exciting is we’re completing a corporate headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois. It’s a thing of beauty, and it’s high in technology. The reason we did it was to focus on the culture we want to have over the next 20 years. We think it will help make our workplace even cooler.
DW: What great book have you read recently?
BL: Reinventing Organizations, by Frederic Laloux. It’s about how much structures play into the success of organizations. You get what you design. Being an HR person, that fascinates me—being sure that organizations are conscious of the structures they create.
DW: What is your favorite object in your office?
BL: There’s a picture of my wife. She is a wonderful, smart person who’s been instrumental in my success and every day gives me great advice and counsel. I’m very fortunate to be married to her. DW