Episode 019 — The Digital Broker Podcast

Understanding The Critical Role of Human Resources Within An Insurance Agency (Featuring Michelle Trueblood)


In this episode of “The Digital Broker”, Steve and Ryan speak with Michelle Trueblood, the Chief Human Resources Officer of The Horton Group, an insurance, employee benefits and risk advisory firm based in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, Illinois. The Horton Group has offices throughout Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Horton is a mid-market broker with about 400 employees and 75 million dollars in annual revenue.

By listening to this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How the role of Human Resources has developed at insurance agencies
  • Current and future issues that HR professionals will need to address in the industry
  • How capital investment can create a better employee experience
  • How a training team can have a positive impact on the organization
  • How an onboarding process can be effectively developed
  • How creative workplace practices increase employee retention
  • How college recruiting and internship programs can positively affect an agency


The role and impact of the Human Resources Department have undergone a dramatic evolution from what used to be called “Personnel,” which had the responsibility of maintaining employee records, managing payroll, and ensuring employee benefits were delivered. Today’s Human Resource department and the professionals that staff it are an integral part of an organizational management team and are recognized for their critical role.

HR departments of the present have a wide range of responsibilities, including the identification of staffing needs, organizational development, recruiting, hiring, onboarding, training, retention and arguably the most important of them all, ensuring a positive experience for employees.

Michelle Trueblood, Chief Human Resource Officer and part of the executive team of the Horton Group explains how her organization has successfully implemented these practices.

What is the role of Human Resources (HR) today as opposed to the role it played in the past? (2:40)

Regardless of the size of an organization, human resource issues are all essentially the same. Organizations are looking for the top talent and the best person to fill roles. It’s important to leverage positions within the company. The Horton Group is reflective of the changes that HR has experienced over the years. Initially, HR at Horton was the traditional personnel type of organization where employee paperwork was kept and the department was responsible for basic payroll issues, timekeeping, and some compliance responsibility. Employees would visit if they had a problem with a paycheck or other similar issues.

The HR group at Horton is now involved in every aspect of the organization and the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) is part of the executive team. These days, the role of Human Resources is one of the innovative strength for strategic plans and is a business partner with a critical seat at the executive table. HR’s mission is to place value around getting things done through people. In addition, HR is part of forecasting needs – whether it be for next week or for five years down the road. It is important to understand the complexity of the business and determine the organizational structure and design. Human Resources shares responsibility for understanding everyday tactical needs as well as being able to project what will be necessary in five years to maintain market position.

What are some of the issues that are being faced from a Human Resources standpoint in the insurance industry and what will the next five years bring? (5:08)

Personnel is a major issue. Approximately 65% of an agency’s expenses are employee related. One major issue that has to be considered is the changing demographics – the ticking of “the demographic time bomb”. Because of the demographic changes, HR must take the lead in both ensuring an effective organization as well as implementing effective recruiting, training and engagement of employees.

The organization has needed to invest in the right things, meaning training and recruiting. A successful organization needs to be aggressive in getting everyone to understand how to have a career once they’ve been hired and brought onboard. Another important effort is recruiting, being very good internally for current employees so that they buy into the culture and direction that the company is trying to go. There is a war for talent and agencies are not just competing with other agencies but in many ways are competing with everyone.

Most employees are not immediately ready to work in the insurance industry. It is critical to be ready to provide on the job training – sophisticated comprehensive training irrespective of the position that the person has accepted. We have to be cognizant of building the right culture to ensure that people are excited to be doing what they are doing and are happy to be working where they do.

When employees are happy, it helps with referrals of new quality candidates. Existing employees can be the best recruiters of new talent. There is significant capital investment around the employee experience. It is very advantageous to have a sense regarding what the competition is in the marketplace. It’s very powerful to build a culture that makes employees actually want to come into work each day. When you build a brand that you are proud of, it gives a story to tell prospective employees.

The Horton Group is represented on 14 or 15 college campuses to remind potential hires that there is tremendous opportunity in the insurance industry. With low unemployment it makes talent even more scarce, therefore HR needs to “think outside of the box” as to the type of talent that is being sought.

Looking at the type of talent that was needed forced Horton to ask questions such as: “What are we really hiring for?”, “Who are we?”, “What do we want to be?” and “What are our values?”  Horton now has a set of values to live up to through the hiring, firing, training and evaluation processes.

What is an example of a capital expense to build a better employee experience? (9:08)

We talk a lot about client experience but if you’d asked five years ago about employee experience, no one would have understood. “Engaged employees make good employees” is now an axiom. An example of capital expenditure to improve employee experience is a process that starts from day one in regard to onboarding. Onboarding is often overlooked because of desperation to hire people, get them on board and get them working right away.

The Horton Group has a week-long onboarding experience for every new hire. This program explains the nuts and bolts of the agency and who we are. It’s a deep dive into the brand. New employees are shown things that are coming up. The intention is to immediately get employees to plant roots and begin to grow – to start the buy-in process from the first day.

One of the things created is a “cohort group”. This gives everyone in the group a shared experience as rookies. There is a success in moving through the onboarding experience as a group. Everyone gets to meet the CEO on day one. The hiring process is once a month. Everyone learns the vision directly from the CEO and learns that everyone can have a career path. The process includes identifying people that new hires should speak to as well as classes that should be taken for career advancement. Training and development are considered very important.

Horton has had four or five classes of new producers in the last 16 months. There is a focus on Producer development as well as on “Horton University” which offers 400 virtual classes with different training partners and is available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. The organization is constantly training on new things – soft skills, tactical processes, guest speakers and other connections to the industry. A great deal of capital investment is poured into the training process.

Is there a training specialist or a training team? (13:05)

Yes, Horton has a training and development team which reports up through Human Resources. There is a graduate level designer on board because some of the content wasn’t available “off the shelf”. The organization needed someone who could help build the content and tailor it to the Horton organization. Essentially the training was built from the ground up.

How long does the onboarding process go on? (14:15)

Everyone comes to the corporate office regardless of position, including the 12-week interns. New employees are walked through the process. Everyone has a “team manager” inside of the organization. This is a new addition that wasn’t part of the Horton process a few years ago. We’ve learned that people don’t leave a company, they leave a manager. After the first week, the training team hands off the group to the division and the supervisor in a seamless manner. The new employees are slowly migrated to their respective team. There is a clearly mapped out plan for what all hires experience, including the training at Horton University, specific carrier training, “lunch and learns”, and “ride-alongs”. The process is a monthly occurrence, providing a systematic and methodical process. This process is key for getting initial engagement and impressing upon the employee that they made a good decision in joining Horton.

Is there a specific time that employees are hired? (16:20)

Initially, new employees were onboarded as quickly as possible and sometimes immediately upon hire. The organization found that turnover was resulting because the new employees were sent to their teams too quickly. The organization dropped back and re-evaluated and developed a new plan. HR realized that hiring on a set schedule made things easier for everyone. Payroll was able to process people on board at a set time, benefits and plan design was easier, IT can be more organized in setting up permissions, emails, and equipment. The organization methodically works through all the tasks that come into play. An organized onboarding process allows departments to work together seamlessly and professionally which results in a smoother onboarding and gives a much better impression to the new employees.

Do all employees come onboard at the set time or have exceptions been made? (19:02)

The process has been in place for about eighteen months and is working well. It keeps the chaos to a minimum. The process is mapped out for a year in advance. Most employees find the organization of the program refreshing and buy into the process because it enables them to efficiently decide when to give notice to their prior employer when to offload old benefits for new, when and how to turn over current projects. It essentially honors the former employer because the departing employee does not leave on bad terms.

Horton encourages new hires to give adequate notice and lets them know that it’s not the Horton way to allow someone to start immediately. Sometimes people build in a short vacation between the old job and the new. The intent is to make it seamless and frictionless to join the agency. Every now and then, a one-off hire is done if necessary, especially to avoid losing talent.

How many new hires are brought on in an average month? (21:38)

Last year, there were about seventy new hires total. During any month, the numbers will vary. The class of interns was about fourteen, but regular hires during any month vary from six to twelve. Hiring is kept small enough so that teaching can be done to meet individual needs. In addition, classes tend to be an eclectic group of people, varying from a producer with twenty years of experience sitting with a new college graduate.

Has the onboarding process increased employee retention? (22:44)

Yes, generally statistics show millennials leaving jobs after approximately two years. However, if they work in a corporate culture that is accepting and allowing them to have an impact on the organization, the retention rate is higher. The onboarding program definitely increases retention. Prior to the development of the onboarding process, there had been double-digit turnover. Upon analyzing why employees were leaving, it was determined that some of the cause was because of the organization’s lack of attention to specific issues. We found that some hires would get to the two-and-a-half-year mark and would leave. Exit interviews illustrated that some felt that they had stayed long enough and that it wouldn’t be perceived as “job hopping”, while others felt Horton wasn’t being competitive. The implementation of flexible work arrangements proved to be a seismic change inside the agency and has had a direct correlation to retention.

Is flexible work time available and how does that operate? (25:00)

Flexible work time at Horton is a formalized process. After an employee has been on board for a long enough time and it is deemed that they know their job well enough, they can apply for a flexible work arrangement. This will allow the employee to work from home a few days a week. If desired, the employee could shift from an 8 to 4 schedule or a 9 to 5 schedule. The flexibility is defined more by the employee than by the company.

What are the impact of college recruiting and the intern program and how does it work? (26:15)

The internship program at Horton is not new but has been getting better each year. The agency recruits in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Horton targets risk-management schools like Illinois State as well as other schools in the area. There is an organized program to stretch our outreach to make sure that the agency is known throughout the states in which we operate. In this regard, we have formalized internship programs with about a dozen schools. In addition, our outreach extends to career fairs and holding interviews on site.

One lesson learned was that there was too much focus on immediately identifying a professional area for applicants – immediately looking at them for a sales role or an operational role. Our internship program is now “rotational” in that we give the interns exposure to multiple areas of the agency to ensure they find their fit.

Our values are presented in a simple and understanding manner, stated as “being driven, excellent, and together”. In the interview process, we do behavioral types of questions, especially since most of the candidates won’t have a lot of real-world experience. We ask the candidate to give examples of how they reacted in different situations, or how they would respond in a certain instance.

In conclusion, Human Resources is no longer a side thought. HR is now considered one of the most critical components of an organization. HR is constantly looking to improve and a good department recognizes that training practices of today will often soon be out of date. It is important to identify key qualities of a position, match skill sets to that role and find the right candidates. The insurance industry and human resources are both rapidly changing. It is important to embrace that change is constant and that maintaining organizational efficiency is an ongoing process. Even the executive team continues to stay on the edge – participating in training or leading a class. In this manner, the executive team lives the process by serving as a model of the values and mission of the company.

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