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Aaron Olson: Aon’s Strategic Mind

The agenda was packed, and time was running out. Aaron Olson knew the Hewitt Associates’ executive team wouldn’t have time for his presentation on a new learning initiative, as they were still discussing another business issue.

But the conversation had no one structuring it, so Olson — an instructional designer at the time — stood up at the flip chart with a marker and asked questions like, “Here’s what I’m hearing: Does that sound accurate?” Afterward, the vice president leading the meeting approached Olson to thank him for jumping in despite the subject not pertaining to his department.

Turning talk into strategy not only made Olson stand out but also directed him to focus on business strategy and culture as he climbed his way to the chief learning officer — officially known as the chief talent officer — position at Aon, a risk and human resources services firm that bought Hewitt in 2010.

“Your job gets you in the room, but you shouldn’t limit yourself to what your job is,” he said. “You’ll get the most opportunity by pursuing whatever you can to contribute.”

The Professorial Professional
Educator blood flows through Olson’s veins. His grandfather taught elementary school, his father is a university’s head of admissions and financial aid, and his mother was in educational administration.

He wasn’t sure if he would carry on the family business but eventually did, getting his undergraduate degree in philosophy and English at North Park University in Chicago. Directly thereafter, he went to Northwestern University for a masters’ degree in education.

Olson started the graduate program with a focus on higher education but learned more than how to finesse his professorial skills.

“The idea that there was work in the field of education but in corporate settings never occurred to me,” he said. By sitting in classes with others focused on professional development, Olson was exposed to a different kind of learning — and it stuck.

After receiving his master’s degree in 1998, he started the job hunt. Again his organizational development classmates came through. One suggested he try Hewitt Associates, a human capital consultancy firm. The company offered him a job as an instructional designer, and he took it, planning to get a couple years of professional experience before returning to his first love, the university hall.

Though he eventually returned to teaching — he’s a chief learning officer by day and a professor in the very graduate program he attended at Northwestern by night — he never left the corporate world, or even the organization. And the company changed.

“You might say I’m with the same organization, but it’s actually gone through so many changes I feel like I’ve been with several different companies,” he said.

On Olson’s first day in the professional world, Hewitt had 7,000 employees. Shortly after growing to 10,000, it went public in 2002. By the time Aon bought it in 2010, the company had 26,000 employees. Aon had 41,000, bringing the total to 67,000.

As the company evolved, so did Olson’s position. He joined Hewitt as a learning and development consultant in 1998 and became a human resources business adviser in 2004. Two years later, Olson became global head of talent development and consulting, during which he led creation of Hewitt University. In 2010 — the year of the $5 billion Aon acquisition — Hewitt named him chief learning officer. From the CLO chair, Olson spearheaded the post-merger HR integration, which led him to take on the position for Aon as a whole in 2012.

“Aon is a pretty complicated organization,” said Greg Besio, chief human resources officer. “It’s got a lot of different personalities and cultures, so understanding that is really critical to driving change.”

Besio said Olson’s experience growing through the organization helped him know the people, understand how different pieces of the business work and how to adjust programs to fit it as they’re adopted.

The Importance of Being Cultured
“Part of what is important to success is the ability to go in and look at something in a strategic way,” Olson said. “First of all, it gives the business credibility. Second, it gets you better alignment with your end solution, both how you define that solution and how you execute it.”

Aon has always relied on its learning programs to provide its consultants with the right skills and knowledge to deliver and promote the organization’s services. But adding other companies meant Aon’s learning strategy was just one of many different approaches offered to its employees.

Out of the 500 companies Aon acquired over the past 26 years, Hewitt was the largest. It was also the organization that sparked Aon CEO Greg Case’s goal to integrate the new family, which had been mostly operating as independent companies until then. Olson said emphasizing organic growth rather than purchasing other organizations would allow Aon to offer clients more integrated solutions.

“We didn’t have enough consistency in our culture to show up to the client in one way, ‘Here’s all of Aon combined,’ ” he said. “All of that became a barrier to the strategy of growing by serving clients in a more coordinated way.”

Jenny Dearborn, senior vice president and CLO at software company SAP, uses culture similarly. The SAP motto to “run simple” directly tells clients how they plan to interact with them, while the company’s recruitment and promotion strategies echo the sentiment.

“A consistent culture lets employees know what is important to the company and how they can best support company priorities,” she said. “The more consistent the culture is, the more fair the company will be perceived by its employees. They will respond by creating positive customer interactions and motivating fellow employees.”

Creating a consistent culture required Olson to first define it by observing what every Aon-led organization had in common. In 2011, his team identified three improvement priorities — performance management focused on driving high performance and clarifying career growth for colleagues, learning that fits “the Aon way,” and knowledge-sharing that brings the best of Aon to clients.

Aon’s Aaron Olson describes the skills and leadership gaps caused by distruptive change.

They got company leaders to support their efforts by coaching and mentoring their employees. The four-year process of working on culture transformation that supports Aon United, one of Case’s priorities, has been Olson’s proudest achievement.

“It’s so central to what we’re trying to do to grow the business,” he said. “The CEO and board know that if we’re going to continue to grow as a firm, we need to operate in a more integrated way, and we can’t do that without a common culture.”

Aon Academics
To meet the three priorities, Olson and his team — 85 employees in the human resources talent development function and 35 non-HR employees in a broader Aon Talent Development network — launched Aon University in 2011. Its programs target employees as they hit career milestones so they, like their CLO, can grow with the organization.

For example, Launch is an 18-month career acceleration experience for colleagues who join Aon after completing university studies. Meanwhile, Aon’s Advanced Client Service Model teaches vice presidents how to advise CEOs through an intense three-day simulation taught by the most senior leaders in the organization.

The two most prominent programs in AonUniversity are the Client Promise Academy, which teaches the organization’s method for consulting and delivering services, and Talent Management Academy, which prepares managers to coach and lead employees and helps leaders understand their position in the company’s growth. 

“Of the 500 companies, there were a lot of great programs and strategies,” Olson said. “It was just that they didn’t add up to anything consistent, so we pulled together the best of them.”

The Client Promise Academy’s Client Service Model was the result. It teaches consultation skills and how to show the value of what Aon does so clients know why to do business with the company. But it wasn’t enough to bestow the know-how on employees—
Olson had to target their leaders, too.

“We can’t serve clients in a consistent way if people aren’t getting the right coaching and advice, and that’s the manager’s job,” Olson said. “The Client Promise Academy is the centerpiece of culture because we’re very client-focused, but the Talent Management Academy is critical because that’s where we reinforce it.”

Harnessing the power of managers also presents one of Olson’s greatest challenges: He had to figure out how to align 8,000 leaders in 120 countries to work toward the same strategic vision. 

Executive sponsorship is particularly important in this effort. Twice a year, Aon’s CEO has two full-day meetings to examine the firm’s top talent. The criteria used to evaluate people as high potentials is the same as what’s taught in the Aon University, showing how Olson ties talent management and learning together to create a consistent method to make choices around employees’ performance and careers.

He also works with an executive committee of 20 people who work directly for the CEO, as well as the 100 employees under them who make up the Executive Leadership Team. In the first year of the university, they not only helped create the program but also became teachers.

“Because this is about the culture of the firm, they realize they need to be that involved,” Olson said.

Motion Through Measurement
Olson monitors the effect of Aon’s learning through two measurements. The first is engagement, which he determines through an annual survey that asks employees 67 questions about the firm. The answers can be rolled into a single engagement score or dissected to show what people’s reactions are to different aspects of their work.

The other is a series of measurements pointing to optimized talent — whether the best people are being put on the company’s biggest priorities. An annual talent review evaluates employees on how they’ve done in the past 12 months and where they’re headed in the future. Olson’s team tracks the employees with highest performing and potential in the next several years of their career.

Learning is also evaluated. For signature programs, leadership development experiences that invest in approximately 1,500 high-potential employees each year, Olson measures what happens beyond the learning experience: participants’ engagement vs. nonparticipating peers, whether they would recommend the program, their direct program feedback, and retention rates.

Olson said Aon has a fairly industry-standard retention rate, with turnover in the high single-digits or low double-digits in most countries. If one part of the business has 10 percent turnover, the employees who have gone through a high-potential learning program have 5 percent turnover in the three years following their experience.

“That means our high potentials, where we’re making this leadership investment, are staying,” he said. “We also see they have higher engagement scores. They’re saying, ‘I have a lot of pride in Aon.’ ”

Strategizing His Own Life
It would be easy to lose engagement as a full-time executive, author, professor and father to two children. Olson’s experience with strategy not only helps keep these things in balance but also melds them together into a succinct self-development plan.

Aon University might not have the hallowed halls Olson imagined when he originally planned to be a higher education professor, but he still gets his fix. In the evenings, he teaches management strategy and organization change in Northwestern University’s Masters in Learning and Organizational Change program.

“I learn as much as the students do,” he said. “Keeping the classroom stuff has been part of what makes me enjoy being at Aon. It’s sometimes hard to juggle, but it keeps me connected to that type of education that I originally liked.”

Students pursuing careers in different industries with diverse backgrounds — such as Google Inc. and General Electric Co. — fill his class and contribute their own examples of best practices that he can apply to Aon’s programs.

The act of teaching also led Olson to publish his first book, “Leading With Strategic Thinking,” which he co-authored with fellow Northwestern professor B. Keith Simerson and released in April. The book covers what he teaches in his Northwestern classes as well as the lessons he’s learned since starting at Hewitt 17 years ago, including two that keep him steady to this day.

“What I’ve realized is two things,” he said. “One, there was a lot of interesting work that could be done that I hadn’t realized. Two, these things are all related. I’ve enjoyed the ability to keep those connections.”