How Aon CEO Gregory Case achieved clarity of focus to achieve a turnaround Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Gregory C. Case would be the first to tell you he doesn’t make

the cut as a great leader.

“I’m not one, but I’ve seen many over my time,” he says. “Great

leaders help people succeed. The fundamental piece to that is

understanding opportunity, understanding how colleagues can

meet those opportunities and helping them be successful in a

way they never knew they could be. When you do that, you create tremendous energy in an organization.”

Of course, some people inside Aon Corp. — the global provider

of solutions in insurance and risk management, human capital

consulting and insurance underwriting — would argue that, that

is exactly what Case does.

After all, Case became Aon’s president and CEO in April 2005

and has had only one goal since then: to unite the company’s

43,000 employees under a vision for growth that will make them

all more effective. So while you wouldn’t get Case to admit he’s a

success, you can draw your own conclusions: Aon grew to $7.47

billion in 2007 after posting $6.65 billion in 2005.

“If you take a step back and say, what are the ingredients for an

organization to be successful and sustain that success, you come

back to a few things,” he says. “One is a common vision of what

we’re trying to accomplish. The second is alignment around that

view, do we understand it together, and the third is how we’re

going to serve our clients. The more effective we are in creating a

vision across our firm, the more effective we are in having alignment and collaboration. The more effective we are in collaborating, the more effective we are in trusting each other and the more

effective we are as an organization.”

To create that vision, Case created a vision structure for the company that would improve its ability to serve clients. Then, to build

that up, he went on an Aon world tour, talking with clients and

employees from the company’s more than 520 locations in 120

countries to figure out how to sharpen that view, all with the goal

of taking Aon to new levels of success.

Start with the basics

Case started fine-tuning Aon’s vision by laying out three basic

areas of focus: First, clients would be given the best and most distinctive service possible, second, there would be a high level of

operational excellence that would be driven by the employees,

and third, new clients and talent would be attracted to Aon

because of the success of the first two.

“We’re really only trying to accomplish three things globally,”

Case says. “We’ve worked on that very hard and that actually creates a framework, a basis upon which you can have a dialogue

about how we’re serving clients. It lets us talk about clients in

Shanghai the same way we talk about clients in New York, and that

helps make us a global firm.”

By having a simple starting point, you have an instant screening

process to help you filter through feedback.

“We have a pretty simple motto internally, which is, ‘We will do

about anything if it helps our clients or helps our colleagues help our

clients,’” he says. “So if you put that lens against a global firm —

does it help our clients, yes or no? — it turns out you screen out a

lot of things that are interesting but in the end extraneous because they really don’t fundamentally help our clients or help our colleagues help our clients.”

The process also helped in tying accountability to the vision.

With a clear starting point of success, measurables were more easily created.

“Everyone talks about value, but we’re typically not very crisp in

the definition,” Case says. “So for us, helping clients means one of

two things: Have we helped increase their profitability or operating

performance? That is not an ambiguous question, we’ve either done

that or we haven’t. The second question is, have we helped them

strengthen their balance sheet? If we helped a client do one of those

two things, we’ve added value. If we’ve added value, then we’ve

served them well. If we’ve served them well, we’ll do great things as

a firm.”

As a result of creating that simple starting point, Case was not

only able to spark ingenuity as he toured the company, but he was

also able to put that ingenuity into the proper context.

“We are essentially saying to our firms, ‘Everything you do is

about your leadership in local arenas, these three things we want

to do globally,’” he says. “Turns out when we do those three things

globally, there’s a tremendous step change to the amount of collaboration, the level of how we trust each other to serve clients,

and it starts to shape the firm and its effectiveness shows on the

ground with clients.”

Ask your clients for help

With simple ideas in hand, Case went out and got a few

stamps on his passport. Since taking over Aon, he’s been

around the world and home again, visiting China, New

Zealand, Europe, Dubai and many other places.

That tour cost money and time for the company, but its justification was simple for Case.

“One thing that was very clear from the beginning, it was not

about me, it really was about our clients and our colleagues,”

he says. “As such, I actually spent a great deal of time early on

spending time with those constituents, not the regulators, not

the investors, — all those are important constituents and are

critical, but it was our colleagues and our clients first.”

He focused on how Aon’s clients and colleagues thought

about the evolving world of risk, asking them to really pay

attention to what issues kept them up at night. Then he asked

them how those issues could best be handled in the context of

their business and how they thought Aon did at handling those

issues.

“When you ask the same sets of questions, it turns out you

start to see pattern recognition fairly quickly,” he says. “What

was stunning to me is a set of themes that came back from

clients that were very powerful and those themes were common across almost anywhere in the world that I traveled.”

The themes that came to the forefront were the world of risk

is getting bigger, the complexity of risk is increasing, the level

of scrutiny around risk is going up, and finally, risk is about

understanding opportunity as much as understanding any

potential downside. Those themes helped Case learn a valuable lesson in what the market wanted.

“So what you heard loud and clear was the opportunity to get

this right for companies and help them understand risk better

has never been greater,” he says.

To Case, it is the willingness to really take the time to listen

to your clients that really will make a difference in shaping a

new vision.

“It’s very much shared understanding, shared development of

what we’re trying to do with clients,” he says. “It’s about us

understanding together what we’re trying to do, this is not a

Greg Case answer. First and foremost, you have to listen and

understand to be able to summarize a very simple but specific

set of actions that we’re going to make to improve our firm.

Without talking to clients, you’re not going to get the insight

you need to be effective. So we have to take the temperature,

get understanding, get input and guidance, both about what

they’re thinking about as well as about how we’re serving

them.”

Sell it to employees

A simple starting point also helped Case more effectively go

out and get buy in for his vision by talking to his employees.

And talk he did. To date, he estimates he’s been able, in some

form or another, to speak to about 35,000 Aon employees

worldwide.

“Fundamentally, leadership is about helping other people

succeed,” he says. “And doing that from Chicago is not very

helpful.”

To Case, a leader or leadership team needs to put the time in

to get a direct dialogue going with all levels of employees. At

Aon, that’s helped build growth and attracted new talent to the

company.

“It’s really in that context that you go out and have a conversation, and it turns out people are excited about that,” he says.

“That’s really what’s been the basis of our momentum. It’s just

hard work, caring, listening and engaging with our colleagues

on real topics.”

That communication comes in every form for which Case can

make time. He speaks to big groups, but he also meets with

area leaders during each visit and makes time to talk with

employees that approach him. He won’t ever have time to go to

dinner with all 43,000 employees, but he creates as many informal discussions as possible.

“It really is a personal set of discussions, many of them one

on one, many of them small groups,” he says. “You have to cut

across multiple layers of the organization, having the same

conversation with the same 20 people is interesting but not

very impactful. I would also say be very informal — I would

characterize myself as a very informal guy.”

To spark those informal conversations, you have to reiterate

the simple goals of the vision, then remove the hierarchy that

comes with most organizations. It doesn’t mean that you throw

titles out of the window, but you encourage people to speak up

and then you take responsibility for sorting out the chain of command later.

“The issues around hierarchy are always important, but that’s

really a function of respect and trust,” Case says. “It really draws

back to if we have a common vision. If we’ve got alignment around

it, we trust each other.

“When you have very real conversations that are tough, that

are straightforward, you battle out the issues and you walk away

as colleagues to try to achieve something, (and) there’s much

less concern around, ‘Gosh, you shouldn’t have heard that,’ or,

‘That should have come through channels.’ I go through great

pains to play that down to get input and guidance, and then

there’s trust that I’ll circle back in the right way to create movement and change.”

With all that candid feedback, Case was able to work toward

being the type of leader he admires so much. He learned the

areas where his employees needed the most help and got a leg

up on the war for talent by creating a culture that welcomes

employee input. And, with the growth, Aon was able to invest

time and a considerable amount of money into employee-recommended goals to move the company forward.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about what we want to accomplish as a firm, what are the specific areas that we want to invest

in together to make that happen,” he says. “And we have put

together — not me, by the way, but colleagues around the world

— how we’re going to accomplish that, and that’s really built a lot

of momentum in our firm.

“It’s because our firm has said, ‘Listen, we want to work

together to be operationally more efficient.’ That’s why in a

period of time when there’s been some turmoil in our industry,

it’s been a growth period for Aon. And it’s because we’ve been

able to take this global initiative to our colleagues and say,

‘This is the way we fuel growth.’”

HOW TO REACH: Aon Corp., (312) 381-1000 or www.aon.com