No silver bullet, says top HR head

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The HR head of a multi-award winning workplace says there’s no silver-bullet behind the firm’s success – instead, it’s about putting people first and protecting the culture at all costs.

“The culture is the one thing we’re very fiercely protective of, it’s taken a long time to nurture but the benefit you get is an incredibly diverse and engaged workforce and as a result of that you get customers who are happy and a successful business,” says Nikki Howell, head of people and capability at AA Insurance.

The firm was recently recognised as New Zealand’s Best Large Workplace by IBM Kenexa and also won two accolades at this year’s New Zealand Insurance Industry Awards – one for Women’s Employer of the Year and the other for Youth Development Employer of the Year.

“It’s a whole raft of little things,” she says, when asked how the firm managed to secure multiple awards in such short succession. “If you think of the fly wheel effect, it takes a while to get it going but once you have there’s a bit of momentum and then you can build on it.”

While the company does have a number of initiatives which may be appealing to women – such as flexible work arrangements and opportunities to buy extra leave – Howell says there aren’t any specific programs to thank for AA Insurance’s success as a female-friendly employer.

“It might sound a bit trite but it comes back to our culture,” she says. “We don’t have measures, we don’t have policies saying we should have x per cent of this, that or the other, we’ll just find the right person and through that, it just so happens we have an incredibly diverse workforce – in every way, shape and form within the business – and that includes gender.”

According to Howell, recruitment efforts are largely to thank for the company’s enviable culture and are based on the firm’s core values, including authenticity and genuineness.

“You can have all the skills in the world but if you’re not aligned to our values, we will not make you an offer,” she says. “What we find this does is we have like-minded people in the business, being genuine isn’t something you switch off when you go home, it’s who you are. You might call it something else but your innate values are aligned.

“We go through assessment centres and role plays, the usual behavioural questions to probe how people are,” she continues. “They might not use the words we do to describe our values but they should still come across that they are being genuine as how we would define it and that usually does work.”

While the firm is now reaping the rewards of its hard work, Howell is also well placed to offer advice as last year, AA Insurance picked up the IBM Kenexa Award for Most Improved Large Worplace.

“There are no silver bullets I’m afraid,” she says. “It’s a combination of building that positive culture and people truly believing in what they’re trying to do – that is putting people are the heart of your business.

“I know a lot of people say it but it’s true – and you risk that at your peril,” she adds.

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