Thomas Cassady of USI Midwest Cincinnati stays accountable Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Thomas Cassady’s salesmen don’t need to be loved. They just want some respect.

“The old stereotype of an insurance salesman (that he is) a pat-on-your-back buddy is an anachronism,” says the president and CEO of USI Midwest Cincinnati. “They look for your respect, and they don’t need to be your buddy.”

But in order for any of Cassady’s 105 employees to earn his respect, they have to build up some trust. That requires a constant flow of feedback that goes both ways: top-down as well as bottom-up.

“This is an industry built on trust,” Cassady says. “Are they going to fool us? Shame on us if they do.”

With that sense of accountability, Cassady has spurred revenue from $7 million in 1999 — when the company was created through the merger of his agency with another — to $24.5 million in 2008.

Smart Business spoke with Cassady about building trust and accountability with your employees by offering and receiving feedback.

Offer feedback. The most important thing a leader can do is have the trust of the people who are following. It is sort of like Stephen Covey says: You have to make deposits in the credibility accounts of the people that you rely on. You make those deposits by giving them … honest feedback, whether or not it’s all positive. Good employees want fair, candid feedback. Every employee is looking for specific ways on how they can improve, especially if you can give it to them in a timely fashion — not at the end-of-the-year performance review, even though those are important. A leader that provides instant feedback is much more credible.

We provide a traditional performance review where the supervisor provides written feedback to the employee. In that, we have a forced calibration, which is based on not only what the employee did but how the employee did it and the relative contribution of that job to the overall success of the company.

We have five categories — far surpassed, surpassed, fully achieved, partially achieved and achieved far less. We rank what was achieved as well as how they did it. We don’t want to put somebody in the very top ranking that achieved great things but was a terrorist doing it, so they have to play well in the sandbox as well as achieve superior results.

It’s really whether or not they’re consistent with our company philosophy of how we want people to represent our brand, how they work not just internally but with our carriers and our customers. That would be judged with things like: Do they tell the truth, are they disciplined, do they help others, are they a good inventor, [and] are they a good model for others to follow? They are subjective, and the supervisor probably has the best and the most credibility in those discussions. It’s not what (you are) going to do; it’s what you actually do. It’s just by observing their actions that we are able to do that.

The third — and this is sometimes the most controversial area — is their relative contribution to the overall success of the company. The best way that we have found to try to define relative contribution is how difficult is it for us to go out and replace that person? If it’s relatively easy, then the relative contribution is weaker. If it’s fairly unique and we don’t believe that the person’s skills can be found in the marketplace very well, if at all, then the relative contribution increases dramatically.

The management team and the supervisors get together in a room and talk about everyone and have that open debate on how to rank people.

Don’t evaluate alone. The second part is the internal customer survey in which direct reports provide feedback to a supervisor. Even if you don’t have any direct reports, you do have internal customers. A receptionist, for example, has no direct reports but everybody is her internal customer.

My direct reports give me feedback on my skills, habits, knowledge, but most importantly, attitude. So it’s a bottom-up kind of performance survey.

We use a software program so people are really doing it anonymously. Some people sign their names to them, but it’s really a way in which they can say whatever they want. They grade the customer on a scale of 1 to 10. If you’re going to grade them below a 6, you have to make a comment, a suggestion for improvement. Then that report becomes aggregated and then goes to the supervisor and the supervisor shares that with the employee.

Start with the right slate. We look for people who represent the same kind of values that the company has, and the two most important values the company has are integrity and our sense of accountability. In our business, we sell a bunch of promises on a piece of paper, so people need to have absolute trust that what you say is true.

When we recruit, we are looking for people who want to be held accountable, that it’s OK to take feedback. If a salesman comes into our office and says, ‘You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll just do my own thing, and I’ll give you the results at the end of the year,’ that doesn’t work for us.

If you tell them about it upfront and people say, ‘Well, no, I’m superstitious. I don’t like to talk about an account that I’m working on,’ that just doesn’t work for us.

You really get paid for doing the right things when no one’s watching. So I really have no idea what our salesmen are doing 95 percent of the time because they’re out doing their thing.

We want to know what they’re doing — particularly in sales, the front line out with the customers, which is very important in how we promote and protect our brand. Every appointment is documented and discussed at a Monday morning sales meeting, and we do track results. We know who they’re meeting with.

Nothing happens unless there’s some activity. And if we see people with lots of activity but very poor results, then we know that there’s a problem with either skills or knowledge.

How to reach: USI Midwest Cincinnati, (513) 852-6300 or