Norwich Union changes focus from competencies to strengths

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 1 January 2008



Stefanyszyn, K. (2008), "Norwich Union changes focus from competencies to strengths", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 7 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Norwich Union changes focus from competencies to strengths

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Norwich Union changes focus from competencies to strengths

Short case studies that demonstrate best practice in HR

Karen Stefanyszyn, head of organizational development at Norwich Union, explains how the company is changing its focus from competencies to strengths in a bid to create high performance. E-mail:

Norwich Union is the UK’s largest insurer. It has around 12 percent of the life insurance market, with more than 6 million customers, and 14 percent of the general insurance market, with 4.3 million customers. The company insures one in five households, one in seven motor vehicles and more than 800,000 businesses in the UK.

Following the merger between Norwich Union and CGU in May 2000, a new service provider philosophy was introduced to the general insurance business. This involved a major cultural shift and since then the business has taken continuous steps to change employee and customer experiences. Recognizing and valuing each individual employee is key to achieving high performance and the shift from a competency to a strengths mindset is a central tenet of Norwich Union’s new approach. Adoption of a strengths-based approach started with a review of the company’s recruitment process.

1 Creating high-performing claims advisers

One of the central customer-facing roles within Norwich Union General Insurance is that of a claims adviser. The company employs 2,500 claims advisers who are responsible for helping the customer through the process surrounding insurance claims, providing support and understanding as needed, giving advice on cover and arranging any necessary repairs or replacements for customers. Often, the role requires sensitivity and tact, as, for the customer, initiating a claim – whether it is the result of a car accident, robbery or loss – can often be a stressful experience.

Advisers deal with customers’ real-life, real-time needs every day of the week, This puts them in a prime position to promote customer loyalty and customer satisfaction, and in this way to become an important profit-generating part of the business. To this end, Norwich Union recognized that high-performing claims advisers could become a key differentiator for the business within the insurance market. They have a pivotal role to play in adding value to customer relationships and there was no better place to start in terms of developing a customer-centric culture.

2 Linking performance and strengths

Central to creating high performing claims advisers was the emerging awareness of the power of strengths-based organizations. The company first became aware of the strengths-based philosophy when researching approaches to recognizing and valuing individuals and came across the work of Clifton and Buckingham (2001). It decided to be a founding sponsor of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP), a membership body dedicated to building strengths-based organizations. It is independent and not-for-profit and has a clear goal – to promote the science and practice of positive psychology in the commercial, education, health and charity sectors.

CAPP bridges the divide between the academic and commercial worlds and its aim is to build strengths-based organizations that achieve “people at their best.” A key component in helping people be at their best is strengths-based psychology and the importance of focusing on people’s strengths. Strengths are defined as “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance” (Linley, 2007).

3 Strengths-based organizations

In the corporate world, creating a strengths-based organization can help develop a high-performance culture and allow people to do more of what they do best – naturally. This is achieved by harnessing the uniqueness of people, valuing people for who they are, celebrating what they do best, rather than lamenting what they do not do well, and matching people and roles, rather than expecting people to change.

Research shows that the use of strengths can help facilitate the attainment of goals, build employee engagement, increase general well-being and vitality and drive competitive advantage (Govindji and Linley, 2007; Corporate Leadership Council, 2002). Dr Alex Linley, founder of CAPP, comments:

The essence is the ability to be attuned to what it is that people do best and to be able to harness that with them. The results, quite simply, can be transformational.

4 Identifying strengths at Norwich Union

CAPP worked with Norwich Union Insurance to help the company identify the strengths required to be a high-performing claims adviser, as well ensuring that those strengths were closely aligned with the organization’s philosophy of being “a service provider with insurance at our core and care at our heart.”

Norwich Union agreed that once these strengths were clearly identified, the area of recruitment should be the first area in which a strengths-based environment would be established through an effective, strengths-based, attraction and selection process.

5 Embedding the process

CAPP worked with Norwich Union’s organization development and human resources teams to identify the strengths that differentiate between high and low-performing claims advisers. They did this through strengths-based focus groups run by an expert facilitator. The results of the focus groups were then used to develop bespoke strengths-based interviews for these roles. CAPP trained the HR recruitment team in strengths-based interviewing and assessment.

A strengths-based manager toolkit was also developed to support the recruiting managers, and the two organizations continue to work together to deliver more strengths-based approaches. This includes actions to take and questions to ask in strengths-based performance reviews.

6 Positive user response

The evaluation phase of the project is underway, using focus groups, questionnaires and performance and retention data. The impact of the strengths-based approach is being measured both from the perspective of business performance and from the users’ perspective – including the managers who conducted the interviews and the applicants and hires who underwent them. The new strengths-based recruitment process has resulted in positive feedback from both.

Managers have found it very useful in terms of discovering more about the candidate – what to listen for and what questions to ask in strengths-based interviews. One manager says:

I feel as though I’ve got to know this person better than I’ve ever known any candidate previously.

They have also been able to identify candidates who did not have the required strengths. Another comments:

I’ve rejected a candidate who had the relevant prior experience, and who on a competency-based interview would have got through. But they didn’t have the strengths needed for this role, and the strengths-based interview allowed me to make that decision with confidence. It was the right decision.

The strengths-based approach was also illuminating from the candidate perspective. One candidate says:

The interview was one of the most interesting and enjoyable interviews I have ever had. I was just able to be myself.

Another was persuaded that this was not the right job for him:

About half way through the interview, I realized that the job wasn’t for me – I didn’t have the right strengths. And strangely enough, that was okay.

7 The business results

From a business perspective, Norwich Union Insurance is now recruiting people who “are made for the job,” rather than people who “are able to do the job.” Focusing on strengths allows people to be at their best and to better achieve their goals, and for the organization this means increased performance and motivation. Results so far have been impressive – since implementing the strengths-based recruitment process, Norwich Union General Insurance has seen staff turnover figures halve. Looking to the future, Russell Martin, UK HR director says:

The results of our pilot studies in recruiting for natural talent are compelling. Our challenge now is to establish how strengths can become a central tenet of all we do.

About Norwich Union

Norwich Union is the largest insurer in the UK. It is part of Aviva, the world’s fifth-largest insurance group, which has £332 billion of assets under management. Aviva has 58,000 employees serving 35 million customers worldwide. Norwich Union employs 33,000 people in the UK.


Clifton, D. and Buckingham, M. (2001), Authors of Now, Discover Your Strengths, Free Press, New York, NY

Corporate Leadership Council (2002), Building the High Performance Workforce, Corporate Leadership Council, Washington, DC

Govindji, R. and Linley, P.A. (2007), “Strengths use, self-concordance and well-being: implications for strengths coaching and coaching psychologists”, International Coaching Psychology Review, Vol. 2 No. 2, pp. 143–53

Linley, A. (2007), Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others, CAPP Press, Coventry

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