A wide smile eclipses Ha Vu’s face as she greets me, making her already bright office feel like the inside of the rainbow. Ha, the Chief Partnership Distribution Officer at AIA Vietnam, is a slender woman with swift movements, an animated face and an excited way of talking who looks a lot younger than her age. An industry veteran, she studied insurance in the US before returning to her native Vietnam to help grow the segment. Throughout the years, Ha has gradually learned to turn her natural instinct into insight, strength and growth: both for herself and the company.
When working, do you think of yourself first as a woman or...
I think of me as me!
To succeed in the profession, I had to learn how to turn my female instincts into strengths. Women are capable of experiencing the whole spectrum of feelings in the workplace – this is both a strength and a weakness. So part of my professional development has been to understand my femininity and use it to the benefit of the organization.
Another thing that comes naturally to me is positivity. At first, I wasn't able to control these feelings as they “erupted”. Should I use my glass-is-half-full attitude to encourage others and influence strategy or should I drown my emotions out and let the Leadership Team run the show with their practical and analytical approach? Over time, my job has helped me sharpen my natural instincts so that today I can use them as my core strengths.
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At around what age did you start thinking about tapping your instincts?
At thirty-year-old, I was already thinking about my potential. When I started with AIA Vietnam, the team had only 25 employees and we were contributing 2 - 3% to the Vietnamese insurance industry. At that time, spontaneity pretty much defined my work ethic. But three years later, when the number of employees increased to 250 (plus another 1,000 sales agents in the field), with the Vietnam team contributing 30% to the industry, spontaneity was no longer a feasible strategy. This realization forced me to change, to become a better cultural fit.
Is your work environment what transformed your thinking?
My work environment was the trigger point. It’s where I feel the most connected with my instincts because I have the opportunity to better myself there.
Do you separate your personal and professional life?
Before, when I was governed by instincts alone, I did not have a work-life balance. There was no separation whatsoever. The wake-up call came when my son Liono had to snap his fingers in front of my face to check if I was actually paying attention to what he was saying. His disappointed "Mom, are you with me?" brought me back from mentally ticking off things on my to-do list. I knew I shouldn't let my mind spiral out of control like that, so I learned to separate work, family and myself. Today, my life is much more meaningful.
After studying and working abroad in Boston, and returning home to Vietnam, was it hard for you to adjust?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult. Curiosity and eagerness to learn are two powerful instincts that I credit with my ability to rise up to challenges and be open to opportunities. Even today, I am constantly learning and encouraging my team to do so as well. It's important to invest in one's own abilities. Integration will happen naturally.
At AIA Vietnam, 80% of the employees are Millennials. What are some weaknesses they face, in your eyes?
There's a brilliant book about grit (“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth) that argues that grit is a combination of passion and determination. The young people around me seem to be halfway there. They talk a lot about their passions, values, and goals, but they are also easily discouraged and tend to play the victim whenever they are challenged. They have a lot of natural energy and want to prove themselves, but there is a lack of patience and determination.
My generation (boomers) felt as if there was always someone arranging things for us, but today’s young want to be the masters of their destiny: YOLO, follow your passion, all that. It all sounds exciting, but what they really need is to look deeper into themselves, then slowly build up that determination.
I’ll give you an example of perseverance. Many people ask me how I manage to stay so fit. By exercising consistently for 20 years, that’s how. So, ask yourself if you have that sort of perseverance; or if you have a financial plan in place. Life is fun, but also too short to leave things entirely to chance!
What can people do to gain that perseverance?
At 25, after setting my target retirement age at 50, I wondered what retirees usually regret most about their lives. Because everyone will have regrets: your friends, your role models. But your sense of self-worth, positive attitude, curiosity, determination to transcend yourself are the things that define you and that are worth investing in.
What does the company culture look like at AIA Vietnam?
At AIA, there is an operating philosophy we follow that I love: “Doing the Right Thing in the Right Way with the Right People… the Right results will come.”
When I started, the sales chart was a classic “hockey stick”, with numbers cowering at the bottom before surging at the end of the month (for the record, a healthy sales chart looks like popcorn). Because the team had a tendency to work at full capacity only as the month end approached and take it easy the rest of the time, forecasting sales and setting targets was nigh on impossible. To change that, I created the ‘Rising star’ race, which begins on the first day and ends on the 25th of the month. After a year of pushing the sales team and working with the right partners, my efforts started to bear fruit.
Another example of "the right way" in the insurance industry specifically is avoiding overreliance on personal relationships and the spirit of support to achieve sales goals. The right way is to be confident that you are a consultant with knowledge, skills and that you're capable of giving the right solution to customers, and therefore, should be proud of the commissions that the company rewards. That's why we pay more attention to investing in partnership academy training boards to encourage learning and help our people become better versions of themselves.
Digital platforms have changed a lot of businesses. How has it affected your own innovation process and the company's?
Out of Vietnam's 97 million people, only 9 million have insurance. It took AIA Vietnam the whole of 20 years to insure 1.3 million people. But with the new digital tools, the goal is to offer protection to another million people over the next 12 months! AIA Vietnam, one of 18 markets of AIA Group across Asia-Pacific, is currently going through a dramatic transformation, from leadership at the top of the company down to the digital tools roll-out in the domestic market. We are learning every day and I learn the most, being the boss. My goal is to have the most advanced digital platforms for our team and customers in Vietnam.
Historically, the main partners of the insurers have been banks. How will this change in light of digitization?
There are many new partners: from e-wallets such as Momo to commercial exchanges like Shopee and Lazada. I call this new crop "the new school of insurance" and I want to become a pioneer of this "new school".
Are you still on track to retire at 50, as planned?
(Bursts out laughing). I love challenges and always see them as opportunities. Hopefully, by the time of my retirement, I would have contributed to bringing insurance back to its roots, which is reducing the financial burden on millions of families.
My son, Liono, is only 10 years old but I already have financial plans for him, from education to health. It’s important to have this safety net in place for your family before you start this new phase of your life. My husband, who is now at the peak of his career, and I look forward to enjoying this new chapter together.
First thing you will do on the morning of your official retirement?
I see work (and retirement, by extension) as a double-edged sword. I can either become a product of my work and end up feeling useless and empty once there is no office to go to. Or, if I'm able to separate work and personal life, I can truly relax and enjoy my post-insurance days. I'm also curious to see what new adventures life has in store for me on that all-important morning (laughs).