Continuous improvement Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

When Phil Urban first entered the corporate world, a mentor gave himsome advice: Know what’s expected of you, and then exceed it.

The president and CEO of Grange MutualCasualty Group tries to follow this philosophy of personal continuous improvementeach day. It also reminds him of his responsibility to make sure his 1,750 employees knowwhat’s expected of them, as well.

“Human beings want to be successful andwant to be part of an organization that’s successful,” he says. “If you don’t know what thetarget is or what you’re supposed to achieve,it’s a little harder to be successful.”

To create a more defined path within hisinsurance company, which posted $1.3 billion in 2007 revenue, Urban clearly definesgoals for his staff. Then, he defines the measurements toward those goals and makes surethat everyone understands his or her goalsand measurements.

Urban, who describes himself as “very goal-oriented,” advocates that executives identifythree to five long-term goals for themselves,work toward those goals and then evaluatetheir list annually.

“I purposefully spend time each year staring out the window, thinking about what Iwant to achieve; most are long-term, andthey’re written down,” he says. “If you don’twrite them down, the loop of psychologicalconnection isn’t as strong.”

He compares his executive goal setting tothose of athletes in competitive sports.

“I’ll bet you that every single competitorwho’s going to be successful has decidedwhat their objectives are,” he says. “If they’rerunning a race, they’ve decided how fast theywant to run, and they have that number posted on the dashboard of their car, in their locker, on their bathroom mirror; they are lookingat that every single day. There’s a single-minded focus on achieving that goal.”

Urban doesn’t share his personal goals withanyone but his wife.

“Good leaders don’t need anybody to holdthem accountable. They just do that,” hesays. “I chuckle when I’m asked about how Imotivate my senior team. I haven’t thoughtabout that in a lot of years because they’regoal-oriented themselves, and they are participating in the goal creation. They are self-motivating.”

When it comes to communicating with histeam, Urban rarely shuts his office door — an intentional gesture, which shows employeesthat he welcomes communication with them.He would rather meet face to face with anemployee than call him or her or send anemail. He says it sets a tone that means, “Let’ssit down and talk about it.”

“We are very open with our associatesabout the good and the bad,” Urban says.“People feel better when they understand theconnection between what they’re doing andhow the company’s doing. If folks understand how their work fits in with the overallcompany’s objectives and results, they feelmore comfortable in their efforts.”

Since Urban joined Grange in 1999, thecompany has published a daily newsletter onthe corporate intranet called “What’s on yourmind.” It includes answers to questions submitted anonymously by employees.

“People need to have an opportunity to aska question or vent or raise issues that might beof concern to them,” he says. “They might beafraid to ask their supervisor, so we give themthis anonymous way to do that.”

In addition to putting the newsletter on theintranet, hard copies are posted throughoutthe building. Urban says Grange’s employeesare keenly aware that this resource is available to them.

And do employees take advantage of it?“Oh boy, do they ever,” Urban says. “In afive-day week, we probably get 10 to 15 submissions. They come electronically to a central box that’s untraceable, and then three orfour of us see them and decide who shouldrespond. I see them all, and we put theresponses in this newsletter for all to see. I’llanswer every question. Being uncomfortableisn’t a reason not to answer it.”

If there are questions that he can’t legallyanswer, he won’t do it, and mean-spirited orpetty questions are not acknowledged, butUrban says 95 percent of the time that thequestions are reasonable. The company hasalso implemented corporate changes basedon employee suggestions that were submitted to “What’s on your mind.”

“When we make a decision that’s unpopular with our associates, which happens onoccasion, I learn about it real fast because myinbox will fill up with ‘What’s on your mind’questions so it’s actually a pretty good barometer,” he says.

HOW TO REACH: Grange Mutual Casualty Group, (800) 422-0550 or