Barcelona: City of…fears

A leadership series by Ellen Long

This June, my family traveled all together for the first time to Europe. We were celebrating my younger son’s high school graduation, so we allowed him to pick the destination: Barcelona. It made sense. We are huge soccer fans. We speak a bit of Spanish. The history, architecture, food and wine are legendary. There are beaches. There was something for everyone in our group.

Like many families, we like to travel actively. In February, we began planning excursions for our visit. The trip seemed a long way off as we sat around the kitchen table on a snowy afternoon. This is probably why I didn’t push back too hard when my family selected a day of horseback riding and touring Montserrat (over 4,000 feet above sea level).

I did quietly mention my fear of heights and horses. I might have even murmured things like “don’t really do heights,” “terrified of horses” and “sit this one out.” (I also secretly wondered how both my fears managed to pair up on the same darn adventure!) But with the trip so far in the distance and my family so excited about this tour, I did the mature thing—pretended it wasn’t happening.

This story is about how (against all odds!) I managed to summit a Spanish peak and spend a day on horseback—but it starts a year earlier, with the experiences which led me there.


Starting at a startup


In April 2017, I embarked on new adventure when I joined Berkley One, a personal lines insurance startup, after working for a large insurer for close to thirty years.

The opportunities to build an HR function from the ground up, to be part of a startup and to work with our senior leadership team were impossible to resist. It was scary to leave a place where work just, well, worked. Process, workflow and the way to get things done worked together like a well-oiled machine in my old role. But this was also why I left. I had ideas about how HR could do better and be better, and this was my shot to deliver. I knew it would be an adventure too good to miss.


Thirty-five is a magic number


My first order of business when I arrived at Berkley One was clear: Hire talent. A lot of talent. The best talent in the industry, people who were ready for a new adventure and energized at the chance to create something new, different, and better. People able to bring creative and innovative ways of delivering to our clients, and excited to work across functions as collaborators and partners. People who were known experts in the marketplace and willing and energized to take on the roller-coaster challenge of startup work.

Our timetable to hire was short—really short. In nearly 12 years in HR, I’d never had more than five job requisitions open at one time, and always had a recruiting team behind me. Shortly after I started at Berkley One, we had thirty-five brand-new open positions.

To say I was daunted just doesn’t do justice to my state of mind. But this was the first big challenge at my new organization and, though fearful about my ability to deliver such a tall order, I was determined to nail it. I went to work on a game plan. I had an amazing colleague from another Berkley company who was my recruiting partner and salvation. Together, we devised our battle plan and got down to business. We posted jobs, screened hundreds of potential candidates, and negotiated dozens of offers.  We talked to potential candidates all day, at night and sometimes even over the weekends—whenever the person was available, so were we. We brought in the best team for Berkley One—just ask our agents, who remark on the caliber of our team frequently.


Resilience and a bit of grit


There is a special kind of person you need in a startup. In addition to expertise and technical ability (this is table stakes, really), startup talent has to be exceptionally resilient, agile and sometimes just a little bit gritty.

As a recruiting team, it was our job to help new team members through their own fears of joining a startup, of leaving established and successful companies where they were presently working to take a chance on our venture being wildly successful.

In the many corners of Berkley One, we went to work building new teams. One thing we did was to turn traditional wisdom on how certain roles would work upside down and create something new.

Take our PriorityOneSM Service team. When partnering with Kevin Worrell, our Vice President of Customer Service Delivery, to staff the service center, the easy path might have been to hire representatives with property and casualty insurance experience. Not us. Instead, we hired people who had a driving passion to serve others and could deliver special and differentiated experiences to clients who called or clicked to chat with us. This approach also meant our team joined us without preconceived notions about insurance delivery. Kevin’s leadership series article, “Everything I know about customer service I learned from my mother,” tells how this approach became a success story for us.

We also knew that our agents were looking for a company to redefine the marketing role as one where carrier and agent work side-by-side. This was top of mind when we created the role of the Agency Experience Manager (AEM). Our AEM’s work with and for our agents and brokers. They are tasked with understanding their individual organizational priorities and growth plan, and then figuring out how we can support those priorities and growth. Said differently, our agent’s agenda is our agenda.


Powered by our people


In my career in HR, I’ve learned culture can make or break a company. It can lead to rousing success, or mediocrity. It can help employees feel engaged, energized and committed, or feel like they are simply logging their hours.

One question at the top of most candidates’ minds is: “What’s your culture like?” At the beginning, my answer was grounded in our story: we are a startup, we are passionate experts in our field excited to deliver a new and better way to serve clients, and we each have a role in shaping our culture as we mature. We are also part of Berkley, one of America’s leading property and casualty insurance providers. W. R. Berkley Corporation was itself a startup in 1967, and many of Berkley’s 50+ operating units began as startup organizations as well.

As we grew, we wanted to follow this entrepreneurial spirit. Our culture was emerging. As an organization powered by our people, I hit the road and asked our employees to share their hopes and dreams for Berkley One. Six offices, six weeks, nearly eighty employees and hundreds of pages of notes later, we learned a lot. What stood out to me most was an immeasurable sense of passion.

While our culture will continue to evolve, we’ve already put the findings of the culture tour to work:

  • We found opportunities to improve collaboration across several functions. Collaboration has quickly become a core competency at Berkley One.
  • We launched a charitable initiative to give back to our communities. Almost every employee on the tour identified authentic community involvement as a priority.
  • We initiated an ongoing dialogue where employees are welcomed, empowered and expected to contribute to our culture build. To me, this piece is the most important. Our people won’t just live our culture, they’ll build and be at the center of it. They will bring it to life not just internally, but with our clients and agents.


Heights and horses


On the day of our climbing and riding excursion in Barcelona, I stood trembling. But, I went up Montserrat and was rewarded with a stunning view of Catalunya. I rode on horseback, and saw the Spanish countryside in a way that shouldn’t be missed.

In life and in business this past year, what I’ve learned can best be summed up by one of my favorite actresses, Sarah Parish, “Living with fear stops us from taking risks, and if you don’t go out on the branch, you’re never going to get the best fruit.”1

Ellen Long is Vice President, Human Resources at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).

Courtesy of Ellen Long.

Courtesy of Ellen Long.