Building a culture of learning: Allianz – a case study

This post is written by Simon Wood, Principal Consultant, Be Learning 

As a learning and development consultant one of the things you tend to worry about sometimes is whether the interventions and programs you create have long-lasting impact on your client organisations. Whilst most of us in this industry consult, design and deliver based on sound principles and evidence based theories, using ongoing embedding tools and interventions with creative, interesting modalities, there is always a niggle of a doubt as to whether the learning will stick.

Many times I have delivered programs and built tools that have received rave reviews- great feedback, happy clients and inspired participants. This is of course very fulfilling. But equally numerous have been the times I have been asked to return to these same businesses, sometimes a year on, and address the same problems or deliver the very same program all over again!

AllianzNow, the business development side of you, dear reader, might be saying- “hey, that’s great! That’s a dependable pipeline right there!” But it drives me crazy. Because I love what I do, and I want it to work. I want my clients to succeed.

At Be Learning we are spending more and more time with our clients building the strategy that supports the learning- what are the ongoing activities and tools that make whatever desired cognitive or behaviour change business as usual. Whether the support is calendared, digital, blended, coach focussed- you name it- we’re applying it, and it’s getting results.

But it’s not the whole box and dice. Consultancies can only do so much. There is a huge responsibility on the client to see these things through. So it leads me to wonder- what are the things that businesses can do to make their desired state current state? My recent experience working with Allianz Australia has given me some insight into what organisations do that makes learning itself part of business as usual, and I wanted to share my reflections with you dear reader.

So Allianz Australia is a well-known brand in Australia, and most of us would recognise their commercials “Aaaaalianz insurance- how can I help you?” Certainly their ads suggest direct insurance for everyone, but the majority of their business comes from other diverse channels- working with brokers and agencies, working with financial institutions, car and boat dealers, Workers’ Compensation, as well as deriving income from their non-insurance investment businesses. They are an extremely successful business, growing despite an increasingly crowded market and a slowdown in global growth- flatter interest rates, tighter margins and so on.

The motto the company carries on every letterhead, internally branded literature and on their intranet is “Be Better”. This says a lot about the way people at Allianz approach their roles- from the top all the way down through the organisation. What could be, in another context, simply a nice aspirational phrase without much substance, is actually lived and breathed by everyone there.

When I began consulting with Allianz I noticed that there was alignment right across the business to this phrase- Be Better. Every conversation that leaders are having with their people, that the leadership team is having with itself, centres on that phrase. Every meeting with a client, every result delivered, the people there stop and ask “what did we do well?” and “how could we do it even better?” From a process and sales activity perspective this is a healthy continuous improvement culture, critical for all businesses you would say. But the consequences for this approach go beyond process and client solutions. By stealth it becomes a culture of learning.

This means that when I engage their leaders on the programs I’m running, and talk about things like emotional intelligence, the coach approach, and behavioural feedback, I notice that the usual dissonance points you can see in face to face training- the moment when someone realises they can’t do something, or have a very strong point of view that they don’t need to change what they’re doing- these dissonance points are managed not by me, as is often the case, but by the Allianz learner themselves. The talk I hear when wrangling with dissonance are things like “ok, I’m struggling with this. But, if this is going to make things better, then I’ve got to do it.”

So how does a culture like that emerge?

A big part of the answer lies with the senior leadership and their attitude to learning.

We are currently running a sales coaching program for the distribution channel- the sales guys! In order to get the work we had to pitch. Ordinarily you might see a panel of organisational development leads and maybe a line of business head. Not in this case. We had to pitch to the entire senior leadership team. The CEO, the CGMs, the GMs, the OD lead. It was a leadership decision.

And, notably, OD sat at the table and was a dominant voice- the OD function was deeply connected to the leadership team. There was a mutual voice in the room. I highlight this because often, in my experience, the more that OD and human resource leads are interconnected with operational matters, the more that leadership will be interconnected with organisational development, and a better understanding and care emerges. In Allianz’s case, the human development strategy was as important as their pricing structures, their risk weighting and their client strategy.

When we won the work and began design, it was the OD function that steered the course but there was continuous involvement from the CGM of distribution and his team into the program. The attitude was “if we want this, if we are going to spend money on this, we want it to work and we want it to be great”.

Executive sponsorship is often heard as a factor of successful change management- in this case it was executive involvement- and this was my first real insight as to factors contributing to success. The downstream effect of this is a personal commitment by executive to get their people to not only attend (and on time!) but to apply themselves. The message was “this is how we want you to be coaching now.”

So people did it.

This creates a culture whereby programs for development or other OD initiatives are not seen as lower priority, they are seen as strategic and critical and, with a tongue placed a little bit in my cheek, it’s also a bit like “your boss is right behind this, telling you to, so it’s probably a good idea to do it!”

Another factor at play here is the type of leadership that I’ve seen on display (as much as anyone can say there is a type). I’ve been following Niran Peiris, the CEO of Allianz Australia, around Australia as he delivers the business results and strategic messaging as a roadshow event. My involvement was to deliver a section on Diversity and Inclusion.

So, apart from the executive sponsorship and involvement thing that I mentioned earlier- I say apart from because in introducing the subject of Gender Diversity, here was another example of the executive- in this case the CEO- sending a message to every people leader in the business that Allianz is serious about improving gender equity and removing gender bias in decision making- apart from that, the way Niran engaged with his leaders was also both catalytic for and symptomatic of a learning culture.

Quiet and humble- yet clear and certain (what Jim Collins might call a “level 5” leader), Niran spent time making sure that the results and the strategy were clearly understood by every leader in every room across the country- some 500 plus leaders. Rather than present rationale for strategic direction, he asked a series of Socratic questions designed to bring out the tacit knowledge of the leader population, but also allow younger or less experienced leaders the chance to learn basic economic principles, or to see the interconnectedness between various market forces and the decisions made for the next FY plan. This ensured that every decision made by the leaders would be well informed and aligned to the greater strategy.

So, in other words, I felt that what could just be a town hall style update became another opportunity to promote learning in the population. The consequence of this beyond building commercial acumen in the manager cohort, was that it modelled a leadership style that is likely to be emulated by the managers with their teams. When leaders see themselves as having a role in learning, a culture is built whereby everyone is involved in organisational development, thus supporting both formal learning activities as designed by OD as well as influencing informal learning practice within teams.

This can get lost in large organisations.

So. In closing the learning for me was this: for a successful change to take place, every senior leader needs to be involved and active in spreading the message. For a successful change ready culture to emerge, building the opportunity to reflect, learn and deeply understand all factors needs to be made BAU in all leadership activities right across the business- from the CEO to the team leader in the contact centre. Building learn-ability into your organisation requires everyone to be prioritising learning as the mediator of success.

This is something Allianz are doing.

How can you build learn-ability into your organisation?