How to Innovate Faster: AXA XL’s Rose Hall Talks Talent Retention and Innovation Strategy
How to Innovate Faster: AXA XL’s Rose Hall Talks Talent Retention and Innovation Strategy
In our latest instalment ‘How to Innovate Faster’ in collaboration with FintechOS, we spoke to AXA XL’s SVP and Head of Innovation, Americas for AXA XL, Rose Hall.

Rose Hall is the SVP, Head of Innovation, Americas for AXA XL, and has worked with the company for the past eight years. She began her career as a risk engineer in the field of construction, owing to her academic and professional background in construction management and civil engineering. 

Following a period of time when she worked in innovative solutions, and then entered the insurance industry. She currently reports to the Chief Underwriting Officer for the Americas, and is focused on introducing inventive solutions that address the requirements and preferences of AXA XL’s customers. We caught up with her to find out more.

Where in the insurance value chain do you think the need for innovation is most urgent?

My perspective may surprise you, but I believe the focus should be well before any insurance is contemplated. I think it’s about innovating and disrupting the brand perception of an insurer. Our industry is often viewed as transactional and commoditized, yet we possess significant potential to shape risk right from the outset, especially in risk prevention. 

Shifting this perception to one of a prevention-focused partner would have a positive ripple effect across the entire value chain. This would translate into reduced risk for everyone involved – both for us and for the customers. It opens up greater opportunities across the board. 

So, in my view, the pivotal point is establishing that partnership mindset right from the start, even before we’re engaged on an account. It’s about fostering an environment where customers rely on us to assist in risk management, rather than just transferring the risk away.

How do you define innovation and its relevance within the insurance space?

A significant misconception that needs to be addressed is the common conflation of innovation with technology, particularly within the insurance sector. While technology does play a role, it’s only a part of the larger innovation landscape. Innovation is so much more than technology.

It’s important to acknowledge that innovation isn’t limited to technological advancements. Placing an innovation department solely within the technology realm can inadvertently restrict its scope to technology-oriented solutions. In reality, innovation should stem from every facet of the organisation.

I firmly advocate for a comprehensive approach to innovation—one that permeates every facet of the company. This encompasses various departments like underwriting, claims, risk engineering, middle office, financial groups, and all support functions. The potential for innovation lies everywhere, and shouldn’t be confined to a singular department.

In my viewpoint, innovation extends beyond technology. It encompasses business model innovation, novel approaches to market strategies, and innovative ways to engage with customers. These aspects often go overlooked when innovation is compartmentalised within the IT or global technology division.

It’s imperative to recognise that innovation is a holistic effort. It should be a collective endeavour, involving minds from all areas of the organisation. To maximise the potential for innovation’s impact, it needs to flourish throughout the entire organisation, fostering a culture where fresh ideas and innovative approaches are cultivated across the board.

You’ve come from the construction industry, so you’ve got other worldly experiences to draw on. How do you see the insurance industry in general in terms of picking up the pace of innovation?

Construction stands as one of those industries from the past that doesn’t undergo rapid changes. It’s similar to insurance. The more established an industry is, the more resistance there is to change. However, this legacy status also presents a significant avenue for innovation. The pace of innovation within the insurance field is undoubtedly slower, but within that slower pace lies considerable potential for innovation. So, even though we might currently be seen as followers, I firmly believe we have the capability to close the gap faster than most, provided we commit ourselves to the task.

Speaking about the recent few years, I’ve noticed a clear demonstration of how remarkably adaptable numerous companies can be. They’ve swiftly seized opportunities and acted upon them decisively. It’s truly impressive how they’ve taken the initiative and made substantial progress. 

What trends are driving innovation within the industry?

I believe that forming partnerships with entrepreneurial companies and Insurtechs will play a crucial role in maintaining relevance within the legacy insurance industry. Startups possess a fresh and agile mindset, as well as a culture of innovation. However, they often lack resources and comprehensive data. 

While venture capitalists provide them with injections of capital, these startups can become tied to valuations and their priorities can shift accordingly. On the other hand, established companies have abundant resources, extensive data, and strong support. Yet, they may struggle with speed and agility.

When you combine these strengths and weaknesses, a compelling opportunity arises. Legacy companies collaborating with startups can lead to innovative outcomes. It’s imperative for established industries to embrace this collaboration, as it offers a way to infuse innovation into larger organisations.

What are the success factors required to achieve innovation, in your opinion and in your experience?

Innovation takes on various forms. Sustaining innovation involves making incremental improvements to something you’re already engaged in, enhancing it step by step. In contrast, disruptive innovation entails completely reimagining and revolutionising the entire concept.

From my perspective, the key success factors for innovation within the insurance realm involve our ability to adapt to the evolving landscape and maintain relevance. I believe that insurance is a foundational pillar for driving innovation across various industries. 

This belief is grounded in the idea that startups with potentially groundbreaking ideas, which I’ll put in quotes as “brilliant ideas,” often shy away from the associated risks. They’re unlikely to take such risks unless they can find a way to manage some of that risk through external means. This is where the insurance industry comes into play, providing a safety net that enables others to pursue innovation.

In essence, I see the insurance sector not just as an innovator in its own right, but also as a catalyst for innovation in the industries it serves. This dynamic allows others to take bold steps forward, with the assurance that some of the risk is mitigated, ultimately promoting progress and innovation. 

In terms of the cultural changes required to drive change within an organisation, what are the main barriers and challenges, and, could you give some examples of strategies that can be employed to help companies overcome those things?

The most significant aspect of change always revolves around the human element. Example: The technologies we implement might be ingenious, yet their worth diminishes if they aren’t embraced and trusted by the individuals employing them. This principle, I believe, holds true in the insurance sector, much like it does anywhere else.

One way to advance this culture shift is to create cross-functional teams that encompass a diverse array of thinkers. This entails gathering early adopters, those resistant to change, and everyone in between—individuals excited about change, as well as those who prefer the status quo.

By orchestrating collaboration among them, irrespective of hierarchy, you’re able to secure their buy-in and tap into a collective pool of insights. This amalgamation of perspectives contributes to the desired collective mindset, and everyone is able to move the ball forward.

The crux lies in engagement and alignment across all echelons. It’s not enough to merely dictate a course of action. Instead, you must bring individuals into the fold, fostering interactions among them. Encourage those who are enthusiastic about the proposed changes, to converse with the sceptics. Encourage open discussions about the pros and cons, inviting dissenting viewpoints to surface. By encouraging this dialogue, you bridge the gaps that could otherwise exist if everyone operated in isolation, convinced of their own correctness.

It’s a two-way street, marked by communication that involves understanding rather than just presenting information. The heart of the matter is facilitating these exchanges, enriching the collective perspective through candid discussions that promote a sense of shared ownership and unity.

Nurturing and retaining the right talent, especially in the current market where poaching is rife, can be challenging. How do you approach this so that innovation is not disrupted?  

The process of nurturing and retaining the right talent is particularly critical, especially when considering companies like Google and Amazon, often hailed for their innovation. 

Meanwhile, the insurance industry may not carry the same allure and might even be perceived as less glamorous. However, I’d like to propose a different perspective. For those brimming with innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, choosing to embark on a career at Google might relegate them to a relatively junior status. In contrast, joining a legacy company struggling with innovation could offer them an immediate leadership role. This presents an opportunity to step in and be the driving force behind solving the organisation’s innovation challenges.

When it comes to retaining emerging talent, it’s important to showcase the unique potential within an environment that’s not yet considered highly innovative. It’s an opportunity to convey that their contributions can spearhead transformative change. In essence, we’re appealing to the excitement these individuals possess for novel endeavours.

Reflecting on my own journey within this organisation, it’s been profoundly rewarding. I started as a risk engineer, and I’ve since been promoted into three additional roles that I created for myself. This was made possible by leadership that believed in my ideas and embraced a culture of open-mindedness and trust. Over the course of eight years, these opportunities have arisen because I was able to demonstrate how each step was the natural progression, while also outlining the business benefits associated with my advancement.

Building and retaining the right team hinges on crafting an environment where they can flourish. It’s about enabling them to leverage their unique strengths and granting them ownership over their endeavours. It’s not about forcing individuals into predefined boxes but rather understanding their aspirations and allowing those to drive their roles. Within my team, I consistently engage in conversations to discern what each member finds engaging and how we can enhance their experiences. It’s about focusing on the human aspect rather than a rigid job description. 

Handling information is probably one of the most familiar ways in which the insurance industry employs innovation. What are the best ways of overcoming barriers when it comes to data silos within a company? 

The evolution of data and its transformation into valuable insights is a journey that particularly resonated with me. When I began as a risk engineer, my portfolio consisted of around 15 customers, a small enough number to intimately understand each business’s inner workings and large enough to see a representative cross-section of varied risk.

We collected extensive data about our customers—utilising surveys, benchmarks, and in-depth meetings to gather crucial information that informed our risk underwriting process. This data, however, traditionally remained unstructured. Despite recognising the potential challenges associated with unstructured data, the insurance industry struggled to devise solutions for organising and utilising this information.

Throughout my experience, we always aimed to provide insights to our customers. During consultations, I’d engage them with questions, offering feedback based on our observations. I highlighted areas where they excelled and areas where improvements could be made, fostering a mutually beneficial relationship. However, this process was more akin to consulting, and due to our growth and the growth of our clients, we recognised the need for a more scalable and structured approach for a more scalable and structured influence.

As we look forward, the necessity for structured data insights becomes increasingly apparent. The emergence of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI presents exciting prospects for harnessing data’s full potential. These technologies not only allow us to generate more refined insights but also facilitate the transformation of historical unstructured data into more organised formats. By embracing these tools, we’re poised to elevate our data-driven insights beyond the ad hoc approach of the past. The future promises a transition toward more structured, systematic, and impactful insights, enabled by advancements in AI and data management solutions.

What characteristics are essential in a successful innovator? 

First and foremost, relentless curiosity is a cornerstone trait. Innovation isn’t about having all the answers; it’s about continuously asking questions. It’s an exercise in probing, repeatedly asking “why,” and delving into uncharted territories. Personally, I find myself deeply curious about the aspects that lie beyond my current knowledge, especially since my background doesn’t stem from the insurance sector. This trait drives me to ask a plethora of questions, especially in an intricate domain like insurance.

Insurance, as you rightly mentioned, is a complex industry. Given its intricacies, inquiring and posing questions is a natural process. Sometimes, the complexity seems deliberately designed, possibly to safeguard certain practices or conventions.

My perspective, not confined by a career solely in underwriting, has led me to pose seemingly simplistic yet insightful questions. Interestingly, some underwriters have acknowledged that I’ve raised queries they hadn’t thought of before. These questions often make individuals pause and reflect on why certain practices are followed, potentially leading to new perspectives.

An important part of the role involves effective communication. While I hold the title of Head of Innovation, my function isn’t to dictate innovation but to facilitate it. I don’t drive innovation; instead, I empower it. I gather ideas from various sources—customers, underwriters, the broader market—and my focus lies in enabling these ideas to become tangible realities. This process involves orchestrating a collective effort, sourcing ideas from diverse sources, and providing the framework to bring them to life. It’s about fostering an environment where innovation flourishes and ideas are transformed into impactful actions.

What inspires you in insurtech today? 

Unexplored possibilities lie ahead of us. The potential for innovations we haven’t even fathomed yet is immense and exciting. Given the remarkable opportunities within the insurance industry, particularly due to its legacy nature, I find myself deeply enthused. 

While we’re steadily making incremental improvements, I’m even more excited about the cumulative impact of these gradual changes. What’s truly exhilarating is anticipating the breakthroughs that could emerge unexpectedly and completely transform the landscape. These game-changing innovations possess the potential to revolutionise not just insurance, but the broader world. It’s worth highlighting that as a financial safety net, the insurance industry underpins the growth and expansion of countless other businesses. This ripple effect means that innovations within insurance can catalyse advancements across various industries.

Being a part of an organisation that holds a prominent position in the financial landscape is a source of genuine excitement for me. Working within a large company provides a unique vantage point—one where our influence can truly make a difference. Our ability to shape the future and contribute to positive changes on a significant scale resonates with me deeply. The capacity to impact both our industry and the broader business ecosystem fuels my passion and commitment to driving innovation.

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