9/9/2014

In the C-Suite with Greg Steele

Swiss Re Corporate Solutions’ Head of North America Claims explains his belief in hiring “gold,” the importance of cross-pollinating across the enterprise, and how technology affects claims handling.

By Taylor Smith

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the small town of Oakland, Iowa, which is just east of Omaha. The population there was around 1,000 people. When I was 16, we moved 50 miles north to a town of 7,000 people, and I thought I was in the big city. My dad worked for the telephone company. He started the day after he graduated high school; by the time he retired, he had spent about 20 years as a regional manager. My mom stayed home with us for a while, then did office work as we got older.

Do you have any siblings?

I am the youngest of four—two sisters and a brother. We are still very connected, but unfortunately, we are spread out all over the country.

When you were growing up, what did you want to be?

During high school and college, I started noticing what my dad was doing for a living. When we made the previously mentioned move, I got to know some of the people who worked for him. I sensed that there was an appreciation and respect for him and what he did, which made me proud of him and also influenced me. One way or another, I figured that management would be part of my life; I just wasn’t sure what direction that would take exactly.

Did you know what management qualities your dad had that people respected?

He was a very transparent person. He was very open, honest, and fair. When necessary, he was able to tell people what they needed to hear rather than what they wanted to hear. That is an important skill.

What did you do after graduating from college?

When I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, there weren’t many job opportunities in the area, so two buddies and I decided to travel to find our fame and fortune. We started in Phoenix where we looked for about a month with no luck. We were almost ready to head back to Iowa when some friends of ours who had graduated before us told us that there were career opportunities in Houston. So we went to Houston, and I landed my first post-college job as an auto/physical damage claims trainee with The Hartford.

What kind of training did you receive?

The Hartford had a fantastic internal training program. I fell in love with the work and the training. I was a sponge and took course after course. I went to Hartford, Conn., for a few classes. I also had a great local claims manager who really helped me out.

How long did you stay in that role?

I had a short stay in auto/physical damage. About eight months after I started, I began handling multiline claims. Within a year, I had a company car and was a multiline adjuster. I’d be out all day doing my investigations, and then come back to the office to do paperwork. My manager was usually the last one in the office, and he would spend hours with me talking about claims and teaching me. It was a great experience. Within a couple of years, I was working on the litigation team as their gopher/investigator.

What was your first management role?

After three and a half years in Houston, I had the opportunity to move to Colorado Springs, Colo., and manage a small office of six people. It was the kind of multiline opportunity that you don’t see very much anymore. That gave me my first taste of management. A few years later, we moved to Kansas City, Mo., which is where my wife is from. We were expecting our first child, and we wanted to be closer to family. There I took a management position with CNA.

How would you describe your management style?

I think there is a difference between management and leadership. From a management perspective, I received a great piece of advice from one of my own managers: hire the “gold” because it will make your life easier. There’s a lot of truth to that. You need to take the time to find and hire good people and then get out of their way. You obviously need to stay engaged, but you don’t want them to feel micromanaged. For example, I like to do skip-level meetings to help give me a better idea of how things are going. That also helps build rapport with the team.

Leadership is more about creating an atmosphere and a vision for the group while at the same time acknowledging and appreciating the work that is being done. I think that, too often, people don’t feel acknowledged for a job well done. Leaders should always project a positive attitude, especially in tough situations.

What would you say to young graduates considering a career in claims?

Insurance is one of the largest industries in the world. A career in claims provides so many different opportunities for whatever area of interest a graduate has, whether it’s medical, engineering, or management. For virtually any interest, there is a place in claims that can respond to it. It is incredibly diverse and interesting. Claims professionals can be talking to an engineer one day, then a doctor and lawyer the next. They have to be able to understand what they are hearing and be able to incorporate that into the claims they are managing.

Unfortunately, there are too many young people who do not know, appreciate, or understand these opportunities. That was certainly the case with me when I graduated. I had no knowledge of what a great career I would find and enjoy. As an industry, we need to do a better job of communicating how diverse the career opportunities can be.

Do you think it’s best to specialize in one area or diversify?

Diversification is very important in my view. In our Swiss Re Corporate Solutions claims group, we have a job rotation program where we move about 10 percent of our team into a different area of the company on a periodic basis. We rotate not only within the claims department, but also to underwriting and other areas as well.

We call it the Bumblebee program because we are cross-pollinating ideas and practices from one area to another. This helps us improve our processes. It also creates opportunities for those employees who have the desire and potential for future growth.

Corporate Solutions is in a very good place right now, with a lot of growth aspirations. We want to find the next generation of leaders and help them succeed by making them as well-rounded as possible. From a management perspective, it’s been a great program because it helps both the organization and individuals on the team.

How has technology affected claims handling?

Technology has accelerated everything. Back in the day, you used to get something in the mail, and the response time could be several days. Now you get an email in the morning, and by the afternoon, there’s a phone call making sure you got the email. That expediency isn’t something we can change, but we do need to educate adjusters to take the time to make sure they are doing things right, all the while avoiding situations where they have to retract something they have said.

Consumers also are better educated now because of the Internet, so we need to step up our game so that we are prepared to interact with a more-informed audience. We need to take advantage of the technology we have, but not lean on it. It should be used to our advantage, but we should never lose sight of the importance of the personal connection with the customer.

Is it harder to be a claims handler today than 20 years ago?

In some aspects, yes, but in others, no. Technology has certainly made the job easier by automating things like diaries and files, and we have access to so much more information now. At the same time, there are expectations around rapid and immediate communication, and professionals have to work hard to keep up with these accelerated demands. My view is that, while technology will keep evolving, we have to always remember that, at the core, our job is much more personal, and we have to have quality communication with our insureds and business partners.

What keeps you up at night?

I can’t say there is one thing. I’m very fortunate to work for a great organization. It’s a very refreshing place to work. At times, there can be so many balls in the air that I lie in bed rattling off everything I need to do, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I really love my job, and that helps a great deal. I travel a fair amount. We have people in roughly 30 states and offices in more than 20 cities, including Canada. I try to get out to as many offices as possible. In addition, my job takes me to Europe four to eight times a year, so that keeps things quite busy.

Are you married?

I’ve been happily married for almost 29 years. We have three children. Our oldest daughter is married, and we have three grandchildren.

How did you meet your wife?

We had an office romance when we both worked at The Hartford office in Houston. She’s a loss control specialist.

Have any of your children pursued a career in insurance?

Not even close. My oldest daughter has a degree in nursing and works in the pediatric ICU at the children’s hospital in town. My youngest daughter is an animal lover and owns a dog, three cats, and her own horse. My son is going to school, and he loves movies and cinematography. We’re very proud of each of them, but none considered following in their parents’ footsteps.

Do you have any hobbies?

We’re very fortunate that we all live fairly close to one another, so we spend a lot of time with family. My wife and I like to ride bikes. We just started about six months ago, but have really caught the bug. We plan to ride the Katy Trail across Missouri this fall. That should be a great experience!  



Taylor Smith is a contributing editor to CLM Magazine and president of CLM Advisors, which provides consulting and talent acquisition services to the claims and litigation management industry. He may be reached at taylor.smith@clmadvisors.org, (224) 212-0134, www.clmadvisors.org.

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