NORMAL — Being the person who does the hiring and fills out the reports does not make you the leader, the head of Progressive Insurance said during a Business Week keynote address Thursday at Illinois State University.
“What makes you a leader is when people want to follow you,” said 1986 ISU graduate Tricia Griffith, president and CEO of Progressive Insurance since July 2016. That same year, she was named one of the "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" by Fortune magazine.
Griffith, a 1986 ISU graduate, said a leader also needs to “know when to get out of the way,” but she admitted that's “still a work in progress for me.” In addition to her ISU degree she is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business' Advanced Management Program.
Leadership is about creating “a culture of trust” and bringing out the best in people, she said.
“It's also about admitting mistakes,” said Griffith. “That lets them know that making mistakes is OK; covering them up is not.”
Among her leadership principles is transparency.
Griffith goes to the company lunchroom every Friday, looks for a random table with an open chair and asks the employees if she can join them.
“They can't say 'no,'” she said with a laugh. Doing this helps her know what's going on and lets employees know she is approachable, Griffith explained.
A mother of six, Griffith said “balance is important” and people should have interests outside of work, whether it's family or watching the Olympics.
Griffith has been with Progressive for 30 years, starting out as a claims representative and working her way up the ladder. Griffith liked that she was always learning something new, could be herself and believed in the company's core values.
“They're not posters on the wall,” Griffith said of the core values of integrity, the golden rule, objectives, excellence and profit. “They're something we live every day.”
As an example, she pointed to what the company did with vehicles they insured that had been sitting in murky waters for an extended period after Hurricane Katrina.
The usual practice would have been to attempt to recover some of the cost of the totaled cars through salvage. Instead, concerned that damaged cars would wind up in an unsuspecting person's hand, the company decided to crush every car, she said.
“We literally lost millions, but we knew it was the right thing to do,” said Griffith.
Although working at Progressive had taught her a lot about being a leader, Griffith said she first started developing her leadership skills as a student at ISU.
She advised students looking for a job or internship to “embrace who you are. Be confident. … And don't always worry if you don't have all the requirements.”
Business Week events include several seminars and workshops for students and the induction of six new members of the College of Business Hall of Fame.