Put me in, coach

I fell into coaching soccer in college. Constantly in need of money, it was a no-brainer. I played since I was six, and was offered a gas-stipend to coach. My team, part of the York-Penn Youth League, was dead last and had no wins. You’re probably thinking this is a worst-to-first story. It is not. Despite my experience and the kids’ spirited play, we managed one win. Even given the record, I was hooked. I love coaching, which at its heart is a combination of observation, problem-solving and leading teams.

If you are a parent, aunt, uncle or grandparent, chances are good you have witnessed “the swarm.” It is the pack of little people, tussling shoulder to shoulder, and running after a soccer ball on any given Saturday morning. No matter the size of the field, the swarm is a tight little peloton in constant motion behind the ball. From coaches and parents, you’ll hear a chorus of “spread out” chanted at the swarm. Spreading out, the art of creating space between players to allow the game to flow, is an outcome that is not aligned to the problem.

One day, with a bunch of happy bumble bees in bright colored jerseys beaming up at me, I asked what it means to “spread out.” I got answers like, “it means Timmy’s too close to me,” or, “Ben needs to move.” And then, lightning: “Coach, I don’t know where to go.”

Drills in practice center on what to do with the ball: kick it, pass it, or shoot it.  Spreading out requires players to know where to go when they don’t have the ball. Here lies the problem. The swarm is a symptom, and “spreading out” is an outcome if the players and coaches understand the problem. The solution is an understanding of position and shape on the field. For that to happen, the coach has to teach the kids what to do without the ball. From that day forth, we started working on the foundation of space and position and it helped us in the bigger picture.

As my kids got older, I coached at various levels and refined my observation, problem-solving and team building skills. It is a formula that works for business, too. The game is anticipating where the ball is going, not following it. Space creates the possibility for passing and the teamwork that ensues to score goals.


Hitting the reset button


Years later, I am part of a team tasked with building a new insurance operation. We started at ground zero. No name. No logo. Heck, no system, either. All we had was our experience, a vision and passion around a customer segment. Faced with a blank piece of paper, you have two choices. Copy something that is already out there, making some improvements, or create something completely new. While it is safer to create an improved version of what exists, we knew we had a unique opportunity.  Customer expectations are changing at a faster rate than the pace of change in the insurance industry. To meet them, we wanted to seize the opportunity to hit “reset” and define a completely new approach. We wanted to sail away from the sea of sameness that defines our industry and segment. We needed to leave the swarm behind and anticipate where the ball was going.

By now, you might have read about how we took on this challenge: the courage of Kathy’s cannonball, Kevin’s first cup of coffee, and Susan’s vision as a student of our customer’s journey uniting the distinct pieces of our organization’s puzzle. You’ve started to see how we responded to the challenge of the blank piece of paper.

I’m here to tell another dimension of the Berkley One story. It’s one about how our position allowed us to pass the ball.


Take nothing for granted


To reinvent, we looked outward and forward to see the whole field. That meant meeting customers and agents where they were going rather than convincing them to do it the way we wanted to do it, or the way we had done it before.

The funny thing about experience is sometimes it, too, can cause you to swarm. Experience invites you to say, “I know the answer, so let’s jump into the solution.” It can lead you to say, “I know what the customer wants, or how agents think.” During my twenty-five year career, I participated in many internal meetings where we outlined the challenge, and in less than 30 minutes, moved on to generating “solutions.” Next came the flurry: project plans were built, teams were put together and the aim became implementation. Minutes of problem-solving turn into months of solution-building. All of it driven from the inside out.

At Berkley One, we made a deliberate, often-difficult decision to spread out. To talk—a lot—about the problems we aimed to solve before we put ourselves in position to solve them. We wanted to use the whole field and all the players, which sometimes meant passing the ball to others.

We made a conscious decision to examine our strategic choices from a fresh perspective. We were deliberate about looking from the outside in. To bring our innovation principle to life, we got comfortable with the idea of challenging orthodoxy. One of those areas of reinvention is the carrier-agency partnership.


A deep dive


After many years in distribution, I’ve been fortunate to work with some great independent agents and brokers. I’ve found there are only two things I know to be true about each one:

  1. You don’t know what they are thinking unless you ask them
  2. No two agencies are the same, no matter the alignment in their customer base

So, we started there and took a deep dive.

  • We chose to personally go visit agents specializing in our segment. We spent a day with them—asking questions, observing how they work and otherwise attempting to gain their perspective, from the outside in. The conversations flowed easily. They were rooted in what could be, rather than defending what was already in place.
  • We hired an agency consultant to teach us some of the financial ins-and-outs of running a successful agency. We asked and learned things like; What are the pain points? Where does the money go? How do carrier actions influence an agency’s pro forma? We studied the Big I benchmarking data, and gobbled up findings on the value of agents and what customers in the future will expect from them.
  • We attended industry gatherings, like the Assurex Global Private Client Practice Group, and asked for feedback on how carrier roles were perceived. Which were the most helpful? Which roles provide little or no value to the agency? And how would they design an ideal partner?
  • We met with agents for breakfast, coffee, lunch or dinner and did the most powerful thing an innovator can do—we learned by listening. One prevailing observation is agencies are highly capable organizations run by successful businesspeople. They are designed to grow, and the most important things we can do as partners is work in support of their business plan rather than imposing our own.


The partners we keep


We know that we’re only as strong as our partners so in selecting agents, we aligned with producers who wanted to have a seat at the table with Berkley One and be co-creators in our build. (You can even find their stories in our digital presence, in the “Company We Keep” section of our blog!) Our motto on agency engagement is we work “with and for” agents. We believe a productive carrier agency relationship is premised on the idea of both sides finding the other crucially important to their business.

This partnership came to life as we built an agency portal—a digital platform that provides the producer with the information, tools and access they need to work effectively with us. To create it, we stood convention on its head. We hired a firm steeped in UX to work directly with agents on the function and design of the portal. Indeed, they didn’t want our input, as we weren’t the end users. Ultimately, they worked with 21 different agents to develop, design and refine the producer portal. Our job to build it started after all the requirements were defined. In essence, our portal was 100% created by the producers.

Our brand follows this same spirit. Indeed it rests on the combination of: the quality of our employees, the fact that we are part of Berkley, our drive to innovate, and our agents. It is our teammates who make us whole, and it is the synergy of our partnerships that create the best outcome for the customer we all serve. Working together, blending expertise with new thinking, is how we’ll win the game.


Being Berkley One


Soccer legend Pele once said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

At Berkley One, we are committed to making how we work reflect who we aspire to be in the market. We’re on a journey together, and while we are just getting started, our team is passing the ball, spreading out and embracing a fresh way of doing things. Or as our brand so simply states, we’re always moving forward.

Christoph Ritterson is Senior Vice President, Marketing at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).

Originally written March 19, 2018 and revised November 16, 2022