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Director of Strategic Operations, North America Construction, AXA XL

In today’s tight US labor market, the competition for top talent is impacting every industry. From Construction to Consulting and from Insurance to IT, companies recognize that their people can be their biggest differentiator with customers. For Justin Gress, North America Construction, attracting and retaining talent has been a big part of the team’s success, especially the development of the Extended Leadership Team (ELT). Here he explains how the ELT takes talent management to the individual’s hands, and how its empowered culture has fueled continuous business growth and long-term customer relationships.

Why did you establish the Extended Leadership Team (ELT)?

Gress: It was all about handling our team’s growth and building a culture of empowerment. When AXA XL’s North America Construction business was launched 8 years ago, we had a clear business plan and a very small staff. Initially, the staff consisted of Profit Center Heads and senior underwriters who had specialized in Construction whether on the Underwriting, Risk Engineering, or Broking side of the business. However, within 5 years, the team grew from several employees to a team of over 60, and from zero to $450M gross written premium (GWP). As the team grew both in GWP and headcount, we had many underwriters with a lot of Construction experience, but many did not have people management experience. We saw this as an opportunity for our future. Building a strong team requires building strong leaders, so we established the ELT to accomplish this.

How does this program benefit your construction customers?

First and foremost, it’s helped to drive our talent retention numbers. As a team, we’re in the upper 90’s percentiles. This means that our clients have had consistent long-term construction relationship with us. Whether it’s underwriting, risk engineering or claims, the majority of our colleagues have been part of the team for years. Day in and day out, they’ve earned the customer’s trust, which means that our customers know that they can count on us. Also, the ELT has helped to drive our business model of open communication and collaboration throughout our entire team. ELT members often lead key initiatives based on customers’ needs, industry challenges and emerging risks. All of this helps us to stay ahead of what our clients expect and to deliver a consistent, positive customer experience.

How did the ELT get started?

In 2016, we recognized that we had reached a size that required having Underwriting Managers and Risk Engineering Managers to support the Profit Center Heads manage the front line team. This need was coupled with several strong team members who were ready for a new challenge. We quickly decided to promote several underwriters and risk engineers into management positions for the product they represent. We also realized we had to get this new team of leaders together to not only build a community but also offer leadership and development training. So, in conjunction with our corporate training department, we built out a three-day training plan that focused on building this team and their respective leadership skills. The team flew into Chicago and by the second day, the Construction Leadership Team realized we did the right thing. We also realized this group needed an engagement plan and a long term training strategy. The ELT appreciated the training and the new responsibility, but it was time to lay out a more formal plan. We developed the long term training plan that included a wide range of skills – finance, actuarial, operations, and presentations. Over the years, the ELT has evolved, and they now play a key role in shaping our annual strategy planning.

When we invest in our people and when our people feel empowered, this translates into stronger client relationships and stronger growth for our business.

With three years into this program, what have been the keys to its success? Any lessons learned?

It comes down to several things. First, we took the time to lay out a formal strategy. Everyone knows that insurance is a ‘relationship business’, and we believe our people are our biggest differentiator. Based on this, we recognized how important talent development and talent retention would be for the long-term success of the Construction unit. When we invest in our people and when our people feel empowered, this translates into stronger client relationships and stronger growth for our business. Over the years, we’ve invested in a mix of training including conference calls, formalized training programs, guest speakers and annual in-person meetings. Through all of this, we kept the focus on empowerment and our customers. Another key part of success was to look at how we could further integrate the ELT into our Leadership, Planning, & Execution Model. Where could they provide value? Where could they participate and champion key projects in our annual Operational Plan? After three years, one of the best parts has been seeing the ELT express an interest in taking a leadership/sponsorship level role on many of these projects. They are no longer contributors, but now want to take charge.

Of course, we learned lessons along the way. At the most basic level, whether you are building an ELT for existing managers or future managers, it’s important to involve them in the planning process. Hold a planning session to think about the development needs of your group and how they can contribute to your overall annual financial, strategic, and operational plans. We did not initially develop a vision/mission for the ELT, but this is critical. Make it clear what the expectations of the senior leadership team are and what the ELT is. Do both groups align? No matter what, building an ELT will prepare others to take larger roles, but more importantly will make them stronger leaders today. Also, most teams are not in the same location, so building a plan that allows for a regular connection via phone coupled with a commitment to meet in person 1-2 times a year is the starting place.

What’s next?

By the end of 2018, we were a team of 80+ underwriters and risk engineers, $650M in annual GWP, and almost $3B Insured to Date (ITD). As North America Construction continues to grow, the fundamentals of our team remain the same – strong leadership, an empowered culture and customer focus. Our Extended Leadership Team is taking ownership not only of their individual development, but on their people’s development. This is exciting to see! From the commitment we made three years ago to develop and empower our next generation of leaders, we’re continuing to see the benefits. In 2019, we’ll see further commitment from the ELT in terms of sponsoring regional and national initiatives such as auto risk mitigation and planning key broker/client events. They’ll also continue to participate and drive our annual strategy and operational planning meetings, all while keeping the focus on our customers.


About the Author: Justin Gress is Director of Strategic Operations with AXA XL’s North America Construction insurance business. Interested in talking about talent development? Contact him at


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