Talent management in China: an insurer's perspective

Chris Huang, Margaret Choi, 26 May 2015

Over the last 30 years, the Chinese insurance market has developed rapidly. The beginning of the 21st century marked a new era for the sector. In 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization, the sector started to open up more to foreign insurers.

China has now become the fourth largest market in the world in terms of premiums, after the USA, Japan and the UK. However, considering its low insurance penetration (3% of GDP compared to 6.3% globally) and low density, China still has significant potential to grow. In 2013, the average per capita spend on insurance in advanced markets was USD 3 621, while in China it was USD 201. As there is much room to further develop the market, companies that are able to attract, retain and engage the right talent will have a competitive advantage.

According to Mercer’s 2013 Insurance Industry External Labor Market Analysis, China’s current insurance sales agent talent pool was around 16 800, but an additional 10 000 agents are expected to be needed by 2018. The report also indicated that the number of underwriters stood at 4 300, and that an additional 2000 underwriters would be required by 2018.

On 13 August 2014, the State Council of China issued the Directives on the Development of Insurance, which set the penetration target at 5% and per capita premiums at USD 565. The target has had a significant impact on the growth of the Chinese insurance industry, and will pose additional challenges for filling the talent pipeline in China.

Swiss Re in China

Since the early 1930s, Swiss Re has been active in the insurance industry in China. Swiss Re set up representative offices in Beijing and Shanghai in 1995 and 1996 respectively and opened its Beijing branch to conduct life and non-life business throughout the country in December 2003.

Swiss Re has supported and helped to grow the industry, which it believes will contribute to the sustainable development of the Chinese economy. To fulfill this mission, attracting and developing talent has always been among the top strategic priorities of Swiss Re in China.

Since 2012, China has become the leading market of the five High Growth Markets (HGMs) globally for Swiss Re. It is the intention to dramatically increase the number of staff in China by 2016. With the intake of so many new hires, a sound business strategy is required to guide the firm, establish a strong culture that preserves Swiss Re's values, and ensure effective talent management in order to drive business growth.

China Management Team development

To drive the HGM strategic plan, the top management team in China takes ownership, identifies common goals and follows a common set of leadership behaviours that reflect the core values. This in turn allows them to serve as role models who can engage and motivate the local teams. Since 2012, the China Management Team (CMT) has been devoted to team development. Some of the steps taken include: (i) alignment of stakeholder expectations, (ii) analysis of personal leadership styles, (iii) team alignment, (iv) conducting employee surveys and (v) identification of development goals. This approach is in line with Swiss Re's Human Capital Strategy, which complements the business strategy and defines the dimensions which will lead to the establishment of a sustainable organisation for the future.

The CMT has also made team reflection and feedback to each other an integral component of their development. Given the fast changes in the external environment, such as the changing nature of China market and new regulations coming into effect, this exercise is particularly important.

Culture transformation

Because a strong corporate culture works as a glue that bonds employees together, the CMT felt it was also critical to build a strong and clearly defined Swiss Re China Culture due to the large number of new hires. It was important that the culture reflect the core values of Swiss Re, so that the CMT was building an organisation that was in sync with the Swiss Re global culture and at the same time the right fit for the China market.

With this purpose, the CMT launched the China Cultural Transformation Project at the beginning of 2014. The project consists of three phases: design, communication, and incorporation into the daily work.

In design phase, the China Culture Poster Contest was launched. The purpose was to engage everyone to define an ideal cultural that is strong, guides the teams through the day-to-day activities, unites them and helps them to achieve Swiss Re's long-term goals.

All staff were invited to form cross-functional teams that consisted of current and new employees. Each team designed a poster highlighting their ideal China culture. They were also asked to think of ideas on how to ensure that the entire China team embraced and lived that culture.

Within three months' time, the teams came up with very creative posters. The passion, spirit, and enthusiasm showed by each team were very impressive. Finally, the concept 'Home to Succeed' was chosen and won the top prize.

There are five elements to build a 'Home to Succeed':

  • Ownership: individuals should own the mission, drive things through, and take

  • Oneness: everyone should drop the silos mindset and have aligned objectives so as to work as one.

  • Embrace change: in a dynamic, fast changing market, it is important for the team to keep an open mind and embrace change to adapt to the environment.

  • Solution provider: employees should work to establish Swiss Re as an expertise provider, and create a Unique Value Proposition for clients.

In the communication phase, the teams were subsequently regrouped into five groups, where each group owned the refinement and communication of one element of the 'Home to Succeed' culture and created a video. By the end of 2014, the Swiss Re China 'Academy Award' ceremony was hosted to select the best videos.

In the third and final phase, the teams continue to work on executing the culture and ensuring that it becomes part of their daily activities.

Building capable managers

First line managers are the main source of impact on employee engagement. With the team sizes becoming bigger due to the HGM investment, line managers have greater responsibility to engage and motivate team members on a daily basis.

However, because the managers in China are relatively young compared to their global counterparts, they were offered opportunities to strengthen their people management skills. To build these skills, local and global programmes were run, including career coaching workshops and managerial skills training.

Furthermore, in order to reinforce the learning, the China Leadership Forum was organised. It served as a platform for local managers to learn best practices and exchange ideas on leadership skills, and to encourage a dialogue with senior leaders. Both internal and external senior leaders were invited to share their experiences.

High Growth Markets Talent Development Programme

To identify and develop high potential employees for high growth markets, Swiss Re created the High Growth Markets Talent Development Programme (HGDP). It focuses on providing talented and ambitious people with the chance to exhibit and develop the behaviours crucial for driving the high growth market strategy, namely a strong entrepreneurial spirit, adaptability, resilience, and passion and determination to lead.

During the programme, high potentials receive classroom and on-the-job training, have a designated coach, gain exposure to senior leaders, and reflect on how to apply their learning to real, strategic challenges. As members of project teams, the participants present their ideas on how to address a key issue and jump start mission critical initiatives.

After the programme, participants are paired with senior leaders who serve as mentors. Their development plans are reviewed and their readiness to take on more senior roles is monitored.

Supporting individual career development

In Swiss Re, career development is a joint venture between employees and the organisation. The organisation provides a variety of tools and platforms to support employees in skill building and career planning. For example, in China, career development workshops were arranged to strengthen employee career planning skills.

In addition, to support the local employees' development, the CMT and senior staff in China volunteered to mentor junior staff. Speed dating events were arranged to match mentors and mentees based on their development needs and chemistry. Mentors and mentees were also provided guidance on how mentoring works.

To expose employees to career opportunities in other areas of the company, 'career shows' were held. The teams combined creativity and fun into the show and demonstrated what their daily work looked like, which was well received.

Over the last few years, Swiss Re has also been encouraging employees to do job rotations. The rotations happen either cross-function (eg from Underwriting to Client Markets) or cross-market (eg from Beijing to Singapore, Hong Kong or Zurich). The rotations have been an effective way to boost morale, to gain exposure to other areas, build one's network and to promote collaborations.

Nurturing young talents

The millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, is now entering the work force in large numbers and will shape the world of work for years to come. Swiss Re is committed to nurturing them and raising their awareness of the (re)insurance industry. For example, in 2011, Swiss Re China partnered with Peking University to deliver courses on (re)insurance and international trends in the (re)insurance sector. Swiss Re also partnered with the Centre for Environmental Education & Communications (CEEC) of the State Environment Protection Administration from 2003 to 2008 to organise and sponsor the annual, nationwide competition for students to raise awareness for environmental protection. Since 2009, Swiss Re Foundation has been collaborating with the CEEC to promote environmental courses among selected universities in China as a key sponsor for the Business, Environment, Learning and Leadership (BELL) Project.

To attract and develop young talent in China, Swiss Re China has been promoting its graduates@swissre programme. In this programme, recent university graduates start with an 18-month cycle of on-the-job training. The programme combines general business learning modules and specific technical modules, including analytical, communication and leadership skills development linked to Swiss Re's corporate principles and strategy. This programme has a strong reputation in China and is an important vehicle for attracting and retaining top young talent. Some of the alumni have moved into top management positions in China.

Diversity and inclusion

Swiss Re is strongly committed to promoting diversity and inclusion (D&I) as the firm views diversity of thought and opinion and a diverse workforce as good for business. D&I is also a way that companies can motivate employees and stay ahead of the curve in the search for talent. Gender equality is important for Swiss Re China. The ratio of females to males is well balanced, and in the China Management Team, both genders are well represented.

In 2014, Swiss Re China launched the OTWYW Own the Way You Work initiative which  was strongly supported by Swiss Re's Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council and the senior management team. The OTWYW Own the Way You Work initiative aims to further improve Swiss Re's value proposition by offering greater flexibility on how, when and where employees work and raising Swiss Re's productivity by enabling it to work more effectively across locations and time zones. Training for line managers in China was conducted to teach them how they can support employees to implement OTWYW Own the Way You Work. For example, in China, whenever the level of air pollution reaches a certain level, employees have the choice to work from home.

In 2015, a local D&I network was officially set up in China. The purpose is to create awareness of D&I locally and act as a D&I ambassador. Some of the key themes that have been defined include the integration of new hires, caring for returning mothers, and the cultural exchange with people from different geographic backgrounds so that employees feel they can make a positive contribution to the workplace.


No single formula exists to successfully attract and develop talent in China, a task which is further complicated by the fast changing and dynamic nature of the country. For example, the new solvency regime that only recently came into effect will significantly impact Chinese insurers' investment strategies, underwriting policies, reinsurance arrangements, and capital management. Other broader factors, such as the softening of the global economy and slowing economic growth in China, are expected to pose challenges for the industry. Nevertheless, Swiss Re China is committed to building its talent pipeline and establishing Swiss Re as the employer of choice.

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Chris Huang

HR Business Partner, Swiss Re China

Chris Huang, HR Business Partner of Swiss Re China, focuses on talent strategy, leadership development, workforce planning, organizational culture, coaching, talent management and succession planning. Prior to this, he was the consulting director at Mercer China, where he consulted Greater China clients on leadership development and talent management. He joined PDI as Consultant providing leadership assessment and development and coaching services to MNC clients after receiving his PhD in I/O psychology in Stockholm, Sweden. He started his career as civil servant in top tier government consulting organization- Counselor's Office of State Council.

Margaret Choi

Head Organisational Effectiveness, Swiss Re

Margaret Choi is the Head of Organisational Effectiveness for Asia Pacific, and together with her team of specialists, she manages talent management strategy and execution, career development, employee engagement, diversity and inclusion, as well as change management for strategic projects including Swiss Re's Human Capital Strategy. Margaret is also an executive coach. She joined Swiss Re in 2013 and has more than 20 years of experience in multinational organisational development. 

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