Episode 095 — The Digital Broker Podcast

Making Culture Real: How to Build a Culture You Can See

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On this episode of The Digital Broker, Ryan Deeds interviews Heather Smyrl, co-founder of Highpoint Insurance Group, about how to design and build a culture that can help insurance agencies grow. By listening to this episode, you will learn:

  • How culture drives insurance agency growth by keeping employees focused and united, attracting like-minded talent, and even driving more business by exciting and impressing customers.
  • How invisibility makes a culture tough to see and hard to build.
  • How to make a culture more real, visible, and tangible by associating tangible experiences to successful outcomes.

Heather Smyrl and her team had happily worked together at an insurance agency for many years. But when the agency began to integrate into a larger agency, it shook things up and created confusion as to the overarching goal. Was it to satisfy the customers? To keep employees happy? To keep the other agency happy?

This culture crisis eventually drove Heather and her team to leave and start their own agency. In retrospect, this seems crazy. Though experienced, Heather and her team were very young and, by her own admission, still had many things to learn. But there were a couple of things they were sure of.

“We knew we wanted to treat our staff the way we would have liked to have been treated. If we were going to keep working in insurance, we wanted to have fun doing it. We wanted to be cool and different and authentic, and if people didn’t like that, they would not be a good fit for us.”

Heather and her team were laying down the foundations of what would become Highpoint Insurance Group’s culture, although she wouldn’t have looked at it that way at the time. “I don’t think we defined it as a ‘culture’ back then. I probably wouldn’t have known what that meant.” But after ten years of seeing how this employees-first attitude has kept employees together, attracted talented, like-minded people, and even driven more business by impressing customers, Highpoint today proclaims that “CULTURE IS EVERYTHING!”

Out of all the things that make an insurance agency successful, culture is perhaps the least understood. Probably, this has to do with its invisibility: what is culture? What does it look like? Furthermore, it’s easy to copy a business model, but every agency has to develop a culture on its own. How do you do it? Where do you begin?

Not by bannering the office walls with statements and slogans. Though she admits to having a book that outlines the agency’s culture, Heather reports that employees can struggle to absorb such a thing entirely. It is better to keep things simple. “Our first real success, our transformation, happened when we defined a common cause, one unifying purpose, and got everybody behind it. For us, it was a revenue goal. We let everybody know that if we got there, everybody would be rewarded—and not just the people at the top, but everybody. And you know what? We blew right through the goal—it was actually pretty mindblowing, how fast we blew through it. This is when I realized that everybody wants to be part of something. People aren’t necessarily motivated by the dollar, they are motivated by appreciation of what they do.”

We have said as much on a recent episode. We have also said that cash bonuses make the best incentives, but Heather encourages us to think a little differently. Though cash bonuses are great, they tend to be invisible. If you can associate visible, tangible rewards and experiences to a culture’s outcomes, you can help to make the culture real.

“We decided to reward employees with an all-expenses-paid vacation. We could have given them a cash bonus, but what I’ve found is that people tend not to notice those. At our old company, we used to pay out these cash bonuses every year, but they were never really calculated into people’s salaries, and people just didn’t see them. Any successful owner can write a check, but when I put some thought into what I give employees, there’s something tangible to it, and I think it builds more traction. I’ve received more appreciation by giving people a pair of shoes or a sweater than I would have gotten if I’d simply handed them a check.”

Keeping things simple, uniting employees around a clear, common goal, and attaching images, memories, and experiences to successful outcomes help to make a culture visible, replicable, and self-perpetuating. When people in the insurance industry hear about a culture like Highpoint’s, they notice, and they want to work there. “It is not hard for us to get employees—they are lining up at the door right now, which is a total shift from where we were in the beginning.” But in order to protect the culture that has done so much for the agency, Heather is ready to turn people away, even otherwise impressive candidates, if they turn out to be incompatible with the agency’s culture.

“If people’s mindset is ‘what’s in it for me’ rather than ‘what’s in it for the team,’ they’re just not the right fit for our agency. They might be the right fit for another agency, but it’s not how we’re wired. I don’t care if they’ve got one year of experience or thirty; if they’ve got the right mindset, that’s the first and really the only thing that matters. Everything else is teachable.”

What do you think? Have you had a great or not so-great-experience with your culture? Can you think of other ways to make a culture real and beneficial for its employees and the agency? We would love to hear about them. Join the Digital Broker LinkedIn group and meet other insurance agents, brokers, and specialists who are passionate about insurance agency culture and operational excellence.

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