Putting Employees in the Driver's Seat

The following is an excerpt from The 50: HR Leaders Reimagining the Filipino Organization. Authored by Pancho Dizon, this chapter is titled, “Putting Employees in the Driver's Seat.” In it, Kit Sison, the HR Service Delivery and Country HR of Willis Towers Watson, is interviewed about how the organization executes its strategy in empowerment of employees.

Of all the companies featured in this book, few have a history quite as extensive as Willis Towers Watson. With roots dating back to 1828, the company was formed with an aim to be a leading advisory, broking and solutions company. A point of interest is that Titanic used Willis as its insurance broker in 1912. 

Kit Sison is quite familiar with its history having now been with the company for 7 years so far. She started out as HR head for the Philippines before moving on to a regional role. She is now the company’s HR service delivery lead AP and head of country HR. 

With each year of service, Sison gets closer and closer to the company’s beating heart. One must then ask her: What makes Willis Towers Watson Philippines so great, and how did it get this far?

“The secret,” Sison said, “Is putting our employees in the driver’s seat especially when it comes to engagement activities.”

“Our strength in the organization, in relation to culture and engagement, is that a good number of our programs are bottom-up ideas,” she explained. “We give them an opportunity to propose and it’s similar activities they’ve enjoyed in school, here in the office.”

This practice helps make sure that there’s always a fresh and creative approach to engaging employees. 

For example, work-life integration initiatives such as their network groups (Gender Equity, Workability, LGBT+), Toastmasters clubs, PEP, Art Club, Chorale, Photography and various interest groups are all run by the employees themselves. By putting employees in charge of the activities they’ll take part in, not only do they become more emotionally invested but HR also gets a better idea of what exactly motivates their employees. 

Sison also cited the example of one of their wellness programs. Initially, the program started out with the company just giving the employees healthy food like fruits. However, it didn’t take long for the employees to start pitching ideas of their own on how to improve the program. 

“We started getting ideas from them. They said ‘we want taho, we want juiced fruits!’” she recalled, “It’s ever-interesting when the ideas start floating from our colleagues.”

In the case of the Toastmasters, having employees initiate activities themselves is also a good way to promote self-improvement. Those in the Toastmasters program are trained in the art of giving presentations, making speeches, and generally speak with more confidence. The initiative was such a success that one of their colleagues won a regional speaking contest. 

The fact that Sison encourages proactiveness also fits in nicely with the company’s core value of respect with inclusivity as one of the desirable behaviors. Willis Towers Watson, for example, puts an emphasis on hiring leaders with the skills to remain people-oriented all while balancing the high demands of their own work. Though Sison admitted it’s certainly more complex than the command and control approach, the upside is that employees feel greater congruence and alignment with their leaders. This not only creates a more inclusive environment for employees to bring 100% of themselves but also encourages them to speak out and make their ideas known. Good decisions are based on debate.

Yet despite the freedom offered up to their employees, Willis Towers Watson’s HR is also there to give guidance when necessary. 

Network groups like those catering to gender equity, workability for PWDs, and the LGBT+ community have HR as primary supporter and ally. They also section out programs into three main categories: the first is PEP, which focuses on people, events, and places. The second is the Willis Towers Watson interest groups (focusing on employee hobbies), while the third is the Willis Towers Watson volunteerism experience (focusing on CSR activities). Assistance from HR comes in the form of project management tips, communication guidelines, help in funding, and making sure that all programs fall in one of these three pillars.

The presence of HR as a quiet but ever-present guiding hand ensures that only the best ideas from their employees shine through. This method of balancing employee autonomy with a constant but never overbearing level of oversight helps keep employee-run programs in line with company goals and values.

Sison put it this way: “We’re a consulting company so a lot of what we provide is thought leadership and solutions. When you compare us with other industries, where their output is a hard product, what we provide are ideas that work.”  

“Since our aim is to provide ideas and solutions to our stakeholders, it means we want a lot of idea-sharing, collaboration among all employees.”

The company’s programs help collaboration and idea-sharing become almost second nature for employees. Disagreeing silently is disloyalty. You need to make your ideas known to make the work environment a safe space. With such high engagement between them, the delivery of the company’s solutions to its clients becomes more efficient and allows Willis Towers Watson to be a leader in HR and broking solutions. 

Willis Towers Watson recognizes that having a culture of proactiveness is an asset. As such, there are efforts to both maintain and constantly improve this culture. 

Every two years the company releases a global survey, called the ACES, designed to measure the core of the sustainable engagement of all their employees. 

“I’m proud to say that we just got our result [a few] weeks ago, and when it comes to sustainable engagement, we achieved a score of 91% so that’s a good indicator for us,” Sison said.  

Sison detailed that their brand of engagement, aside from encouraging productivity through the rapid sharing of ideas, also acts as a way to boost worker morale. 

“Apart from just the fun side of it, proactive engagement helps one understand the value they bring to the company. They’ll want to contribute.”

The lesson that Willis Towers Watson imparts here is that sometimes putting people first means more than just giving them priority at every turn. In their case, putting people first means allowing them to take their own initiatives, to let them grow by allowing them to take matters into their own hands and providing guidance only when necessary. 

 

It cannot be overstated how unique Willis Towers Watson’s set-up is amongst the wider corporate landscape. Despite advancements in the field of HR over the past few decades, many corporations still grapple with just how much autonomy to give their employees. In fact, the subject itself has given birth to numerous think pieces on the virtues of self-management.

 

Unfortunately, too many managers also fear that too much empowerment may spell disaster for productivity, that too many decisions going in different decisions can rip apart the fabric of the company.

Their fears aren’t unfounded. But Willis Towers Watson shows us there’s another way. 

As per Sison: “We draw out what the people’s interests are in terms of what they want to do for engagement, and we enable those ideas. It’s not a canned formula for us. We don’t want to come to that point.”

Willis Towers Watson puts its faith in its employees―and reaps the rewards. 

To get more insights from other HR leaders like Kit Sison, please check out the full book, available for purchase here


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