How Jeffrey Bowman acted with a sense of urgency to change Crawford Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2011
How Jeffrey Bowman acted with a sense of urgency to change Crawford

When Jeffrey Bowman stepped into the president and CEO role at Crawford & Co., he knew it wasn’t just the top leader that was changing — the organization was going to need to, as well.

“I use the term ‘acting with a sense of urgency,’” he says. “It was changing the speed to be a global organization and being able to demonstrate that we were a global organization with global clients. … Crawford is actually 70 years old this year as an organization, so a lot of organizations around the 60- to 65-year mark really get themselves to where they have to go through some cultural changes.”

One of the things he saw that needed to change was how the company shared its plans with employees. Typically, plans weren’t shared at all with those working at the insurance company. When nobody knew the plan, people tended to not care what other areas of the organization were doing, so silos had been built across the business.

“We had silos in our organization between various divisions,” he says. “We weren’t sharing best practices around the globe in either management information or technology. We had a very siloed effect around what we were doing around that. We didn’t have a head office that was really dictating to our overseas operations exactly how we expected them to behave as a public company and as a large organization.”

To get the organization acting more as one, he knew he would need to come up with a good plan and hold people accountable. His hope was that in doing these two things, Crawford would start to act more cohesively and become better positioned for the future.

“It’s a journey, and your strategy helps you lay that journey out because you can never change a culture immediately,” Bowman says. “You have to work at cultural changes, and you have to work at the messaging in organizations.”

Create a plan

The first thing Bowman had to do to get the company operating more cohesively was create a strategic plan.

“It’s like a journey — you have to have a point you want to get to,” he says.

Start with what the basics of your organization are — why you exist and finding a way to support that.

“It was really a case of bringing it to a focus of, ‘That is where we start — our mission, vision and value proposition are critical to the organization,’” he says. “Then your strategy comes out of that. … It becomes the focal point of what you do. It’s how you send your messages out. Your vision has to dictate how you behave.”

Bowman looked at many different facets of the company in creating a plan, including talent management, products, financials, dealings with clients and company culture for employees.

“You have to have different parts in the strategic plan,” he says.

As you identify the things that you want as part of your plan, you have to be open to changing it based on what other people say, regardless of whether that person is a clerk or a senior person.

“You have to outline those issues which are important, and what you want to do is make sure you can talk to anybody in the organization about it,” Bowman says. … “They have to have an understanding of what you’re trying to do.”

Bowman and his team created the strategy for Crawford within his first 100 days. They also mapped out what they called the storyboard, which was a breakdown of what they were trying to create in their overall strategy.

“Do you know all of the constituent chapters within the storyboard?” Bowman says. “Does it match the strategic goals we’ve set from the group point of view? Don’t overengineer it. Make sure the execution over a one-year or three-year goal is possible. It’s like MapQuesting something — you start somewhere, and you have an end-direction of where you want to get to. Your vision becomes your destination.”

Another key to creating your plan and map for getting there is to make sure you clearly define what you’re saying you want to do.

“You can wordsmith sentences that become ambiguous,” Bowman says. “What you have to do is create a series of effectively executable plans that are then absolutely easily translated.”

For example, you might say something such as, “We’re going to increase sales around the world,” which is a very wide open statement.

“Increase is a good word,” Bowman says. “Sales is a good word. Around the world? What does that mean? It has to be more defined than that. What’s the marketplace? What is the product we want to grow? That’s where a lot of strategies have to be planned in the sessions that you do prior to laying those strategic plans out.”

Once they had set a three-year plan, he put it up on Crawford’s website, which may not seem like a significant thing to do, but for this company, it was.

“The strategic plan was a very interesting part of it because No. 1, the company had never really communicated with its employees what the strategic plan was,” Bowman says. “We created that within the first 12 weeks, and then we put it on our website, so not only did our clients see what the strategy was, our employees did, our investors did, our bankers did and anyone else did — and our competitors did, and I think that was a very good thing.”

Even in having finished creating it, he knew he would have to continue to refer back to this plan and storyboard as he moved the organization forward.

“A strategy document is a living document,” he says. “Events change, and you have to change an organization to implement the goals.”

Create accountability

Once he had an overall plan in place, Bowman then had to create goals that would both advance the organization but were also achievable so he could hold people accountable to meeting them.

“The biggest issue is taking it and translating it into executable goals,” he says. “It’s a very simple process with a strategic plan. You make people accountable for the results that come out of it. That’s by spending a lot of time understanding the benchmarks that we talked about and making sure that it’s a sensible plan, and it’s not an academic exercise. There are a lot of strategic plans that are more academic than they are practical. We’re looking for accountability. We’re looking for results. If you have a script and a way you’re working, then people are much more inclined to follow that journey.”

One of the things that Bowman and his team spent a lot of time doing was dissecting the number of goals that were achievable.

“You can put down lists and lists of goals — you’re not going to achieve all of them,” he says.

They look at which goals are most important, and they make that distinction by looking at them as they relate to the vision and mission.

“You then link that to the goals you’re trying to achieve,” he says.

There had to be consistency in terms of strategy, financials and the objectives that they were trying to achieve.

Another element of this process was Bowman had each country leader prepare an initial budget and objectives, and those went up to regional reviews. After that, they went to the head office, and he and his team would go through those to make sure there’s a link between what the company is trying to do at a corporate level and what’s going on in those regions and make sure they eliminated duplications around the world.

For example, as part of the efforts to eliminate the technology silos, Bowman appointed a global chief information officer for the first time in the group’s history. Previously, there had been an IT director in the United Kingdom, United States and Asia-Pacific. Before this, they may have only talked once a year and were each doing their own thing. By creating one head position, it would eliminate those duplicate efforts and put the whole company on the same IT strategic road map.

Bowman also made sure to hold people accountable to meeting goals. Just as the board of directors rates his performance each time he announces the quarterly results, he needed to do the same for his people.

“Make sure people understand what they’re accountable for,” Bowman says. “They do things that they understand much easier than things that they don’t understand.”

The key to doing this effectively is using data to help you determine what’s best for them to focus on.

“The world we live in, you get swallowed up in the amount of data you’ve got,” he says. “You have to cut through and say, ‘What is the important data that you’re going to measure people on?’”

He says you have to decide what’s important and track that. Crawford creates a lot of dashboards and produces a lot of analytical information to make sure it’s using its assets in the best way.

Bowman also uses financial incentives to make sure people stay on track. He put a compensation program in place for senior management, which went a long way in the organization. In this plan, 20 percent is based on the group, 60 percent is based on their division and 20 percent is based on their personal performance. By dividing their incentive up in this way, it causes them to look beyond themselves. As a result, he sees more cross-selling among divisions.

“It effectively brings in an approach where people are interested in what’s going on in other divisions,” he says.

Aside from silos breaking down, Bowman has seen other clear changes in Crawford over the past three years.

“Nobody gets frightened about strategic planning,” he says. “People understand what they’re accountable for. It enables us to do more detailed return on investment calculations, understand areas that we need to manage better and where we need more urgency.”

Crawford did struggle as many of its clients suffered through the recession — one whole unit depends on workers’ compensation claims, and with 9 million people relying on unemployment benefits, that area certainly took a hit. But despite those challenges, it has gotten through well. While revenue went up and down during the recession, total revenue has grown overall from $1.05 billion in 2007 the year before Bowman took over to $1.11 billion last year. As the organization looks forward, it will continue to tweak its strategic planning to ensure it stays on track and doesn’t get stuck in the past.

“The thing about a strategic plan is it’s a living document,” he says. “You’re always looking at accountability and making it better. It’s a mindset.”

How to reach: Crawford & Co., (800) 241-2541 or www.crawfordandcompany.com

The Bowman file

Born: London

What was your first job as a kid, and what did you learn from it that still applies?

I worked in my father’s engineering company handling payroll. I was 15. It wasn’t a huge company. I played soccer and that was one of my passions. [I learned to] work hard and keep your nose clean.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Professional soccer player. I nearly got there. That was still my passion.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve had quite a lot of mentors — I have a father who was an engineer and things were very straightforward, as most engineers are. There’s a logical approach to it. His advice to me was make sure you understand and communicate with people in the right way.

During my business life, before I got into the insurance industry, I worked in a couple of different industries. I worked in the record industry. … My age comes out here. ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Grease’ — I was involved in those, managing the distribution of the records. I had a boss at that time who was a northerner from the United Kingdom who was probably the most frightening individual I’ve ever worked for, but he was the most direct, he was the most honest, and he told it to you exactly as it was. What I think a lot of people don’t like these days is they don’t like being told the truth, and this guy managed me with a steel fist in the organization and taught me attention to detail, and that was a really big thing from my point of view. That stayed with me. Read it properly. Understand it before you say something.