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(This article is based on a presentation made by Libby at the IICF Women in Insurance Global Conference in New York on June 13, 2013.)

CEOs are often grilled in boardrooms on innumerable challenges: achieving financial targets; reviewing acquisition candidates; managing in an unsettled economic environment, just to name a few. But one topic is discussed far less frequently: “Are you hiring the best talent?”

Executive Summary

What do CEOs look for when they hire talent? Crum & Forster’s CEO Doug Libby says the answer is game changers. In this article, he spells out the five traits that define his view of game changers.

Perhaps the board assumes that by the time one becomes a CEO, one has developed the skills to instinctively select the best candidates. Trust me, instinct is useful, but it is far better to know the specific characteristics you’re looking for when bringing on a new entrant into the field or an established veteran who is changing firms.

Naturally, my views on this topic are influenced by my personal experiences. I began my career as a lawyer and then became general counsel of an investment bank. Both of those positions tend to make people suspicious and, at times, cautious. You don’t want to be taken advantage of.

I later became the CEO of an insolvent insurance company that I was able to turn around. That was an absolutely great learning experience, because you have nothing (no credit rating, no funding, and clients that look at you askance). You have to correct everything, and the only thing you can count on is your staff—including the people you bring on.

Before I go into the five key traits, let me give you what I consider the overriding arc to this story: I am looking for “game changers.” By definition, these are individuals who are visionaries in their specialties. They see the status quo as an impediment and are willing to act on their convictions. They think differently but in a realistic and doable fashion. You see, anyone can spout radical ideas. Game changers, on the other hand, see opportunities off to the side when everyone else is looking down the same path.

#1—Dive Into The Intellectual Pool

I look for candidates who are willing to learn all the elements of our business, not just their particular specialty. Insurance is a complex and demanding field. To really understand it, you have to have a working knowledge of underwriting, claims management, regulatory issues, accounting and finance, loss control, actuarial reserves, IT, and marketing.

This knowledge does not come overnight. It requires a great deal of effort and time on both the employee and company side. We at Crum & Forster have re-instituted an extensive training program because it is difficult to put the educational burden solely on the employee. Some companies, particularly in the high-tech industry, have done a great job of encouraging intellectual curiosity. We in the insurance industry have to do more.

Game changers see opportunities off to the side when everyone else is looking down the same path.

By the way, as a personal bias, I believe that intellectual curiosity should extend way beyond the world of insurance. Whether an underwriter is a home repair do-it-yourselfer or an aficionado of modern architecture, that person brings more astute observations to property insurance, as an example.

#2—Tough Assignments? Bring ’em On!

More than just intellectual curiosity, one must be willing to learn all parts of the business by taking on tough assignments. In other words, step up and volunteer. Your contribution will be enormous, and you will gain the respect and admiration of your boss and management.

I assure you, it pays off. A 2012 McKinsey & Co. study reported that successful women are “willing to consistently go above and beyond to get the job done.”

Which tough assignments are particularly important to management?

  • Broken or unprofitable units.Can you contribute to fixing and restoring a department or division that has become a drain on the corporate coffers?
  • Difficult personnel issues.Such issues take time, which most CEOs don’t have a lot of. Correcting personnel issues requires listening, coaching, hiring and sometimes firing. If you have skills in those areas, that’s very valuable.
  • Operational failures. Not everyone can manage projects well or design and execute operational processes. Whether it is installing servers or conducting a premium audit, if you are logical and methodical, you should step up for these projects.

Learning how to handle these issues will give you a far deeper understanding of the business than any of your peers. Better still, you will master the language of each functional area. Be a polyglot. Be a polymath. (If you’re not familiar with these terms, now is a good time to research them.)

#3—Creativity: The Spark That Starts The Fire

Assuming you’re intellectually curious and willing to learn by taking on tough assignments, what’s next? It’s time to think outside the box, be a contrarian, challenge standard assumptions and think about new ways to do things. In essence, be creative.

Many people confuse creativity with artistic talent. Let me assure you, you don’t need a paintbrush and easel to be creative. Business creativity is questioning every premise, challenging conventional wisdom, not accepting the “truth” of something merely because everyone else views it as obvious, and then thinking through to a new and more viable solution.

If you are running a small or poorly performing company, then imitating a much larger company with far greater resources is not likely to be a strategy for success. It’s important to write different risks and handle them differently and better than your competitors.

#4—Game Changers May Not Look Like You Or Me

As one of the great social psychologists, Robert Cialdini, aptly put it: We like to be around people who are just like us. That may be fine for a golf foursome, but it is limiting and potentially discriminatory in the world of business. We should always want the best people—the best game changers—and that means we need to adapt to all kinds of people, with different backgrounds and behaviors.

Again, the high-tech industry seems to have adopted this mantra. It’s time for the insurance industry to do the same.

#5—Be Ambitious & Assertive

It is always challenging to talk about this element of behavior because it can be misinterpreted. Taken to an extreme, any type of confrontational behavior can be counterproductive.

Business creativity is questioning every premise, challenging conventional wisdom, not accepting the “truth” of something merely because everyone else views it as obvious, and then thinking through to a new and more viable solution.

I look for candidates who can seize an opportunity and express themselves—who have a vision and can express it. For new entrants into the field, I highly recommend getting a mentor and asking for his or her help in undertaking this part of your career development.

As the content of this article was delivered at the Women in Insurance Global Conference, I want to conclude with a bit of research reported by McKinsey & Co. in 2012 about successful women. According to the report, successful women demonstrate:

  • A robust work ethic, with a willingness to go beyond to get the job done.
  • A results orientation, with a relentless focus on achieving impact.
  • Grit and resilience in the face of adversity.
  • An active elicitation of feedback from leadership, peers and subordinates
  • Team leadership, with the ability to motivate individuals.

As a CEO I hope in the future to see more candidates with these traits. The insurance industry can be fun and exciting; game changers—women and men—can help make that environment happen.