Innovative, Action- Oriented Visionary

Ben Brooks is one of HR's Rising Stars for 2011.

His greatest challenge: Harnessing and sharing the knowledge of 24,000 employees in more than 80 countries, including the U.K., pictured above.

His greatest accomplishment: Creating Marsh University, the company's internal social-learning platform.

Monday, July 11, 2011
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If you were to ask our esteemed panel of judges to list their requirements for an ideal leader of an organization's HR function, chances are good they'd come up with a work history very similar to that of 2011 HR's Rising Star Ben Brooks.

Brooks, who currently serves as vice president and practice leader of human capital performance at New York-based Marsh Inc., draws on a rich and divergent set of professional experiences, including defense, aviation, consulting and professional services, and financial services to augment his degree in business administration from the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business.

"He is visionary, innovative and action-oriented in the way required of HR in these fast-paced times," says Laurie Ledford, chief human resource officer for 24,000 Marsh employees in more than 80 countries. "Ben can be counted on consistently to provide long-term strategic vision, not just for my HR function, but for the overall global business."

That vision and orientation toward action have served both Brooks and Marsh very well, and nowhere is that more evident than in Brooks' role in the creation of Marsh University, the "social-media-powered online campus" he helped to build in order to harness the knowledge of Marsh's employees around the world.

With a self-described "endless appetite for learning," Brooks got involved in the founding of the university shortly after a 2009 colleague-engagement survey found that career development at Marsh was "an opportunity for improvement" that could lead to increased engagement levels among employees.

So, with buy-in from the company's senior leadership team to burnish Marsh's reputation as an outstanding place to work, Brooks and his team began game-planning how to create a straightforward, internal knowledge-sharing system within Marsh.

And because of a limited budget and tight deadline, Brooks says, "rather than build the whole school, we decided to build one classroom at a time."

He says the overall model of the university is based on the 70/20/10 rule, whereby 70 percent of learning is done on the job, 20 percent is done through mentoring and coaching, and just 10 percent is done through formal learning processes. "We thought we had a tremendous opportunity to exploit that 70 percent," he says.

By April 2010, Marsh U threw open its cyber doors beneath the slogan "At Marsh, Everyone is a Teacher" and, currently, more than half of all Marsh employees voluntarily participate by writing blogs, creating short videos, and narrating slide presentations and podcasts on a variety of subjects, including finance and communications. More than 6,000 employees have created profiles so far that include meaningful information about their interests; they also link to their personal social-media pages at sites such as LinkedIn.

In addition to using attendance figures as a metric, Brooks' team devised three other ways to measure the overall effectiveness of the university: first-time users' activation; the activity of return users; and its outcomes. Results are measured by surveying employees about engagement and satisfaction with career-development options at Marsh.

The university even earned a positive mention during CEO Brian Duperreault's update to colleagues on "what went well" during a recent quarter.

"It's great to have our executives pleased about Marsh U, but our colleagues are the ones who vote," Brooks says.

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Another initiative that earned Brooks a spot on this list was his participation in proving HR's efficiency through numbers. During the recession, Marsh explored what functional costs could be eliminated as it experienced declining revenues.

Brooks co-led a team that had just four weeks to do an in-depth, current-state analysis of the company's HR function and then make recommendations to the executive committee.

"It was very painstaking," he says of the process, which included benchmarking HR spend per capita against external data. "One chart took a whole week just to do the calculations."

Brooks' group ultimately identified $38 million in realized savings, or 15 percent of the function's total budget, a figure that placed Marsh's HR function among the most efficient of firms of similar size, based on data from PwC Saratoga.

"That very much changed the conversation from 'What more can we cut from HR?' to 'Wow, HR is very lean and competitive; what more can we get out of HR?' " Brooks says.

And HR's reputation within the organization took a giant step forward after Brooks showed that HR can, in fact, speak the language of business.

"It's much easier to get people onto the HR agenda when I can help explain why it benefits the finance or marketing function, rather than just being good for HR's sake," he says.

Ledford says Brooks will provide even more thought leadership and expanded credibility to the function in the future.

"Although he is a big-picture thinker, Ben never loses sight of the details to deliver results to the business," says Ledford. "Ben has raised the bar at Marsh for what a senior HR leader is capable of and how [he or she] impacts the business."

See all of the 2011 HR's Rising Stars.

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