Don Cronin builds a culture of teamwork at United Property and Casualty Insurance Co. Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

First came Charley. Then Frances. After that, it was Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

In the span of 13 months between August 2004 and September 2005, eight major hurricanes ravaged Florida and the U.S. Gulf Coast. And right in the midst of all of it were Don Cronin and his staff at United Property & Casualty Insurance Co.

“We had never dealt with a hurricane,” says Cronin, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg-based company, which generated $155 million in gross written premiums in 2009 and more than $88 million in revenue. “The company was founded in 1999, and the first hurricane we dealt with was in August 2004. The departments all had to come together. It wasn’t just on the claims side. It was finance, marketing, underwriting, all the different areas basically reaching out to help each other. Whether it was answering the phone, stuffing envelopes, delivering checks to people who had lost their properties, they did it all, and without any complaints. And we just went from one storm to the next. It was seven days a week.”

As the Atlantic and Caribbean delivered blow after blow, leaving untold dollars in ruined property and untold numbers of ruined lives behind, Cronin saw a ray of hope in how his own company bonded together, embracing a culture of teamwork in an effort to serve affected customers and communities.

“Insurance is a piece of paper with a lot of promises on it,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities to fulfill those promises. But eight times when we needed to, we filled those promises in a very short period.”

Through the challenging times, Cronin says he learned a lot about how a company can band together to serve a greater cause than the bottom line. And it reinforced to him the importance of creating and sustaining a culture of teamwork and collaboration.

It’s a culture rooted in communication from the top of the company, communication between departments and locations, and a willingness from all parties to listen as much as they talk.

Connect your people

You provide opportunities for teamwork by providing your employees with opportunities to work with each other. If you can put your people in positions where they regularly interact with each other, they will begin to develop a higher level of familiarity with each other and each other’s jobs.

The interaction opportunities can occur in a formal work setting, but you should also take the time to build more informal opportunities into the work calendar, where socialization is the objective, not necessarily work.

“You engage individuals in your processes by providing the opportunity for them to interact with each other and with you,” Cronin says. “You can provide those opportunities through meetings, cross-training programs or social functions outside of the normal scope of work. Company picnics and other types of events like that can bring people together so they can get to know each other.

“We hold a monthly companywide meeting. An individual in each department is responsible for providing content for the meeting, for sharing things that are going on in their departments. That also helps the whole company gain a better appreciation for what that department does.”

Cronin encourages each department to take the monthly presentation and get creative with it, which has turned the meetings into a kind of loose competition. No prizes are handed out for the best presentation, but the creativity factor creates an added level of engagement for both the department giving the presentation and those in the audience.

“We used to have meetings where just one person would speak,” Cronin says. “But it really became kind of boring and unproductive. However, once we started to put more responsibility on each of the individual departments, it became more of a collaborative effort, to the point that now there is almost some competition as to who can do the best job of making a presentation, which improves the content.

“It has gotten to the point where some presentations utilize sound. If they’re talking about wind, you might hear wind in the background. So our employees go out of their way to spend time on these presentations, and it keeps everyone interested and engaged.”

The presentations at monthly meetings are among the most visible examples of Cronin’s desire to have employees speak up and come forward with ideas and feedback. If you want employees to behave as a team and put aside personal and departmental agendas to work toward larger goals, you need to provide input and feedback channels.

If employees feel like management is too enamored with its own vision to pay attention to what is happening in the trenches, they’ll stop trying to communicate. Which means that, over time, they’ll stop listening to you.

At United Insurance, all employee input and ideas are addressed. It doesn’t mean that management spends hours and days carefully considering each idea, but each nugget of input from within the company is acknowledged and management at least responds to it.

Even if your answer is a flat-out no, it’s better than no response at all, as long as you are willing to explain to the person the reasoning behind your rejection.

“It may be a situation where the problem is simply the idea’s cost,” Cronin says. “You explain that you value the idea, but the cost makes it unrealistic right now. In the insurance business, we’re so controlled by regulations, that alone might make the idea a bad fit. But as long as you’re making sure that you’re communicating to the person that not every suggestion can be acted upon, you still give them a sense that you and your managers are listening to them and their idea is important. What you need to make sure of is that you’re not just dismissing ideas right off the bat.”

On the management levels of the company, Cronin sees to it that every manager and executive knows it is obligatory to listen to employees and offer feedback on suggestions and ideas that are submitted.

“Every manager has the responsibility to listen,” he says. “Every manager needs to offer feedback on ideas. And if an idea isn’t being implemented, we want to know why. There will be no repercussions for coming forth and speaking your mind on a relevant topic. That is a set-up that has worked well for us.”

If an employee is proposing a small change that might improve the work environment, those are the suggestions you should pay close attention to. Sometimes the smallest adjustments can make the biggest difference when it comes to employee engagement and confidence in management.

“In the majority of cases, it’s typically very small, minor things that can impact your business,” Cronin says. “Making small changes that will satisfy people; not necessarily reinventing the wheel. We’re very high on technology, so we’ve streamlined the process that allows access to our systems, so they work faster and are more responsive. Those types of changes can make a huge difference.”

Know your role

When building and promoting a culture of teamwork, your role in the top post of your company is that of an initiator. You need to set the example that you want others to follow.

You can put your mission statement and core values on paper and you can reinforce the culture in meetings. There is value in putting your guiding principles in writing, and reinforcing them from the podium. But the most effective reinforcement happens at ground level, when you get out among your people and dialogue with them.

Cronin says the best way to reinforce your messages is to ask a lot of questions, then close your mouth and listen before responding.

“Get people to talk about what they do and how they do it,” he says. “Then, the single most important thing you can do is listen. In management, we have a responsibility to listen to our staff. On a senior level, it’s listening to our managers. They perform your company’s functions on a daily basis and best know what changes need to be made.”

As a leader, listening can be hard to master. Chances are, you either started your company or have had a heavy influence on the company’s current state. You’re used to directing and getting things done quickly. You might not be as used to taking your time to listen and consider other perspectives.

“Listening requires a lot of patience,” Cronin says. “Your instinct as a leader is to talk. I’m not the kind of person that sits around behind a desk. I like to get around and talk to people, and as a part of that, you learn to listen. Employees appreciate that, and it gives you a better understanding of what is going on and how you can do a better job in management, both for employees and customers. You can’t really sit behind a desk and make that happen.”

It doesn’t mean you devote every minute of the day to dialoguing with your employees, ignoring the other tasks on your plate. But you do need to schedule in the time over the course of days and weeks to interact with employees and make yourself visible. If you are interactive and collaborative, your employees stand a much better chance of following suit and getting on board with a teamwork-oriented culture.

“It takes discipline to schedule that time in,” Cronin says. “But you force yourself to make that time, and sometimes that’s very difficult. It doesn’t take spending the whole day. You might spend time in a particular area, walking around and reaching out to people.”

If you lead a company with multiple locations, it obviously makes having that personal interaction more difficult, particularly if covering your company’s footprint means logging a lot of air miles. Overcoming the obstacle of distance requires a combination of logging those air miles when possible and making sure that you and the leaders at each location are frequently communicating on core values.

“You ensure that the people who do get out to the various locations are interacting with their customers and listening,” Cronin says. “If you’re in the executive management levels, it all comes back to training people and developing the culture. Ask the questions, get out, and engage and listen to how you can better yourself as a company and better serve your customers.”

As a supplement to your written and spoken communication, you might also send out surveys to give employees an anonymous means of giving you and your management team feedback on the job you’ve done in communicating, listening and setting the teamwork tone for the organization.

At United Insurance, Cronin’s survey is constructed around the five team dysfunctions described in Patrick Lencioni’s leadership fable “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars.”

“It’s really almost like a report card for management,” Cronin says. “It’s done on an anonymous basis, and it’s a good way to measure yourself to see where things have broken down or where they might not be working the way they should be.

“The measurement is on the fear of conflict, lack of commitment, accountability and so forth. Is there an absence of trust; is there something where people don’t really trust what is going on in an area? It’s a measurement, and then acting on that particular area of need.”

If management reacts to the needs of employees, employees will react to the needs of customers. Just like the staff at United Insurance did in the wake of the disasters that occurred five and six years ago.

“At the end of the day, everyone has to understand the importance of the customer,” he says. “You need to work together for the benefit of the customer. A lot of organizations don’t teach long enough about the importance of the customer. But everyone needs to understand that without your customers, your job doesn’t exist and the company doesn’t exist.”

How to reach: United Property & Casualty Insurance Co., (727) 895-7737 or www.upcic.com