“When you work outside your comfort zone, you realise you can do this”

AXA Ireland’s Chief Operating Officer Aisling Hayes shares how she came to be a leader, how she balances a busy work and home life, the importance of creating an environment where everyone can thrive and what innovation means to her and her team.

Aisling Hayes in Women in Transformation

20 January 2022

AXA Ireland’s Chief Operating Officer, Aisling Hayes, talks about how she handles life as a leader and a woman, how she maintains a good work/life balance and why creating the right environment is the key to innovation and change.

Aisling Hayes joined AXA Ireland as Chief Information Officer nearly eight years ago, after having her third child. Her role has now expanded into Chief Operating Officer where she’s responsible for leading the strategic change portfolio, technology, digital operation, resilience and process improvement. We spoke to her to find out more about her role in the transformation of AXA Ireland and how she’s encouraging others to make change happen.

What route did you take to your current role as COO?

My career wasn't really mapped out from the start. I studied engineering in college, made a move into consulting and went up through the ranks. Twice, I’ve been offered opportunities that I just couldn’t turn down while I was on maternity leave. The first helped me make the jump from consulting into insurance. The second was for the role of Chief Information Officer at AXA Ireland. It was a great chance to make a difference and effect real change. I joined, and just over five years ago that role was expanded to Chief Operating Officer.

How does AXA Ireland support you as a female leader?

I don’t think of myself as a ‘female leader’. I’m just a leader. These days, life isn’t all about the woman staying home and looking after the family — that's not the world we live in anymore. For many, there are shared family responsibilities and at work we’re valued for our skills and not judged by our gender.

I’ve been given the chance to take part in some great leadership development programmes around the world. You often learn the most when you’re working outside of your comfort zone as those are the moments when you realise ‘I can do this’. I think it’s important to encourage women who might think that they can't ‘have it all’. You might not have it all, all of the time (and men can’t either), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it your best shot. It's just about how you prioritise your work and how effective you are, so that you also have time for your family.

So, how do you balance your career with home life?

There’s a huge demand on my time in this role and it takes what I call ruthless prioritisation to overcome this. While some days I’ll work long hours, I also recognise when I need time out. It’s important to give yourself time off, especially right in the middle of the day. Quite often I’ll take a walk on the beach at lunchtime with my husband and my Labrador.

When the pandemic began there was a transition to remote working but I think that for many roles, people have become more productive because of it. We have a fantastic initiative in place called Smart Working which allows for a hybrid of working at home and time at the office. It gives me the chance to have productive days working from home, being there when the kids burst through the door after school, but I can also benefit from being present in the office and better connecting with colleagues.

What’s the best part of your role as COO?

I enjoy that I can make a difference here and the products and services that AXA Ireland offer are ultimately about getting people back on their feet when something goes wrong. We make that process as frictionless as possible and we’re always looking at continuous improvement as demands and expectations of our customers shift. How are we going to make it easier for customers to interact with us? How can we provide a better service? How are we going to make it easier for our people to do their jobs?

How do you encourage your team to be innovative?

Some people think innovation is just about creating something new and being disruptive. For me, it’s also about how you get there; finding better ways to work and being able to get there faster. Innovation can only happen when you have lots of different perspectives coming together and you give people the breathing space to debate and collaborate. I think it’s important to create the kind of environment that allows people to have the space they need to think and trust their intuition.

If you're comfortable being your genuine self, you connect with people and perform better. There are always going to be people in the room who aren’t as comfortable speaking up, but as a leader, I know I can give them that opportunity to join the conversation and have their say.

Right now, we're growing, we're innovating and we’re trying new things and new ways of working. If you’re looking to be challenged and to get involved in something different, you can put up your hand up and do it. Everyone has the opportunity to learn and grow here. I'm still learning every day, I’m not the finished article yet.