Chief Concerns: Claims Executive Focus
George Neale, EVP, Commercial Market General Manager, Claims for Liberty Mutual
Can you share a bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
George Neale: I grew up in what I would classify as the real inner city of Washington, D.C. My sister and I went through the public school system where there was a lot of opportunity to go the wrong way. We were lucky to have a father that would probably have knocked us in the head if we went too far astray, and that's what made the difference for us.
You attained the role of senior vice president at the youngest age in Travelers' history. What do you think contributed to reaching that level of responsibility so quickly?
Neale: Even though we were in a pretty tough environment, one of the things instilled in us was to achieve as much as possible, to give all of our energy to do well in school and whatever we did. We saw passion all around us; my father was really big about that. He started off as a bicycle messenger in the Pentagon making $50 a week. When he retired 30 years later, he had top secret clearance and received awards from the Secretary of the Air Force. You didn't have many men raising families by themselves at the time, but he worked hard and stayed on top of us. It was a big part of what set the standard of expectations for my life.
What can you share from your book, Straight Talk on Getting There, that would apply to how you inspire your team?
Neale: The book is very simple and was meant to be directional for at-risk inner city youth. The most significant point was that everybody has something in them that they can be excellent at. You have to find that thing, and once you do, you have to nurture and develop it. Find what you're good at and become an expert. That's the thing that really creates value for you.
You have had the rare privilege of playing with some of jazz's all-time greats. How have those experiences affected your development as a leader and how you inspire others?
Neale: With Dizzy Gillespie, it was almost like Michael Jordan having a pickup game and asking you to come and play. Our band played with Dizzy several times, as well as with Benny Carter and Mary Lou Williams. Mary Lou was the coolest because she was the first black female to ever play in a big band. She played piano with Duke Ellington. I would sit in the room with her and play, and she'd say, "You're playing it, but you're not playing it. You know, you don't have the passion yet." Then a day came and I knew I was feeling it, and she said, "Yeah, you've got it now." Those are pretty special moments you don't ever forget.
In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he talks about the magical 10,000 hours it takes you to get to great. I play a lot of tennis, and one day I sat down and calculated it out. If you take someone who starts at age seven who plans to be on the pro tour by 20 years old, it converts to about six hours per day of practice—that's a lot. So what you see in these guys is that kind of commitment.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?
Neale: One of the first guys I worked under when I started my career at Travelers couldn't have been more different than me. He'd tell you himself that he was a 6' 5" redneck from North Carolina. He was the best guy for me possible. He always got excellent results and had the best claims office in the country for Travelers. He taught you about execution, service and taking care of your customers. But the most important thing that he did for me was let me make mistakes. He was able to look at the greater good. He could see past those and not see what you were but what you could be. It takes a special person to do that.
Every time there was a promotion, he advocated me for that job. Now at 78 years old, he always introduces me as his boss when he left Travelers. While it's true that ultimately I became his boss a couple of levels up, I was that for about a year, while he was my boss for 10 years.
You can read all the right books, look polished and think you know all things, but leadership comes from how you get people to do the things you need them to do, and he had a knack for doing that. If not for him, you wouldn't be having this dialogue with me.
Companies can have a tendency to dampen the flow of inspiration. How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?
Neale: When you have several layers of management between you and the front line, the free flow of information and ideas can be cut off at any layer. What we're in the process of doing right now is developing an Internet site just for claims that will be a resource library. Part is going to be kind of an "Ask George," anonymously of course. There will also anonymous suggestion boxes and a blog where we can exchange information back and forth. But, I'll tell you, the challenge is even getting your managers into a free-form exchange of ideas. We also have employee opinion surveys to get feedback and end up reading over 3,000 comments. We find out what the common ones are so that we can respond.
Liberty Mutual's current messaging is "What's your policy?" which ties in to the responsibility initiative. How does that align with what you do?
Neale: For insurance carriers, claims is the product, and we always ask people to manage claims in a fair and equitable way—to really understand responsibility. Our CEO, who has recently retired, always emphasized the responsibility of getting good outcomes on claims but not to the detriment of a claimant. A good outcome in a workers' compensation claim is good for everybody—good for the injured worker, good for the customer because they get their employee back to work and good for us because claims costs are reasonable. We work hard to manage claims by working with treating physicians and understanding what they're prescribing to ensure our claimants don't end up with a dependency on narcotics.
What advice would you give someone going into a claims leadership position for the first time?
Neale: I think one of the mistakes people make in the claims world is that they become claims experts exclusively. They don't understand how claims fits into the business of insurance. If you want to be an effective claims leader and you want to drive the best claims organization, you have to understand how it affects the whole business—how outstanding service affects retention and customer loyalty, how superior execution leads to great outcomes on claims which translates into better financials, and better financials translate into a better opportunity for you to compete price-wise.
I learned enough about the actuarial piece of insurance to be able to speak about it and intelligently drive metrics. Actuaries are the ones who drive the fundamentals of the insurance business, so if you can't have a dialogue with them, you really can't be an effective leader because you don't understand the right metrics. A person who is going into a claims leadership position needs to understand how underwriting, actuaries, and marketing work. When we interview people for a claims leadership position, we make sure they understand broadly what insurance is about. You have to understand how you fit into the equation—how you can help it or you can hurt it.
For younger professionals entering the claims management arena now, what do you think are the biggest roadblocks to success? What should new professionals be focused on?
Neale: Technology is a facilitator in what we do, but it also has made us a little bit lazy. We think it's as simple as opening an app and letting it do everything for us. You know you can't have technology do everything. You still have to pick up the phone and answer it, you still have to manage your workload. Maybe lazy is a bad word, but when we came up through the ranks without much technology, we learned how to manage a lot of things differently. We learned how to multitask and have an organizational system that was efficient. One of the challenges today is reaping the benefits of technology but not letting it become a dependency.
Also, look to the people in your office who are doing the job exceptionally well. That's who you need to talk to about learning the things you need to be effective and efficient—what the little tricks are, what the shortcuts are and things you can do that don't harm the result of the claims but may help you be a bit more efficient. Spend time around folks who are really successful, learn who those people are and emulate what they do, even if it is as simple as listening to how they talk to people on the phone, manage the conversations, create empathy and build trust.
One of the biggest challenges we have now, not only in claims but in business in general, is using technology to enhance communication. We'll send 20 e-mails back and forth but won't get up and talk to people. That happens with supervision of people as well, but you can't use technology to manage people. It can, however, facilitate interactions, particularly with people who are remote through video conferencing. We're starting to explore decentralizing our ranks and allowing more people to work at home; however, we are going to require human interaction and people still having that supervisory touch.
There are a lot of intangibles around what makes you decide to promote someone. You need to have interaction, see how people conduct themselves and so forth. While we allow people to work remotely, we're going to leverage video conferencing and things like that to have virtual human interactions. You can't just send someone a note in a claim file that says you didn't do certain things. That's not training and development.
The whole essence of management and leadership is getting in front of people and having dialogues, sitting at someone's desk or sitting in a conference room and helping them understand how you're going to help them do better. The approach I take is to focus on the things they need to do to get the next job. The reality is that you're not going to get there unless you're successful in the current position. Instead of saying they need to improve this or that, you say, "These are the things you need to prepare for the next level."
The most important thing I ask is, "Do you know when you've arrived at being an effective leader and manager? Answer: It's when you're bored." When I'm bored, it is because everyone under me is clicking on all cylinders—they're doing their job, I believe in them, I have confidence in them, they're delivering results, and everything is working the way it's supposed to.
I've never seen an effective micromanager. They may be good at what they do, but they're not effective, and they are never bored. As you come up in your career, you'll have many different bosses—some great, some good, some horrible. But even the horrible ones you can learn from because you learn what not to do.
With every level, you want to get bored. And when you get a little bit bored, then you get to spend some time learning underwriting, actuarial, distribution, and the things that will round you out and let you prepare for a broader job. That's my mantra, "Get bored."