AXA president and CEO Rien Hermans shouts because he cares. He talks to China Business about how he combines European frankness with Asian industriousness
Amsterdam, with its liberal politics, gives the impression that the Dutch are laid back and easy going. And that may be the reason Rien Hermans, whose workday never really ends, chose to move to the Philippines.
Hermans prefers Asia, where “work and life are intertwined. Why work for 8 hours and not like it, to get money to spend on the other eight hours? Better to use 16 hours [working] and like it,” he says. He adds that while his work has kept him too busy for hobbies, he doesn’t really need them. He loves his job that much.
Part of the reason he loves his job is his strong belief that people cannot do without his product: life insurance. Hermans’ father died when he was age 12, and it was the proceeds from an insurance policy that sent the young Rien through university. “Maybe only then do you start realizing how much impact [these insurance] products can have on the life of someone,” he points out, and this insistence on putting a premium on a customer’s needs is central to his business philosophy.
Hermans says that everyone at AXA, from a window cleaner to a top executive, is essential to the company’s performance. “I want everybody who works somewhere in the company to be motivated and understand what they do. They have to understand that at the end of the line there is a customer who receives the service we provide.”
This does not always sit well with employees who see their jobs as little more than punching a clock. “I sometimes see it in the office. I hate it. People just don’t care. They’re doing things because ‘this task was assigned me, but I don’t want to think about it’,” Hermans says. This often leads to a more vigorous application of his management style, which Hermans describes as “nasty.”
“Part of being Dutch, we are very direct. It’s sometimes a little bit shocking for some people. People like to be more polite to each other instead of talking about what the real issue is. Being Dutch forces you to be very direct. We don’t have a lot of time,” he says of his frankness towards employees. He says that he won’t say something because it sounds nice, he’ll say it because it’s necessary.
He doesn’t do it to be mean, either. He sees firmness as part of the challenge of putting together a team that performs well. After all, he says, “The quality of service you give your customers is dependent on the quality of your staff.” Hermans adds that the Philippines has so much potential because people are generally well educated, and have a positive work attitude. “But you have to push it, in the beginning, very hard. It takes a while before it really starts working.”
Cruel to Be Kind
That Hermans is a demanding boss does not mean he sees his employees as mere peons. He recalls a conversation with his eight-year-old son, who asked him, “Do all these people work for you?” He replied, “Actually, no. I’m working for these people.” He sees his job as making sure that the people under him can do theirs.
Hermans acknowledges that while he may run the company, it is the people on the front lines—agents, customer service representatives—who are most important to AXA. He explains that on any organizational chart, the president is at the top when it should really be the customer. “If the most important is the customer, then the most important [people in the company] are the people who have contact with the customer,” he says, adding that managers and supervisors only exist in a supporting role.
This means coaching and training his people to make them perform, but also setting standards and making sure that objectives are met even if it means being unpleasant. “After six months, they kind of understand what you want and how you do it. It’s sometimes a little direct. But if it’s real, if it’s authentic, people accept it.”
The alternative, he says, is pussyfooting around an issue and hoping it will go away. “By avoiding a lot of confrontations, you don’t really know what the other person wants. People start hiding behind rules and regulations. I don’t think that’s why we’re here,” he says.
Wisdom Where You Find It
Although he has master’s degrees in marketing and in management accounting, Hermans says that he is not too proud to learn from other people. He doesn’t have a personal guru (“I’m too Dutch for that”), but he says that everyday interactions with people often reveal nuggets of wisdom.
“You can talk to an employee, or someone you meet outside the office. And if you open your mind, you can actually learn from everyone. You can see how people react, and how inventive people are. A lot of times, they come from a totally different angle than what you expected,” he says, adding that he is especially attracted to people who have overcome difficult challenges “who really built something of their own.”
This doesn’t mean adopting an idea just because someone says so, he clarifies. “I think in the end, if you have to run a business, you have to do it as close as possible to your heart. If you do it the way someone tells you to do it, or [how] you see it done in books, but you don’t really feel it, it doesn’t work. In the end, it doesn’t work.”
Hermans says that no matter what business gurus and management books say, there are two things that anybody who works for a living should learn first: integrity and authenticity. Both virtues definitely worth shouting about.
Print ed: 02/10