By Harrell Kerkhoff,
Maintenance Sales News Magazine Editor
Aside from their importance in everyday life, what do the jan/san and insurance industries have in common? They both are often described as “non-sexy.” This does not mean, however, that companies in both lines of work are void of success and attracting top talent. In fact, the opposite can be true if proper company culture is understood, embraced and developed.
This was the message of Assurance Chief Marketing Officer Steven Handmaker, who discussed, “The Secrets To Creating A Competition-Crushing Culture,” during a recent ISSA event.
Assurance, of Schaumburg, IL, is one of the largest independent insurance brokerages in the United States. Over the past 10 years, Handmaker has helped leverage the power of employee culture, engagement and marketplace differentiation for the company, with the result being more than 100 national and local recognitions as a “top workplace.”
Improving the company’s culture has not only helped Assurance grow in employee satisfaction, but financially as well — doing so while in an industry that has become ever more commoditized.
According to Handmaker, authentic leadership is a major contributor to gaining and maintaining employee culture, trust, commitment and overall job satisfaction. Assurance has earned a 96 percent employee engagement ratio and, most importantly, learned to quantify how having a great workplace produces a significant return on investment, as well as a happier and healthier workforce.
A POPULAR PLACE
If the insurance industry is seen by some as dull, the same has not been true for many employees at Assurance.
According to Handmaker, the company has been named by the Chicago Tribune as the top place to work in Chicago. Fortune Magazine has also listed Assurance as having one of the best workplaces in the United States and was the only insurance brokerage on the list.
“Why is this happening? It hasn’t happened because we have tried to make sure all of our employees feel like rock stars, although we do. It hasn’t happened because we let people bring their dogs to the office, which we don’t. We also don’t have a bunch of foosball tables in the workplace,” Handmaker said. “What we do have is a very explicit company culture. It’s a culture based on very specific principles and an ideology that says, ‘Talent wins.’”
He noted that it’s hard for companies involved in commoditized industries to distinguish themselves and stand out. It’s also hard for a company to prove it provides the greatest services, employs the smartest people and/or is the most competitive on price.
“Even if you believe that to be true about your company, what you need to know is this — every business leader will say the same thing, and if somebody else is saying it, it’s not your own story,” Handmaker said.
The question is, what truly makes a company unique and successful when commoditization is part of the picture? For Assurance, the answer is “culture.” The same can be true for those companies involved in jan/san distribution.
According to Handmaker, cultivating great culture at a business can help highly engaged employees outperform others, when it comes to company growth percentages and other key metrics.
“If there is one common denominator, it’s often ‘culture.’ Workplaces that have highly engaged environments can experience great results,” Handmaker said.
Having a highly engaged and great workplace, however, does not mean the workforce is always happy.
“Not every employee is going to come to work and be happy every day. If happy is your goal, you are doing it wrong,” Handmaker said. “Engagement should be your goal. Engagement matters.”
WHAT IS CULTURE?
Culture is one of those words that most people think they understand but can’t fully define.
“If I were to ask a room full of people to write down the definition of ‘culture,’ I would get some zillion different answers. And, generally, they would all be correct,” Handmaker said. “Various definitions of ‘culture’ usually state something about ‘shared ideas’ and ‘shared values,’ which are both correct.
“I prefer to think of culture as an energy that finds and surrounds us. It includes a magical quality. It is also about common interests, shared beliefs, attitudes that align, shared experiences, core values — all of these things. I think culture is meant to get people excited at some level. I believe that is how business leaders should feel about culture. It often borders on a religious-feel.”
Culture that surrounds a company can become quite strong and experienced by both employees and customers. Handmaker gave Harley-Davidson and Apple as examples.
“How many brands and workplaces are there where people are so proud to align with a specific company that they will put its logo on their car bumper or have it tattooed on their arm? I see little ‘Apple’ stickers all of the time on cars,” he said. “These people want to be part of that specific company in some way. That is what a great culture can do.”
What are the underpinnings to building a great company culture? According to Handmaker, there are a few key points that have been identified by not only Assurance, but also the San Francisco, CA, based Great Place To Work Institute. They are:
• Have the right people “on the bus” — According to Handmaker, it really does matter that a company hires the right people.
“This is not because the right people are going to provide immediate success, it’s because the wrong people will kill you (as a company),” he said. “If you don’t have the right people ‘on the bus,’ this is one of the absolute killers in the workforce today. It matters.”
• Have clearly defined goals — “Do all of your employees know what your financial goals are as an organization? This seems elementary to me, but I talk with a lot of people and visit different businesses where many of their employees have no idea what the employer is trying to accomplish from a financial standpoint,” Handmaker said.
During the first 10 minutes of every marketing team meeting at Assurance, he added, each member of that team goes over the company’s financials. The same is true for other departments within the company.
• Engagement is the goal — Engagement is important not only for employees, but also customers.
“Engagement is essential all the way through,” he said. “Engagement can be measured and improved.”
• Transparency is vital — “Fortunately, at Assurance, our balance sheet is pretty simple and very accessible,” Handmaker said. “There is no hiding. Transparency is the way in which we operate.”
• Find the pain behind the pain — Working with employees is an involved process. Improvements in employee relations can be made in various ways. One of the first steps can involve employee surveys. This helps to truly recognize the wants, needs and desires of employees — as well as finding any hidden issues that may be upsetting them. Discussions with employees are also vital.
“What we (at Assurance) have continually found is that often, the first complaint from an employee is not the real complaint. The ‘pain behind the pain’ is something that really needs to be addressed,” he said. “Digging deeper matters. It helps solve problems that are really there among the workforce.”
• Appreciation and authenticity are free — “If you take away nothing else, please understand that your appreciation for a job well done by somebody else costs you nothing,” Handmaker said. “If you want your employees to believe in your leadership, if you want them to go along with your plans and have a great company culture, then you have to set good examples on how to act and how to be appreciative.
“Our employees (at Assurance) are the true stars of our company. We let them know this, and that we appreciate their hard work and dedication.”
• Fun and humor does not make you less smart — “Every day our employees start by reading a ‘quote of the day’ that has been sent to their computers. It typically involves a silly movie quote or song lyric, something fun to put a smile on their faces. The idea is to provide a sense of fun in the organization,” Handmaker said. “Fun brings everybody together. Pop culture works well as a device to share this fun. Don’t ignore the value of pop culture.”
• Success starts and ends with the “why” — Every company has its own reason of “why” it’s in business. At Assurance, it is to help customers “minimize risk and maximize health.”
“As an insurance brokerage, that is our job. That is what gets us excited, and every employee knows it,” he said. “We help people stay safe and stay healthy. We also help employers grow, which helps the economy. We help create fun, loving and exciting environments. This is the Assurance world.
“Every company should define its own vison and what it’s after.”
To help Assurance employees further understand their role in “minimizing risk and maximizing health,” Handmaker provided a challenge.
“I told all of my employees that if 85 percent of them would turn in a video selfie explaining how they have been ‘minimizing risk and maximizing health,’ they would be given a monetary reward,” he said. “I didn’t care how long each video was, whether two sentences or a movie. The result: 96 percent of these employees produced a video. Many were wacky and outlandish.
“The main objective of this challenge was met. Every employee who participated took the time to figure out what they do to contribute to the overall vision of our organization. It was well worth the money that we gave out as a result.”
THE COMPANY’S DNA
Just about every company has posted a core set of values. The problem is, employees often struggle to remember what exactly their specific company’s core values are or stand for, Handmaker said. In response, Assurance has come up with its “DNA,” an easy-to-remember acronym that stands for “Dominate, Navigate and Appreciate.”
“Our ‘DNA’ is easy to remember and best defines our culture,” Handmaker said. “This is who we are as a company.
“No. 1, we seek to ‘Dominate.’ This is an aggressive word, and it may make some people uncomfortable. However, the truth is, we want to be the best at what we do. In our business, often when somebody wins, somebody loses. If you, as an employee, are uncomfortable with that, you do not truly want to win.
“We used to say, ‘Competitiveness is a value.’ Well, maybe, but you can be competitive and still lose. We don’t like to lose, so we talk about domination.”
The word “Navigate” refers to not only reaching desired goals as a company, but personally as well, such as with a specific career.
“We (as a company) are here to help our employees with their career navigation, just like we are here to help our clients,” Handmaker said. “And finally, ‘Appreciate,’ is part of our DNA. We find big and little ways to appreciate. For managers, this is part of their job, and it costs them nothing.”
Handmaker also outlined 11 “best and brightest” employee traits that are part of the Assurance HR interview guide. These 11 traits are: accountable, ambitious, caring, ethical, flexible, participative, positive, proactive, responsive, smart and understanding.
“This does not mean that in order to have a certain job at Assurance, you have to be great at all 11 traits. However, these are the traits that we (as a company) think about the most,” Handmaker said. “You may ask, why are there 11 traits? That number has cultural meaning with the movie, ‘This Is Spinal Tap.’ As I mentioned, pop culture plays a big role at our organization.”
BONDING IS IMPORTANT
Many co-workers are together in the work setting the traditional eight hours a day, five days a week. There is value, however, when these same people find the time to share experiences away from work.
Handmaker gave an example of co-workers, including himself, who helped with a home makeover project involving a bedroom for a child with a life-threatening disease.
“There were 12 of us from Assurance. Our group included one person from my marketing team along with co-workers from other departments,” he said. “We spent the day working on the child’s bedroom, which included a big reveal after the work was completed.
“The event provided an incredible bonding experience for everyone involved. It brought people together.”
Handmaker discussed another program at Assurance that has provided many positive influences on the company’s culture. This involves the Assurance “Eye of the Tiger (another pop culture reference) Employee Wellness Program.” It includes such benefits as on-site annual biometric screenings and flu shots, access to a health coach and dietician, on-site cooking and stretching demos, and the company’s Wellness Olympics.
“This program is not only good for the health of our employees and the company’s bottom line, many of the events bring our people together and create bonding experiences,” Handmaker said. “The question every employer should ask is, ‘Are we, as a company, bringing our people together for something good? Does it involve all ages, all cultures and all races?’”
Other past and current programs that Handmaker discussed that helped bring Assurance employees closer together were:
• An employee challenge that involved each person sending 37 handwritten notes over the course of a year — 20 to business contacts and 17 to personal contacts.
“Everyone who sent 37 of these notes received a monetary reward. Our employees blew through this goal with a crazy number of handwritten notes,” Handmaker said.
• A company leadership objective of posting blogs, involving non-work subjects, that employees can relate to in a positive way.
“Among the most popular of these blogs are human experiences from our leadership team that have nothing to do with business. They are about being a working mother, about the struggles of adopting children, about attending high school reunions — human experiences that many people can relate to,” Handmaker said. “You can’t believe the conversation that gets stimulated. I wrote a blog about a former teacher who had passed away, and what I had learned from her. My voicemail and email were overwhelmed with employees wanting to share their stories of past teachers.”
• The practice of publicly celebrating the successes of employees.
“We celebrate a lot. For example, if an employee passes a class or gets a promotion — you can bet that person will soon have a celebratory helium balloon at his/her desk,” Handmaker said. “Each employee also receives a birthday card and gift, sent to his/her home, as well as a congratulatory call from our CEO.
“Other events include employee appreciation days. These activities don’t cost a lot, and employees look forward to their arrival.”
• The use of video as a positive tool.
“We use video. We overuse video. People will watch three-minute videos all day long,” Handmaker said. “We use videos to recruit for company committees, for encouragement and for fun.
“It’s all about engagement. Culture is important because it helps your employees become more involved. In return, they will help your company succeed, while telling other talented people that, ‘This is a great place to work.’ Culture helps talent win. We, at Assurance, know this to be true, and have the awards and performance to prove its value. If we can do this in the insurance industry, I promise you it can be done in your (jan/san) industry.”
Assurance is a top 50 insurance brokerage, providing employee benefits and property and casualty insurance solutions to business operations across the United States. Steven Handmaker can be reached at 847-463-7176 or