Follow JRNY on LinkedInFollow JRNY on MediumFollow JRNY on Twitter

Glenn Renwick was with American insurance giant Progressive for 32 years and was CEO for more than half of that time. He built it into a $20 billion revenue auto's actually now approaching $40 billion in revenue. Glenn is also on the board of the world's largest health insurer, United Health. A Kiwi at heart, Glenn is now spending more time back here since retiring from Progressive. 

This first segment of our interview with Glenn is an exploration of Glenn's 16 years as CEO of Progressive. In the following segments we’ll also discuss robots, innovation, we’ll play a game of true or false, and we'll finally talk about going full circle and working with start-up and fintech companies.

Watch the video below or have a read through our chat...

So I guess there's no better place to start than with your journey from growing up in New Zealand and moving over to the USA. How did you find yourself in America and working at Progressive?

Well that's a story I've told a few times, so I'll try to keep the really short version here. My wife, whom you’ve met, is an American and I went in, let me see 74, 75 something like that to the United States. We call it an exchange student but it was really just a cheap fare, I wasn't studying and did that rather than perhaps the UK which may be a little bit more common. And you know I've certainly enjoyed the United States, met a lot of people, my wife is one of them. She came back to New Zealand and frankly after I graduated from the University of Canterbury here that commute just wasn't going to work so I ultimately transitioned to United States in ‘97, and like so many Kiwis I thought I'll be away for a few years and then I'll be back. A few years turned into 40 plus and but I'm back now, at least part time, so that's great.

How’d you find yourself at Progressive?

That's an even more twisted story. My background is in math and engineering and after I left the University of Florida engineering school I went to Bell Labs which was a more technical institution at the time and so on so forth a wonderful place. And then I did some consulting which was a great way to round out sort of a business education which I hadn't really formally acquired.

And along the way I met an individual who was quite compelling is in his own right but he wanted to build a great company based on a great culture and had a start in insurance. The likelihood of me joining an auto insurance company seemed about to be the last thing on the list of things I could do but nonetheless. Obviously we now know that that was a pretty compelling story. And I joined Progressive in ‘86 and ultimately I think I joined a company who's really dedicated to creating a great culture, tackling an industry that was a little bit sort of in the dark ages at times, and doing some very innovative things to it that would be in the best interest of consumers etc, and just applying a level of thinking that was not traditional to that industry.

So we tended to seek out and have continued to seek out talent that isn't necessarily from the industry but from tangential disciplines and skills and industries so that we actually are an amalgam of other really good ideas but not stuck perhaps in the classic mold of an insurance company or as it was that and you know I like to think I paid a little part of that.

And so you moved your way up starting from the office floor, do you have any advice for insurance executives navigating their own way to the top.

Oh sure. I came into Progressive in a role we call product management which is in and of itself, and I'll get to the exact question, in and of itself an important part of what we do. We rest a lot of authority with an individual to run a small part of the business so it might be auto insurance in Iowa, and that is your domain, you're the product manager for it and you hit your goals and you expand your market opportunities and share and so on and so forth and someone else might be motorcycle in Nebraska product management. So it's a very interesting structure and all of that comes together to build the company. So I actually started as product manager in Florida which was one of our largest states which was a great little bit of an awesome responsibility coming in new and setting at a really important part of the business. 

And you know many people along the way ask me so what's career pathing, what do you do, what do I need to do next? And ideally you should have like a really great textbook concept for that...that doesn't interest me. My advice would be:

do what you're doing now extraordinarily well and then have curiosity. Academic curiosity, curiosity driven by the consumer frustrations, whatever they may be with your product, and just have that thinking that I can do something better. Do your job really well, but always have could it look a little different? How could I turn it another five, ten degrees?

Most people to some extent try to make things a little better. In our roles during the course of a company it's the people who can turn just a little bit further than that that really get my interest. And I would say that's the best advice I can give. Do the job you're doing really well and then have good ideas to maybe approach things a little differently. And then don't be a cowboy about it and just do it, sort of socialize it and have ideas get better by that socialization process.

If you could pick a single trait that you think accelerated your fine success, what would that be?

I'm using the same word, it is curiosity. And I'd probably put a slash pragmatism. So it's okay to have curiosity but if the curiosity is just sort of in the vapor then it's not gonna really matter much. If you can combine that with what I would like to think is good Kiwi pragmatism, can you get that done? As I've often talked about inside of progressive is

you've got to have great ideas but then you've got to have great leadership and pragmatism as to how to get them done.

A great idea not implemented is not worth very much in the economy.

What are one of your top one or two highlights in your career so far?

Um you know I'd love to might want to start off by saying you know Progressive when I joined, it was less than about $400 million, now as you said we could see $40 billion from here. I'm not a part of it today but I like to think I was part of the rails that will get us there. You know that's a hundred x, that doesn't happen every day. So I’m lucky to be able to join the company that has the potential to do that.

But I think helping do that was clearly a success, but I might push that a little further aside than you would think. I think the real sustaining part of Progressive...that's the measured outcomes ...would be the culture. It's a very special place. Now every company has a culture. And there are many many many good ones out there, so I don't want to come across and suggest somehow Progressive is better but it's different. And it's designed to have us be extraordinarily successful, and attract and retain the kind of talent that you need to have a forty billion dollar company. That still feels like it was close to the same culture as it was when it was a hundredth of that size.

How did you prioritise life and work?

I do some teaching/mentoring at universities and surprisingly that's one of the key questions I get, which I don't think it sort of happened that many years ago is work-life balance. My answer here is not going to be hugely satisfying - it's that

if you choose to really commit to a company, balance is hard to find. Now I don't surrender to that.

I make sure that I plan in other parts of my life whether in travel or sport, and all through working hard I think I played hard as well. I ran and continued my rugby, triathlons and

I think you've got to just have a discipline to almost add more.

As much as it sounds strange when you talk about finding work/life balance, you can't reduce necessarily some of the things but to balance that out you almost have to add. That's not something that was so intuitive to me early on and as I address employees or groups now, the one thing that I say that I probably now know, that I might not have known earlier, is you gotta take care of yourself. If you don't take care of yourself you can't keep the pace up that will likely get you through, whether it's that next opportunity and then still be able to attack challenges in a full energy type way. And for me it was perhaps living life even faster, as opposed to sort of finding downtime. That may not be the case for everybody but I'm not going to sit there and say that it was easy, I just balanced life out and I did this and actually put more on my plate.

Would you say it was a certain element of getting to know itself and then when you had that right balance, you were then better at your professional role?

I mean I'll just choose one thing - taking long training runs. Now training for marathons, I never did it the way you should do it. I got one long run in a week but that was all I could sort of really work with my commitments. But at the same time that long run became both probably my therapist I mean it was the time that I could put most things out of my head. I might think about a particular business problem on the run but that became associated business and fun together in a very pleasant way. So I really enjoyed that kind of discipline of looking forward to the run in fact occasionally trying to solve some problems at the same time.

If you were CEO of an insurance company again, what’s the first thing you would do?

Make sure that both you and your entire company are clear about your objectives. That seems so simple it's been said four million times but I find that it's not necessarily true all the time, that everybody in the company has the same general objective and when that's not the case you've obviously got different paths that you might follow. So get clear about your objectives and then from that objective get clear about the culture - what kind of culture do you want - what kinds of things are you prepared to do and what potential compromises does that represent. And I think thinking through those things early. That doesn't mean they won't evolve. Every culture evolves. It is really important, especially when hiring key people, so that ultimately you can always be able to sit and say this is working, yeah this is what you and I were getting to the right place, we're doing it the right way. It doesn't necessarily mean we agree on every single point but instead it’s overall working. If on the other hand you have two very capable people but that chemistry is not working then you're starting to look inwardly to your problems versus out to the market.

One of the things that you're well known for is creating and maintaining a healthy company culture. What were your pillar principles in doing this and what kept you on the right path?

We talked about our values I won't go through those specifically, but think about the same values you had growing up. We didn't make them that much differently. In fact I would certainly use very pithy things to add to the values. When I was talking to our service people I would say treat every customer as if they were your mom, or mum, slight translation there, and if somehow you've got problems with your mum then some other family member you’re not in dire straits with, and you know that's worth a laugh but at the same time it is quite extraordinary how people treat their mother. And if you just have that mindset you won't go far wrong. 

So values would be one, second would be: how does this work for me? It’s OK for you to sit and say “OK let's have these values”, and I don't mean posters on the wall value, I mean real values. So we had something that was called a gain share program and every single person in the company knew that if we as a company were gaining economically year after year that they got to participate. I won't go through the details of it but it was really a very interesting, exciting thing for people and I would say without doubt there is not an employee of Progressive that if you said to them today “tell me a little about gain share” they couldn't necessarily tell you the formula they would tell you where it was during the course of the year and why it meant something for them.

And the third thing that I would tell people certainly when we’re talking about our strategy, what we were hoping to achieve, why is it good for you? It has to be good for the customer, it has to be good for the shareholder and it has to be good for the employee. So we really tried to keep that balance and recognise that

if you're asking somebody do something differently and they have no idea of why, then you have potentially failed in your leadership responsibilities.

So I always, again, pithy kind of comments, I always say you know little kids are great because they always ask why, frankly to the frustration of parents a lot. I don't know exactly what age they stop asking you why, but they sort of do. And I don’t think we should. So there's two types of why - why is also resistance and defense “why”; or it's “why” because I'm really curious I want to see how I can help.

And even if it's 30-40,000 people in a company, if everybody can know why they matter, it is an extraordinarily different culture than some people getting it and others just doing a job. So that communication level was really critical, and frankly I would say I underestimated the need for continuous communication around what are we trying to achieve, what's our strategy, what's our path there and why does it matter.

Culture can be a tough one to measure. What is the single most important metric or sign or feeling of a healthy company culture?

You’re right, it's very hard to measure. For me, I tended to measure it, and we did measure it, but not a sort of score cards that was openly available in this particular case, although we made transparency a big part of our culture, so most things we did were very transparent. It was who we are able to attract and how big of a defense culture was to losing people to other insurance companies. Clearly I say this with some biased pride so those watching should recognize I'm a little biased on this. 

Progressive was the pacesetter in the US for auto insurance by quite a significant measure. So guess what our competitors wanted? They wanted our top people so that they thought that taking 1 or 2 people could somehow therefore be the seed that would make that company. a) it didn't work that way because the culture was more than one or two people, b) if culture is worth something as a business asset, I don't want to be awkward about it, we didn't do it to say it's a business asset - we did it because it was the right thing, but it turned into an asset - that I could say we could come awfully close to measuring the economic value in not having people leave simply for a slightly different salary. Obviously no one gets another job somewhere else at a lower salary. So we all know that. The question is, what does the delta have to be to replace the value they have in the culture that they would believe. 

And if I can extend that just a little bit - we actually treated people who left and wanted to come back extremely well including having very good records of that and when someone else might be considering that (didn't happen very often) we actually have people who had left thinking their thesis would be: “I'll go this company and therefore this will happen”, we would say you know why don't you talk to that person before you make that final decision. If they've gone off and been with competitor a) or competitor b). Again it was just a way of saying, rather than us, you know management per se, saying “oh you know think about it, whatever” yeah here’s someone who actually did that. They felt similar to you, now they came back.  Why don't you chat with them and see what that had to define calculus is, in terms of what they missed most, what they lost, and coming back how they valued it.

Not everyone is immediately open to change. Were there trade offs when pushing an innovative agenda and having a healthy company culture? 

G: Yeah you are certainly right, I think people want to be a part of innovation and exciting things, however, everybody has a plateful. And when you talk about “we're gonna do it slightly differently” it's kinda like well first of all I have a current plate and you're asking me to do

something differently. Yeah you really have to plan process change and it may be that you really have to commit additional resources to start modelling out the new environment so that you actually work out the kinks versus disruption to the current environment. So it may require oftentimes not just sort of taking person a) and saying “now you're going to do A plus B” and you may have to actually simulate it. 

And by doing so then let those people be disciples for the new process. Everything requires a little different view.

I think the clear thing that, my takeaways would be

you've got to communicate change almost continuously.

I used to think if I would say it, it would be fine. Now I realise I'm saying it for about the hundredth time, it's starting to become “oh I guess this is serious we're going to do this”. And it's not because people are resistant it's just because they've got a real job and change means well somebody else is doing something occasionally they have to commit the resources.

My last question to round off the first segment: what have you missed most about New Zealand?

You know, you said in your introduction, I love NZ and I’m a Kiwi at heart. There’s something profoundly interesting about being smaller and yet from a pure market size it would never produce the results like the market in the United States. So rather than sort of saying I miss it, both environments United States has great advantages to me but you know culture mostly through this segment. The Kiwi culture is equally hard to define but it's very real and I think I missed that at times more than I’ll admit. It’s great to be back.

Keep your eyes peeled for the second segment, where we will be talking about the evolution of insurance distribution including, of course, robo advice.

Sharing is caring

What's next?

Ready to
start the JRNY?