The ALPS In Brief Podcast

ALPS In Brief — Episode 42: 5 Things That Blur Your Company’s 2020 Vision

February 13, 2020

ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte sits down with ALPS CEO David Bell to discuss David’s past, ALPS future, why every company should have a vision for their core cultural values (and what shouldn’t be in it).

Transcript: 

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:      

Welcome. This is ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager here at ALPS and joining me today is David Bell, our CEO. David, maybe can we take just one minute or so here for listeners that may not know a bit about who you are, what your background is. I'd love to have you just share a little bit because I think your background and experience is relevant to where we're going to go today in our conversation.

DAVID BELL:       

Sure. Well thanks, Mark first and it's a pleasure to be speaking with you. I guess the short version of my short history is I started my career in insurance out of college with Chubb and with that in a large company with a long history and a long vision for the future. Then after moving up through various roles at Chubb, after 9/11 Chubb, AIG and Goldman Sachs started a joint venture and I went with Chubb's capital to start that. And over the course of the next decade plus, we took that organization independent from its founding shareholders public and it was ultimately sold.

DAVID:                

In 2012, we moved back to Montana where I had gone to college and my wife had been raised and had the good fortune of joining ALPS in 2012 and a very different type of organization, very different size. My career before that had been in a big multinational company. ALPS is a smaller domestic only company and really a fascinating juxtaposition of different types of cultural priorities and different types of opportunities. So, just I feel fortunate and blessed to have had this journey and to have the point in my journey be right here in this moment.

MARK:                 

Very good. You recall we sat down about two years ago and spent some time discussing the ALPS corporate vision at the time. I thought it'd be fun to kind of revisit that topic today. If I may, I'd like to start by asking a few questions about the process that you go through with us in terms of the company, with the hope of having this discussion and example serve as a concrete example to others wanting to learn sort of the how to, so putting their own vision in place. Before we really even start to dig into this, would I be correct in assuming that the success that you in the large multinational setting as well as the ALPS setting, you're contrasting these two, is very different, but does vision have a role? Do you feel that that was significant in terms of your success in both spaces?

DAVID:                

100%. Even when the vision is quite different, as they have been over the course of my journey, not having one is dangerous and I think would lead to a rudderless ship type of approach organizationally, even if you feel like you're generally going in the right direction. If you have a community of people, whether that community is two or three or two or 3,000, if they're not rowing in the same direction with some sense of rhythm, then success would only come by accident and that's not a really good plan.

MARK:                 

I like that. I really do. I want to come back to that here in just a moment. Can we start just by having you share some of the highlights, whatever you feel comfortable sharing in terms of the ALPS vision for 2020?

DAVID:                

Sure. Well the ALPS vision for 2020 is more of our strategic operational objectives. When you have a vision for the short term, this 12 month duration, it's more actionable, quantifiable, executable milestones. So, I would describe the vision as how do the success of those fold up more broadly into an intermediate and longer term vision? And that pertains to the vision as respects where the organization is going. I mean, why are we laboring as hard as we are and making sacrifices personally with time and otherwise to be here to try to strive to be better? There has to be a reason and it has to be beyond monetary in order to affect people, particularly people at all levels because you're going to have folks at the managerial level who are very much privy to the discussion around the why and the vision. Then you're going to have people who are just doing their job every day and they don't have the benefit of the philosophical discussions as to why. So, the vision needs to be as relevant for them as it is for the vision creators.

DAVID:                

So, the 2020 vision is a puzzle piece that is simply the beginning of the equation for the intermediate and longer term vision of why are we doing what we're doing. We're all conditioned as humans to first and foremost think, how does this affect me? What's in it for me? So, I think from a managerial perspective, we would be wise and probably have an obligation to go to that place first. We're really going to think about this as it is seen through the filter of everybody else individually as why is this relevant to everybody who's here, and why should they care and sacrifice in order to realize this vision? And how bought in are they to the vision, and how much is the vision a function of their own engagement and involvement and contribution?

MARK:                 

What I hear, and I love that, it seems to me that part of this is really kind of trying to give some meaning and purpose at the individual level all the way to the corporate level in terms of these whys. I like that. Very, very good. I think this next question kind of relates to what you've been sharing, but I would like to be very specific about it in terms of some clarity. What is the value from a business sense and perhaps personal sense of having a corporate vision? I think we've hit that some, but I'd like sort of a concrete statement.

DAVID:                

Sure. Well, I would break that down into two different categories.

MARK:                 

Okay.

DAVID:                

The value of having a vision about the core values, meaning the cultural values of an organization, I think is essential. In fact that frankly, it's more important than the financial and operational vision because if you get the cultural values vision right, the rest of it will more naturally fall in place. If you don't get it right, it'd be very difficult to successfully execute on operational and financial objectives if at its core the culture has a cancer in it. So, you have to start with the cultural side. I think never more so than now when the labor force is increasingly made up of purpose-driven people, people who have an absolute expectation that there is something broader than a paycheck that's part of this compact.

DAVID:                

So, the cultural vision, the cultural value that we've established at ALPS is intentionally very simple. We ask ourselves four questions and these questions, they are prominently placed around our environment but it's not kind of a sentence written on a wall for the purposes of marketing. It is really supposed to serve as the litmus test through which not just the words that we speak but ideally the thoughts that we have are filtered through that litmus test. They are quite simply, is it the truth, is it fair, does it benefit our people and the company and does it help us make a profit? Right. We didn't hire a fancy consultant to help us come up with those. I'm sure they could be worded more eloquently in some ways.

DAVID:                

But it is, at its basic level, the most honest, intentional approach to say what are some things that we want to exhibit as individuals working in community that if we strive towards these four things, will life be better for all of us? I think we think the answer is yes. If we're committed to telling one another the truth and we are committed as an organization to speaking the truth externally, even when it's uncomfortable, then it doesn't mean that every day will be rainbows and unicorns, but every day will be a day that we can feel proud about what we've done.

MARK:                 

Yes.

DAVID:                

That type of thing is important to people to have worth in their role. The second is, is it fair? Fairness is a subjective measurement. So one person's idea of fair is not the same as the other person's idea of fair. So, what the question of is it fair means is, do you as an employee of this company have confidence that the underlying motivation of the decision maker is to strive for fairness? It doesn't mean that we're always perfect or that we get it right all the time as it pertains to decisions about our own people internally or the endeavors that we have with our constituents and the people around us. We don't claim to be right 100% of the time, but we are always trying to be fair and we aren't afraid to pull back and correct ourselves if we feel we've jumped off course. So, it's the pursuit of fairness.

DAVID:                

Then the third and fourth are somewhat kind of unapologetic affirmations of the reality. The third one is, does it benefit our people and the company? I mean, there is an unapologetic self interest that we have as an organization. Is what we're spending our time and money on going to benefit the people here and this organization because if it's not, then we should be thoughtful about how we allocate those resources. Then fourth, doesn't it help us make a profit? I think the need to make a profit can't be understated. It's very intentionally on the list and it's also intentionally not first.

DAVID:                

It is there and we shouldn't gloss over the reality that without financial solvency and financial strength, we are not able to accomplish all of our other goals. So, we should keep a really sharp eye on that question. But we also don't wake up and work our days simply and solely for the purpose of making a profit because there's candidly no inspiration longterm for anybody. So, those are four of the cultural values. In our recent vision meeting, we asked what we don't want just so we can keep an idea of what we do want by acknowledging characteristics that many of us have seen exhibited at other companies or read about or watched.

DAVID:                

I think it's healthy to spend just a few moments in discussion about what we don't want just so we call it for what it is. We put a label on it, don't want that, right. And some of those, there's just five of them that we talked about in the most recent meeting, which was "corporate" culture where you're just a job. You're a number. You're a commodity. You can be unplugged and somebody else plugged in there. That's not inspiring if you feel like you are commoditized. So, we don't want that. We don't want uncertainty from the fear or concern of financial instability. But it's one of the reasons why making a profit and financial success is on our top four that we do because it gives people a sense of calm and confidence in everything else that they're doing knowing that we do this from a position of strength.

DAVID:                

Third, we don't want me people. We want we people. We acknowledged in our discussion that, I'll just speak for myself, as human beings, I am an inherently selfish person, right. My default position is one of self interest and selfishness. I believe that that's just the way that we were created. So, in order to not be a me and be a we, we have to consciously fight against that and be thinking first and foremost about the people around us. Then another is, we don't want to have a kind of that's not my job mentality. I mean, if the coffee needs to be changed, I should change the coffee. It doesn't matter who you are, if you come across it and it needs to be done, then you should do it. You should do it comfortable that other people do the same thing.

DAVID:                

Then finally, and this is really important, gossip. I mean, gossip is a cancer that can debilitate companies. So, we are almost transparent to a fault, and in large part, in an effort to preempt any type of gossip. So those are things that you don't want, and then that quickly leads you to the type of cultural vision that you do want. You want folks that just take initiative. When people see a problem, they address it. When people have an idea about something that can be done better than the way we're doing it today, the first instinct should be action. The first thought should be empowerment that I have an idea that I think would benefit others, and I know that I work for a company that that idea can be put in motion in a relatively short period of time.

DAVID:                

You want to be a solution provider both for our folks internally and for our customers. We have a business where we have a finance department and other and a HR department. We have legal departments where their constituents, their consumers are internal. They're our own people or our customer. Then we have departments, the business development and account managers and others and claims who are external facing. Their clients are our policy holders, our customers. So, we want to be solution providers for everybody.

DAVID:

Finally, we're just wrapping up here on the cultural what you do want, you want this to be a fun place to work. I'm not suggesting for a second that this is Disney World and that every day is like a vacation. I know the adage, if you find a job that you love, you'll never not work another day in your life. I personally don't subscribe to that. I think we can be honest about the fact that we come to our jobs because it's a living and we get paid for it. And hopefully it provides the means through which we can pursue some of our other passions in life. Hopefully, it is not the singular interest in your life. I think that would be unhealthy, but we are involved in a serious business. We take risks. We make promises.

DAVID:                

There's lots of law and finance in what we do, but we should still be able to have fun. We should not take ourselves too seriously. We should be self-deprecating and people should not feel guarded. I think as we talked about this in the all company meeting, I think the sense amongst our staff is that we do a pretty good job at that. You want people around you to want you to win. I think whether it's who we're working next to or our marriage or our friendships, you want to be in community with people who are "for you", who genuinely want to see you succeed and to enter your success with you.

DAVID:                

Then again, just from a vision perspective, size through diversification, right. I mean in our business there is strength in size and there is strength and protection in diversification. So that is something that we're quite intentional about. We want everybody finally to just know that they're supported, whether they're in our home office in Missoula or in any one of our number of remote locations around the country. I mean, whether I get to see you physically, regularly on a day to day basis or whether you're in Atlanta, Georgia or Richmond, Virginia or any of the other places, you should feel like you are as a valued and that the resources you're giving to succeed are as high a priority as anyone else.

DAVID:                

So, those are cultural vision checkpoints. I would suggest that if we are wildly successful on making all of those real in the lives of everybody that work here, we will be and continue to be the best legal malpractice carrier in the country. Candidly, we would be the best in anything we were doing. If we, for whatever reason, stopped doing this and started doing something else as an organization full of people working together, we would do that well too.

MARK:                 

Yeah, I agree. I agree. Let me sort of share, just speaking personally for a moment. I have participated as all of us at ALPS have at the all company meetings and talking about these things. I like you're sharing the point of the discussion where folks, what don't we want? I think taking risks like that to invite these kinds of discussions really enables people to make it real. I describe our culture, what we do, and I think at an individual level as well as at the company wide level, we are really striving to be, and I think we accomplish this, authentic and intentional in our actions. Even in terms of just how we interrelate with each other, how we interrelate with our customers.

MARK:                 

I'll share David, for many years I would sign my email as you're emailing with different customers, internal and external, Mark and things like that. But in more recent years, I have a signature. I'll say, "Please don't hesitate to reach out if there's anything else I can do," but I'm more and more adding if I can be of service to you. I really take great pride in, and I think I am not alone or unique in this, I take pride in that's my experience of who and what ALPS is. That we do take joy and pride in being in service to others in what we do.

MARK:                 

So, I'm just trying to give our listeners a sense of what you're talking about is being internalized and taken up by those that you're trying to share the vision with. But can I ask, what is your process? When you sit down and think about vision, any thoughts to share or insights? Is this something that's very organic? How do you go about it?

DAVID:                

Sure. Well, the cultural vision is an exercise of really drawing on both my personal experiences with positive cultures and destructive cultures. Then being in discussion with others internally in this company and just externally people who you just benefit from talking about their experiences and taking the good and the bad, and then coming up with a vision of what you want to pursue. So, I think it is generally in a constant state of evolution in that it's kind of being refined but at its heart, the truth and fairness, those are kind of time-tested, immovable virtues for a company.

DAVID:                

So, when you hear people... When you do some of these things well, and we are by no means perfect. In fact, we make mistakes regularly and we strive to be better. The fact that we feel like we get better means that we've always got room to improve. But when you do these things well and as you hire people and they're exposed to this culture for the first time as an employee and they come from reputable companies, competitors or otherwise. And you listen to them as they describe their experiences here, it's really inspiring. It makes you want to make it better, refine it more because you kind of feel like you're really onto something. It does tap into a part of the psychology for all of us that just numbers alone I don't think can tap into.

MARK:                 

I think you and I have seen this over the years in terms of our professional experiences and looking at competitors and whatnot, but I think businesses, corporations, small law firms, you can come up and create a good vision. I think have something that's pretty solid and yet it doesn't go anywhere. The vision fails for lack of a better reason. Just it never gets implemented perhaps. Why do you think that is? What gets in the way of, in terms of your experiences, success with a vision? Any thoughts about that?

DAVID:                

Well, that's a great one. I suppose there are risks that a vision is established, but it's not a core conviction, and so it's not front of mind. When we first started this discussion, Mark, I talked about the four cultural vision points, the truth and fairness. I described those as the litmus test, the lens through which all things should be filtered. You really have to, whatever your vision is for your small firm or your family or your nonprofit, if it's not important enough that it will resonate with you and with everyone else such that it's front of mind in all thoughts and actions, then there's a real danger that you drift away from it. I think that's one risk because you can have a strategy session with the people who you work with and two weeks later no one could even quote a single sentence of what was discussed in that.

MARK:                 

I have been through that more than once. Yes.

DAVID:                

I'm sure there is value in those types of days, but it really needs to be something that people are genuinely bought into. So, I think drifting away from it as is one risk. A second risk that I suggest and I've experienced this in my various failures to pursue certain vision elements, I think a vision, like most other things, can be distilled down to a project needing project management. If you have a certain vision characteristic, you need to disaggregate it into its pieces, put it in align sequentially of what needs to be done and then manage it towards that goal.

DAVID:                

A vision is a point that if you slice it into 10 sub points and then line them up from where you are right now to what would realize that vision, then you kind of methodically and actionably check off on those things. I think sometimes we think of visions in the softer context. So, we're not as disciplined at project managing our way, methodically checking off certain actions or behaviors that are marching towards realizing that vision. Then we wake up one day disappointed that we haven't realized the vision.

MARK:                 

Yeah. Yeah. I think when I look back on my own career over the years where it has failed, there tends to be we come up with this vision and then you sort of say it at the front line to the bulk of the company, "Implement this and do it." There's no tools. It's not a bottom-up kind of process in my mind. When you try the bottom-up, it fails. It has to be a top-down in the sense that, in the ALPS example here, you and upper management really do genuinely live and exemplify the vision just in the day to day interactions with everybody you interact with, again, internally and externally. I think that is also key to some of this. You have to walk the talk. That's been my experience anyway.

DAVID:

Yeah. Well thank you. I appreciate that observation. There are aspects of a vision that need to be top-down because in some ways that's the charge of leadership is to be spending time thinking and deciding about vision. But the vision is carried out by everyone else. So, if you just, in an autocratic kind of way, instruct people on what they're going to do when, that generally is not a recipe for success. But if you go to the folks who are going to be executing and say, "This is the vision. Can you do this? Do you have the resources necessary for you to accomplish this? And how long do you think reasonably it will take under an aggressive timeline for you to get it done?"

DAVID:                

If the people are engaged and just being asked if they're prepared to sign up for this vision, being asked if they have been armed with the resources to fulfill what they've just committed to and just being asked how long they realistically they think it's going to take. Those are not particularly complex questions, but it's amazing the difference of whether or not you go through those other steps and ask those questions. Versus just barking out an instruction to people who then look at you as though you're hopelessly unrealistic about what it actually takes to get these things done.

MARK:                 

I absolutely agree with you. The way I describe that is there is a difference between allowing the workforce, however you want to define that, allowing them the opportunity to own the vision, giving them tools, explaining, those kinds of things. Versus having sort of the dictator approach, this is the vision, make it happen and I'm out. It has to be owned from top to bottom. Again, I think that's another key reason why ALPS has been successful at this. I'd like to switch just a little bit. Wellness and wellbeing has been a significant issue, as you're well aware, particularly in legal profession in recent years.

MARK:                 

ALPS has been involved in the national movement to put together some emphasis on wellbeing and some resources. It's been an exciting time. I think ALPS has done internally a good job focusing on wellbeing. Do you see, is there a connection, is there a relationship between the vision that you have, the vision that ALPS has embraced here and wellness, a wellness, a wellbeing component? Is there a connection there at all or in your mind is that sort of separate topics?

DAVID:                

No, I think there's very much a connection between the division and the cultural priorities and wellness in general because whether it's at ALPS specifically where we happen to employ a lot of people who are attorneys and have been in their prior lives practicing attorneys and the legal community that we insure. That's obviously the wellness category is, at the legal profession, pretty well documented. I mean mental health, substance abuse, physical wellbeing, stress in the job. I mean, the role of the attorney is one where people can quite literally and often do work themselves to death because there really is not a governor on when it becomes an unhealthy. I think the small firms and solo practitioners or perhaps even most susceptible to it. They don't really have the check and balance of a lot of other people in an organizational structure.

DAVID:                

So, I think there's similarities between the community of people of 20,000 people that we insure all around the country and the people that are within this organization itself. I think wellness it is really important. It's a tricky one because the cause and effect of what you spend time on and what you spend money on and how that correlates directly to measurable wellness outcomes is very difficult. So I'm a big metric fan and I tend to rely much of my decision making on data of some sort. The data there is a little bit harder to pin down, but you just know that there is a correlation and that that correlation is necessary even if it's not as mathematical as some of the other decision points that drive our business.

MARK:                 

One final little question I'd like to throw your way, before I ask it, I need to explain something to the listening audience here. In recent years, David has taken the time to meet individually with every single employee in the company. It is what we call a coffee talk. It's just sit down for however long that the conversation goes. There's no rules on the conversation. You talk about anything you want. So, I'm going to ask the question. Why do you do or what is the value of coffee talk to you?

DAVID:                

That's a great question. Something as simple as a 45 minute conversation shouldn't have as many and as complicated benefit and reason as it does, but I get the benefit of a lot of information from those discussions. It's also a great opportunity for me to help demonstrate in our flat managerial structure that we aren't a hierarchy. That everybody has access to everybody else and that no manager should have any apprehension about me having a discussion. I should have an appropriate level of deference in the role that the manager's tasked with not to do anything to undermine them by having this direct one on one conversation with their staff member. But I learn a ton about what makes people tick, what's important to them. I get a ton of information about where there are obstacles in the day to day aspects of people's jobs, obstacles that are not that difficult to remove, but for whatever reason, it kind of helps to talk about it and enlist some assistance.

DAVID:                

I pick up a lot of personal context of the journey that people go through, and this is perhaps the most valuable aspect of this. In my old life in the role that I had before, I was the COO of a large publicly traded multinational insurance company. So, I just didn't have the benefit of knowing people personally. I didn't want people to be a number, but there just wasn't really another option. I didn't have context of the life of that person in London or in New York in the decisions that I was making.

DAVID:                

So, there's a real blessing to being in an organization of this size where you really get to put your thumb on the pulse of these people and the journey that they're going through and how their profession intersects with that, where it intersects positively, where it creates challenges. So, it really makes the whole game more of a human one but it is a pain to schedule. If we just be honest about the challenge, I had two coffee talks today and they're so different and they were both great. But when I'm traveling, and so these are generally done, unless I'm in one of our other locations with another employee, I'm generally doing these when I'm here. So, it is not an insignificant commitment of time, but it is a commitment that yields a result and return that makes it well worth it in my mind.

MARK:                 

Yeah, I would agree. Let me share again for our listening audience here why I think coffee talk is valuable. At the end of the day, it really just boils down to when you couple it with emphasis on wellbeing, the corporate meetings we have, we get together and have these discussions. But there's a two way street in play here and it's when a corporation through management and even you, David as the CEO, take the time to personally invest in the employees. It creates the opportunity again for the employees to reciprocate and invest personally in the vision and the mission of what the corporation is doing, what ALPS is doing. In my mind, I think that's just a huge invitation. I see that as fundamental to the success of implementing the vision and really keeping things moving forward so that we're not drifting to use your word. You're keeping the pulse on us, but we're also keeping the pulse on you as representative of the corporation. It's really good stuff.

MARK:

Well folks, we are out of time. David, I really appreciate the opportunity to sit down and visit a little bit. It's always a pleasure when we get together. I hope for those of you listening that you can appreciate. I thought this would be valuable because it's a real world example of how when a thought leader creates a vision and has the ability and a desire, intent, energy to implement this, you really can have some tremendous success. I don't think that these kinds of processes aren't limited to a corporation. This can happen in a three man law firm. So, I hope you found something of value. Thanks for listening folks. It's a good one. So long.