HR2IT Trailblazer: Hanover’s Kelly Villanueva

by Dan Roberts

Kelly Villanueva is an AVP and HR strategic business partner at The Hanover Insurance Group. She has a background in change management and organizational design, and held HR and talent roles at CVS Health and OneBeacon Insurance before joining The Hanover.

 When I asked Mark Berthiaume, The Hanover’s EVP, CAO and chief technology innovation officer, about Kelly, he spoke about a partnership that encompasses more than fundamental issues around talent. 

“Kelly delivers all of the support that HR professionals provide, and much more. She has a business mindset—a strategic thinker who helps us to go into different places like digital, innovation and emerging technologies,” he said. “She and I came into the organization at about the same time, and she helped drive a process to look at the operating model, the people and skills, everything. We created five new pillars and a new business-aligned operating model, and identified leaders who could help drive new centers of excellence to support standard IT functions.”

 Mark’s not kidding about her mindset. My conversation with Kelly was as much about business and IT strategy as HR strategy.


Q: Tell me a little more about your relationship with Mark as CAO.

Ultimately, a major reason I came here, in addition to being able to bring my change management capabilities with me and blend them into the HR business role, was Mark himself. I had the unique opportunity to interview with him at the same time he was coming on, and so I could really see what he wanted to do at The Hanover. Mark really is a great representation of the servant-leader model, and a true partner. And that’s given me the opportunity to play the role I wanted to play in helping shape IT and where we’re going, working closely with our fantastic leadership team and the talented, engaged and creative folks across our technology group.

Q: And where have you been going? What has the journey been?

When we came in, the IT organization was heavily structured around execution. It worked: Today, the organization is really successful. But we came in at a point where we had to think about how to bring the organization into the future. That needs a different operating model and structure, and requires different capabilities and skills.

 In the last couple of years, we’ve reset our foundation across IT, and really started to think holistically about where IT needs to go, and how to bring our digital capabilities forward. We’re investing in that. And then we’re investing in automation, in data and analytics, and in innovation. We also are putting an even greater focus on innovation as the property and casualty marketplace continues to evolve, with changing agent and customer demands and preferences. We are focusing on both capital-I innovation and day-to-day innovation: How do we empower people to think about their day-to-day work and to come up with suggestions for making things better?

 And relevant to that, we’re doing a lot of work on inclusion and diversity. To be innovative, you need to be more inclusive, you need to have greater diversity, both across the landscape of your employee base and across the way you think. You need to take a broader view of the marketplace today and be open to new ways of thinking.

Q: An interesting part of your job is that you do not support only IT talent. You also serve finance and the innovation team that folds up under Mark. Is that an extra-challenging portfolio?

This is the way we operate. I support multiple divisions, and at the highest level. I support the CFO, Jeff Farber; and Will Lee, our chief business innovation officer and CIO of Specialty and Core Commercial, who reports to Mark; and Mark himself. That lets me look at the journeys of our businesses that actually consume IT’s work. For instance, with robotic process automation, finance was working to more efficiently deploy automation and looking for proof of concept opportunities. I was already well-positioned in the finance organization as well as IT, so these were conversations I could naturally have with both Jeff and Mark. I think having more connections across an organization helps you think about how work gets done and how ideas get infused across an organization.

 Q: I know many of us in the HR2IT community are interested in robotic process automation. RPA brings tremendous opportunities to automate and accelerate mundane manual tasks. What are the opportunities you’re seeing?

Our efforts in this area have been very fruitful.

We had the opportunity to convert a book of business from a carrier that was leaving Massachusetts. Converting a book of business is a lot of work—you take staff off their desks and go full-out over a one-year project, going through every account. We built an RPA process and ran a team through training on how to use a solution that substantially reduced the number of work hours needed. With RPA, we were able to convert a very high percentage out of the gate, and the rest kicked out as the exceptions where someone did need to go and look. We were able to leave people on their desks doing the work they needed to focus on, and still handle this large, complex opportunity.

So now we’re saying, “Where else is there mundane work that’s pulling people away from their ability to perform, to focus on decision-making or serving our customers?”

Q: And what do you manage in terms of the automation from an HR perspective?           

Strategically, there’s training and understanding how the bots interact with the systems we maintain, and when and how we use them. Also, I serve as change management champion for automation.  We’ve created a really cool, animated video that gives a high-level overview of what automation is and isn’t. It is meant to create greater awareness, and to remind employees that if they have questions, to raise them up through their leadership team.

Q: What about workforce engagement, and the challenge of attracting and retaining younger talent with, perhaps, the more cutting-edge skills?

We have a huge commitment to the development of our emerging talent. We have a low turnover rate, a strong and respected business with a unique value proposition, and a unique and collaborative culture, which gives us opportunities to develop our current talent.

 We have a robust college intern program that achieves a high acceptance rate of talent coming right out of college, with new skill sets developed through both their educational experience and their experience as digital natives. To engage and retain that talent, we look for ways to create “stickiness.” One thing we did was look for unique ways to promote skill set growth and offer time with senior experts in the tech field. This led to many opportunities, including the creation of “book pods.” We bring subject matter experts in twice a year for talks about a book the group has picked.

 Q: “Book pods”?

Yeah, that was a funny thing. They didn’t want to call it a book club, so we let the employees pick their own terminology, and they chose to call it a book pod. The idea is really simple, but it has taken off. Senior leadership is fully on board.  Our most recent book pod resulted in a second session focused on bringing front-line leaders together from all over our IT organization. Our chief architect is one of the executive sponsors for this second session. These leaders are facilitating discussions and individual sessions, engaging on topics like how to advance DevSecOps across the IT organization.

Q: Kelly, something I know about you is that you’re very humble. But I’m putting you on the spot: What makes you such an effective HR leader, particularly in the IT space?

Well, I’m a lifelong learner, I’m curious. I do a lot of reading about where we need to go, a lot of legwork, so I can bring those thoughts to the table. Also, I’m an active listener, and I really try to understand what we’re solving for. If you tell me, “I want to do X,” I might ask why, because maybe X isn’t the best way to get there—and I want to help create the outcomes we’re ultimately looking for.

Building relationships is important to me. And I’m a big believer in understanding the organization—our business and our strategies. I think that makes me a stronger partner. I really am just a business strategy geek.

Q: And how does HR2IT fit into your passions and how you’re going to continue to lead?

I am so excited about this group. I think the beauty of this network is that supporting IT is a different challenge than supporting other areas of the business—the pace of change around us is so rapid.

It’s so beneficial to be able to talk with others who understand the pressures of that pace of change, the effort to stay ahead of the talent need, and to help IT leaders influence business leaders on the advances we need to make. Providing HR support to an IT organization is a very unique challenge. So this community is very important.

 As HR leaders face challenges like the advent of robotics and AI, the continuing need to improve analytics capabilities, and more, leaders like Kelly will be driving valuable conversations. I’m looking forward to the insights she’ll continue to share with our community.

If you are interested in joining Kelly and other HR leaders in the HR2IT community please contact Lorraine Ludwicki, Executive Director, at