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There are a lot of experiences that Branch Insurance Co-Founder Steve Lekas took away from his 17 years working in the property/casualty insurance industry that shaped his thinking in building an InsurTech deeply rooted in community values.

Executive Summary

Branch Insurance, an InsurTech unicorn that offers nearly instant bundled personal lines insurance at prices below more established brands, is the only insurance company on Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list. The company’s chief people officer and chief executive believe that a mission, an inside-out brand, a culture intentionally shaped by nine root principles and transparent talent management practices are among the reasons.

What it felt like to leave one of those companies was one experience that left an indelible impression.

“You could have been a 20-year employee, and the first day that you announced you’re leaving, [even though] yesterday you were very much on the team, today we would walk you out and box up your stuff. You’d carry it out in front of all your colleagues, not being able to say anything to anyone.”

“That’s really hard on a human psyche,” Lekas said, also recalling how the people left behind would all take it personally that you left them, “especially your manager…This becomes about them.”

One of the talent management policies at Branch builds upon those memories.

“Isn’t it more logical to presume that everyone is going to leave at some point?” Lekas asks. “No one is going to start their career and end it here.” Given that, “so long as they left on good terms—they weren’t acting badly—why don’t we celebrate their part of our story? Their contribution?”

“Obviously, when they were here, we did,” he said, explaining how the celebration continues when a Brancher—the term that the company uses to describe a Branch employee—decides to leave. They get a letter from Lekas and a custom swag pack with unique branding “that you can’t get unless you’re an alum. We invite you to the alumni group on LinkedIn,” he said, referring to a group that now had 53 members as of early February.

“If we could get our employees living the brand, we believed that our membership would feel it. It would no longer be this thing that’s painted on the wall.”

Steve Lekas, Branch Insurance

“A whole bunch of people aren’t on the team exactly anymore, but they’re on the team,” Lekas said.

“We want our members to feel that same way,” he said, referring to Branch insureds and confirming that internal goodwill reaches beyond the company.

“You were part of something special, and we did our best to serve you,” he said, going on to draw a link between the communal feelings of former Branch employees and their prior missions to serve insureds. “We are codependent on one another, whether it’s working relationships or us serving as a facilitator of the community’s capital. Those things, I think, are really binding.”

Team loyalty is also evident among some 450 employees currently on staff at the Columbus, Ohio-based reciprocal exchange—229 of whom posted reviews on the online job site Glassdoor, giving the insurer an average rating of 4.6 out of 5.0 stars. Branch is the only insurance company to make Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list in 2023 (small-to-medium companies).

“Branch lives into their roots and truly cares about their employees as much as they do their members,” a typical reviewer says.

Branch’s roots are a set of nine principles that staffers hold one another accountable for on a daily basis, forming the foundation of the culture. It’s no accident that Branch’s average Glassdoor rating and its average ratings from insureds, or members, on sites like Google (4.4) and WalletHub (4.6) are very similar, nor that the roots include phrases that also appear in brand statements delivered to members.

“Get each other’s back. Being a good person is a prerequisite here…You always need empathy and a sense of purpose to be on the Branch team,” one root says. “When it comes down to it, that’s what insurance is—getting someone’s back. We don’t just sell it as a product. We live it daily,” explains another description of this root on Branch’s website.

For members, the idea of “getting back to get each other’s back” takes insurance back to its farm mutual roots, where communities assembled to pool their resources and help each other through disasters, according to Lekas, who co-founded the company with the idea of “communal good” in mind. (Related article, “Branch Insurance Sprouts From Roots of Asking Why“)

Pratiksha Patel, Branch’s chief people officer, described how the founders wove the communal vision of insurance business together with the roots communicated to employees—seizing “the opportunity and the power of having our ultimate Branch member experience be part and parcel in a complete ‘inside-out brand’ as a company, where the brand on the inside matches the brand on the outside.”

Patel joined Branch from CB Insights in November 2022, taking the people part of responsibilities formerly held by Dan Spiegel, who was Branch’s head of marketing and people before she came on board. “That was an organizational outcome of bundling these two functions together,” she said, referring to the realization of an inside-out brand. “And more important than just brand is the manifestation of the brand, which is [that] the experience our members have is a reflection and completely cohesive with the experience [of] our Branchers.”

“That is what was brilliant and really awesome as a foundation—having these two functions jointly together and tackling what I like to call the yin and yang of that intention, our outward-facing culture and our internal culture.”

“It is unusual to have high coordination without explicit intentions because the default is a mode of operating in silos.”

Pratiksha Patel, Branch Insurance

“We want to have high coordination across the organization, across the functions,” she added, as she went on to explain some of the focus of her role going forward. “It is unusual to have high coordination without explicit intentions because the default is a mode of operating in silos…It feels like it’s easier, but ultimately it doesn’t serve the mission as well.”

Mission-Driven Roots

Like many Brancher’s leaving Glassdoor reviews, Patel was attracted to join Branch by the altruistic focus of the company—a mission to make insurance less expensive so that more people can be insured. “Branch is the first truly mission-driven company I have worked with,” Patel said. “The genesis of people coming together around a mission and then how that unfolded” as the company grew—”that is what hooked me.”

“I didn’t know Branch as an InsurTech company. I didn’t know insurance as an industry. I didn’t know anybody or have a prior connection with anybody in the company. I started meeting folks who had a strong conviction about something worthwhile and then through that learned what that mission was and really got to the place of feeling like first, that that’s an awesome mission and really worthwhile problem to tackle in the space, and then, these are the people who can do it.”

“The business problem that Branch set a mission toward, which is that the insureds of America are not being served as well as they can be, is not that dissimilar from the general thesis [of] what I like to drive from an organizational culture perspective, which is that we could do better to serve the employees in organizations in a similar fashion with the experience they’re getting” internally, she said. “There was quite a bit of resonance in the notion of reducing friction for our members [insureds] and also reducing friction so that we can engage our employees in purpose and meaning and having impact. And being a startup, that is more possible than what often is the case in mature organizations that are a little calcified in the ways of doing things,” she said.

(Editor’s Note: Underscoring its mission-driven focus, Branch recently announced that it became a certified B Corporation in January. Related online article: Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Now Insurer Branch: All Certified B Corps“)

In the earliest days of the startup, when Lekas and co-founder Joe Emison were the only two employees thinking through details like corporate structure and funding, they were also intentionally crafting a mission and a culture for the team that was yet to be.

A lot of the conversations were based upon their own experiences and thinking about how to avoid the malaise that creeps into big companies over time, Lekas said. “How do you think about the overhead, and the friction, and the perfection of that customer experience that you can very much have as the sole proprietor or the only employee? That is very difficult to replicate across dozens of layers and thousands of employees. And we believed that the only way you could do this was first to have a mission and to be clear about why you’re here. What’s the purpose that you bring to the world?”

“That mission, if it could be clearly articulated and well understood, would be an aligning force. You wouldn’t have as much, ‘What should I do?’ and ‘Let’s compete based off of our [individual] good agendas for who’s better at the political structure to see who gets funded and promoted.'”

He continued, “Without a mission, how could you know what to do or how to be special to your membership?” To his mind, typical insurance company missions peppered with phrases like “market-leading, preferred dot-dot-dot profitable growth” wouldn’t cut it. “If we could get our employees living the brand, we believed that our membership would feel it. It would no longer be this thing that’s painted on the wall. If you could design the cultural values in a way that could be spoken in common language, then you could introduce it in a way that could be more tangible. And then you’d start to hear it spoken in meetings.”

Patel, a newbie of the Branch team, confirmed that she hears the “roots” spoken continuously. “Every single day, there are multiple roots being used within sentences about what we’re doing. ‘I’m going to pick up the phone,’ ‘Who’s going to call the play on this?’ ‘I want to share something.’ ‘Hey, we’re past V1.’ ‘We learned a lot, time to automate it.’ These are the literal sentences that come up multiple times a day,” she said, using the phrases of the roots. (See sidebar, “Living Branch’s Roots” for explanations of the phrases.)

“There was some intent around that. They were written in such a way that they can be part of everyday speech. That was by design, [and] that then has that multiplier effect,” she believes.

Tom Kuhn, Branch’s senior director of communications, who joined Branch from neighboring InsurTech Root Insurance early last year, said the “look for positive intent” root is among his favorites and epitomizes the theme of Branchers generally caring about on another. Having it in writing is a reminder that “we’re all in this to help our members have a better experience. It gives everybody almost a behavioral North Star that gets everybody aligned and focused on the same goals. And it helps to lessen some of the frictions you might have in working with a group,” he said.

Patel’s personal favorite root is the first one documented on Branch’s website: Ask Why. “When you’re new, and always, you want to lean into everyone’s curiosity. I want others to ask me why and vice versa,” she said, stressing the openness of the “two-way ask why” proposition. “If everyone feels there’s a space to be curious, we could only learn more and get better—and feel better because when you demonstrate curiosity, you not only get the intel to do better, but you also get the attention and the understanding to ultimately feel better.”

“Both of these things are relevant to how you bring yourself to work every day,” she said.

Transparency Reigns

“What I see over and over again, and what I hear, is that our Branchers feel seen, feel heard. People care about them. Most organizations aspire to these things—to these places of being smarter, efficient and feeling good about the operation. For us, the difference is we fundamentally believe if we care about the other person’s experience—the collaborator, the colleague, the peer, the manager, the direct report—that we will learn more and we will be able to remove friction in whatever that is and whatever we’re trying to get done for our members,” Patel said.

The mutual respect that employees have for one another extends to management-employee relationships, demonstrated through the talent management practices designed to promote Brancher satisfaction and development. “Something we’ve done remarkably different than what I’ve seen is the degree of depth and transparency around the different components that are often viewed as HR programs that support and enable Brancher success,” Patel said, providing an example of a transparent job architecture. “Here, it’s called our ladders and levels. So, you know what the functional ladder is and then the different levels and what’s expected in them—clear role expectations are defined in this full structure.”

“Our compensation strategy is also part of that.” In fact, job descriptions on Branch’s career page list “pay equity and transparency” near the top of the reasons for job applicants to consider joining the company.

“We have a philosophy that we’ve shared with the whole company and we adhere to” in other facets of talent management as well, Patel said, offering the performance review processes as an example. “Not just the process but what is going to be assessed is very transparent and consistent. And the thing that doesn’t get talked about all the time in the world of organizations, you also have areas where performance is lacking. What’s the consistent, fair and openly shared method [when] we find a challenge with performance? Here’s how we will mutually work on that. That is also transparent,” she said.

Living Branch’s Roots

The career page of the Branch Insurance website explains the rules that teammates, aka Branchers, live by with a set of nine “roots.”

Ask why. It’s how we better learn, understand and stay on the same page

Call the play. We don’t let great ideas get caught up in red tape. You’ve got the freedom to go for it.

This is V1. Progress over perfection. Get the first version out there, test it and make it better.

The top today. We’re honest with each other and ourselves about what we need to deliver on, whether it be more help, time or resources. Prioritize what’s realistic and can make the most meaningful impact in the time you have.

Automate it. Automation big and small lowers the cost to operate our business. This enables us to lower the cost of insurance. That’s the whole ballgame.

Look for the positive intent. Ask respectful questions. Look at the context. Give open feedback. Find the opportunity to make each other even stronger and smarter.

Pick up the phone. When you’re working over digital channels it can be easy to misunderstand someone. Caught a weird vibe during a meeting? Need more clarity on a deliverable? At Branch, we don’t let those kinds of things fester.

Celebrate our wins. Sometimes it’s a great analysis to drive a decision. Sometimes a win can be a great kickoff meeting to execute a really thoughtful experiment. In these cases, we celebrate, always making sure we’re out there giving more high fives than we get.

Get each other’s back. Being a good person is a prerequisite here. Yes, you need to have the skills and the work ethic. But you always need empathy and a sense of purpose to be on the Branch team.

Source: Branch career page and blog entry, “Branch State of the Business, part 5

There is also a structure around career development and development conversations. “Together, we’ve packaged all these things as an overall structure for Brancher success. We’ve written them and we’ve presented them and we’ve trained to them—and we’ll keep training to them,” Patel said.

In her new role as people leader, Patel aims to work with the building blocks she’s inherited and to make sure everything remains congruent and connected as the young company scales up. Branch leaders talk about “high coordination and what’s called horizontal alignment as we get bigger and bigger and bigger.” In short, she wants to be sure that Branch avoids the downsides of silos as it grows, she said.

“Our customer experience is touched by many functional departments. [There is] necessity for our claims department, our processing team and our member support department to be cohesive and coordinated because any given member could be touching any of those. They need to have a frictionless experience,” she said, going on to describe the opposite—a disjointed experience, which is often a result of the organization itself and the departments within it operating in a disjointed way.”

Asked directly how the company can make sure that its culture survives as it grows, Patel offered an answer that she admitted might seem overly simplified. “It’s to pay attention to it,” she said. “Demonstrating intention is probably a better phrase,” she said, reporting that at a recent leaders meeting, “one of the topics we were intentionally and proactively unpacking was scaling the culture.”

There was demonstrated attention that this matters in a “very, very big robust group” that attended the meeting.

During a separate interview, Lekas offered a similar response. “I don’t know that there’s actually a way to fully manage it…But what you can do is you can be very vigilant and very disciplined.” He offered the example of finding someone that is not culturally aligned: “When you say to someone else, ‘Why is that person even here? Their ripple is so wide.’ In many of my past lives, someone would say, ‘Well, yeah, that guy’s a jerk, but he gets results.'”

“You can’t have this mission and brand identity that you’ll live if it’s inauthentic. These are not always black and white. You have to be very vigilant and very disciplined to positively select the staff that’s going to serve the mission and the membership, then unnaturally select out the folks that can’t deliver on any of those cultural values.”

“On the membership side, it ends up being the same thing. The membership is a group of people who’ve transacted insurance their whole lives. Typically, an insurance buyer at Branch has already been insured for 25 to 30 years. And we’re trying to tell them something that they’re not expecting to hear. We’re trying to explain to them that the way they thought about insurance might not actually be the way that would most benefit them. We’re trying to take a first step, but they’re going to keep operating with us the way they’re expecting to operate with us, until we can demonstrate a different outcome and credibility with them.”

“These things are hard and take time. When you’re in startup, you’re iterating so fast. How much patience can you have? How vigilant can you be on what your beliefs were vs. what convictions you should have held more loosely?”

“You have to continually ingest new information so that you can evolve your convictions, but then be really disciplined when you are convicted and trim the edges. It’s [like] underwriting ideology, I suppose, but continue to trim the edges to get to the outcome that you think will scale.”

While neither executive knew the exact formula, they believe it’s working.

“What I kept telling the staff, which just blows my mind, is we had 10 employees, and people would ask me, ‘Hey, as we scale, how are we going to keep the culture?’ I’d tell them, ‘I’m not really sure.’ Then we had 30 employees, and I got the same question. Then we had 100 employees, I got the same question. We had 400 employees. People are asking, ‘This is so great here. How are we going to keep it?’ I’m thinking, ‘Well, we are.’ I can’t entirely explain why exactly it’s working so well. All that said, at the same time, you can see the frays at certain edges. And we try to be really active. We spend a lot of time caring about if we’re operating in a way that creates the scenario that allow our employees to take the agency in their work on behalf of our members that we desperately want them to take.”

“That tends to be the lens that we look through,” he concluded.

Related article: Branch Insurance Sprouts From Roots of Asking Why