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Launching Successful Leaders at Progressive

How the fast-growing insurance brand is onboarding and developing the leaders it needs.
Launching Successful Leaders at Progressive

Progressive’s 81-year legacy of innovation—beginning with the first drive-in claims office in 1937 through today’s ground-breaking online comparison shopping experience—has sparked enormous expansion. In the past five years alone, Progressive has grown revenue more than 30 percent with close to 10 percent year-over-year increases in net premiums written.

This growth, coupled with a memorable marketing and advertising strategy featuring the popular “Flo” character, has made Progressive one of the most recognizable brands in the auto insurance industry.

And while this rapid growth will help the company achieve its goal of becoming consumers' number one choice and destination for auto and other insurance it also presents several new challenges. One of these challenges is developing a steady pipeline of leaders who can continue driving growth in alignment with Progressive’s culture of innovation and focus on inclusion.

Each year Progressive must find, promote, and onboard hundreds of frontline leaders. Its grow-your-own approach to leadership means many of these new leaders already understand that Progressive’s culture—one built on Core Values including Integrity, the Golden Rule, and Excellence—isn’t just about the work that individuals do. It’s about the way people interact with each other.

“Success at Progressive is not only about ‘what’ gets done, but as importantly ‘how’ we do it,” says Tricia Griffith, Progressive’s CEO. “That starts with leadership.”

This marriage of what and how is at the core of the Center for Talent Development’s role at Progressive. The Center is tasked with helping to develop Progressive’s leaders to build consistency in professional and leadership skills like coaching and feedback, along with orienting all leaders to Progressive’s culture and vision.

An important part of this learning organization’s charter is onboarding and developing those newly promoted supervisors.

“Our frontline leaders live the culture and, because there is a large number of them, they have the opportunity to affect so many other people. It creates a snowball effect,” says Progressive’s Center for Development Instructional Designer, Lauren Lewis. “And with us growing so quickly, it would be easy to lose bits of the culture if not for a program focused on these leaders.”

Past programs for new leaders emphasized HR fundamentals and compliance and ethics issues, but the company wanted to implement an approach that also placed an emphasis on the link between leadership competencies and Progressive’s culture and Core Values.

The Center’s re-evaluation of the supervisor onboarding program occurred simultaneously as Progressive worked with DDI to define and socialize leadership competencies for the Company. The link between the newly defined competencies—especially those that aligned tightly with Progressive’s culture, like trust, communication, and leading in an inclusive environment—and the foundational skills required of this new supervisor population were clear to the L&D professionals in the Center, including training consultant Gina Trehan and Lewis, who were two of the key architects of Progressive’s onboarding initiative.

Ryan Smith, Director of Leadership and Professional Development, challenged the Center to take a fresh look at onboarding new leaders including leadership skills, HR fundamentals, and cultural perspectives. “I asked them to think about how we can create a program that gets people to be excited to be a leader at Progressive, but also equips them with the skills they need to be successful as new leaders,” says Smith.

Enter the Leadership Launch program.

Leadership Launch

Leadership Launch is a three-day immersive development experience required for all new supervisors, delivered exclusively at Progressive’s Cleveland-area headquarters in Mayfield Village, Ohio. Previous iterations of new leader programs had been delivered regionally, but for Leadership Launch, Progressive felt it was critical to bring everyone to headquarters, despite the additional expense and time commitment.

“We’re making these investments so our leaders, many of whom work in remote locations, can experience our culture first hand, here at Progressive’s headquarters and then share those experiences with their teams,” notes Trehan.

Before the new leaders arrive to Leadership Launch, they complete a behavior assessment of their and DDI’s Communicating for Leadership Success online course to provide actionable data and a common foundation on which they build on during the in-person portion of their experience.

On the first day of the immersion, leaders don’t begin with typical ice breakers or an overview of the agenda. Rather, they immediately experience the importance of diversity and inclusion in the Progressive culture through a team challenge designed for participants to open up and get comfortable by sharing what is unique about themselves and establishing commonalities with their peers. Day One continues with a session on “Becoming a Leader,” which focuses on the challenges associated with the transition from individual contributor to frontline leader. Participants discuss leadership qualities, begin to define their own leadership brand, and cover a topic that is tightly aligned with leadership success: building trust.

During the afternoon of Day One, leaders participate in activities that allow them to learn about their communication and work style preferences, exposing them to others who may have differing preferences. Participants work together to identify ways in which they can apply their results to enhance relationships. A module on leading inclusive teams brings the day’s learning back to where it started by helping the new leaders understand, uncover, and manage biases in the context of diversity and inclusion.

half-day Coaching for Peak Performance course from DDI’s Interaction Management® leadership development systemDay Two starts with a deep dive into coaching, one of the key areas of focus for frontline leaders,  with the half-day Coaching for Peak Performance course from DDI’s Interaction Management® leadership development system. Leaders learn and practice applying skills to effectively handle proactive and reactive coaching discussions, making them more effective and efficient in their interactions.

Afterward, the leaders shift to a unique and engaging portion of the Leadership Launch program—an opportunity to learn awareness through art.

Building Diversity and Inclusion Through Art

As highlighted in the program kick-off, creating a diverse and inclusive work environment is one of the key tenets of Progressive’s culture. Instilling this sense of celebrating different ideas, approaches, and ways of seeing and thinking about the world is a critical part of socializing new leaders.

Trehan and her team found the perfect way to deeply engage new leaders in discussions around diversity: Progressive’s renowned contemporary art collection, which includes more than 9,000 works from artists like Kara Walker, Beverly Semmes, and the artist collective Los Carpinteros. The collection’s purpose is explicit: “The Progressive Art Collection promotes our company culture—the unique confluence of our people, values, aspirations, and work environment—by encouraging the pursuit of innovation and change.”

Building Diversity and Inclusion Through ArtDuring the afternoon of Day Two, Kristin Rogers, Progressive’s Manager of Art Education, takes the new leaders through an engagement seminar, leveraging works on a main campus tour to spur critical thinking, debate and empathy. Along the way, he engages them in a discussion about how the art ties back to the concepts of diversity, inclusion, and leadership.

“In a broad sense, Progressive’s art collection naturally provokes introspection and dialog—qualities that we believe are outright standalone leadership talents,” says Rogers. “More specifically, the Leadership Launch conversation seminars we conduct encourage participants to examine best practices for civil debate, careful listening, and empathetic reads on the unfamiliar. Ultimately, our class asks people to get comfortable with discomfort—not with passive resignation or avoidance, but as a lived embrace and a challenge to risk, learn, and grow.”

This engaging, thought-provoking session ends with leaders working together on a written and visual composition based on insights they’ve gleaned from the experience.

Face to Face with the CEO

An important component of any leadership development program is the visible support of senior leadership. New Progressive supervisors see this first hand to close the second day of Leadership Launch with an extended face-to-face meeting with CEO, Tricia Griffith.

The cohort spends 30 to 45 minutes in Griffith’s office, where they are welcomed as new leaders and are provided with a personal overview of the importance of their roles to Progressive; the impact they have on the people, culture, and customers; and current happenings in the industry and organization. Griffith shares stories of her career path, personal life, and background, giving the new leaders an intimate picture of their senior-most leader and a positive model of what successful leadership looks like at Progressive.

According to Griffith, “Leadership starts at the top and these sessions allow me to stress the importance of being servant leaders and define the difference between being a manager and a leader. Having the forum to share my experiences—successes and failures—and talk about the importance of living our Core Values is one of the most important parts of my role.”

Just the Beginning

The final day is dedicated to many of the compliance and HR themes covered in previous iterations of the onboarding program, along with coaching from HR consultants on a variety of common issues and challenges faced by new leaders.

Supervisors complete a module on making difficult choices, then finish the day by putting all of the learnings from the three-day program together in an activity in which they create visual aids that represent their key takeaways from Leadership Launch. They leave with an understanding that this course is just the beginning of their leadership journey, as well as with several assignments and expectations to ensure their learning and growth doesn’t end when they walk out the door.

Returning to the critical role of leader support, managers of the new supervisors are engaged both before the program (with a robust manager guide that outlines the program) and after (through development planning ideas and processes).

Learning and application is extended beyond the classroom with Mindmarker, a cloud-based application that sends auto-generated reinforcement content directly to participants’ mobile devices at pre-determined intervals after training. These videos, texts, hyperlinks, and questions spark engagement and have been an integral component for the success of Leadership Launch.

Sixty days after the program ends, the leaders are given the opportunity to reconvene as a cohort on a capstone call to discuss what has been working and any challenges they’ve faced. It also provides a chance to continue building their networks, reinforce tools and key concepts learned during Leadership Launch, and the opportunity to share some early experiences and ask questions. Though the capstone calls are voluntary, participation rates are extremely high, highlighting the value that participants place on this ongoing development. 

“It Worked Like a Charm!”

Through initial program evaluations, the success of the program is obvious and compelling. Forty-five days after training, the new leaders are surveyed and asked if they are using the tools and concepts presented in the class. The results of these surveys have proved powerful: 94 percent of participants report that they are applying the coaching concepts taught on day two of the program, and 98 percent report using the Key Principles—Esteem, Empathy, Involvement, Sharing, Support—taught in the pre-session communications module. Across the board, use of the tools and concepts is very high, particularly with the post-learning discussion planners and assessment results.

And most critically, participants leave the Leadership Launch program not just with renewed confidence. Feedback from one participant: “I just wanted you to know that my first day back in the office I got to use the HR training techniques that we learned, and guess what? It worked like a charm!”

Another participant raved about gaining a clear sense of their role as a leader within Progressive’s culture: “I left with a great impression of Progressive, and learned a lot from everyone on the culture of the organization which will help me learn, and continue to grow in my development."

How to Make Smart Use of Data

The insurance industry is built using data to find ways to minimize risk and uncertainty, so it’s no surprise that Progressive’s Leadership Launch leans heavily on collecting metrics to demonstrate impact.

Progressive’s Center for Talent Development has implemented a variety of measures to evaluate the effectiveness of Leadership Launch. From a simple survey sent 45 days after training to gauge the use of tools to more comprehensive measures of behavior change performed annually, the Center recognizes the value of data.

Progressive Leadership Development Consultant Gina Trehan says that working with DDI on the impact evaluations—designed to gain data and metrics on the effectiveness of a leadership initiative and analyze multiple perspectives—was important to confirm their vision for Leadership Launch and to identify opportunities to improve effectiveness and impact.

Progressive participants and stakeholders aren’t the only ones who recognize the impact of Leadership Launch. The Center for Talent Development was recently awarded the 2017 CUBIC™ award for Learning Impact.

To learn more about Interaction Management® visit www.ddiworld.com/IM

Talk to an Expert: Launching Successful Leaders at Progressive
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