Interview with Russell Martin: HR director at Norwich Union

Russel%20MartinIf Russell Martin, HR director at Norwich Union, could go back and do it all again, he’d reconsider his double honours degree in economics and accountancy and instead study French and music. But that’s not to say that he would change his career in any way, because Martin is a natural when it comes to speaking the language of HR.

His creative flair has seen him consistently link the business of people with the bigger corporate picture and never more so than in his current role at insurer Norwich Union where he is responsible for 36,000 UK employees and 8,000 staff in India, as well as an 800-strong HR team across both locations.

Although Martin’s career has propelled him into the compensation and benefits arena, he started out as an HR generalist. He first realised his interest lay in people management while working as a graduate trainee at Natwest and part of his job involved recruiting other graduates.

However, with little opportunity to pursue an HR path at Natwest, Martin grabbed the chance to take up the role of HR controller at Osprey Communications. As the company’s first HR specialist, Martin was able to flex his HR muscle. “It was one of the steepest learning curves of my life,” he says.

With just 300 employees, the experience gave Martin a real sense of how HR can impact on the commercial requirements of running a medium-sized business.

He turned his hand to compensation and benefits while at National & Provincial Building Society. After joining the organisation as HR requirements and recruitment director, Martin then became compensation and benefits director. At the time, the organisation was thought to be forward-thinking when it came to perks as one of the first to introduce flexible benefits in the UK.

In his later role as HR director at Prudential UK and Europe, Martin launched its You Choose flexible benefits plan in 2003 which later won an Employee Benefits Award. So it is no surprise that flex rates highly on Martin’s list of preferred benefits. “You’re asking people to effectively build their own package and that fundamentally is about personal responsibility, but it’s also about the organisation giving them the freedom to do that and I think from a value perspective and from a customer experience perspective, that’s a very powerful combination,” he says.

At Norwich Union, Martin and his team have been assessing employees’ journeys within the organisation by asking them how satisfied they are with various elements of their employment, from the value they place on benefits to how their experience at work relates to events in their lives. Thankfully for Martin, reward and benefits has not come up as a “significant issue” that needs addressing in the organisation.

Looking ahead, the connectivity between HR and business success is key in Martin’s mind. In his ongoing quest to equip staff with the skills necessary to understand the business and to contribute to its success, Martin and his team have set up five training academies across the UK business to help with employee development. These cover topics such as financial literacy, operations and business growth. “These are sponsored by a member of the executive team who takes responsibility for the syllabus development for each of those academies. The benefit is [that] it is owned by an executive which creates a real pull into the business,” he says.

He predicts that HR, and compensation and benefits will continue to move away from being predominantly concerned with operations and processes into a more integral business function: “I think there has been this interesting move for HR people to being potentially the right-hand person to the chief executive. Whereas previously that might have automatically been the finance director – and it still is in many cases and I don’t think one should displace the other – but I think there’s a very interesting combination of chief executive; HR director and finance director looking at the overall health and wealth of the business.”

Curriculum Vitae

Norwich Union, HR director

2001-Jan 2006
Prudential UK & Europe, HR director

Thomson Financial (previously Datastream), global HR director

National & Provincial Building Society, compensation & benefits director, HR requirements and recruitment director

Osprey Communications, HR controller

Natwest, graduate trainee


What lessons has your career taught you?
One can put a lot of science into things but I think you have to trust your intuition.

What are your strengths?
I have the ability to talk about the business to HR people in a very compelling way. I’m passionate about ensuring HR genuinely contributes to commercial aspects.

Are there any management books that you would recommend?
The power to inspire high performance by Dr Sukhwant Bal is a very neat, very short but interesting and thought-provoking view as to how you might get more out of your team and inspire people.