When Mehran Assadi took the helm at National Life Group, the Montpelier, Vermont-based insurance company was doing just fine and had been for more than 160 years. There was low employee turnover, happy customers—and no burning reason to compel transformative change. “It was a gem of a company that needed to be polished,” he recalls. “We needed to bring out its potential for top- and bottom-line growth.”
Leading change at a trouble-free business isn’t as easy as it sounds. Tackling a turnaround gives newly minted CEOs carte blanche to lead an upheaval, whereas those who inherit bliss face just the opposite: complacency.
The Call of Duty
To unlock the kind of growth he envisioned, Assadi decided to focus on culture. It “was all about defining the ‘why’ behind what we do,” he says. “That meant revisiting our vision, mission and values.”
Most corporate mission statements are crammed with long, tired bromides like “dedicated to enhancing the customer experience.” National Life kept it simple and concrete: “Keeping our promises,” reflecting the philosophy that insurance is about delivering peace of mind by fulfilling promises.
“Our attitude was not that we needed wholesale change; it was that we needed to supplement our best and brightest to position the company for the next century.”
Of course, words alone can’t create cultural and organizational change. For that, National Life had to “recreate a melting pot,” says Assadi. “We defined what we needed in every seat within the company and matched the [employees] we had with the right seats for their skill sets. Then we went to the market and picked some free agents. Our attitude was not that we needed wholesale change; it was that we needed to supplement our best and brightest to position the company for the next century.”
Leading the Leadership
Putting the right people in the right chairs, however, also didn’t quite cut it. It wasn’t until National Life began collecting feedback on how its top leaders were faring at servant leadership that the company realized the double-digit increases that Assadi coveted. That annual process involves having at least 20 peers, subordinates and superiors evaluate the company’s top 200 leaders on tenets like inspiring others to be their best selves, demonstrating respect and coaching when opportunities arise.
“That’s what makes it different from a 360 review,” says Assadi, who says embracing servant leadership creates a company-wide effort to “talk about imperfections” and look for ways to get better individually and collectively. “Every year it gets richer because it’s okay to talk about what you need to do more of or less of, as opposed to, ‘if I talk about my imperfections, my growth opportunities and upward mobility are dead’.”
The ethos extends outside the company walls. In 2016, employees collectively spent 5,400 hours doing volunteer work, taking advantage of the 40 hours of paid time off the company offers each employee. National Life is now the country’s fastest-growing life insurance company. “Being purpose- and cause-driven has really changed our company,” says Assadi. “I firmly believe that culture and cause has been the jet fuel behind our growth.”