Amber Kennelly on the Reason to Come to Work

HUB International’s CHRO has traveled across North America to listen to her coworkers and leaders and foster more employee engagement at a $2 billion company that still emphasizes an entrepreneurial spirit

When Amber Kennelly joined the Chicago-based HUB International in June 2017, she didn’t just take a seat at her new desk and get to work. She hit the road.

Amber Kennelly, HUB International

“I spent the first three months listening,” recalls Kennelly, HUB’s chief human resources officer. “I traveled around North America, going to different offices, talking to different managers and employees, asking what’s working, what’s not, what they wanted on my radar—even what they would change or adjust in our organization. I visited several different offices, and I saw the same themes percolating.”

Kennelly, who had previously worked in human resources at both Allstate and Esurance, knows the key to an effective workforce is a high degree of employee engagement. And rather than talk the talk from behind a computer screen, she walked the walk and met face-to-face with employees and company leadership.

That takes some doing for a company the size of HUB. As an insurance broker that operates 450 offices throughout North America, there are a lot of opinions and factors to take into consideration. Nevertheless, the results of Kennelly’s introductory “listening tour” produced three main takeaways: provide information to ensure employees feel connected to the company and understand its direction and strategy; increase communication to employees to increase engagement, ultimately producing better interaction with customers; and celebrate successes and increase recognition opportunities for employees.

“I was brought in to help enable HUB to achieve its strategic and transformational objectives and do this from a place of understanding where we’ve been and the successes we’ve enjoyed,” Kennelly explains.

The challenge at the company, as compared with her previous employers, is that HUB—even as a $2 billion company with more than 11,000 employees—still feels like a start-up. There’s a drive to keep that sense of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, even as the organization continues to grow and acquire other companies.

But she was well prepared to take on that challenge, as Kennelly studied accounting as an undergrad at the University of Illinois. As a result, she says that appreciating how business decisions influence customers, understanding the financial results, and being able to “speak the language of business,” goes a long way.

“I’m a firm believer that you can’t really understand how and why business decisions are made unless you understand how they affect customers and drive revenue—and ultimately affect the financial statements. Having an appreciation for how the business serves its customers, makes revenue, what the key income and expense drivers are, and how the company reports these results is really important,” she says. “If you understand the key business drivers, where leaders might feel pressure and what success looks like, then you find yourself a lot more connected to your company strategy and your role in it. We’ve been working as an HR team to increase our knowledge in this space to ensure we are able to support our employees in feeling this connection to HUB and its strategy.”

Beyond employee engagement surveys and a better sense of communication between leadership and employees—which Kennelly credits new CEO Marc Cohen for fostering—there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on maintaining the company’s culture, where values include entrepreneurship, integrity, teamwork, accountability, and service.

Kennelly also praises Instant Alliance, a staffing and recruiting firm based in Chicago, for assisting HUB International to identify the best talent. In particular, she credits Mirjana Schultz, president of Instant Alliance, who she has known for more than fifteen years.

“I have found Mirjana’s customer focus, responsiveness, collaboration, and engagement to be consistently and reliably strong,” Kennelly says. “She has a highly engaged and knowledgeable team, too, helping to meet our needs. I depend on her as a partner in the talent space and very much appreciate my relationship with her and her team.”

When HUB brings new members onto its team, Kennelly says the traits she and others look for include agility, self-direction, and intellectual curiosity, as well as the more typical traits of strong intrapersonal skills, results driven collaboration, and having a strong focus on consumers.

When it comes to an acquisition, those traits are also sought out, but Kennelly adds it’s essential in the role of HR to assuage any concerns that new employees might have, especially considering the volume of acquisitions that take place each year at HUB International—fifty-two in 2017 and thirty-five in 2018, as of time of press.

“I’m very comfortable with change,” she says. “But, I certainly appreciate that not everyone is this comfortable with change. When we are working with new employees as a part of an acquisition, we try to help them feel more comfortable during the onboarding process. Our role in human resources is to make sure we’re available for future HUB employees and to really be supportive of each other. That might be answering questions, understanding concerns, and basically being their support through the process. Ultimately, we always want to make sure we’re helping serve each other and the customer in the best way possible.”

Kennelly says much of the philosophy she engenders in her role is inspired by Simon Sinek and his book Start With Why. The passage that has stuck with her to the point of informing her work reads: “Give people a reason to come to work—not just a place to work.”

“As I think about employee engagement, it’s really about making sure that level of connection is there and that they feel empowered to provide ideas, create value, and come up with interesting solutions. If they feel empowered to better serve the customer, then that ultimately makes the whole company better.”

It also solidifies the culture at HUB. “I get a lot of satisfaction from having the opportunity to partner with others and build something new,” she says.  “I represent HR, but I have a business background, so I appreciate being an active part of our strategic business discussions. It’s rewarding to be able to influence how we’re doing what we’re doing, and that sense of collaboration is strong at all levels here. We all have the chance to try something different, be creative, or do something valuable in the future.”

Photo: John Abbott

Off the Clock with Amber Kennelly

Amber Kennelly last ran a marathon in 1999 when she had first met her now husband. Three children and nineteen years later, she’s training to run another 26.2 miles in the Chicago Marathon.

“Between this job that I love, three children and a husband that I love, I have a lot going on every day,” she says. “I set a pretty big goal for myself so that I’m taking care of myself. I’ve done a number of half marathons, which helps me do the training I need to do, but twenty-six miles is a long run, and I’m not the type of person that can go out there and run it without working hard on it. It’s more about motivating myself and giving myself the headspace to completely unplug from everything else. I’m just going to finish and enjoy it.”

Congratulations to Amber Kennelly on this well-deserved honor. Slayton Search Partners supports the insurance industry in attracting and acquiring talented insurance executives amidst the changing dynamics of the field. We appreciate our long-term relationship with HUB International as they continue to grow and find better ways to serve their clients.

Congratulations to Amber Kennelly on this well-deserved recognition! Instant Alliance’s President, Mirjana Schultz, has partnered with HUB International and focused on identifying strategic, executive talent. Through partnerships, like these, Instant Alliance is able to recruit transformational talent that helps companies meet their core business goals. To learn more contact Mirjana Schultz at