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
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
“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
“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
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
“Fundamentally, leadership is about helping other people
succeed,” he says. “And doing that from Chicago is not very
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
“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