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Suncorp Group: A Case Study on HR Innovation in Australia

On September 5, Suncorp won the Award for “Best HR Innovation and Corporate Creativity” at the 2014 Australian Human Resources (HRD Magazine) Awards. This win follows back-to-back years of strong financial performance: Suncorp Group’s net profit after tax for the 2014 financial year was $730 million (FY2013: $491 million), and its share price continues to go from strength to strength.

Whilst the numbers are compelling, it’s the exact correlation between employee engagement and financial results that is most exciting from an HR perspective. I had the pleasure of speaking with Naomi White, Executive GM Human Resources at Suncorp Bank, about the extent to which HR innovation and creativity has played a role in Suncorp’s success. Shared here is the story of Suncorp’s HR innovations, the reasons why, and how the leadership team has instilled a culture of innovation.

Why The Need To Innovate?

It was apparent the insurance and financial services industries were changing rapidly. Leadership was becoming much more complex, requiring management across four generations and many more employees requiring flexible work arrangements.

The added challenge in the commercial insurance business was attracting and retaining the best specialist talent and attracting more females into underwriting roles, which has traditionally been a male domain. Was it the right decision to keep senior underwriting specialists in people leadership roles, when it might not play to their strengths and they may not enjoy it? How could specialists be retained by offering them roles that maximise their skillsets, and how could a career path be forged for those who don’t want people leadership? How could we structure the roles to attract more women into specialist underwriting roles? Also, with many of the technical specialists moving towards the end of their careers, a creative approach was needed to retain their knowledge and pass it on to the next generation.

Suncorp’s Innovative HR Programs

Suncorp Group is a leading general insurance, banking, life insurance and superannuation brand in Australia and New Zealand. To maximise the value of the group’s 14,500 employees, the HR team designed a range of innovative initiatives so that people could collaborate across brands and exemplify the company’s values and behaviours in a consistent way. A number of these key initiatives are outlined below.

‘Specialist Career Pathways’ and ‘Career Compass’

Within Suncorp Commercial Insurance, Specialist Career Pathways was designed to provide technical specialists with an alternate career path to people leadership. This meant that specialists could progress their careers, be part of the leadership team and have a respected voice at the leadership table without needing to take on team management responsibilities. The program has been very successful with retention of specialists increasing and the value added by specialists being easily quantifiable.

The Career Compass is the tool that supports the Specialist Career Pathways. It was designed to facilitate more meaningful conversations around development and career planning for specialists but has now expanded its remit to include career planning for leadership, specialist and generalist roles.

“We want to attract the very best people in the market and our aspiration is for Suncorp to be THE place to work in Australia and New Zealand. The Specialist Career Pathways are about recognising that you don’t have to be a people leader to progress your career at Suncorp. You can be an expert in your field and still have a long, successful and rewarding career with us,” Naomi White, Executive General Manager, Human Resources, Suncorp Bank.

A “One Company. Many Brands” Business Model Delivers Results

2014 has been a very exciting year for Suncorp, marked by changes to the executive team: earlier this year, a third of Suncorp’s senior leaders were moved around the business, creating energy and enthusiasm across the Group. This has meant that high potential talent has been able to step up into new situations and bring fresh ideas and solutions, which proved to be of enormous value in many cases.

To help achieve the Group’s vision of creating a ‘One Company. Many Brands’ culture, everything at Suncorp is underpinned by the company’s Leader Profiles — which outline a shared way of working across the Group. They recognise that everyone is a leader at Suncorp, covering things like: customer focus, relentless execution, collaboration, simplicity and agility. All employees are also rated on these Leader Profiles in their performance scorecards every six months, and this provides a consistent framework and shared way of doing things. This goes a long way to fostering the desired culture.

Another uniquely Suncorp innovation are Leadership ‘Smashes’. These are short sharp two to three hour discussion sessions where leaders can share their successes around things like the importance of safety and wellbeing, customer focus and relentless execution — in an interactive energizing way. Suncorp has found that these shorter sessions are more effective than one to two day programs. The leadership curriculum is clearly delivering results: Suncorp’s Leader Index was 82 points in the most recent engagement survey, 12 points above global norm, according to Hay Group. And pleasingly, 84% of employees now say they are proud to work at Suncorp.


Flexibility is a key retention and engagement strategy at Suncorp — giving people more choice about how when and where they work. To foster collaboration and sharing, Suncorp offers ‘Smart Working Environments’ which are dynamic open-plan, hot-desking environments where all employees are encouraged to sit somewhere different each day and collaborate with colleagues from different parts of the business. Employees can bring their own devices, use the technology provided, work from home, work reduced days and feel supported to achieve a work/balance.

The ‘Work at Home (W@H)’ model supports contact centre environments and enables people who work mainly from home — not just occasionally. People are able to nominate the time of day and number of hours in a week they want to work. They all live within a 30-minute commute of a W@H Hub — a connection and collaboration point for training and team meetings.

This initiative has allowed Suncorp to attract high performing individuals who previously found securing work difficult due to factors such as a disability or their carer role. Suncorp’s employee surveys show that W@H employees are more engaged and less likely to leave than the workforce generally. These hubs make good business sense, as W@H employees perform better and have lower attrition and absenteeism than most other groups of employees.

“Having a flexible approach to when, where and how work is done is part of our commitment to supporting people to be the best they can be — inside and outside work,” Amanda Revis, Group Executive, Suncorp Human Resources.

Diversity and Inclusion

Suncorp is committed to supporting a culture of inclusion where diversity of thought, lifestyle and background are valued and celebrated. The Group’s main focus is on gender equality, specifically increasing the percentage of women in senior leadership roles. In 2014 Suncorp extended this focus to attract and retain mature aged workers, and will now look for opportunities to build a workforce that is inclusive of those with a disability.

In a demonstration of the company’s capability in this area, Suncorp won “Best Workplace Diversity & Inclusion Strategy” at the 2013 Australian HR Awards. Suncorp is also one of only sixteen ASX listed companies to achieve “green light status” on the Women on Boards 2013 traffic light index. Suncorp also exceeded its FY14 women in senior leadership target of 33% by nearly three percentage points, and 33% of the employee populat
ion say they have parents born outside of Australia and New Zealand (footnote: as per the 2014 employee engagement survey responses), further demonstrating the organisation’s successful D&I initiatives.

What Challenges Were Involved In Implementing These Changes?

For example, with Specialist Career Pathways it was important that people felt valued. When a highly skilled person was moving out of a leadership role and into a technical specialist role, it was made very clear that this was considered a significant career opportunity. Specialists in the organisation are considered valued, senior people who are often part of the leadership team, and they are as equally respected as people leaders. The appropriate infrastructure was implemented so that they were included in leadership meetings and, as key influencers in the organisation, invited to strategic conferences.

More broadly, the CEO’s of the individual business lines have all been huge supporters of these initiatives, so the changes have been leader-led rather than HR led. At Suncorp, they describe themselves as “extremely good at execution,” reflecting one of their Leader Profiles. The whole place comes together when you’re driving something forward.

How Has Suncorp Been Able to Cultivate an Innovation Culture in HR?

Innovation has come from the top level of the organisation. Amanda Revis, Group Executive Human Resources at Suncorp, has worked very closely with the executive team and together they have driven this exciting people agenda.

In their six monthly scorecards, all HR team members must demonstrate how they have added value, collaborated and shared. Everyone is expected to bring thought leadership to the table and HR Business Partners are encouraged to look at more futuristic ways of doing things. This tends to keep HR very commercially focused.

Innovation means many things to many people. It can be incremental, small continuous improvements; having a very open leadership style; encouraging people to ask why; and suggesting new ways of doing things. It was evident in Naomi’s voice that she clearly enjoys her job, and is proud and passionate about being part of the Suncorp story. Naomi said the next opportunity is to keep pushing forward and continue to look for ways to improve the business. Now clearly positioned as an employer of choice, the marketplace will watch with interest as Suncorp continues on the next phase of its journey.


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