In 2008, when Alice Steenland arrived at AXA, corporate responsibility at the French multinational insurance company was largely perceived as a reporting function used to comply with CSR legislation in France.

Since assuming her position as chief corporate responsibility officer, everything has changed, Steenland said: “We went from being a good performer to being a leading performer. We are very often cited as the number-one player in the sector, having taken bold leadership moves.” 

Steenland, who began her career in healthcare consulting after receiving her degree in human biology at Stanford University, spoke to us about how she has been able to share her passion for social good with thousands of colleagues at AXA and how the company is applying its expertise in risk analysis and trends-forecasting to help empower people to live better lives.

Eva Dienel: You said that “everything changed” in the eight years since you arrived at AXA. Tell us about the first phase of your work at AXA, building an initial strategy for corporate responsibility.

Alice Steenland: In 2008, there was no centrally driven strategy on these topics, but corporate responsibility had just been identified by the strategy teams as a potential asset from a brand and culture standpoint, and possibly as a source of innovation. There was this realization that this was an asset we were not using—and it was important because insurance is an intangible product. All you are selling is trust in the brand.

My first task upon arrival was to conduct, in conjunction with INSEAD, a weeklong strategy session with senior executives from across the organization to give recommendations to the CEO on how to transform the topic.

This work was done in 2009, and our first strategy, launched in 2010, did three things.

First, it rebranded the topic internally. The department was called “sustainable development,” and most people equated it with environmental issues and government relations. We rebranded it as “corporate responsibility” to underscore how it was very much about how the core business activities were being run, from treating our customers in a responsible way to choosing our investments responsibly.

Second, the strategy called for a high-level governance structure. We are present in 60 countries, and in every major subsidiary or region, we have a chief responsibility officer who directly reports to the CEO. That can be any function, so these people have very different backgrounds, but they are all at the executive level.

Finally, it initiated our focus on risk research and education. AXA invests approximately €40 million a year to finance risk research and risk education and prevention programs for society.

Dienel: That rebrand had a significant effect on the organization and employee engagement. What happened when you repositioned this topic as “corporate responsibility”?

Steenland: We hosted a massive online discussion with 11,000 participants on what corporate responsibility meant to them in their day-to-day activities, and the engagement level was extremely high. People felt emotionally attached to the topic. When we shared this analysis with our management committee, they requested that we come back to employees and share what was done with their input; this led to the creation of an annual “Corporate Responsibility Week” during which employees discover what is going on in their local subsidiary and also participate in global volunteering and fundraising challenges around risk prevention. This event now attracts about 50,000 employees—about a third of our staff—who participate by attending a lecture, or doing a volunteer activity, or learning about responsible investment. It has become the moment in the year dedicated to who AXA wants to be.

Joining AXA was really interesting. Insurance is a somewhat disliked and distrusted industry, but you find that inside, there are a lot of people who really think they are working on social good. They are here because they actually think there’s a social purpose. Somehow, working on this topic released that energy and engagement. There are a lot of people like me in this organization.

Dienel: What did that first five-year plan do for AXA as a brand?

Steenland: We have built corporate responsibility as a real asset for the company. We took some high-impact, bold moves. We created the industry’s first stakeholder advisory panel for our CEO. We were the first global financial services firm to divest from coal. We also were the first mainstream financial player to divest from tobacco. And we developed a really robust internal evaluation index based on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DSJI). In this system, every subsidiary company receives an annual rating, and that goes to the management committee and to the board of directors to be reviewed and challenged.  And earlier this year, the board voted to include the DJSI itself in executive compensation schemes for our top 7,000.

Dienel: AXA just released its new strategy in June. Tell us about 2020 Better Lives Partnership.

Steenland: Our new strategy really focuses on further integrating sustainability within our core business activities of investment and insurance and, at the same time, helping drive AXA’s massive transformation movement—moving from “payer” to “partner” with our customers and with society.

We want to partner with society to empower people to live better lives. The 2020 Better Lives Partnership has three pillars.

For the environment, we will reduce our own footprint and leverage our core business to help the world face climate risk. For society at large, we will be more inclusive as a company and find inclusive ways to extend protection and global risk knowledge to those who don’t have it. And for individual lives, we will be a trusted partner for our customers and will empower people to achieve positive health and safety outcomes while using their data responsibly.

This strategy is very much impact driven and very much aligned with business strategy. Our internal programs are also about bringing the leadership position we have in the sustainability community down to the customer level by influencing the products and services they receive. We’re moving from group level to embedding locally. We are lucky because back in 2010, we created this really strong governance model. Now we are going to leverage that governance model to start deploying these programs locally in an increasingly customer-facing way.

Dienel: How you are currently working with BSR?

Steenland: We do a lot of work with BSR as a member company, and BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer serves as the facilitator of our stakeholder advisory panel. The panel has been incredibly impactful for AXA, and Aron has been instrumental in making it the success that it is today. He supports every aspect of our work with the panel, from brainstorming new topics for discussion to engaging senior leadership, and his own insights have been extremely valuable in our strategy development work.

AXA Chief Responsibility Officer Alice Steenland is speaking at the BSR Conference 2016 session “We Are All Tech Companies Now: Tech Sustainability Issues Across Sector.”

This blog is one in a series highlighting BSR members and their sustainability stories. To learn more about BSR membership, please contact memberservices@bsr.org, visit the BSR Membership webpage, or join the conversation at #BSRmember.