Humans are hardwired for competition, and smart companies recognize that and bring it to the workplace where appropriate, says Kevin Ament, director of communications at Progressive Insurance.
Ament, who authored Independent Agent magazine’s June Insurance Views column, “Friendly Competition Can Make Business Ideas Stick,” tells IA how independent agents can successfully introduce competition at their firms—and walk away with happier, more engaged staff.
IA: Talk a bit about your background and how you ended up in your current position.
KA: “Out of college, I started as a PR and marketing consultant for a boutique agency. We focused on national restaurant content. Most of our clients did little or no advertising, and several of them were fairly well-known and didn’t feel like they needed to be spending money on [it]. I did a lot of work to help build loyalty for the brand. I [later] did a stint teaching high school marketing. Classrooms are inherently complex environments; one big challenge is students don’t see how their short-term activities will pay off in the long-term.
“[After that], I went back to consulting and started working with Progressive. In 2010, I moved my family from Atlanta to Cleveland. More recently I’ve added PR, social responsibility and employee engagement to my responsibilities.”
IA: In the column you wrote for IA magazine, you talk about instituting friendly competition into the workplace. Do you think it’s a natural human inclination to enjoy competition, and not specific to the workplace?
KA: “Humans are absolutely hardwired for competition. From childhood to adulthood, every element that we do has a competitive element to it. Children compete for parents, athletes compete on the field, and we compete in the marketplace. I think it is very much a human thing, and it’s in the workplace already, but it tends to be more centered around compensation. The smart company recognizes that this is who we are as humans and ties it [into work] as appropriate.”
IA: Again in your column, you discuss three approaches to creating worthwhile office competitions—make it simple, make it fun and make it social. Which is most important and why?
KA: “There are three elements of competition: One, there has to be an agreement on the rules; two, there needs to be an understanding of the stakes; and three, a way to keep score. These are key elements that have to exist. Simple and fun are critical; social is important but will come if the other two are there. I think people think [the prize] needs to be high-value, but that’s not the case. Recognition is a huge driver of creativity.
“We’re big fans of drawings [at Progressive], even if it’s small—that keeps [employees] motivated. Because we have social media these days, you don’t have to necessarily orchestrate it. Even something as low-tech as a bulletin board is an amplifier.”
IA: The underlying theme in your story is getting agents to rise to the occasion when their principal may have a new objective that needs buy-in. What are the hottest trends in leadership right now, and beyond creating friendly competitions, how can independent insurance agents respond to it in their own small businesses?
KA: “It’s treating your employees like your customers. We treat our agents the same way—they are the face of more than 60% of our business, and treating them correctly is the first step to success. Put the same effort and time into something you use internally as you would externally. It’s a trend we see in the marketplace, but it’s often overlooked—[companies tend to] see employees as an extension of [themselves].
“Crowd-sourced engagement is also important. [At Progressive], we all vote on ideas and work on them to make them better—like My Starbucks Idea. We see that some of our best ideas internally come from someone who is not necessarily tasked with that area.”
IA: If you could give independent insurance agents one piece of advice on anything related to leadership or running a small business, what would it be?
KA: “[There are] a few things that have continuously been successful for me. A challenge for agents is that there is a lack of measurement that happens in the market. We believe at Progressive [it’s important] to have very clearly stated metrics and to track that regularly. We tend to hear agents say, ‘We just don’t know where to spend our money.’ In an age of online, there’s a lot to do out there to see if what you’re doing in the market is leading to results.
“The other is socializing success and failures. In my communications group, we’re always looking for a way to [track open-rate success]. We opened it up to the marketing team to come up with better headlines to boost our open rates. That’s a very simple thing for a principal to do and have that A/B test: setting clear objectives and measuring against them. It’s really important.”
Diane Rusignola is IA associate publisher.