Tag Archives: communication skills

Best Insurance? A Leadership Pipeline

Insurance leaders, you spend every day helping customers plan for the future, and you know that disaster can strike anyone, anytime.

But have you done all you can to prepare your company for what the future holds? Whatever lines of insurance you sell, there’s just one policy for company longevity: a strong leadership pipeline.

Unfortunately, many insurance companies forgo this essential coverage. Last year, Deloitte found that just one in three insurance companies believes its future leaders are prepared to respond to tomorrow’s business challenges — despite 87% citing leadership development as a priority.

What’s so important about leadership development? For one, leadership quality cuts straight to the bottom line. Equity analysts place, on average, a 16% premium on company stock prices when they see effective leadership. But when they perceive a company’s leadership is ineffective, analysts discount the company’s stock price by about 20%.

Strong leaders build value because they know people are an insurer’s greatest asset. They recognize that empowering team members pays off in loyalty, reduced turnover and enhanced customer service.

I’ve seen my company through nearly a quarter of its centennial life, and through the course of my career I’ve learned a thing or two about insurance leadership.

Like many of us — be honest — I didn’t grow up dreaming of a lifetime in insurance. California Casualty was my first job out of college, though, and it’s been the incredible career I never expected. The company’s mix of challenge, inspiration and flexibility has helped me grow from sales consultant to team manager to vice president.

But I’d have never reached the position I’m in — not to mention stayed for two decades — had I, too, not learned from strong leaders. Now it’s my turn to find the company’s up-and-coming leaders, and I look for five traits in tomorrow’s standard-bearers.

See also: The Insurance Renaissance, Part 4

First and foremost, effective leaders have integrity. Integrity is difficult for some, but it’s actually a simple concept: People with integrity do the right thing even — and especially — when no one is watching. In our industry, policyholders depend on us to fulfill our obligations, often when they’re most vulnerable.

That’s why California Casualty created a written code in 1965 to act as the company’s moral compass. It champions integrity and the singular importance of doing the right thing for our customers. The code reminds me — and future leaders — that it’s better to fall short of our goals than to meet them through dishonesty.

Strong leaders must also be able to influence others, and I’ve seen firsthand the importance of inspiring, motivational leadership. Before any sweeping change, my company informs key influencers and involves them prior to the full-staff rollout. This creates buy-in and helps them serve as role models to team members who might not feel as comfortable with changes, and provides hands-on leadership experience before they truly take charge.

Confidence, tempered by humility, is another quality I’ve found is essential for insurance leaders. These leaders surround themselves with team members whom they can learn from — and whom they can teach — when exploring issues and making tough decisions.

Confidence also means being transparent with your team. I don’t always make the right decision, but I’m confident that, if I make a wrong move, my team and I will work together to adjust, learn and improve.

Alongside confidence, I look for flexibility balanced with accountability, which helps to unlock a team’s potential. When I first became a team manager, I learned that my sales strategy didn’t necessarily work for others. I had to step back and recognize that there’s more than one way to exceed targets.

There’s one final trait all successful insurance leaders share: strong communication skills. To build a successful team, you must clearly articulate goals and the drivers behind them. At our sales rallies, we talk about targets, of course, but we also seek to understand the “why” behind our numbers.

We recently implemented underwriting changes, for example, that made it more difficult for sales consultants to sell policies. Taking time to discuss policies’ loss ratios and profitability issues has helped our sales team adapt to these changes and improve the company’s future.

See also: Can Insurance Innovate?  

With all the important qualities an insurance leader must possess, it’s tough to find tomorrow’s perfect leadership team. But once you’ve identified promising candidates, you’ll need to help them rise to the challenge.

First, start with face time. Get to know tomorrow’s leaders on a personal and professional level. To help them define what they want to achieve — both in their current role and in the next — work with them to create short-term and long-term goals. Boredom lurks behind turnover, so setting “stretch” goals is a great way to keep up-and-coming leaders engaged.

Second, find opportunities to let them shine. Never underestimate delegation as a leadership-building tool. When employees are given ownership, it builds their confidence, showcases their talents to others and prepares them for their next positions. I give young leaders opportunities to assist with recruiting and hiring, mentoring new associates, and leading annual meetings.

Next, give them a say in company decisions. Employees at all levels have fresh ideas that can benefit the company. By giving them a say, you nurture growth, learn their thought processes and cultivate buy-in at the same time.

Finally, build bench strength. Don’t wait for a position to open. Employ an approach of continuous development to ensure you can tap the right talent when you need it. Plan ahead as you hire: Employees who understand technology and analytics will be increasingly important for insurance leadership.

In the end, insurance leadership isn’t about titles, nor is it about sales figures. In our industry, it’s our job to be there in policyholders’ times of need; we have the chance to truly improve lives. So while I may not have always dreamed of an insurance career, it has been an incredibly fulfilling one. Now it’s my job to find new leaders who feel that way, too.

The Science (and Art) of Data, Part 1

Most insurers are inundated with data and have difficulty figuring out what to do with all of it. The key is not just having more data, more number-crunching analysts and more theoretical models, but instead identifying the right data. The best way to do this is via business-savvy analysts who can ask the right strategic questions and develop smart models that combine insights from raw data, behavioral science and unstructured data (from the web, emails, call center recordings, video footage, social media sites, economic reports and so on). In essence, business intelligence needs to transcend data, structure and process and be not just a precise science but also a well-integrated art.

The practitioners of this art are an emerging (and rare) breed: data scientists. A data scientist has extensive and well-integrated insights into human behavior, finance, economics, technology and, of course, sophisticated analytics. As if finding this combination of skills wasn’t difficult enough, a data scientist also needs to have strong communication skills. First and foremost, he must ask the right questions of people and about things to extract the insights that provide leads for where to dig, and then present the resulting insights in a manner that makes sense to a variety of key business audiences. Accordingly, if an organization can find a good data scientist, then it can gain insights that positively shape its strategy and tactics – and gain them more quickly than less-well-prepared competitors.

What it takes to be an effective data scientist

The following table highlights the five key competencies and related skills of a qualified data scientist.

Competencies

Key Skills

Business Impact

1. Business or Domain Expertise

   Deep understanding of:

  • Industry domain, including macro-economic effects and cycles, and key drivers;
  • All aspects of the business (marketing, sales, distribution, operations, pricing, products, finance, risk, etc.).
  • Help determine which questions need answering to make the most appropriate decisions;
  • Effectively articulate insights to help business leadership answer relevant questions in a timely manner.

2. Statistics

  • Expertise in statistical techniques (e.g., regression analysis, cluster analysis and optimization) and the tools and languages used to run the analysis (e.g., SAS or R);
  • Identification and application of relevant statistical techniques for addressing different problems;
  • Mathematical and strategic interpretation of results.
  • Generate insights in such a way that the businesses can clearly understand the quantifiable value;
  • Enable the business to make clear trade-offs between and among choices, with a reasonable view into the most likely outcomes of each.

3. Programming

  • Background in computer science and comfortable in programming in a variety of languages, including Java, Python, C++ or C#;
  • Ability to determine the appropriate software packages or modules to run, and how easily they can be modified.
  • Build a forward-looking perspective on trends, using constantly evolving new computational techniques to solve increasingly complex business problems (e.g., machine learning, natural language processing, graph/social network analysis, neural nets, and simulation modelling);
  • Ability to discern what can be built, bought or obtained free from open source and determine business implications of each.

4. Database Technology Expertise

  Thorough understanding of:

  • External and internal data sources;
  • Data gathering, storing and retrieval methods (Extract-Transform-Load);
  • Accessing data from external sources (through screen scraping and data transfer protocols);
  • Manipulating large big data stores (like Hadoop, Hive, Mahoot and a wide range of emerging big data technologies).
  • Combine the disparate data sources to generate very unique market, industry and customer insights;
  • Understand emerging latent customer needs and provide inputs for high-impact offerings and services;
  • Develop insightful, meaningful connections with customers based on a deep understanding of their needs and wants.

5. Visualization and Communications Expertise

Comfort with visual art and design to:

  • Turn statistical and computational analysis into user-friendly graphs, charts and animation;
  • Create insightful data visualizations (e.g., motion charts, word maps) that highlight trends that may otherwise go unnoticed;
  • Use visual media to deliver key message (e.g., reports, screens – from mobile screens to laptop/desktop screens to HD large visualization walls, interactive programs and, perhaps soon, augmented reality glasses).
  • Enable those who aren’t professional data analysts to effectively interpret data;
  • Engage with senior management by speaking their language and translating data-driven insights into decisions and actions;
  • Develop powerful, convincing messages for key stakeholders that positively influence their course of action.

While it may seem unrealistic to find a single individual with all the skills we've listed, there are some data scientists who do, in fact, fit the profile. They may not be equally skilled in all areas but often have the ability to round out their skills over time. They typically tend to be in high-tech sectors, where they have had the opportunities to develop these abilities as a matter of necessity.

However, because of the increasing demand for data scientists and their scarcity, insurers (and companies in other industries) should consider if they want to build, rent or buy them. Although buying or renting capabilities can be viable options – and do offer the promise of immediate benefits – we believe that building a data science function is the best long-term approach. Moreover, and as we will address in our next post, in light of the shortage of data scientists, a viable approach is creating a data science office of individuals who collectively possess the core competencies of the ideal data scientist.

Breaking Through The Barrier Of Hardnosed Workers, Part 3

Turning The Corner
Admittedly, Part 1 and Part 2 of this series may be a bit discouraging to the solution-seeking reader. But as a wise professor states, “There is no implementation without, first, evaluation.”

So what has our evaluation revealed?

First, the dysfunctional nature of the average hardnosed worker employed in traditionally change-resistant work sectors is representative of his greater employment family, both labor and management. It is not the portrait of an isolated employee or two. The nature is systemic, as are its crippling effects.

Second, the extent of potential behavioral dysfunction in hardnosers is staggering. The research data points past the occasional whimsical, inane antics of the passive-aggressive worker who simply annoys others. It directs us to the darkly devious behavior of someone, or a bevy of someones, who is self-destructive, emotionally unengaged, and constantly looking to jump off the ship after lighting the fuse that may blow it up.

Third, management has largely failed in its attempts to wrestle control of the workforce away from hardnosers. Traditional quick-action employee management strategies lack the foundational understanding of both the cause of defiant behavior and the dysfunctional team dynamics that it creates.

Last, management has often chosen the wrong method to seize control of hardnosers. The preferred tactic has been to tighten control through the repeated issuance of compliance standards. Such “what to do” and “how to do it” standards stiffen the hardnosed worker’s resolve to reject management’s ploys.

Engineering consultant Kevin Sorbello fittingly compares the change-resistant workforce to a dysfunctional family in which “those making the rules unconsciously see themselves as adults in charge of children.” Conversely, he notes that workers of lower rank see themselves as being “treated like children by unfit elitists. The fact that this scenario is so ubiquitous,” he says, “is disheartening.”

In light of this stark portrayal, what can be done to heal a defiant and dysfunctional employment family?

Capitalize On Dysfunction
One word points us down the right path. It keeps cropping up [five times above]. The word is dysfunctional. There’s a reason it is our key word.

Dysfunction brings with it opportunity. The same weaknesses that define dysfunctional workers are the ones that open the door for us to help them personally and to improve the cooperative nature of the entire workforce.

But this can’t happen until we acknowledge several hard-to-believe truths about the nature of hardnosed workers. These are beliefs gleaned by the author after four decades of listening to, observing, profiling, and helping dysfunctional people.

1. Hardnosers really want to improve.
They are really not into self-flagellation, though they expect it to happen (defeatism) — they’d rather have the opposite: success.

2. Hardnosers are stuck and need a push.
They really don’t know how to solve their own problems, nor why they are stuck in a defeatist rut.

3. Hardnosers want simple honesty.
They will not trust you until you first demonstrate to them your complete honesty.

4. Hardnosers desire compassion, not charity.
They innately sense the difference — one is considered condescending and offensive to them; the other is acceptable.

5. Hardnosers respond best to old-fashioned “tough love.”
They desire hard boundaries, particularly those that help them achieve hard-to-reach goals.

6. Hardnosers want you to earnestly listen to them.
They want to tell you vital information about themselves — their real and felt needs — that enables you to help them mature.

It is difficult for some skeptics to embrace these beliefs. It is easier to adopt the attitude of one Cleveland-area business owner who believes that “most employees with bad attitudes come that way and it is not up to you to be a social worker.” To him, any alternative to improving the quality of workers other than perfecting the hiring and firing process is “silly,” even if personnel turnover costs are astronomical.

Safety officer Ken Malcolm at Safety & More P/L begs to differ. He says, “Hardnosed negatives can become hardnosed positives.” The key, he says, is trust.

Malcolm states that trust does not exist because “the past experiences [of workers] have not been good.” He suggests that workers have rarely been exposed to managers “who put value on worker input.” Perhaps they once worked for a grumpy guy in Cleveland. More likely, they’ve been jaded by repeated exposure to the Cycle of Rejection described in Part 2 of this series.

Agree with it or not, the path to profitability involves helping hardnosers cure their dysfunctional behavior, a task that starts with listening to what they say about themselves and about control-minded authorities.

Listening For Needs
Within the well-worn contentious discourse proffered by hardnosers is an easily recognizable admission of their foibles.

  • I have trouble accepting authority of any kind.
  • I am emotionally cold and uncaring.
  • I often say the wrong thing in the wrong way.
  • I don’t trust anyone enough to give them my loyalty (everyone is out to get me).
  • I am not a good team player.

You can also hear their pleas for help.

  • Help us accept authority, not persistently fight back.
  • Help us live emotionally healthy lives, not crawl into an emotional shell.
  • Help us develop better interpersonal skills, not alienate others.
  • Help us bond with each other and the company, not be disloyal.
  • Help us be better team players, not self-interested individuals.

These needs should sound familiar — they directly correspond to the “snapshot” of a hardnosed worker described in Part 1 of this series.

A hardnosed worker is a self-destructive, emotionally self-centered, uncontrollable person who would rather cut-and-run than commit.

From this snapshot, the human needs that it reveals, and the failure of traditional means to change hardnosed behavior, you know that there is only one action plan — one line of attack — that will result in positively changing a resistant workforce into a cooperative one. But, like the hardnosed Cleveland businessman, you might have trouble admitting it.

You have to help them develop the relational skills that they lack.

But don’t let this series tell you the obvious, though it bears repeating. Let the desperate general manager from Part 1 of this series say it. He’s the one who in 1992 initially linked the characteristics of a juvenile delinquent to the antics of his hardnosed employees. The assistance he sought from a troubled youth expert is as difficult as it is simple.

“I simply want you to help my people treat each other as people,” he asked.

He knew the problem pointed to a lack of interpersonal skills. So do you. And so do the perpetrators, who secretly want your help.

But how do you provide assistance without risking further rejection?

Using Safety To Change People
Job safety is the only joint partnership with management to which the hardnoser has ceded a modicum of control and cooperation. It is the only “face saving” venue in which he consents to [non-craft skill] personal development. To him, change for safety’s sake is grudgingly agreeable.

With safety training comes the opportunity to change the hardnoser, if the correct approach is utilized. Felt needs should be front-and-center — the odor of command, control, and compliance should be reduced.

John Bennett, VP of M.C. Dean, urges us to remember that “it is not about the system, regulations, nor policy or procedure. It is all about the people.”

Ill-conceived training strategies in which personal development is added-on to standard compliance training rarely work. Hardnosers are stubborn, not stupid. They can sense a convenient manipulative end run by management. Ever hear them call leadership training “charm school?”

To achieve human change requires a more carefully crafted safety training strategy than most organizations currently employ. Such a strategy demands a more need-sensitive safety management system.

What is recommended here extends beyond simple supplements to standardized compliance training programs. What is needed is a radical redesign of safety thinking in dealing with a sub-culture of resistance.

Above all, one hard-learned lesson about securing cooperation from defiant people must be remembered. You must meet their felt needs before they will fully give you what you want — compliance and control. If safety doesn’t do this, you remain stuck in the sink hole of opposition, forever containing resistance rather than correcting it.

Life Skills Are Felt Needs
A felt need is simply anything people consciously lack and desire. As noted, the hardnoser consciously but quietly desires self-improvement, particularly in life skills.

One example is the need of supervisors to learn practical leadership skills. As new supervisors quickly rise from the lower ranks of organizations, many supervisors suffer from the lack of leadership development inherent in on-the-job training.

Joe Johnson says that new supervisors are likely to be “given a ‘white hat,’ put in charge, and sent out in the organization with instructions to make things happen safely.” But of the leadership creation process, Johnson asks, “What ‘tools’ have these individuals been provided to insure he or she will be a good safety manager?”

In addition to leadership skills, other life skill needs that are likely felt by hardnosers of all ranks include:

  • Interpersonal communication skills (all aspects)
    • Accurate listening skills
    • Accurate shaping of the message to the listener
    • Accurate delivery of the message for acceptance
    • Accurate use of reflective listening, clarification
  • Relationship building
  • Behavioral awareness and pattern recognition
  • Anger management/tolerance/empathy
  • Team building
  • Critical thinking and decision-making
  • Coaching and mentoring

Under the confines of employee development and safety training, we have regrettably postponed meeting these needs until it is too late, after the worker feels under-appreciated. Properly, these are the needs you should start meeting at the beginning of new hire orientation.

What Do I Do?
The practical answer to the initial question — What should I do to change hardnosed workers? — is as basic as it sounds complex.

To change a hardnosed work force, you should implement a hybrid training program that simultaneously combines traditional safety-related training subjects with topics that develop the character of the hardnoser in their expressed area of needs.

The key is seamless simultaneous integration. Safety and human development should be taught at the same time, not as separate courses.

To avoid the Cycle of Rejection discussed in Part 2, the hardnoser must not feel that personal manipulation is the purpose of the training, nor should it be. Yet he should also walk away with a sense of obligation to practice (note: different than “comply with”) what is taught.

To make a life-changing combination of safety and personal development training workable requires two organizational commitments.

1. The organization must improve its quality of training.
A higher level of training is required, as is a better quality instructor skilled in safety, communications and human development. Revised curricula must be employed. Cattle-call training must be replaced with a caring personal attitude.

2. The organization must meld its safety and operation cultures.
A unified work culture is required, one which leaves hardnosers no wiggle room for discarding their training lessons under the excuse of “safety behavior” versus “operational behavior.” Operations cannot be allowed to deprive the hardnoser of training’s human development gains.

John Bennett underscores the mistake of trying to create a safety culture within an existing company culture in order to change people. He states that the tactic “is incongruent with the overall mission of the company.” Bennett suggests that “building upon the existing culture and simply inserting the safety aspect” is a more sensible way to build a unified work force. “Involving people in a sincere way,” he says, “will produce better results than were heretofore imaginable.” The hardnoser agrees wholeheartedly.

The Essentials
For the best results, a hybrid safety training program should immediately focus on the greatest needs of the hardnoser: interpersonal communication skills, emotional openness and honesty, and relational teamwork. All these needs share a common denominator. They point to the hardnoser’s fundamental lack of behavioral understanding.

Rarely are hardnosers properly educated about behavior — they do not bring such knowledge with them to the job. Most struggle with discerning why people do what they do — many ascribe the wrong motive to other’s behavior. It’s easy for hardnosers to fall into the Cycle of Rejection.

As explained in Part 2, answering the why question is vital to securing the hardnoser’s cooperation. If you desire to tear down the walls of resistance in your work force, here’s what you need to know.

  • If you help the hardnoser understand his unique behavior temperament and its affects on him — why he is prone to repeat certain behavior patterns — he will call you a friend.
  • If you show him why others act as they do because of their unique behavior temperaments, he will call you a good friend.
  • If you teach him how to build productive relationships with others despite their differences in temperament, he will call you his best buddy.
  • If you do none of the above yet try to change him, he will think you are simply attempting to control him. We’ve seen where that leads.

It is essential to integrate a simple behavior paradigm into every aspect of safety training. Uncomplicated behavior assessment profiles like the DISC or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® can serve this purpose. These are accurate, easily integrated “tools” that produce the type of behavioral understanding needed by hardnosers and non-hardnosers alike.

But this is no shill for the traditional haphazard use of behavior profile tools to soothe the ruffles of an agitated work force or as a guest speaker’s play toy. This is a call to deeply interweave two narratives — safety management and human development — on a consistent basis to meet the targeted needs of employees.

This author will attest to the instant magic brought by behavioral self-discovery through platforms like the DISC or MBTI. One unforgettable incident occurred when the cigar-chomping director of one company’s division first saw the results of his DISC self-analysis. The director’s cigar dropped from his mouth as he stood up, staggered about the training room with his analysis, and shouted, “This is me! This is me! This is freakin’ me.” Presto.

But that momentary magic is useless unless it is converted into tangible results while sustained within a framework of a safety training program that is designed to simultaneously control and change lives.

To do this requires a bold commitment from executive managers that are tired of butting their heads against behavioral barriers. Let the general manager mentioned in Part 1 remind us again that the alternative, letting hardnosers drag the company down, is “not an option.”

What this commitment looks like in practicality, and the results that it can accomplish, will be the subject of Part 4 of this series.

Bibliography

“Focus On Teamwork, Attitude Improves Quality And Safety.” The Waterways Journal. April 25, 1994: 41-44

Newton, Ron. No Jerks On The Job. Irving, TX. PenlandScott Publishers, 2010.

Riddle, Glenden P. An Evaluation Of The Effectiveness Of Stress Camping Through The Use Of The Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis Exam. Research Project. Dallas Theological Seminary, December 1978.

Taylor, Robert. Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis Manual. Thousand Oaks: Psychological Publications, Inc., 1992.