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Homepage / Case study: “Studying for an apprenticeship changed my career path”

Case study: “Studying for an apprenticeship changed my career path”


Undertaking a Level 7 apprenticeship at a leading business school is a sure-fire way to enhance your career prospects, whether at your existing company or somewhere new.

For Rachel Hinchliffe, Aviva employee of 24 years, it was the catalyst for her being promoted to a new role working to encourage a more customer-centric culture within the business.  Having worked across various departments and taken on several short-term secondments during her career, Rachel initially saw her apprenticeship training as an opportunity to shore up her knowledge and plug any gaps.

“I had found myself moving more and more into the marketing space, and was eventually asked to set up and lead a marketing and engagement team in a newly-forming area of the business,” she explains. “I enjoyed the role, but I always felt in a lot of ways I was one ‘Google’ ahead of anyone that asked me a question. I’ve since heard the term ‘accidental marketer’, and that was exactly how I felt.”

“So, I started looking for a course that could give me the marketing knowledge that would help me feel more secure in the role,” she continues. “Our internal learning and development team recommended Cranfield, and I thought the Senior Leader Apprenticeship+ Marketing and Leadership MSc sounded like it would be an amazing opportunity.”

Aviva sponsored Rachel to undertake a part-time Marketing and Leadership MSc delivered in partnership between Cranfield School of Management and the Chartered Institute of Marketing Academy (CIM Academy), paying for the majority of the programme from its Apprenticeship Levy fund.

Rachel said: “I really loved the breadth of the course. Having completed it, I’m more secure in my marketing knowledge, which has made me feel so much more empowered and confident. The self-reflection and leadership elements I also found very interesting and useful. Overall, the learning validated some areas, and made me question others. It felt like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I know what my strengths are now, and I understand my weaknesses.”

Another big benefit for Rachel was the chance to meet and work closely with people from other organisations and industries. “I’ve got a wide network, but I’ve worked in one place for a long time,” she explains. “To hear from people that are experiencing the same issues as you is reassuring, and you learn from how they tackle things as well as are able to benchmark yourself and your business, which is really useful.”

When it came to deciding on a topic for her MSc thesis, it was an “easy choice” to explore customer centricity at Aviva, she asserts.

“During my whole career at Aviva, I’ve always tried to be quite close to the customer piece, or to at least encourage it,” she explains. “We can be quite siloed in how we work, which can tend to distance us from thinking about our customers if we’re not careful.

“We can get so hung up on the commercial numbers like how many customers we can get in, that we sometimes forget what it means to be a customer.  It’s so important to make sure we keep our existing customers happy.” As it happens, this choice also sparked the beginning of a change in career direction for the mother-of-three, towards a role aligned to her interest in and passion for the subject.

“The leader of our customer strategy team was one of the interviewees for my thesis,” Rachel explains. “During our conversations, we talked a lot about customer centricity and how important it was to have rigour around that, and I secured a job in his team as a result.

“The business had been through a big restructure, and there had been lots of change. As part of my role, I worked closely with the reasonably newly formed culture team, and I found myself naturally gravitating back quite frequently to conversations about culture and customer centricity.

“A new role came up in the culture team which provided the chance to move into an area where I would be learning new things and where it felt like I could make a difference across the whole business was really appealing.” Rachel is now Aviva’s Customer Centric Culture Lead, a role she is loving.

“My new role is very different from what I’ve done previously, but I’m finding it hugely fascinating,” she said. “At its heart, customer centricity is the thing we expect all companies to do and be; we just assume that any company would be thinking about its customers all the time – that old cliché of ‘putting customers at the heart of what we do’ – and making decisions around their needs.

“The difficulty comes in how you put structure and rigour around that, to make sure you are doing the right things for the right customers at the right time. How do you use all the data, technology and information those customers share with you to understand their needs?

“It’s not as simple as make one product and sell it to everyone. It’s about understanding what your customers need, and working out when and how and why they need it – then they will buy it.  “I’ve seen Aviva move quite a lot over time towards that sort of thinking, but we’ve still got some way to go.” Rachel now sits within the HR function at Aviva, which she says feels appropriate for a role aimed at changing mindsets.

“The role of HR in customer centricity is an interesting one,” she says. “One thing that came out loud and clear from the interviews I conducted for my thesis is that it is about changing mindsets, but how do you do that en masse? How do you identify the behaviours and start the ripple effect of changing them?”

“The problem is that talking about ‘mindset’ can feel a bit fluffy and intangible,” she continues. “Fortunately, the head of my team has a behavioural science background and, putting that together with my marketing and business knowledge, we have identified lots of practical things we can tackle. “For instance, we’re looking at how we can drive this customer thinking into our recruitment to make sure we’re hiring people with the right type of mindset. We’re exploring how we can build it into our talent and leadership programmes. We also have a really big push on learning and development, so we’re looking at how we can put the right type of tools and learning at people’s fingertips to encourage that way of thinking.”

“One challenge for me is the pace of change,” she adds. “Coming from the marketing world, I’m used to working to deadlines, but this is very different. First of all, how do you perceive and measure any change? On top of that, the measure span is much longer – it can take years to shift a culture. It’s all very different for me, and is requiring me to have a different mindset of my own, but I’m enjoying the challenge.” Rachel remains grateful to Aviva for sponsoring her through the Senior Leader Apprenticeship+ Marketing and Leadership MSc programme at Cranfield School of Management, and for continuing to support her in her career aspirations.

“I’m always quite glowing when I speak about Aviva, because I think the business has really offered me a huge amount,” she says. “It doesn’t just enable part-time working and flexibility, but actively promotes it and supports people who are doing it by offering them the training or development they want.

“The business is very good at offering secondments and opportunities to move around or try something different for a few months. It is forward-thinking, very active in the sustainability space, and is taking steps to tackle inequalities.

“It is also making great use of apprenticeships, using them as an opportunity to retrain internally people whose roles are made redundant or may become obsolete in the future skills the business will need.

“All of that gives a really positive feel to the company.”

The Senior Leadership Apprenticeship+ Marketing and Leadership MSc at Cranfield School of Management combines leading academic theory, commercial insight and practical application to not only develop participants’ leadership skills, but also to enable them to lead change and meet the demands of a changing world and evolving marketplace. To find out more about the programme, you can book a one-to-one via the course page or get in touch via email.

Cranfield School of Management

Written By: Hayley Rook

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