Challenges facing today’s business leaders include keeping pace with rapid change, the leader of Travelers said recently while also going out of his way to cast light on a serious obstacle to forward progress: polarization.
“I think it’s a big problem,” said Alan Schnitzer, chairman and chief executive officer of Travelers, as he spoke during the 100th episode of the carrier’s webinar series, “Wednesdays with Woodward,” hosted by Joan Woodward, president of Travelers Institute, the public policy division and educational arm of Travelers.
“There are lots of challenges we face as a country—education policy, healthcare policy, immigration policy. Wherever you stand on those issues,…whether it’s in Washington or state capitals among our public policy makers, or whether it’s among ordinary citizens, I don’t think gridlock serves us,” Schnitzer said.
“As a leader, I try to be very outspoken about rejecting cancel culture. I think cancel culture and the inability to engage and share ideas is problematic.”
Instead, he encourages the opposite. “I try to promote pluralism. This idea that competing ideas can coexist—that we can agree to disagree but respect people’s rights to have different points of view,” he said. “Through that, you get together and hopefully in the spirit of constructive engagement, you try to solve problems.”
Schnitzer, who reviewed some highlights of his career and also offered advice for future leaders during the webinar episode, was very clear that he believes he has no business weighing in on red-vs.-blue, pro-this or anti-that unless the topic under discussion impacts the insurance industry and its stakeholders.
Woodward—crediting Schnitzer with the idea of creating the webinar series that aims to assemble “thought leaders from across industry and government” to discuss today’s biggest challenges and to explore “pressing topics at the intersection of insurance, business, and public policy”—asked the CEO, “Why do you believe it is important for companies to be thought leaders on societal challenges?”
“I’m not sure that I do think that’s important, at least not writ large on societal issues generally,” responded Schnitzer, who had a corporate law practice before joining Travelers.
He went on to clarify that the mission of the Travelers Institute “is about weighing in on issues that address our stakeholders, our industry, our customers, the communities that we serve…Given our industry leadership, given our expertise, I think we’ve got the opportunity—and a responsibility—to weigh in on those things. But when it comes to societal issues that aren’t directly related to our business, aren’t directly related to our stakeholders, I don’t feel an obligation. And I think, probably more often than not, it’s a mistake to weigh in there,” Schnitzer said.
“When it comes to societal issues that aren’t directly related to our business, aren’t directly related to our stakeholders, I don’t feel an obligation. And I think, probably more often than not, it’s a mistake to weigh in there.”
Alan Schnitzer, Travelers
The timing of the webcast of the event, occurring almost simultaneously with a congressional vote to finally push through a partisan logjam to elect Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., as Speaker of the House, was purely fortuitous. Still, to viewers who signed up to attend the Travelers webinar weeks ago, the moment seemed well-timed as Schnitzer voiced his strong opinion that insurance leaders have a responsibility to speak out against polarization—proposing fixes ranging from encouraging employees to be well-informed to offering a “civics-in-a-box” learning tool for organizations.
It was not the first time Schnitzer spotlighted the topic. During an acceptance speech for the St. John’s University Insurance Leader of the Year award earlier this year, Schnitzer said polarization was an issue that was increasingly on his mind, according to a transcript of the event. “We’re living in a moment when polarization is tempting and easy. More than ever, we’re all likely to live in a bubble and consume—and be consumed by—opinions and other content that speak almost exclusively to our views and viewpoints.”
“And we don’t just have our views reinforced; we’re moved by forces—algorithms, grievance, culture and otherwise—that push us from polarization to intolerance,” he added. These same forces push us “to see people who don’t share our views as a threat, to be canceled—or worse,” he said.
He noted that the “dangerous division is occurring against the backdrop of actual threats,” going on to list extreme weather, pandemic, war and geopolitical tensions, as well as public policy struggles related to immigration and infrastructure.
Later during the Leader of the Year speech, he said, “I don’t mean this to be red or blue—just sensible,” asserting that “both common sense and history teach us that the best way to deal with big challenges—maybe the only way—is together” through the embrace of tolerance and pluralism.
Continuing his crusade during the webinar last week, Schnitzer offered this advice in response to an audience member seeking his advice for young insurance professionals: “Read the newspaper every day,” he said, articulating his first tip. “It’s OK with me if it’s one article on the front page, but I would say read it every day. Extra credit if you read an Op-Ed. And maybe a Gold Star if you read the other newspaper—meaning if your politics lean left, read a right-leaning newspaper. If your politics lean right, [then] read a left-leaning newspaper.”
(Editor’s Note: Schnitzer is not the only insurance leader to speak out against polarization in Carrier Management articles. Before he took on recent leadership roles at American International Group, industry veteran Don Bailey voiced his own concern about extreme views and binary belief systems in his article, “Finding Common Ground: Beware of Always or Never.”)
Beyond the Message: Civics in a Box
Beyond speaking out against polarization, Woodward noted that Schnitzer initiated the launch of an initiative known as “Citizen Travelers” two years ago in an effort to drive that positive change through civic engagement. Schnitzer explained that Citizen Travelers is designed to “encourage and support our employees getting involved in civic life in whatever ways are important to them. It could range from registering to vote to running for elected office, and anything in between those two extremes.”
The Travelers website describes Citizen Travelers as a collection of in-house programs and nonprofit partnerships that give employees “resources and support to learn more, engage in our democracy as informed citizens and help shape the civic life of their communities.”
“Our partnerships, programs and resources are designed to provide accurate, nonpartisan information on everything from U.S. history to the basic workings of government to how to become more involved in civic life,” the website says, suggesting that these tools and resources give its employees the information they need to “make an impact.” The website also spotlights several employees who are involved civically in their communities—among them, a man who serves on his community’s economic development commission and a woman who spearheaded an effort to renovate abandoned houses on her block.
“I like to say it’s aggressively nonpartisan,” said Schnitzer during the webinar. “People should get out there and do what’s important to them—and engage in ways that they want to engage. But they need to engage.”
Tying this back to his earlier message, Schnitzer said that as a CEO, he’s often asked to weigh in on issues—”some of them pretty controversial.” He added, “I’m not shy about weighing in on topics, controversial or not, that are important to our business. But where there are topics that aren’t directly related to our business, who am I to develop Traveler’s view on that?”
In some instances, executives do need to weigh in on controversial topics that impact their business stakeholders.
Travelers CEO Alan Schnitzer has joined other executives in voicing opinions on these issues:
• The humanitarian crisis resulting from the inflow of asylum-seekers to the U.S. Schnitzer was one of the signatories on an open letter (August 2023) sent to the president and federal lawmakers in support of federal funding for educational, housing, security and health care services to offset the costs that local and state governments are incurring, and urging expedited processing of asylum applications and work permits for those who meet federal eligibility standards.
• Certification of the last election. Schnitzer signed a letter from business leaders to Congress on Jan. 4, 2021, urging lawmakers to certify the electoral vote on Wednesday, Jan. 6. “Attempts to thwart or delay this process run counter to the essential tenets of our democracy,” the letter said.
• Condemning the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021. Schnitzer conveyed his thoughts in social media posts, including this Jan. 7, 2021, message on Travelers Facebook page: “The hallmark of our democracy is the peaceful transition of power. The attack on the United States Capitol was a shameful assault on that most sacred principle. In America, we settle our political disagreements with ballots, not with violence. We must never bend to those who traffic in fear and chaos. Let us come together to reaffirm our commitment to our democracy.”
“We’ve got employees, we’ve got customers, we’ve got agent and broker partners, shareholders that span the whole political spectrum. So, if it’s not an issue that’s front and center to our business, who am I to be expressing a corporate view? I may have my personal view, but I’m not sure Travelers needs to have a corporate view on those things.”
Still, he said, “That doesn’t mean Travelers doesn’t have a role to play. We’ve got 30,000 employees who should, as citizens, have a view and should get involved…Citizen Travelers is meant to support them in doing that.”
Woodward noted that the Travelers Institute has partnered with Citizen Travelers to deliver webinars focused on civic learning.
“We’ve long been a good corporate citizen. This is about being a corporation of good citizens,” Schnitzer said, noting that he wants the initiative to expand beyond the walls of Travelers. “We’ve taken our experience and created ‘Citizen Travelers in a Box’ because I would love to promote this idea for other companies. We’re happy to share this program with other businesses. They can take it, they can white-label it, they can rename it. And we will share with them the things that we’ve learned, the things that have worked, the things that haven’t worked,” he said.
“The more people engaging, the better,” he said, encouraging interested listeners to send an email to CitizenTravelers@Travelers.com.
The Pace of Change
During the webinar session, Woodward asked Schnitzer to talk about a variety of topics other than polarization, including what he looks for when recruiting for the management team, the importance of culture, being a net attracter of talent (even including rehires of “boomerang” employees who left during the pandemic), Travelers’ work-from-home policy, why D&I is a business imperative, Travelers investments in technology and innovation, and the importance of communication from leaders.
Teeing up the communications topic, Woodward recalled lengthy weekly emails that the CEO sent to the entire Travelers workforce every Friday for the first five or six months of the pandemic, when everyone was working remotely.
“That was unsettling, to say the least, to be scattered to the winds,” Schnitzer said, recalling his own feelings that prompted him to initiate the series of messages.
“They were pretty substantive emails, and a lot of it was stream of consciousness…things that were on my mind,” said Schnitzer, noting that his goal was “to keep everybody feeling connected and supported.” He recalled the last line of the first email he sent—”We’re going to get through this the way we get through everything—together”—to illustrate his intention.
“Every week, I had hundreds of replies and I replied to every one of those,” he said, noting that the thousands of email conversations connected him with people that he probably would not have otherwise met.
Later in the session, responding to a question about the importance of culture, Schnitzer said culture gives everyone in the company a road map. “In other words, you can give people more autonomy if there’s a culture to guide them. And that may be more important in this business than many,” because in an insurance company there are “literally thousands of people that make individual decisions to put risk on our books in terms of underwriting, and thousands of claim professionals that make individual decisions in managing our liabilities, our claims…”
“When you’ve got that many people making individual decisions that individually, and collectively, are so consequential, it’s very important for those people to know what’s expected and for them to do it at a place that they appreciate,” he said.
As for cancel cultures, and the need to fight against them, Schnitzer first mentioned his worries about polarization when Woodward asked him to list some of the biggest challenges facing today’s business leaders earlier in the webinar session. In addition to polarization, he said the macroeconomic environment is a challenge, although he views inflation as less of a challenge for insurance than many other businesses.
“Regulatory challenges, particularly in this industry—we see the problem with the availability of insurance in some states like California and Florida, and I think there were real regulatory challenges to that,” he added.
“Maybe the one challenge that all of us face is the pace of change and the need to focus on what we need to do to prepare businesses for the future,” he said. “I can remember a time not all that long ago where it felt like you could go days or weeks or months and you could just focus on what you needed to do today,” he said, underscoring the now universal leadership problem of developing future-focused strategies in a rapidly changing world.
“We often think of it in terms of technology, things like artificial intelligence, and I think that’s appropriate, but businesses really need to think down the road. We need to think about what bets we need to place today that are going to pay off down the road because some of these things take years,” going on to quote an idea from Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs—that innovation means “saying no to a thousand good ideas.”
“It’s about avoiding a thousand good ideas that don’t really matter and [instead] identifying the couple of things that are going to move the needle, and investing and going fast and hard on those.”
Travelers executives have identified AI as one of the things that matters.
Referring to Travelers Institute’s second-most popular webinar installment, “Making Sense of Emerging AI Capabilities like ChatGPT,” (which ranked behind the Schnitzer interview in popularity), Woodward asked the CEO to share his specific thoughts on the use of AI in insurance. “It might be different for every business, but I think it’s hard to say the opportunity that comes from technology and AI isn’t going to be profound across the entire economy.”
“For business leaders, that means figuring out how to get it right,” he said, adding that while this isn’t “an urgent crisis today or tomorrow, in the coming days, weeks, months and years,” leaders need to “figure out what bets are going to be the right bets for their businesses.”
During a second-quarter earnings conference call, Schnitzer talked about the $1.5 billion that Travelers will spend on technology in 2023. “That includes a meaningful increase in investments to develop required cutting-edge AI capabilities built on modern cloud technology,” he said on the earnings call.
At both events, he said that AI-focused investments are aimed at advancing three specific strategic priorities: extending Travelers’ lead in risk expertise; providing great experiences for customers, agents, brokers and employees; and optimizing productivity and efficiency.