Mark Wilson: Bringing values to business leadership

By Mark Wilson

Aviva group chief executive Mark Wilson talks the best values to bring to business.
Mark Wilson is group CEO of Aviva, the world's largest insurer.
Mark Wilson is group CEO of Aviva, the world's largest insurer.

What brings you back to New Zealand, Mark?

I have worked all over the world, but this is still home. Now I'm back to spend a couple of days at the University of Auckland Business School. I'll be discussing leadership, the challenges I faced leading Asian insurer AIA during the 2008 financial crisis, and my experience of turning round underperforming businesses.

Aviva is the UK's largest insurer and one of the oldest insurers in the world. What's it like leading a major British institution - and how does the UK see us?

There's real affection and respect for New Zealand. I often talk about the Maori word, mana, and how the All Blacks demonstrated it: earned respect, authority, prestige and humility. It's a Kiwi value I try to bring to my own leadership style at Aviva - and I think it's something that marks us Kiwis out.

What's it like being CEO of a huge business like Aviva?

It's a remarkable company - and can trace its history all the way back to November 1696 - that's 320 years. That's quite some heritage. But heritage counts for nothing if you don't look after your customers now and in the future.

We've got 33 million customers in 16 markets around the world so we have a tremendous responsibility to them - and often our relationships with them last a lifetime.

When I took over as CEO just over three years ago Aviva had underperformed and we had to act fast to turn things round. We've come a long way since then. And we're showing stability, strength and sustainable growth. But we're still miles off my vision for the company.

You often talk about being a good ancestor - what do you mean by that?

It's absolutely central to my business philosophy. I'm in business to have the maximum positive impact on the lives of our customers - and society as a whole.

Making a profit is a by-product - albeit a very important one - of that core activity.

But you have to create "social profit" as well as financial profit. So one of our Aviva values is to create legacy. Insurance is a long term business, making commitments to customers that can last a lifetime. So it's about taking decisions that still stack up in the long term - in 5 or 10 or 20 years' time.

You say you're in Auckland to talk about leadership. What tips have you got on how to lead a business, especially in times of crisis?

My biggest test as a leader was when I was CEO of AIA in 2008 - and the parent company AIG collapsed. It was the ground zero of the financial crisis. I didn't go home for a fortnight! My advice is take charge - and give strong directional leadership.

Crisis and consensus just don't go together. Think of leaders like Giuliani, Churchill. Put in place the right processes and structures. People like structure. Get the right team - and have them focus on the issue - 100%. Above all, do the right thing.

But did you know, crisis and opportunity have the same character in Chinese. That's worth thinking about.

- NZ Herald

Mark Wilson, Group CEO of Asian Insurer Aviva, is giving a public talk at the University of Auckland Business School tonight (Wednesday 16 Mar), 6pm 6.30 start, Lecture Theatre, Level 0, Owen G Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Road. He’ll be talking about his extensive international experience in corporate turnarounds, including navigating AIA through the GFC, with Prof Kevin Lowe.

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