Melisa Waters is Group Head of Engagement, Culture, Diversity and Inclusion at AXA. Advancing gender parity at the senior level is a key priority for this global insurance company. Launched in 2014, its Sponsorship Tandem programme has been successful in helping talented women develop their skills to become the next generation of leaders. Melisa has been working for AXA for nearly 20 years and has held positions in AXA’s offices within Australia, Asia, the US and France.
Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: Could you tell us a bit about yourself as a person? What makes you tick and what do you enjoy doing?
Melisa Waters, AXA: I'm from Australia and, like a lot of Australians, I love to travel and explore. I’m fascinated by different cultures, their history and how places change and grow. From living in New York for nine years I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for art, theatre and music.
Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: What exactly is the purpose of your role?
Melisa Waters, AXA: My core purpose is to ensure that AXA is a great place to work. We believe that a positive employee experience is at the heart of a great customer experience, and we want AXA to enable people – at whatever stage of their career – to be successful both personally and professionally. My role covers diversity and inclusion, external employer branding and internal culture and values. I look at how our employees feel about the organisation and the environment we have created.
Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: What are AXA’s key diversity and inclusion priorities, and what activities are underway to help deliver these?
Melisa Waters, AXA: This year, our CEO Thomas Buberl decided to create a new framework for our Global Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council to focus on. This framework is split into three key components: people, culture and marketplace.
On the people side, we’re looking at how we can achieve gender parity at all levels of the organisation. On the culture side, we are trying to create an environment in which everyone feels welcome, and are working towards creating more global common standards within our people practices.
Inclusion is at the heart of innovation.
We’ve also introduced a new value to our organisation called ‘One AXA’, which revolves around the belief that being together, while being different, makes us better.
The marketplace element is really important for us because it brings in the commercial aspect to our diversity and inclusion work. The priority here is to ensure our customers, suppliers and clients are diverse, with an emphasis on providing support to female customers and entrepreneurs in insurance.
Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: Which of these priorities are you most passionate about tackling and why?
Melisa Waters, AXA: Given my day-to-day work heading up the culture stream, I think the culture area is extremely interesting as well as challenging.
This aspiration of creating a great place to work is difficult to achieve when you’re looking at over 160,000 people in 60 different countries from across the world.
At the beginning of 2017 we released our first global people policy on parental leave. We found this to be remarkable in terms of creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, especially as in many countries there isn’t even a minimum standard on parental leave.
We are now looking at how we can extend this concept of global people policies to other areas, such as elderly care leave and leave associated with life events.
Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: How does AXA’s Sponsorship Tandem programme help prepare talented women to transition into senior roles?
Melisa Waters, AXA: This programme has been one of AXA’s bedrocks for creating more gender parity at a senior level.
Launched in 2014, the aim is to develop female talent across the group and improve senior representation at the top. Talented women are paired for 12 months with an executive committee member and are provided with resilience training, mentoring, job shadowing and other opportunities.
So far we've completed three waves, involving 52 women from across the organisation. The results have been positive both in terms of the women’s experiences and how they’ve benefited from it.
Approximately 23% of participants have been promoted or taken on increased job responsibility. We're about to launch our fourth wave, and we're seeing this sponsorship model being replicated at our local country levels as well.
Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: How does maintaining a diverse workforce benefit large corporations? Has AXA seen any significant benefits since initiating its diversity and inclusion activities?
Melisa Waters, AXA: We think inclusion is at the heart of innovation, and with our industry (like many industries) facing constant change, inclusion is becoming a much more talked about concept. Not just in the sense of demographics, but also in the sense of bringing together people with different experiences, educations and backgrounds.
Our vibrant and dynamic global employee resource groups are a great benefit as they allow us to hear from employees from all over the world on the topics of gender, LGBT and disability.
When you’ve got people in your organisation telling the leaders what they want, you’re creating an amazing energy and vibrancy.
People don't volunteer for these groups if they're not passionate about the topic or the company they work for, so setting up these groups gives you an indication of how much your employees care about these topics and your company.
The external recognition we receive as a result of all our diversity and inclusion work is also really rewarding. In most cases, the awards are generated not from what we say about the company but what our employees say. So it’s a great way to check what people think about working for AXA.
Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: What three pieces of advice would you give to a HR professional looking to improve diversity and inclusion within the workplace?
Melisa Waters, AXA: First, it’s really important to frame diversity and inclusion within your social and commercial context.
If it’s projected, for example, that one third of people within the US will be Hispanic by 2030 that gives you a sense of how the social context is changing. It’s then important for organisations to question whether they are ready for this change from both a consumer and employee perspective.
My second piece of advice is to make diversity and inclusion a business and leadership topic, not just an HR topic. Leaders are the ones who set the tone – you can have all the best HR processes in the world and all the best HR colleagues along with this, but ultimately diversity and inclusion efforts have to be authentic within the leadership of your organisation.
The third piece of advice I would give is to use a bottom-up approach as much as you use a top-down one. When you’ve got people in your organisation telling the leaders what they want, you’re creating an amazing energy and vibrancy. Often it can be your people who set the agenda and sometimes your leaders may need to catch up with that.
Becky Norman, Deputy Editor, HRZone: Finally, can you reveal what AXA’s D&I Advisory Council will be looking to address next?
Melisa Waters, AXA: Alongside gender, the two other topics we're focused on globally are disability and LGBT rights. Great work has been done in Thailand and Japan on our disability best practices, and we’re now looking at how we can extend this globally.
We will continue to expand our initiatives under the framework of people, culture and marketplace, and let our employees voice to us whether they feel AXA is a great place to work.
Want to learn more about this topic?
Visit our diversity hub featuring expert articles, interviews and opinion pieces on creating a workplace that brings together individuals from all walks of life.