With his head shaved and outfitted in designer glasses and crocodile-style winklepicker shoes, Gordon Watson does not look like the stereotypical president of any type of company, let alone one selling life insurance.
But here he is, today in a flamboyant pinstripe suit, powering his way over breakfast toward his first meeting.
With a Glaswegian accent tempered by years of living abroad, he declares with gentle assuredness that in no way did he choose insurance (as a career): “Insurance chose me.”
Watson — who is in Tokyo for meetings and a seminar on the value of creativity in the corporate world — is currently president and CEO of AIG Korea. AIG is the largest life insurance company in the world in market value, with an equally impressive roll call.
“Including the agents, Thailand has some 70,000 employees alone. Japan, even more.” Watson began working with AIG and studying at the same time, specializing in insurance risk. (An MBA came later.)
“By sheer chance — or maybe not — I was sent to New York. Being a meritocracy, where a person’s judged on performance, there was an entrepreneurial spirit that was missing in the U.K..”
So there was Watson in the Big Apple, aged 21, having a high old time. But not for long. He was posted to Nairobi for three years (“what a mess that place is in now”), back to the U.S., and then Dubai, “where the Middle East and Africa merges.” It was here he met his Lebanese wife.
Again in New York, he was appointed head of international pensions.
Four years afterward, Watson set out for Hong Kong. Two years later, he arrived in Japan.
He had two jobs here, to preside over AIG Star Japan, and set up annuities — investments yielding fixed annual sums. Regarding the potential as “huge,” the company purchased Chiyoda Life. And rather than fight its traditional cultural infrastructure, Watson chose to embrace it.
“When 90 of the female employees said they wanted to see where I was born, my furusato, I organized a trip to this tiny village outside Glasgow.
Milngavie is rarely visited by any kind of coach, let alone three filled with Japanese women. I warned them my home was just a wee place, not some kind of castle. But now when I see any of them, that’s all they want to talk about.”
It was also the high spot of his parents’ lives. “You should have seen my father going around with the whiskey. He reckons he knows now what it feels like to be a rock star.”
When Watson moved to Seoul a year ago, he took with him important lessons learned in Japan: the importance of harmony and understanding everyone’s point of view.
“I was criticized for spending so much time with the agents, but I wanted to get into their moccasins. Ensuring they were heard and understood enabled goodwill and support to ripple upwards from bottom to top. It was a great six years. Great.”
One of the last things he did before moving to Seoul, was take a group of his colleagues, all AIG Star executives, on a five-day art course (held over two weekends) at Tokyo’s RBR New Center for Creative Arts.
This right-brain-focused style of teaching provided techniques that enabled everyone (including the skeptics) not only to draw but to think in a new kind of way.
Settled in his new office in Seoul (“the most stressed-out city in the world”) Watson quickly began to apply what he had learned at RBR.
He believes too many companies are stuck, unable to move forward. “It’s those open-minded enough to realize the corporate world needs creative solutions that will thrive.”
With a clear vision for AIG Korea, he introduced a project called Enjoy Life, the goals of which are five-fold: to improve the working environment; build a unique people-focused culture; increase employee satisfaction and morale; reduce staff turnover; and — bottom line — increase productivity and profitability.
The Enjoy Life logo, as created by an employee who did the course, utilizes the ying-yang, halved-circle symbol that is the basis of the South Korean national flag. For Enjoy Life it represents company and employees working together in unity to make a whole.
Offices have been refurbished. “They were dreadful. We began with the main spaces, and now staff have environments to their own design.
“When they come back after New Year, they’ll find even more changes. For one thing, the lobby will be hung with Andy Warhol-style images of all the CEOs. Yes, including me.” It was not easy to persuade his boss in America to release funds for Enjoy Life. But the benefits have quickly become obvious.
“Since the launch party, there’s a much stronger sense of belonging. I’m getting only good feedback.”
Dress Down Friday allows jeans. A bright and breezy newsletter is in circulation. CEOs regularly have lunch with employees. There’s recognition of “Best Employee” and an employee opinion survey.
Knowing there are even more plans in the pipeline, Watson says his staff members have a new self-confidence, “My PA, who a year ago could hardly say boo to a goose, recently went to Iceland on her own.”
Watson loves running a company, for no other reason than he can make a difference. With a staff of 1,600 tele-marketers, 700 employees and 6,000 agents/distributors, turnover is down 50 percent, with great savings.
Corporate image and brand awareness have also been raised by media coverage for both AIG and RBR.
The business magazine Forbes Korea, recently described Watson as “the dancing CEO who raises creative and right-brained employees.”
The Joongang Daily wrote: Productivity grows rapidly by using the right brain instead of the left brain.
Told recently that he does not worry enough, Watson can only smile. “Our objective with Enjoy Life is to prove that nothing is impossible.” Bonding and teamwork are about developing a common vocabulary and creative understanding, he concludes.
“It’s about looking at issues as you would in painting a picture: in terms of what is really there instead of what you think is there.”