Tag Archives: influence

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.

4 Tips for Creating a Culture of Action

More than a decade of creating and leading insight teams has taught me that two aspects of culture are critical for customer insight teams to make a real difference to the wider business. One is collaboration between the different technical disciplines (to deliver holistic customer insights). The other is action-orientation, galvanizing the team behind a vision of driving change in the real world. This goes beyond delivery of technical analysis or Powerpoint, to focus on the decision and action needed to deliver commercial results and improved experiences as judged by your customers.

As with most cultural challenges, this one takes time, determination and consistency in leadership. Mostly through getting it wrong first, which seems to be how I’ve learned most of my leadership lessons, I have discovered a few tips that help embed this action-oriented culture. None is a panacea, and each needs to be practiced consistently and equitably, so they become assumed and just embedded in the “the way we do things around here.”

Anyway, enough soap-boxing from me: here are those four tips from the trenches for building a culture of action:

1. Filter out requests that won’t drive action.

The most sensible place to start with culture change is at the start of new work processes. It’s important to train and support your analysts in challenging new requests for work and, importantly, using incisive questioning to drill down to the real need. By focusing on what the internal stakeholder really needs, not just what he wants, it should be possible to uncover the real motivation. An analyst should make clear that the reason for this questioning is two-fold: (a) to better understand the real need so as to identify the most appropriate solution (across a number of potential technical approaches) or identify that existing work could meet that need; (b) to check what action will be taken as a result of answering the question. The latter is what is critical to this culture change. If such questioning reveals that it’s really just of academic interest to another leader and that there is no commitment to take action on the results, then you should back your analyst in declining. Customer insight work only adds value if it is acted upon, and you cannot afford for costly technical resource to be tied up satisfying someone else’s intellectual curiosity or desire to appear smart.

2. All output must include recommendations.

Once the technical work has been completed, the important work of writing up the results and telling a compelling story to engage the business begins. Any customer insight leader should make clear to the team that this output (often in PowerPoint) must include clear recommendations for action. Wherever possible, this should include decisions or actions that the business can take promptly, even if they are only interim steps before a final solution. Even if the insight work has simply identified the need for more data or further work, that must be drawn out as a clear recommendation, alongside any investment or change needed in the wider business to avoid being in this situation again. Consistently requiring clear recommendations that force the business to take decisions, including sending work back to analysts as unacceptable, will drive change.

3. Refocus your progress updates on action taken.

Regular update meetings or calls are a feature of most insight teams. Depending on your organizational culture and personal management style, you may do these weekly, fortnightly or monthly and may favor “morning prayers,” mid-day meeting or end-of-the-day “wrap ups.” However you do it, as a leader what you choose to focus on in these meetings often conveys more in terms of culture than your words. Requiring updates to be structured in terms of the action they are aimed to drive (i.e. improvement in commercial metric or improvement in customer experience scores) and protecting time to check in on progress with the required business decisions and actions needed to achieve these, will speak volumes to your managers and team. It is key to make clear that, in assessing everyone’s performance, you want the acid test to be what change they have driven in the “real world,” not just the efficiency of the process following or delivery of great-looking slides. This does raise the bar and require your team to influence stakeholders in other teams, attend key meetings and even “walk the floor” — but getting out there is great for showing to the wider business and your team that you care about the difference being made.

4. Communicate to the top table with final outcomes.

I’ve shared previously some tips for influencing once in the boardroom or executive committee. A key part of engaging these directors is communicating in terms of what matters to them. Here, leveraging the regular updates you receive in terms of action being taken and communicating in terms of the outcomes being driven (improved incremental income/profit or improved net promoter score (NPS), et al.) can make a huge difference to how customer insight is perceived. I have seen many a director over the years turn from skepticism to passionate support once she experienced that the customer insight leader doesn’t just want to bore with jargon but rather is actively engaged with how insight is improving the key commercial numbers and ensuring better customer experience. Coupled with visible cooperation with marketing and operations, to ensure that the insight “baton” is safely passed to those teams owning taking action and that you continue to run with them to ensure things work in practice, can build positive impressions that deliver support in the boardroom .

I hope those tips help. None is rocket science and I’m sure only serve as a reminder of best practices you know already, but I hope that’s a good thing, too.

As a final comment, just let me say that an orientation toward action also has benefits for your customer insight team members. Almost every analyst/researcher that I’ve employed over the years wants to make a difference. They want all those hours in the office to count for something — to result in an improvement they are proud of. So, although it can seem like more work for them to start with, I have seen delivering the above culture also be welcomed by a team who start to sit up straighter and believe in themselves more. The sense of pride they experience in being a key part of your business and not just being good at what they do but delivering insights that really matter, is a huge benefit. In these days of so many businesses struggling to recruit and retain analytical talent, the difference can also be a real source of competitive advantage.

In fact, working on your customer insight team culture could be a far better investment than the latest shiny software or more external data. It might just be your only sustainable competitive advantage in the coming talent wars.

Customer Insight: 4 Ways to Sway C-Suite

As more and more customer insight leaders rise in influence within blue chip companies, it seems timely to consider this question: How can they use their insights to influence senior management?

My last search on LinkedIn turned up nearly 50 customer insight directors (CIDs) in the UK (excluding research agencies, where this job title does not have the same seniority) and more than 700 of their American cousins, chief knowledge officers (CKOs), in the U.S. Whether or not you have risen to the seniority of being called a CID, you are, I hope, finding that your executives want to hear from you. So, when you get that call or regular appointment at the top table, what should you do?

Here are four tips I learned through getting it wrong to start with:

Find out what is on their agenda. To start with, don’t try to raise your own agenda topics, based on current work from the customer insight team. Instead, find out what is on their agenda. Bringing extra insight to one of their current dilemmas, a customer perspective that can be acted upon, will increase your influence. This is akin to Stephen Covey’s classic advice to focus on your circle of influence, not your circle of concern.

Bring a regular customer update. Being the voice of the customer at the top table is almost a moral responsibility for any organization’s customer insight leader. However, it’s important to focus on where you can add value to what they know already. I found one approach was to take responsibility for the existing customer metric that they track (whether that be net promoter score (NPS), customer satisfaction (CSat) or customer effort score (CES)) and then enhance that program to bring a more granular understanding, which enables follow-up actions and evidence of impact. For example, additional questions captured in line with your learning of top concerns from qualitative research, plus analytics about what happens when the experience is changed. If your data and controls are sufficient, you may even be able to evidence retention rate impact from customer experience improvements and, as a result, provide direct financial benefit.

Bring a regular commercial update. While not as expected from customer insight teams, an update on the performance of our targeted leads, direct marketing, etc. helped changed the perception of customer insight to being a commercial team. This was further improved by taking responsibility for measuring marketing effectiveness (with a combination of econometrics and other methods) and by sharing commercial targets. Once the top team realize how much of top line performance and retention impact is actually driven by targeting and insight-led media mix, the demand for updates on these parts of balanced scorecard increases, as does the team’s reputation.

Update jointly with marketing and operations. Most of the CEOs I have known over the years are looking to see the kind of behaviors from their leadership population that give them confidence in their leadership pipeline. One of these is the ability to take a cross-functional view, to not just be concerned with achieving your targets or the reputation of your function, but looking to the good of the whole organization. Updating jointly with marketing and operations and allowing them to take some of your glory is a way to demonstrate this. It focuses, rightly, on what you do with insight and shows your collaborative approach. I recommend taking this risk.

I hope that helps. What have you found helps you have most impact at your top table and get those big business decisions to be increasingly led by customer insight?

Old-School Maps May Be the Killer App!

Whenever we’re faced with a challenge or an opportunity, we tend to respond with thoughts about what should we do and how should we do it. We seldom think to ask the who questions. Who is likely to be an ally, an obstacle or an unknown? In my decades of studying strategic relationships for return on impact, it’s rare to find executives investing time in truly understanding the flow of influence in their own or target organizations they seek to work with.

The result of overlooking this strategic step can be costly. Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, I flew to Chicago for a meeting with a group of executives. We had done our preparation, in light of the importance of this multiyear, multimillion-dollar project. Reviewing the attendee list, I saw one name I didn’t recognize-who was this individual? When the meeting began, everybody introduced themselves with a briefing on their goals. One person chose not to sit at the conference table, but in one of the chairs against the wall. While everybody else talked, he quietly, very diligently, took notes. I became more and more curious. At the end of the meeting, the obligatory exchange of business cards took place. Everyone else had titles on their cards, VP and EVP and so forth. This one person’s business card was the only one without a title. By that time, I just about couldn’t contain my curiosity. I asked around and learned he was the “special adviser to the chairman of the board.”

Apparently, the project we were working on was not only a priority for the executives at the table, but of interest to the board, as well. The chairman had sent this fellow to the meeting to report back directly to him. Three months later, a number of the people who had been around that conference table were no longer with the firm.

Mr. Special Adviser could be found nowhere on that organization’s org chart, but his political clout is self-evident. The moral of this little story is that you ignore influence in an organization at your peril.

If I’m putting a $10 million project in front of a decision-maker, the last thing I want is someone I don’t know, someone I haven’t even known existed, influencing that project. I’ve learned from experience that, as bizarre as it sounds, too often the greatest political power or influence in an enterprise has nothing to do with the titles on its org chart.

Map the political influence structure

Sample social network analysis (SNA) map – Often is overkill for simply understanding who you need, who you know and how to connect the dots!


I’ve developed tools to help me avoid surprises from unacknowledged flows of influence, and I suggest you do, too. Create for yourself, for each organization or initiative in which you invest your relationship capital, a political road map.

Here is the shocker! It’s not an app, it won’t run on your smartphone or tablet, and it doesn’t use a satellite orbiting the planet. In our hyperconnected digital world, we’re losing sight of the fundamentals. Think of this recommendation as learning how to write cursive when everyone else is working with Siri! (By the way, I’ve also researched a dozen or so called “enterprise relationship management” technologies – most are myopic at best, moronic at minimum. They’re so busy trying to give you fancy graphics that their assumptions are flawed, for instance about the quality of a relationship.

Here is what you will need for this exercise: three colored markers, a straightedge, a whiteboard, some index cards and tape. Start by drawing sources of information flow. (For each individual, draw a rectangle the size of your index cards: You will add information here in the next step, using cards to keep your roadmap flexible.) Do not map the explicit power structure, but what you’ve observed about the influence structure so far.

Next, use your colored markers to color-code each relationship on your chart:

  • Green: This person is an ally who has been visibly supportive in the past and “gets” what you are trying to do;
  • Yellow: This person is neutral to your initiatives or is an unknown. Is he on the fence? Could she be swayed? Try to capture some aspect of his or her position from observable behavior;
  • Red: For whatever reason, this person opposes what you are trying to accomplish. I’m also curious here whether he can be neutralized or eliminated to minimize my risk profile with the specific initiative or project.

Use your index cards to write comments and impressions about the individuals you have just color-coded. Note your questions as well as your observations. If something they’ve said gave you these impressions, write their words as accurately as you can recall them.

When done with this step, tape the cards to the whiteboard next to individuals’ names.

At this point, your influence chart should begin to generate insights. Step back and listen to what it is telling you. Who do you need on your side? Who can you ignore? Who is already an advocate who puts wind in your sails? Add index cards with your observations.

This is the time to apply a process I referred to as strategic relationship triangulation in my book, Relationship Economics. For any piece of information critical to your political success with these relationships, you must find three independent sources to verify, validate or void the critical assumptions you are making about each person or piece of information. It’s homework time. Use your relationship network and other “biz-intel” sources to triangulate the assumptions on your influence road map. Rework the position of individuals in relation to each other as new insights emerge or old ones are voided.

Relationship triangulation can help you understand the most influential sources within a team, a department, an organization or an entire industry. Who are the real decision-makers, and who works most closely with them? Knowing this enables you to much more effectively customize how you develop relationships and add value for each individual.

Does this process take a lot of effort? Yes. Is it necessary? It would be naive to think you don’t need to build a political road map based on solid research. Could your time and effort be better spent focusing on outcomes? Only once you have a solid understanding of the relationships you need to help you achieve those outcomes. Don’t treat this task as a “one and done.” The chart need will frequent updates as the situation evolves.

This political roadmap allows you to quickly visualize your relationships and, specifically, your relationship assets and liabilities. Further, it helps you see whether you have enough support to accomplish your goals, or where you need to invest time and effort to build that support. When you can see who is an ally and who is an enemy, you can plan your next steps. “What can I negotiate? What can I exchange? Do I have something of value that they want?” It’s called “politics” for a reason—this kind of “horse-trading” is what our elected officials do.

Any kind of organizational sea change—a merger or acquisition, a large-scale restructure, any new line of business, any succession planning any geographic expansion requires a political road map at this level of detail. These are all highly disruptive events to most businesses.

Frankly, I see too many people blindsided by disruption because they simply failed to maintain an accurate road map of the political terrain they are trying to navigate.

By the way, if you’re looking for the science behind these ideas, Google “social network analysis.” You may be surprised to learn that it has nothing to do with Facebook, Twitter or YouTube!

Nour Takeaways:

  1. Because influence doesn’t show up on org charts, you need to invest the time and effort to visualize that information for yourself.
  2. You are welcome to use my system of color-coding and notes, or develop a system that works for you that shows the flow of influence we call “office politics.”
  3. Rigorous triangulation allows you to trust your insights-which are invaluable when dealing with disruption.