Honesty is the best policy
A leadership series by Nick Sedlak
Automobile titan Henry Ford famously said: “Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.”1 While he was undoubtedly referring to early advances in the automotive space, I believe Mr. Ford’s perceptive words apply equally to modern-day startup efforts—including my personal experience launching the underwriting arm of Berkley One.
With any new endeavor, mistakes are baked into the development process. And regardless of the industry in question, a healthy dose of methodical experimentation is essential to achieving meaningful and long-lasting success.
Getting the band together
I joined Berkley One in November of 2016, a year before we launched in our first state. As Vice President of Underwriting Operations, one of my first orders of business was to assemble the team that would build out Berkley One’s underwriting function from the ground up. To say there were many moving parts is putting it lightly. Not only was my team responsible for developing a broad slate of underwriting rules and guidelines, but we also had to cast a sharp eye towards reducing transactional workloads for agents and underwriters alike, while simultaneously streamlining the quote process to ensure all customers were served as efficiently as possible. These are areas of continual focus for us, and there is still much to be done as we strive to continually improve.
Before joining Berkley One, I worked for two insurance startups, building and managing teams, designing risk management solutions and crafting product and service solutions for successful individuals. This experience was invaluable as I recruited, and continue to recruit, the underwriting team at Berkley One.
To me, leadership means having a vision: a clear idea, every day, of why you get up in the morning. In a world where you could get paid to do almost anything, it means be able to say, “I do this, and here’s why.” At Berkley One, we needed people that had a similar passion about their work, because everyone on our team would be a leader. These were the people who would be part of building what the underwriting job at Berkley One would look like for those who might join 10, 15, 20+ years from now. We looked for people who are energized by the idea of getting involved in projects that, at established companies, might have long been figured out. The best people have an excitement about heading into uncharted waters.
I focused first on finding people who embraced the idea of finding solutions, not just for underwriting issues but for any business issue that will make Berkley One better. Second, I sought people who are comfortable with iteration. As I explain to people, both in meetings and interviews, “We are a startup, which means things are not going to be perfect.” While we always seek perfection, what’s more important than achieving it is being able to understand what’s not working, why it is not working and define how we will move forward. For my team, taking full ownership of all iterative steps along the way is paramount to success. Honesty really is the best policy.
Taking a hands-on approach
Looking back focuses on the problem; looking forward focuses on the solution.
At Berkley One, we are solution seekers. Honesty plays a role here, too. We have to be honest about what isn’t working and then we need to challenge ourselves to create a solution.
We urge our people to define the problem first, before creating the solution. We need to be willing to identify the risks, the challenges, and the opportunities that can come from moving in a certain direction. We are willing to say, “Yes, but…” when a particular path forward is suggested. And we own it. Not that there isn’t collaboration and support at all levels: there is. We learn from each other every day, and we look forward as a team. But what makes Berkley One unique is the responsibility that individuals have to identify problems, create solutions and make an impact.
Redefining the agent/underwriter relationship
Creative problem solving often means recognizing the importance of listening more, and talking less. I’ve found that by doing so, we can sometimes summon the deeper concerns people have that lurk below the specific questions posed. We’re trying to get to the heart of the issue—quickly. If we do this well, we redefine the underwriting process and become the company that’s easiest to do business with. That’s the exciting work that my team embraces each day.
Take, for instance, Berkley One’s approach to servicing trusts and limited liability corporations formed for the purpose of ownership of assets. Based on our practical experience, we know that certain questions consistently yielded the same answers. Insureds would say: “the trust doesn’t have employees, and doesn’t generate new income—with the exception of dividend payments from the occasional investment account.” So we start the conversation with the understanding that the trust is for tax and estate planning purposes, rather than get there after asking multiple questions. But to be clear: it’s not about asking fewer questions. It’s about strategically drilling down to the right questions, so the agent and underwriter feel like we can get to a decision accurately and easily.
Honesty and trust are at the center of the underwriter and agent relationship. Our underwriters ask agents, “Where do you see inefficiencies?” and “What things drive you crazy when your underwriter comes back to you with a question?” Then we collaborate as a team and find ways to modify our approach to drive efficiency for the agent. It makes the underwriting job more exciting, because it means that our underwriters are sitting down and working on challenging opportunities with our agents. And in the process, they’re adding value beyond the transaction.
To conclude, when building a team of honest solution-finders, we don’t expect perfection. But we do expect the team to ask: “What’s getting in the way, and what can we do to solve it?” And while not every problem has a definitive timeline for determining a concrete remedy, a team approach to chipping away at everyday problems will invariably lay the foundation for better ways of doing things, for years to come. Which brings me back full circle to Henry Ford, who also stated: “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”2
I couldn’t agree more.
Nick is Vice President, Underwriting Operations at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).