The importance of understanding local cultures


Xavier Veyry was appointed CEO, Asia & Europe at AXA XL earlier this year. Since joining AXA in 1996, he has worked across several areas of AXA’s business and in countries around the globe. Most recently, he was CEO of AXA China and Executive Chairman of AXA Tianping. As we head into the Chinese Year of the Ox, Mr Veyry discusses the importance of understanding local cultures and embracing diversity to being successful in business.

Over the course of my career so far, I have lived in 12 countries across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. This has been a truly rewarding experience, both from a personal standpoint and from a leadership-in-business perspective.

The countries and regions in which I have lived and built my career are very diverse, both in terms of their culture and their insurance markets. Perhaps the most valuable lesson that I have learned is that to be successful in business, it is important to be curious and to experience things at first hand. You need to try to understand the history, the geography and the environment of where you are working. This allows you to better understand the people you are working with – if you understand where they live and how they live then you can understand how they work and how best to lead and inspire teams.

A small, but interesting, observation from my time in Asia highlights this well, I think. As my children were growing up, like many parents, I would enjoy taking them to local parks to play. And I found that even a normal activity like this can give valuable insights into how societies work, the local culture and how people behave – both inside and outside of work. In South Korea, for example, I noticed that very often at the park family groups would keep to themselves, respectfully giving space and distance to others. During my time in China, on the other hand, the experience was quite different. Other children at the park would be enormously curious about me and my family and would be keen to interact with us. These contrasting experiences, in a tiny but fascinating way, showed me something about the cultures in which I was living and working, and informed the way I interacted with colleagues and managed teams of people.

The region that I now lead at AXA XL comprises our operations in the mature insurance markets of Europe and Australia and the developing insurance markets of Asia. I believe this diversity is extremely exciting and valuable. Experiences that I have gained – and will continue to gain – working across these various countries and regions will help to inform the way my team and I work.

In Europe, for example, industries are mature and typically resilient, but this makes them perhaps less open to disruptive developments and rapid innovation. In many Asian economies, on the other hand, change is a constant and people tend to be very open to innovation and growth.

Notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy of the Asia-Pacific region is the fastest growing in the world. According to McKinsey data, Asia will account for more than 50% of global gross domestic product and about 40% of the world’s consumption by 2040. The region is home to more than half of the world’s population and, crucially, its middle class as measured by purchasing power parity. Sectors such as gaming and e-commerce are growing quickly in Asia, compared with Europe where more traditional industry sectors still dominate.

Intense competition in many local Asian economies can mean that decisions are both strategic and tactical at the same time – employees are strategic thinkers but often willing to make tactical decisions to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. This can mean that business may not develop in the linear way that was envisaged when plans were first drawn up.

As AXA XL, we can harness the benefits of this diversity of culture and thought. Being disciplined and ready to embrace challenges and opportunities, being focused on the detail but also ready to switch course quickly if required will, I believe, be attributes that will enable us to continue to forge profitable growth across Asia, Australia and Europe.

Challenges ahead

COVID-19 has been a tragedy for societies across Asia, Australia and Europe and the rest of the world. My thoughts are with the many thousands of people, lots of them colleagues, whose lives have been affected by this terrible virus and the devastation it has caused.

This has been a strange year to take on a new role. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on businesses of all types, not least our own. I have been amazed and endlessly impressed by the ability – and willingness – of colleagues to adapt to working in different ways.

This readiness to adapt has enabled companies like ours to continue to innovate, even – and indeed especially - against the backdrop of a global pandemic and its unprecedented societal and economic effects.

As we head into the new Chinese Year of the Ox, we are ready to embrace new challenges. While the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines across the world has given hope, many countries are now battling new variants of the virus as well as the long-term effects of COVID-19 on health, society and the economy. Like many business sectors, the insurance market is in a period of change. I believe that we can harness the diversity we have within this region to meet the challenges ahead, to take advantage of opportunities, to innovate and to grow.

Authored by AXA XL


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