What Ski Racers Can Teach the Insurance Industry


The best athlete you've likely never heard of is Mikaela Shiffrin, who is close to breaking all the career records in international Alpine ski racing—and is just 24 years old. When Lindsey Vonn was considering one more heroic comeback from injury last season so she could build on her 82 wins on the World Cup circuit and pass Ingemar Stenmark's all-time mark of 86, she not only decided her body couldn't handle any more abuse but also basically said, "Ah, what's the use? Give Mikaela a year or two, and she's going to hold all the records anyway."

Shiffrin, who already has 64 career wins, posted a 2018-2019 season so good that it would qualify as a top-20 or even top-15 CAREER—17 World Cup wins, the overall World Cup title, season titles in an unprecedented set of three disciplines (slalom, giant slalom and super-G) and two gold medals and a bronze at the world championships.

And Shiffrin doesn't just win, she dominates. Ski racing tends to be a hit-or-miss affair, because there are so many variables outside the skier's control—for instance, snow conditions and lighting can change decisively during a race, and start position and course setup can greatly favor certain skiers. Yet Shiffrin won 21 out of 25 races in the slalom, her specialty, over three seasons. (Take the other side of that record, winning four out of 25, and you're a bona fide star.) Races typically are won by tenths of a second or even hundredths, but Shiffrin routinely wins slaloms by more than a second, sometimes more than two seconds. She once won a race by more than three seconds, the greatest margin ever recorded on the World Cup circuit.

How do you compete with someone like Shiffrin? And where might there be lessons for competition in the business world?

In the case of Shiffrin, other ski teams have started sending crews to film her practice sessions. They set up shop up and down the course she's going to ski to capture all the fine points of her technique, to see what drills she's doing, even to watch the interactions of the coaches and technicians who make up her team.

Historically, skiers have been left to train in private, and Shiffrin has bristled at the crowds, but there's no prohibition on cameras in skiing (unlike in football *cough* Bill Belichick and in baseball *cough* Houston Astros). In skiing, if you buy a lift ticket, you have your place on the mountain.

It's too early to tell what the competitors have learned, but Shiffrin has "only" four wins halfway through this World Cup season, has finished second and third in the last two slaloms and looks like she'll win the overall title this year by mere miles and not by a lightyear or two, as she has the last three years.

In the case of insurers, they certainly benchmark against competitors, and they benefit from one of the oddities of the industry—that everyone pretty much has to make their business plans public, given all the filings required by state regulators. But comparisons seem to focus on products or programs. I don't hear the intensity I'd expect when it comes to other comparisons, especially on matters of operational efficiency.

The most startling insight I came away with after helping with a McKinsey book project a few years ago is that, while strategy and operations are often treated separately, a sustained edge on operational improvements can confer a major strategic advantage. The authors of "Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick: People, Probabilities, and Big Moves to Beat the Odds" found that improving operations 25% faster than the rest of the industry for a decade was one of the five most important strategic moves a company could take. And if you believe, as I do, that insurers can—and must—cut 50% of their operating costs over the next few years, then the issue takes on even more urgency. Get there faster than the other guy, and you can win big. You free up funds to invest in growth, attract more capital at better rates, draw talent and so on, creating a virtuous circle that can drive you to dominance.

But I mostly hear insurers comparing themselves to…themselves. There's a lot of talk about improvement in operational efficiency, but not about how that rates versus the competition—and the competition is the true measure.  

Insurers also brag about shortening the underwriting cycle, the handling of claims, etc., but, again, the frame of reference is almost always the company's prior results and not about competitors—which are also shortening the underwriting cycle, the handling of claims, etc. The same with improvements in customer experience: Sure, you're getting better—but are competitors getting better faster or slower?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I used to talk to a friend who was a senior executive at GM, complaining about how slow the company was to adapt to new customer demands in the digital age, and he'd tell me, "We're changing as fast as we can." I told him that the market didn't care how fast GM could change, that customer behavior was going to change as fast as it changed, and GM's only choice was to keep up or not. When the financial crisis came along in 2007-8, GM lost its ability to hide its problems, and it filed for bankruptcy.

I got to sit in on a couple of product review sessions that Bill Gates held in the early 1990s and was struck by how little he focused on his products and how much he focused on the competition. For the first half of each hour-long session, he quizzed the product team about what it thought competitors were doing or could be doing. Only then did he turn to his own product.

While the insurance industry has been making real progress on internal operations, on interactions with customers and on many other fronts, I think it's time to change the basis of comparison. Stop looking at what you did last year, and start looking at what the competition is doing this year. Be more like Gates and like Shiffrin's competitors and less like the GM of 20 years ago.

I'd say to imitate Shiffrin, but I'm not sure a once-in-a-generation genius can be copied. If Lindsey Vonn couldn't do it, I sure can't.  


Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.