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Experienced leaders will tell you that their most important asset is their people. “Good to Great” author Jim Collins said, “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”

Executive Summary

Most companies now tackling the initiative of establishing positive culture are the progressive startups and tech companies focused in Silicon Valley. Here, the authors reveal how the best insurers are already bringing unifying visions to life and offer some suggestions for the rest of the financial services sector to excite and energize their teams. For those that already have compelling and differentiated cultures, they toss out some ideas for bringing workers together to perpetuate those cultures.

The question then becomes not only how do you attract and hire good people, but how do you encourage them to stay. The answer: culture.

Culture is often overlooked in considering business growth and longevity. Most executives prefer to focus on the measurable statics as a gauge of health and success. To understand current revenue, they look to sales numbers; to understand potential revenue (marketing success), they look to leads; to understand customer retention, they look to customer satisfaction scores. But how do they determine if their team is aligned, engaged and reaching the epitome of their performance? The answer always is the organizational culture.

If we had to assign a metric to culture, it most likely would be measuring when culture does not work. That means attrition. Frequent and voluntary employee turnover has a negative impact on employee morale, productivity and company revenue. The Society for Human Resources Management says every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs an average of six to nine months’ salary. For example, a manager making $40,000 per year would cost $20,000 to $30,000 to recruit, train and onboard. This doesn’t even begin to tally the lost productivity of the team to which this person once belonged, nor the potential value he or she could have contributed to the organization through increased efficiency and innovation.

What can insurance carriers do to increase employee retention? This is where culture comes in. Studies show measurable increases in turnover for companies with poor or nonexistent culture. (See, for example, “Job Satisfaction and Employee Turnover Intention: What Does Organizational Culture Have to Do With It?” by Elizabeth Medina, Columbia University, Fall 2012.)

Catch-Up Mode

Workplace culture has become increasingly important in today’s evolving work environments. As such, culture is becoming something of a competitive advantage. This is where insurance carriers really have room to catch up. Most companies now tackling the initiative of establishing positive culture (via wellness programs, flexible vacation policies, meditation rooms, employee development initiatives, fitness offerings, work-from-home options, etc.) are the progressive startups and tech companies focused in Silicon Valley. More established industries such as banking, finance, healthcare and, yes, insurance must turn a pretty dramatic corner and rewrite the bylaws of corporate operations to catch up with this new push toward positivity in the workplace.

How can they do it?

  • Go on a mission—not just any mission, but one that’s inspirational, aspirational and progressive. Get something your teams will be excited to work behind and then get them engaged in bringing this mission to life. This is where culture focus groups, task force teams and quarterly events will help to make the mission real and foster employee buy-in. (Very important!)
  • Establish some authentic, realistic and actionable company values. Values are the underpinning of how each associate is committed to show up and engage and what they stand for in both a personal and professional realm. The alignment of values with activity is what orients behavior toward the achievement of the collective goals and company mission.
  • Make your mission and your values come alive. Every nook and cranny of your company should emanate and be a physical representation of the belief system from which you want your team to operate. If you seek to increase collaboration, set up open office space instead of cubicles and closed doors. Want to increase creativity? Add color, playful knick-knacks, and create an atrium in the center of your office with greenhouse lighting and lots of plants. Even better, pop out some windows and give folks a view of the natural world. (It’s been scientifically proven to improve problem-solving and creativity.)

Outside Inspiration

There’s something to be said for looking outside the insurance industry for inspiration. For example, witness cutting-edge arts organizations such as The Burning Man Project to see how they advance their employees’ understanding of the brand’s mission and values by making the movement’s colorful history and ongoing vitality the central theme of their office décor. Art pieces hang from the ceilings while crazy posters and beautiful, touching photographs adorn the walls. There’s a meeting room decorated to feel like you’re sitting in the living area of an RV. The office is open, alive and buzzing with energy. There’s also a distinct sense of mutual respect and caring between the people who work there. When teams work in a “special place” such as this, they are energized by being part of a larger effort to improve our world.

And don’t perpetuate that old “insurance is boring” chestnut, because your culture will only be as boring as you make it. If Funeral Directors Life Insurance of Abilene, Texas can be showered with accolades for the way its culture engages employees, including offering a sabbatical every seven years, so can your company. Use your imagination! Or, should that faculty somehow fail you, look at how tech companies are engaging employees through the community-building manifestations of their core values, such as Adobe’s novel approach to connect “employees’ pro bono projects and nonprofit board service to their professional development plans. So not only does their volunteer work strengthen their communities, but it advances their careers as well.” That’s a win-win for everyone, and nothing engages people more than knowing their work is helping others. Plus, the experiences they have in doing this community service inform their teams back at the office. That brings concerns about social equity and the environment, among others, into the otherwise mundane discussions about products and services.

Walk the Walk

However, there’s a big difference between saying you’re open to new ideas and approaches and actually creating an environment where these ideas can see the light of day.

Nationwide Insurance, which holds spot No. 6 on Fortune’s 40 Best Companies in Financial Services list for 2017, engages employees through the creation of a “safe place” where they are encouraged to take risks and are supported even if they fail to achieve their objectives. As one employee notes, “The uniqueness of this company is how it treats employees. My department is like a family. I appreciate the way constructive feedback is given to me, and I am encouraged to grow as an individual. When mistakes are made, a system is set up to protect the team from making the same mistake again. But the way feedback is delivered makes me want to be a better associate. There is no yelling, blaming or anger. There is only encouragement.” (Source: Fortune, “The 40 Best Companies in Financial Services, March 28, 2017) Is it any wonder Nationwide’s employees are so engaged and productive—and consequently, policyholders so loyal?

When you study other successful companies, it becomes clear that culture is not simply about team building, it’s about having a unifying vision that starts at the top and is brought to life through the team and the environment. It’s not enough to come up with an inspirational slogan and paint it on the walls. The most effective, innovative and progressive companies put their most brilliant minds at work to find original ways to make culture a tangible reality within your company.

Bring People Together
Want to grow? Expand? Succeed in a competitive marketplace? You need the best people. To attract that talent, you’ll need a culture that is compelling and differentiated from the competition. Once you have your culture, establish practices to bring people together.

  • Be humans together.Get out of the office and do something fun. Team building isn’t about sitting in conference rooms. It’s about getting outside of the corporate framework and being humans together. Go to a concert, arrange monthly happy hours, take a hike, conduct a food tour. Activities that overtly aim to draw in leadership lessons or practical takeaways are less powerful. Spending time together, sharing an experience or working toward a common goal allows bonding to happen more organically and far more effectively.
  • Keep it fun.Try something new, or learn together. It turns out that happiness and learning are closely linked. When you try new things together you each become slightly vulnerable, and it’s that vulnerability that builds good vibes and brings you closer together. If you’re interested in upping the ante, go for something really unusual: sky diving, zip lining, sailing, etc. Think outside of the box—and outside of the boardroom—and watch the positive feelings grow.
  • Build teams with intent and purpose. Team dynamics have a big impact on engagement. Seek diversity across varied dimensions. Constructing your teams purely based on industry experience or level of education means leaving out people with important skills such as crafting alliances, spurring motivation, or even letting people laugh and enjoy each other’s company. A diverse, engaged and healthy team culture will produce greater innovation and satisfaction than a bunch of jealous geniuses all looking out for No. 1.

Remember: There are no wrong answers here. You and your colleagues likely will come up with some real duds amidst the successes. But keep in mind that a huge part of building vibrant, positive cultures is making it OK to fail and paramount to trust.