Jon Diamond remembers when it wasn’t so easy to attract people to come work at SafeAuto Insurance Co. It was 1993 and there were no quirky TV commercials or clever catchphrases to help people identify with the company.
“It was a company being born out of zero,” says Diamond, a co-founder along with Ari Deshe. “Ari and myself and four others started the company in a small little office off of Goodale Boulevard right here in Columbus. If there was any challenge back then, it was attracting quality people.”
Making this task even more difficult was the fact that Diamond and Deshe were pretty much learning on the fly.
“None of us had any experience running or managing insurance companies,” says Deshe, the company’s chairman and CEO. “Jon was brand new to the insurance industry. I’ve been in insurance pretty much all my life, but it was pretty much on-the-job training for the two of us as well as the people who started with us.”
The two men kept their wits about them and got SafeAuto off the ground and in the business of providing affordable auto insurance to those who need it. They found people who had the same passion for growing the business and serving customers as they did and could help take the company where they knew it could go.
“We were very lucky early on to have attracted people who flourished in the entrepreneurial environment Ari and I established from day one,” says Diamond, who serves as president and chief operating officer. “We grew from within, and for many years, people that came in to work for our company at entry-level positions grew to be senior management and top management today.”
It’s that ability to first of all know what you want in an employee, and then be able to go out and find it, that gives your business a real chance to succeed. It’s helped SafeAuto grow to 1,000 employees and a presence in 14 states and 70 markets across the nation.
Here are a few things that worked to help Diamond and Deshe build a culture that people would both want to be a part of and be able to grow and flourish in.
Look for confidence
Diamond and Deshe needed to have confidence when they started a business that no one had heard of before. When your mission is a simple one, it becomes a lot easier to explain it to the masses and exhibit confidence when doing so. In the case of SafeAuto, the vision was to provide minimum auto insurance coverage for minimum budgets.
“We were very focused at the onset of being the best in our line of business and not trying to be everything to everybody,” Diamond says. “We have never varied from that core mission.”
The two men had confidence that this simple idea could serve as the foundation on which to build their business and attract the kind of employees they were looking for. They wanted that same kind of brash confidence to be an attribute of every person in the organization.
You can get a read on confidence during the first interview with a job candidate.
“I’ve always seen in my experience that the way you handle yourself and your ability to convey a message is important,” Diamond says. “If you can do that, you can sell any product or service. When I look for potential in people, I look at them and how successful they are at selling themselves to me. If they are successful selling themselves to me, whatever job function I give them, they could be successful in it.”
The point is, if you’re the one doing all the talking in the interview, that’s not a good thing. It just doesn’t show much confidence.
“It’s a two-way interview,” Deshe says. “It’s not just that we ask the questions and they give us the answers. We can learn a lot by the kind of questions that they ask of us, of the company and of our background. We can see to what extent they have done their homework. Are they interested? Do they really know anything about our company or are they just applying for a job just for the heck of applying for a job?”
You want to get a dialogue started. The candidate asks a question and shows interest to you. You respond and show the candidate that the business means a lot to you and the confidence in both of you grows. The energy becomes contagious and that’s how ideas are born and how a business moves forward.
Once someone is on board, you also need to take a lead role in feeding that energy and showing confidence in what you’re doing as an organization.
“Heads of the company, they are the moral compass of that enterprise,” Diamond says. “You really have to take that role very seriously. People want to believe in the vision of the principles. Ari and I are very fortunate that, together, we make up a team of business owners that share the same principles and values and it permeates our entire organization.”
Take advantage of the pressure and the scrutiny that comes with being a leader and give the people who are watching you something positive to see and feed off of in a good way.
“You are under the microscope much more today than in the past for every action that you take as a business owner,” Diamond says. “Ari and I have always believed that we should we walking in the same shoes as our management team in order to gain the kind of credibility and loyalty that you want from your key people.”
When SafeAuto was just getting started, Diamond and Deshe didn’t have to go far to have a face-to-face meeting with their entire work force. That has changed, of course, as the company is now in 14 states and 70 markets across the country.
But the two leaders still make it a point to get in front of their people on a regular basis. They want to show the same energy for growing the brand now as they did in the early days. So one of them visits every location in the company at least every six months.
“One or the other of us visits all our sites,” Diamond says. “We have town-hall meetings with our people. We allow them the opportunity to ask us questions. It gives us an opportunity to cascade our company philosophies throughout our enterprise.”
Getting out of your office gives you a chance to show your employees that you value what they do for your business and aren’t just interested in welcoming them to the business and never talking to them again.
“We go there not just because they want to see us but because we want to see them,” Deshe says. “We want to see them and hear directly from them, just like our employees here in Columbus. We want to give them the same chance. It’s very important for us as managers of the company to listen to the front-line employees everywhere they are. We have a better perspective of what they need and what they want. Sometimes, the best ideas come from the front-line people.”
You need to learn how to read the room when you’re meeting with your employees in their office.
“When I sit in front of 30 to 50 people in a room and somebody makes a comment about an issue, I’m not only looking at that person that is talking to me,” Deshe says. “I’m looking across the room to see if some of the people are nodding with their heads or saying no or yes, or whatever. That gives me an idea if many people agree with the point they are making. It’s very beneficial to me. We sit down and discuss with the managers and we w
rite down all the comments they have and look into how we can improve the products or services we provide.”
When you promote an open culture, you have to also be prepared for some comments that won’t be positive.
“When Ari and I go out to the remotes, we have to be prepared to allow these people to speak their minds and we have to make sure that at the end of the day, we’re very honest with them,” Diamond says.
That means there’s also times when you’ll have to share news with them that isn’t good.
“If we can’t make a policy change or we don’t want to make a policy change, we need to say so,” Diamond says.
Share the glory
When you’re the leader, you often get a lot of the credit when your company is successful. You need to make sure to share some of those victories with the people who helped you earn them.
“The way to get associates to buy in to your mission is to give them a skin in the game,” Diamond says. “We have always believed that it’s an important ingredient to our success that everybody feels vested in the mission of SafeAuto and that they get a piece of the action. The calculation is not based on the individual’s performance. It’s based on the company’s performance.”
SafeAuto has a profit-sharing program in which employees benefit when the company does well. But that doesn’t mean that individual recognition doesn’t take place.
“We have a phone system that allows me to track every phone call in the company,” Diamond says. “I, at times, will listen to sales calls, service calls and claim calls. If I hear one that I like, I’ll send an e-mail to that associate saying, ‘You’ve been caught by the president doing a great job. Please print this out and give it to a manager and lunch for you and a friend is on me.’ It lets them know that I care how they are performing and I hear how they are performing and I reward those who I feel are setting a good example. That permeates around the call center when something like this happens.”
At the end of the day, you need to make all your employees feel special and valued in carrying out the mission of your organization. They play a crucial part in selling your business to the public.
“All the communication with our clients or customers is done by salespeople, service or claims,” Deshe says. “In essence, every one of those departments is selling and reselling the company. Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, the sales department, they do the sale and it’s done.’ Not so quickly. The way we treat our customers from a service standpoint and especially in our claims department, word-of-mouth is important to us. We get many customers referred from other customers. We have to resell ourselves every time we are in touch with our customers.”
It’s that ability to grow as a team that has enabled SafeAuto to become a well-known brand in the insurance industry.
“Our most important responsibility is to drive the culture of this company,” Diamond says. “It’s to make it the kind of place that somebody wants to have their career. People want to join a company where they believe in its ownership to do the right thing and behave in the right way.”
How to reach: SafeAuto Insurance Co., (800) 723-3288 or www.safeauto.com