In Conversation With Véronique Weill, Chief Operating Officer, AXA

Helene Cavalli Blog

An international leader in insurance and asset management, AXA has approached its digital transformation with much fanfare, convinced that it is the key to success and even survival. At the helm of this change process is Chief Operating Officer Véronique Weill. With twenty-one years of experience at J.P. Morgan in Paris, London, and New York, and an additional nine years with AXA, Ms. Weill now heads up the company’s global strategies for marketing, digital implementation, distribution, operations, technology, data, and purchasing.

In this exclusive interview with Altedia | Lee Hecht Harrison, Ms. Weill describes how AXA has supported and engaged their talent through the organization's digital transformation.

AXA is committed to a dramatic digital transformation. Is that process fed by a fear of the digital wave or by excitement around seizing the opportunities it presents?

V.W.: We are excited and energized by the digital revolution, and we are also completely aware that if you don’t change, you die!

You have stressed that the customer is at the center of your digital transformation. What about the men and women within the company?

V.W.: This kind of change management can’t happen without supporting our people. It’s crucial! Organizations don’t always have the personnel suited to the task, so we are working on both recruiting the skills we lack, and on providing training programs for our current employees. We have recruited new personnel from various sectors, particularly from the digital and data management industries.

In addition, we are very mindful of the importance of creating the right combination of employees: our insurance experts must learn from digital experts, and vice versa, in a climate of humility and trust. This is key. No one is the sole keeper of the truth, not the business experts and not the digital and IT experts. The solutions for the future will emerge from magic that happens when these two worlds come together.

How are you supporting and training the employees who joined AXA before the company began its digital transformation?

V.W.: The people at the highest levels of the company must lead by example. We have set up a reverse mentoring program in which young employees aged 25 to 30 are selected for their digital skills and act as guides for older employees. The executive committee members were among the first to participate in this program, which now involves some 900 people, including mentors and mentees. We have also launched an extensive digital tools training program that will eventually involve 80% of our employees.

Another example of collaboration is the creation of joint teams. For example, our in-house Digital Agency brings together marketing employees, IT engineers, data scientists, etc. Companies need to use this type of interdisciplinary approach or, I would even say, this synergy.

All of these initiatives seem to be driven by a lot of positive energy. Have you had to deal with fears or foot-dragging from any employees?

V.W.: Two years ago in San Francisco and again this year in Shanghai, we brought together the top 175 leaders of AXA’s various activities from across the world. The urgency of the situation was immediately apparent to everyone there. As with all change, employees initially ask what [the digital transformation] will mean for their profession and their position in the company. Others try to reassure themselves by thinking, “This won’t affect me.” So we need to communicate the goals of this transformation. Our core business is not going to change, we are going to continue to protect our customers. It is the way we go about doing it, which  will change profoundly with the help of digital technology. We encountered some skepticism at first, but the speed at which the world is changing helps us. The strongest argument is to get back to the customer, so we have asked employees to look at their own purchasing habits, they buy their airplane tickets online; they do their shopping online, so why should insurance be any different?

It is the best way of helping people realize that if we do not change, the customer will buy elsewhere. The nature of the social pact at AXA is also invaluable for properly carrying out this plan. Social dialogue is part of our business culture and has helped us enforce the idea that it is the world that is changing, and that we have to adapt to it.

There is a paradox between consumer behavior, which shows a real desire for digital progress as highlighted by the Mettling report, and the behavior of the same individuals when they approach digital transformation as employees, for whom this desire turns into fear.

V.W.: Absolutely. So in order to get our staff engaged in the process, we ask them a crucial question, “Do you want to learn and be part of a successful company?” AXA Group’s situation is a great asset for motivating them. We have an enviable position as an industry leader with an international presence, a high investment capacity (with nearly a billion euros invested in digital transformation over the last three years) and brand power. We are in a good position to say to our collaborators: “Everyone can do it,” providing they want to. The reward for our efforts is that now [when we talk about the digital transformation], people no longer ask me “why?” Instead, they ask “how?” That’s a sign that they are convinced that the change is necessary.

This change cannot be declared a success unless management practices are also transformed. How is your organization handling that?

V.W.: The first change is to become a learning organization. The era of managers having all the answers is over. No one person has all the knowledge. Our managers must be convinced of this, but without feeling like they are being challenged. The second development is managers don’t necessarily have all the members of their team in the same office. Some will work one day here, one day at home, another day from London. So managers must become more flexible. Setting up interdisciplinary teams leads to another change: the managerial relationship must evolve towards a much more collaborative approach.

If I had to summarize the qualities we need in managers today, I would say that there are two main areas. [First,] to give meaning: insurance is a great profession – we protect people against various risks and we are at their side in the event of disaster. [And second,] to give employees some freedom as well as responsibility: to trust, engage and empower their team. Managers must not hesitate to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit and mobility of their employees, innovation and change are inherently linked.

In light of the speed with which the world is changing, can you imagine AXA in ten years’ time?

V.W.: And even beyond that, because we shouldn’t be afraid of looking ahead! Look at the driverless car, three years ago people were saying they wouldn’t be ready until 2030 and yet they’re already on the road. Henri de Castries had us develop a vision for 2030, and there are already some things that are becoming a reality much more quickly than we thought they would. In ten years, I think that we will have the same business – we will still be here to anticipate risk, protect our customers and look after them – but we’ll have very different ways of conducting that business, with different products and customers who will also be very different. I’m thinking of connected healthcare, savings and homes. To explore what the future might hold, we are relying on both our expanded ecosystem, with our labs and investment vehicles, and on the intelligence of our employees.

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