I sat in a blue Adirondack chair, my toes in the sand and my face turned upward. As the noises around me began to fade, I was reminded of the importance I place on being true to myself; on not comparing myself to others. I shook off any thoughts of what other CEOs might be doing in this moment and instead focused on being me and being present. Now, you might be thinking, “It’s easy to be your true self and present when you’re vacationing on a beach somewhere.” And, you’d be right. But I wasn’t.
I was attending our Marketing group’s quarterly meeting … in a conference room … in Cleveland … in the winter. Confused? Let me explain.
One of the most important parts of my role as CEO is creating a culture of openness and trust. There’s power in that. That’s really where leadership comes to life … in being able to see that something will create a positive return, even if that return isn’t something you can statistically forecast or even accurately measure. So when the group asked me to share my leadership principles during their tropical-themed meeting, I gladly accepted. Plus, how many chances do you get to put your toes in the sand during the winter in Cleveland?
Being an effective leader, particularly at a customer-centric and data-driven organization like ours, isn’t only about the big business wins and results (of course, those matter). It’s also about investing in the things that might seem immeasurable—and even unscalable—at first blush. It’s doing things that people outside of Progressive might look at and say, “that’s not a good use of the CEO’s time and energy.” But in reality, it’s extremely valuable. For me, being a leader has everything to do with building relationships that ultimately bring out the best in people.
One thing I do to set the tone early on is attend every new hire class, where I share a little about myself and a lot about our Core Values. It’s important for me that everyone who comes in understands how our values can guide their careers and how they shape our culture.
On a smaller scale, most Fridays when I’m in town, I grab some lunch from our cafeteria, walk up to a random table of employees, and ask to join them. They’re usually surprised and almost always hesitant—it can be kind of funny sometimes. Luckily for me, they never say no, and by the end of lunch, I’ve made a handful of fast friends. Through this, I’ve gotten to better know people who give our company life, and they’ve gotten to know me better as a person versus a position.
A few times a year, I host small groups of employees at my home. We have lively discussions, break bread together, and get to know one another. If you want to be a great leader, you can’t have your head in the sand. You need to talk with people, find out what’s on their hearts and minds, and share what’s on yours. And hopefully they’ll be comfortable coming to you for anything—to voice a concern or share an idea. It’s in those moments when your investment pays off. When you have team members who are engaged, comfortable in sharing their thoughts, and proactively thinking about what’s next for the company.
How you engage with employees is going to look different for every leader, and you have to go about it in ways that feel natural for you. For me, having an employee stop me as I walk by with a quick, “Hey, Tricia!” to tell me a story about their work or their life is so rewarding. And while it’s not measurable, I’ve found that those three to five minutes where I learn more about our Progressive people and they learn more about me provides more value than any algorithm could tell me. That connection is worth the investment every time.