Ron Herrmann | Crain's Charlotte

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Ron Herrmann

Background:  

AXA, one of the nation's largest financial protection companies, announced in May that it will nearly double its Charlotte workforce as it brings 550 new jobs and invests $18 million to expand operations in University City’s Innovation Park in Charlotte. While AXA’s corporate headquarters will remain in New York City, the expansion will make the Charlotte location AXA’s largest.

The Mistake:

Thinking that communication occurred in a more thorough way within the organization than it did.

Over a period of time, I didn't realize how many decisions were being made that didn’t have the right impact on the organization.

For example, the senior team wanted to make sure that we had the input of the organization. The mistake was that we put together a focus group that included many leaders who were somewhat higher-level leaders. We took their feedback as if it accurately portrayed opinions throughout the organization.

I felt that the leadership team that reported to me would be able to communicate on an effective level to the people under them to gather the right information to make the right decisions.

What I learned was that some on my leadership team weren’t the best communicators. They weren’t listening. It wasn’t a lack of commitment on their part. It was a skill set that I assumed people had, but they did not.

As you get farther from the hub of the organization, the communication gaps get bigger.

The Lesson:

When I made this mistake, which was about 10 years ago, I then determined where the challenges existed. One of the things I did to get my arms around the different business entities was to engage more with the employees. We did lunch-and-learns. We had breakfast meetings. I spent time on the phone, looking at data.

I planned my year so that I could engage more across the business, and get a more thorough understanding of the day-to-day of the business. I learned so much more than I ever anticipated that I continued doing it. People felt like they had access to get information directly from me. I was able to see what was going on in the business. As you get farther from the hub of the organization, the communication gaps get bigger. You have to try to touch the outer ends of the organization more frequently than the inner circle.

I had to implement new training to include developing communications skills. Listening is a component of communication, so I would say it really became a two-sided event: One is that they weren’t communicating down to the level of detail that we wanted, and coming back up, they weren’t effectively listening to what was being said.

That led me to two really strong observations that I practice today. The first one is that putting in very extensive development plans for the people who report to you are important beyond just the development skills. I also look at people skills. Those development plans are with the goal of making more well-rounded individuals, making them more capable for an executive level position, making sure they have the skills to handle the position.

The other thing I’ve learned, which really brought me here to Charlotte, is no matter what level I’m at, I have to have a more effective process from top to bottom to better understand what’s going on in the organization from day to day. I felt I needed to be connected to the business here in Charlotte, because that’s where the lion’s share of our employees will be.

Follow AXA on Twitter at: @AXA

Pictured: Ron Herrmann | Photo courtesy of AXA. 

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