Very early in his career, Howard Lewis was shocked.
“I worked in situations where, when you would engage the people, the warehouse people or the office people or whatever, it was clear that they had no sense of mission of what they were trying to do,” he says. “You would ask someone, ‘What are you doing?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, I move these papers from here to there,’ and you’d say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and they would say, ‘I don’t know.’ When a person operates at that level, how can you be effective?”
He learned then that engaging people in the business would yield far better results than keeping them in the dark. So when he started Family Heritage Life Insurance Co. of America more than two decades ago, he made it a point to focus on people. Twenty-one years later, that still rings true.
Throughout the downturn, he hasn’t lost any employees to layoffs or downsizing. While hiring has slowed, the company has still brought people in. And Family Heritage has maintained all of its employee programs and benefits and it even ate the increased health care costs this year instead of passing them on to employees.
You may think that doing these things would wreak havoc on the financial side, but despite the down economy and maintaining all of the employee programs, Lewis has grown the insurance company from $102.3 million in 2006 to $152.2 million last year earning it a spot on the Inc. 5000 list this year.
“What is the base of that growth and success?” says Lewis, chairman, president and CEO. “It’s people. It’s simply people. Having the right people, having them clearly understand what the objective is, what the mission is, giving them the training and support they need to do their job, and then giving them the encouragement and the help along the way. People will achieve extraordinary results if they know where you’re trying to go and why you’re trying to go there and what’s in it for them.”Hire great people
One of the first things Lewis focuses on is making sure he initially brings in great people to the organization.
“The intelligence or the aptitude is mandatory,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what kind of integrity and what kind of character and how hardworking a person is and how morally decent they are and what a fabulous person they are.
“You can’t start with someone who doesn’t have the potential that you need. That’s like hiring a philosophy major to be in accounting. Chances are, they’re very bright and very hardworking, but there’s a set of data that they don’t have or a skill set they essentially don’t have. That’s kind of goofy. It’s the same way with hiring at every level there’s got to be core competencies that a person’s got to have.”
Those competencies are determined by the HR department based on the application. Once you determine that someone has the necessary aptitude to do the job, then you look at their character.
“Then, within that pool of people who are valuable to you, you then come into the definition of what makes a competent, thorough professional, and that starts with integrity and character, because if a person has those kinds of core competencies, they can do anything,” Lewis says. “They can be trained to do any job. A person that’s flawed, you’re not going to get very far with.”
That’s part of the job of the interviewers note the plural. Nobody can fool everyone, so you have to use a team of three or four people.
“You have to talk to a person and understand a person enough to get into who are they, what’s important to them, what is their makeup, what’s their moral makeup,” he says.
That comes down to asking job candidates the right questions.
“You have to have a person tell you about themselves,” Lewis says. “You have to have them explain to you their priorities in their life, and you have to have them talk to you about where they’ve been and the jobs they’ve had and why they left those positions. … It’s sort of a revelation of peeling the onion.”
He also asks them why they want to become a part of Family Heritage.
“If you listen carefully to what it is a person wants to do, their goals and objectives and their beliefs about themself and their vision for the future will pretty much come out when a person is given the opportunity to explain to you why they want to be here and why they want to be doing what you’re doing,” he says.
Ultimately, it comes down to how you see your interactions with the person in the future.
“When you make a hiring decision, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this the kind of person I would want to be around, the kind of person I would want to personally know? Is this the kind of person I would want to spend time with? Could this person ever become a friend of mine or could I become a friend of theirs? Is the person the kind of person you want to affiliate with,’” he says. “And you’re pretty quickly able to assess it.”
He says to also look at their past.
“All of us build a track record, and if you get information from someone’s past that they’ve been unethical or dishonest, why would you want to work with a person like that?” he says.
It may be hard to initially get truthful information about a person, so when you ask someone where they worked previously, don’t accept just the company name as an answer. Probe further.
“I would say, ‘Who did you work with? Who was your manager? Who was your manager before that?’” Lewis says. “You have to be willing to invest in going through the background examination, because if you call [the company], they’re going to say, ‘She worked here from this to this,’ and in today’s world, that’s about all you can get.”
But if you call and talk to those people they mentioned or any other contacts you personally have at that company, you can begin to create a clearer picture of that person.
“You have to specifically ask, ‘Were there any kind of integrity or ethical issues with Mary or Bob? Why did they leave?’” Lewis says. “That normally is the real essence of what the deal is. When a person is no longer a part of a company, why did they leave? What does the company say? What does the applicant say? What did the people who worked with them have to say?”
It’s also critical to not settle just because you have an opening. If even one of the interviewers dissents about hiring a person, they slow down the process. The group discusses what that person saw versus what the others observed.
“Everybody meets people that they can’t connect to or relate to,” he says. “You then have to ask that person to have another conversation based on the data of the other three people. You ask that person to have a conversation with that person again, and everybody helps that person to figure out some lines of pursuit you should talk about. The one that’s dissenting might be the one that is right.”
If after that, there’s still concern, they may use professional assessments or send candidates to a professional psychologist.
“You can’t compromise in terms of what you’re looking for,” he says. “Your people are a reflection of who you are and what the company is. The company is a reflection of all of the parts of it, so if you settle for people just to hire people, you can’t be who you want to be, so you just have to be willing to make the hard choices of we’re going to pass on somebody.”Create and explain your vision
For people to be most effective, they have to know what the company’s vision is and how they play a role in it. Like most things in business, this starts at the top.
“It starts with the founder or the leader or whoever it is that’s running your organization,” Lewis says. … “First, the leader has to have a vision of what is the significance and importance of what they’re trying to do. Then, it’s rallying other people around that shared vision, that commonality of where we’re trying to go as a group. Then [you have to have] the communication necessary with everyone in the company that is a shareholder or stakeholder in the enterprise and say this is what we’re trying to do, this is where we’re trying to go and, most importantly, why are we going there.
“A vision is simply an expression of what the objective of the business is. What is it that you’re trying to do? Where are you trying to go? Why do people benefit from this? How do people win from being a part of this? Creation of a vision comes from helping people understand what is the relevance and what is the essence of what you’re doing. When people understand that, it’s easy then to get them excited about a vision with goals and objectives and a plan to accomplish that vision.”
For example, Family Heritage is a major player in the supplemental insurance market, and the company strives to take care of customers to continue that growth.
“This is the vision we have for the company; this is where we’re trying to go,” he says. “Until we break that up and pull that apart and make that understandable by every person, all 100 of us here in Cleveland and our 1,200 sales associates across the country, until every person understands their role in that mission and that vision and what we’re trying to do, we’re not going anywhere. So obviously the communication has to be very thorough and specific to the people and the group that you’re talking to. They have to see and understand what is their part of this. What is the contribution that’s needed from them to make this work?”
Because no deal is a good deal unless everyone benefits, you have to show employees how they benefit from the vision.
“If everybody involved understands what’s in it for them and why they have to do what it is they’re doing and why their goals and objectives are so critical to the overall success of the mission, then I think you’re well on your way,” Lewis says.
But the key is to do this without bombarding them with so much information that it becomes overwhelming or irrelevant to them.
“It’s taking these macro objectives and breaking them down into component parts at every level where the person has the responsibility to do the work,” he says. ... “You can approach it from either a bottom up or a top down, but the first thing we do is when we decide as an organization of where we’re trying to go at the big, macro goals, then you have to, by function, by department, how does everybody contribute and what do we need from the most base level?”
For example, Family Heritage has a board with 100 numbers on it. Whenever a customer calls up to cancel a policy, but the policy is preserved instead, employees get to pull off a number. When they get down to zero, then they get to have a lunch party to celebrate their success of preserving 100 policies. It shows them that every policy is critical to the company and encourages them to handle each one with care.
Breaking down the macro goals also helps you realize how work is distributed.
“It’s also a reasonability check of, ‘Can a person process this much business? Can a person secure this much new business? Can a person handle this many claims or whatever?’” Lewis says. “The reality of it is that then you can start at a macro level and go to the bottom, but then you have to take the base level and build it back up to make sure there’s continuity and congruity within the organization to be able to handle what’s there.”Develop their talent
The last key to Family Heritage’s success has come from working with employees to train and develop them.
“A common view exists that business exists to service customers and provide goods and services and make a profit doing it,” Lewis says. “I think there’s a major fourth point to that, and that’s building people. If you build people, they build the company, whatever the business is, and any company is as only good as the people that they have.”
Lewis builds his people through three main initiatives, one of which is the Family Heritage Leadership Institute. In 2007 and 2008, he and the management team identified the brightest and best young people in the organization and created a leadership class each year of the top 15.
“Identify the up-and-comers your fast-track people,” he says. “These are, by and large, the younger people who really show promise. Have all departments identify all people. … The discipline doesn’t matter, it’s the person. Does this person show promise? Are they committed to their career? Are they serious about where they’re headed? Are they wanting to make a difference? Take those people, and then have your senior people begin to spend time on a regularly scheduled basis to develop them and to expose them to the business of the company.”
The senior leadership rotates meeting with them each month and talking about their different areas of expertise in the company. Participants also read a leadership book and discuss that, as well. Then, when projects or problems come up, they pull members of the leadership class together to cross-functionally work on them.
“Think about how they’re learning,” Lewis says. “If you’re an accountant and, suddenly, you’re exposed to operations and IT and claims and marketing, your awareness, you have just been made infinitely more effective as an accountant, because you see how what you do contributes to the whole.”
This program has created a lot of excitement in the organization. Now other employees want to know how they can get involved, and those who have been involved are seeing other areas of the organization they’d like to move to.
The second initiative Lewis uses to develop his people is to encourage them to get involved in the community.
“When people think beyond themselves, then their focus on life is right, and when you get people balanced and focused, they’re so much more effective at what they do,” Lewis says. “If you imagine your life as a Yellow Pages, one of those pages is your career. There’s so much more to you than what you do, but if no one encourages you to develop that or to play clarinet or to play on a volleyball team or to do art or to play music, or if no one encourages you ‘Listen you ought to help. Be a Big Brother or a Big Sister, go help redefine a community, go raise money for cancer, whatever your interests are, do that because you grow and develop as a person,’ guess what we just got in return? A really, really good person who is able to grow and build the company.”
For every hour employees contribute, they get an hour of free time from work to be able to do that. You may think that’s a huge expense to have employees sacrificing hours of work to go volunteer, but Lewis sees it differently.
“What you find is they will get their work done, because I think when a person feels good about themselves and they feel like they have contributed and they have given of themselves to something, that carries over to every other part of life,” he says. “They become a better person or spouse or parent or family member. They also become better as a professional.”
The last major component to training and developing his people is the Success University, which is a series of classes employees can volunteer to take. Employees are asked via survey what they’re interested in learning more about, and Family Heritage executives as well as outside experts then teach those skills everything from Excel to writing skills to creating better presentations to simply learning about the insurance business. Again, you have to look at the time involved as an investment instead of people taking from you.
“Think about it you have 21 people show up for a writing skills class, that’s 21 hours of productivity at their individual levels,” Lewis says. “That’s pretty significant. That’s a sum of money. We don’t even take the time to say what that costs. That’s our commitment, because whatever we spend, we’re going to get that back fivefold over, because the people who attend that class are now more effective in their writing skills.”
Taking the time to invest in your people will come back to you. Employees will stay with the organization, and that means more experienced people working with your customers. They’ll be happier and feel better about themselves, and that means they’ll work harder for you.
“Along the way, you realize you can’t take the attitude that your people are just interchangeable, and if Mary can’t do it, get rid of her, and get Susie, and Susie will do it, whatever,” Lewis says. “Well, why not take Mary and help Mary be the very best she can be by developing her? Mary has potential, but if you don’t do anything to help her develop that potential, and you don’t do anything to help her grow that potential out, what have you got? Someone who says, ‘I move that paper from here to here, or I put this box here.’”
How to reach: Family Heritage Life Insurance Co. of America, (440) 922-5200 or www.familyheritagelife.com