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How to make your company one people want to work for

They may not have beer on tap or ping pong tables, but what sets Arbella Insurance apart from the latest startups and industry giants is understanding behavior, hiring the right fit, and fostering their people to greatness. The Predictive Index (PI) CEO Mike Zani sat down with Andrew O’Donoghue, director of organizational effectiveness at Arbella Insurance to talk just how Arbella is breaking the mold and standing out. 

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Mike: Hi, I’m Mike Zani, I’m the CEO of The Predictive Index. I’m here with Andrew O’Donoghue, the director of organizational effectiveness at Arbella Insurance.

Mike: For the HR professionals in the audience, Andrew has a crazy and interesting path into the human capital world. He was an attorney in the UK for ten years, and because of his gifted communication skills, jumped into the sales and sales management world where he was very successful.

Mike: But as a lifelong people person, he went into sort of the high end people consultant business. He’s an author, a performance coach, teams in the Premier League.

Mike: Welcome Andrew, please tell us a little bit about yourself and what got you so fired up about people.

Andrew: Hey Mike, thank you, good morning. I guess if I look back a bit at the history that you gave, yeah, it’s an interesting transition from attorney to sales to 17 years as a trainer performance coach.

Andrew: The history as an attorney, it was what I always wanted in my life. And when I got it, I realized very quickly it really wasn’t me. But I kind of did it for seven years, and then was approached by a client who asked me to set up a legal department in his business.

Andrew: And so, I went and did that, became general counsel, and then as you kind of intimated, one weekend he fired our VP of sales, and to call me into his office, and at this stage I’m, I don’t know 28, something like that, and I figured he was going to ask me to help recruit a new VP of sales.

Andrew: And he said, “No, you’ve got the job,” and I’m going, “What the hell, how can you make me VP of sales? What do I know?”

Mike: Were you worried … Was it a curse or a gift at the time?

Andrew: Well, he just told me that I talked a lot, so I was bound to be a good fit for it. With hindsight, it was a great opportunity to spend eight years in a dual capacity as VP of sales, and I learned a lot there, and then general counsel at the same time.

Andrew: But then in ’96, I kind of left that to set up a business with a lifelong friend, he’s one of my closest friends, a guy called Mike Finnigan. And we had a business together for 17 years that was involved in … It was fundamentally a training business looking at sales, leadership, culture, that kind of thing.

Andrew: But everything we did took a behavioral angle, so it wasn’t traditional skills, it was more looking at the behaviors needed to fulfill whatever roles we were looking at.

Andrew: So I guess that’s when the fire in terms of people, and then my interest in that side, came. So that was back in the mid 90s.

Mike: Great. Okay, so you got fired up about people as a behaviorist in that consulting with Mike Finnigan. You came to Arbella, let me introduce Arbella just for a second, so Arbella is an insurance company, and if you’re in the northeast, it’s a pretty famous name, a thousand people, has been a great places to work winner for I believe nine consecutive years. And I hear that your CEO, John Donohue, no relation to Andrew O’Donoghue, he really cares about culture and people.

Mike: So tell me about Arbella and the human capital challenges you faced when you joined the company?

Andrew: Okay. So it’s been an interesting journey for me because … So I moved over here, as you’ve spotted, I’m from the UK, by the accent, I moved over here 2005, and Arbella was my second US client.

Andrew: So I kind of worked with them at the time, I’m looking at the culture, and I know we’ll probably touch on that a little bit more in a minute, but it was an interesting journey to work with them as a consultant, and then back in 2012 into ’13, actually to be asked to join them.

Andrew: And to be brutally honest, at the time I thought, why on earth would I do that? I had my own business, been my own boss for 17 years, why would I want to join an insurance company? You mention you’re in insurance and people fall asleep at cocktail parties. So it’s not exactly the most exciting industry you think to get into.

Andrew: But having worked with them as a consultant, I recognized that this business was a little different than I’m going to say almost any that I’ve ever worked with. And so the coming on board, you mentioned the challenges that we face right now, I’m sure they’re challenges that many people who are listening to this podcast will relate to.

Andrew: I must be honest, I get sick and fed up with talking about millennials, but that’s one of our challenges in terms of the people and the talent that we were attracting. How do we attract them? How do we retain them with this generation of millennials and then Gen Z with the opportunities that are out there for them right now?

Andrew: My son right now works for a major company in New York where they’ve got a bar with four beers on tap, different wine, a barista, bean bags, the whole nine yards. And we’re just not going to do that as a business.

Andrew: So I would say that’s absolutely one of our challenges, attracting and retaining great talent in a generation that has different expectations than certainly my generation did when I started work.

Mike: How did you approach that? So like you said, the insurance industry doesn’t just automatically attract millennials as if, say biotech, or automated driving, or social networking, or cloud computing. So how are you doing that?

Andrew: It’s really interesting that you asked that, and you used the phrase, “journey.” When I look back at when I was first introduced to John Donohue and Gayle O’Connell, John, our CEO, and Gayle, our chief marketing officer, it was explained to me how insurance worked in Massachusetts.

Andrew: So one of our main areas is private passenger also. And back in 2005 when I first came on as a consultant, insurance in Massachusetts was completely regulated. So you buy a policy from company A, and a policy from company B, it will be exactly the same price. There was no price differentiator at all.

Andrew: Now, what was explained to me was that was going to change. So in 2008, it did change. Deregulation came along and there was competition in terms of price. And John said to me, “Look, we’ve been in existence since 1998, we’ve been extremely successful, we’re really good,” He said, “But to survive in this deregulated market with some of the carriers that are now going to come into the space, we can’t be good, we need to be great.”

Andrew: And he’d read a book by Jim Collins called “Good to Great,” that I’m sure many people will be familiar with. Synchronicity, serendipity, whatever you want to call it, I’d had the same conversation with the CEO of an insurance company in the UK twelve months previously, where I hadn’t actually read the book at the time, but he said, “We’ve got to change, I think there’s something in this book,” and that’s just what John said to me. And I said, “Oh, I’ve kind of done something like this.”

Andrew: So we, back in 2005, looked at kind of planting a stake in the ground on defining the vision, where we saw ourselves, the values, the sort of guidelines for what the decisions that we make, and the behaviors that go along with that. And we came up with something called “the journey to greatness,” we called it at the time.

Andrew: So that was really the starting point, and when I realized this was a slightly different company, as I said, than almost any I’ve been in, because our number one value is our people, stated in writing, black and white. And that intrigued me that a CEO was prepared to sort of stand up and say, “We put our people first.”

Andrew: So that starts to become a differentiator and is attracting new talent, because I’m not sure there are any companies out there actually who actually do that.

Mike: right, right, right, is that explicit and really has the buy in, that’s fantastic.

Andrew: Yeah, and so whilst we can’t compete with the four beers on tap and the wines, what we can compete with, and what we do compete it, and what Arbella was founded on, was that philosophy of we put our people first.

Andrew: Our brand value is that we’re local, we’re one of you, we live here, we know what I stems are, or as we call it, I am sick and fed up of nor’easters, I’ve have to say it.

Mike: That’s great.

Andrew: But the message we’re giving to our people is, look, we recognize that the 1000 plus people we’ve got, they’re the ones that touch the customer. So, if they don’t feel valued by the business, how are they going to make the customer feel valued?

Andrew: So I think in attracting returning talent, one thing I will say is, over 50 percent of our new employees are referred by existing employees. Now, you don’t get that level of referral from people who don’t like working in a business.

Andrew: So that is a differentiator as well. So yeah, no free beer, but we have an environment where we put people first.

Mike: That’s great, that is wonderful. So the journey, I guess you used to call it, “the journey to greatness,” but now just the journey, tell us a little bit about that. So the people first centricity, it was, if you get the right people and empower them, they’re going to be more in touch with your clients.

Mike: What were the key tenets of some of this? And what did you actually do as the head of human capital to affect that?

Andrew: Well, I think one thing, maybe it’s the appropriate time to bring in Predictive Index, one thing that I saw when I came here, so I’ve been a qualified analyst in various assessment tools since 2000, so a big, big, big believer in getting the behavioral side right. When I was a consultant, my mantra was always hire the person and train the skill. Too many times in my former life, I recruited resumes and not people, and I kind of fell flat on my face.

Andrew: So what we do here, we absolutely use Predictive Index for every recruitment decision, making sure that we’re getting the square pegs for square holes. If I look back at my own career as an attorney, I started off, and I was in court, which was pretty good for me because I’m on my feet every day talking, which I quite like doing, and then changed from criminal work to getting to real property work, and that involves me sitting behind a desk for eight, ten, 12 hours plus a day, drafting contracts, pouring over legal documentation, which I was good at, but I hated, because you look at my PI and I’m this off the scale high B, I’m a people person with zero eye for detail, no structure.

Andrew: Well, that’s not necessarily a good fit. Even though you can do the job, it didn’t make me feel good.

Mike: Right, right, that’s great. So you came there, was Arbella already using The Predictive Index?

Andrew: Absolutely, I think The Predictive Index had been brought in a few years prior to that. And I think what we saw, and I’m not taking the credit for this, I think we were moving this way in any event, but a much bigger focus happened … So Gayle O’Connell, our chief marketing officer but also head of human resources, and her number two, Ella Mann, both felt the same, that we could leverage PI far much more.

Andrew: So we use it for every recruitment decision, but we use it for far more than that. We use it as a management and leadership tool to help our people be better leaders of these people that we’ve attracted.

Mike: That’s fantastic. So do you work with Arbella’s senior team on learning and development? Have they been coached appropriately on how to understand themselves and understand their people better?

Andrew: Absolutely. I mean one thing I love about Arbella is everything comes from the top, everything comes from John, from the senior team, and I would say probably the most emotionally intelligent senior team I’ve ever worked with.

Andrew: One of the things I remember doing, one of the first things I did when I was here was that I took the senior team away for an off-site, and we spent an afternoon on PI, because the basic tenet here in terms of what we’re telling our leadership people from every level, from first line right through to the top, is, “Look, if we’re going to use a tool like PI, I think there are three things we like to, first of all, PI is this fabulous tool to enable you to understand yourself, to enable me to understand who I am.”

Andrew: Now, I think a lot of people say, “Well, everyone understands who they are.” Well, maybe that’s true, but I think I know quite a few people who completely lack self-awareness, so use the tool, present company excepted, use the tool to have that awareness. And then use the tool to understand who you’re dealing with, because everyone’s different, we all know that.

Andrew: And then once I’ve done those two things, the most important thing, and the most important message we give our people, and I think it really helps in the retention part of the piece, is once you understand yourself and the other person, then as a leader it’s your responsibility, not to change who you are, because we would never ask anyone to do that, but modify your behavior situationally to get the best out of the interaction with the person or people you’re dealing with at that time.

Mike: That’s hugely sage advice, know yourself, know others, and modify yourself, that’s world class, that’s great, I’m glad that’s your mantra.

Andrew: And as I said, we’ve got a leadership team that buys into it, and that filters down, that cascades down. And then that then leads to the 50 plus percent referral.

Andrew: I’ve conducted exit interviews here with people who’ve left voluntarily to go on to different things, and they’ve broken down saying, “I don’t want to leave the … I just feel I need to try this opportunity,” and so that’s the kind of culture we’ve tried to develop here.

Andrew: And back in 1988, that was the culture. Has it changed, grown, developed? Well, of course it’s grown and developed. It’s developed hugely since I first met Arbella in 2005, and it continues to develop.

Mike: That’s awesome. Do you have a lot of those people who leave for what seems like a grass is greener opportunity come back?

Andrew: Great question. And this wasn’t set up, so I interviewed someone yesterday, sorry not yesterday, last week, who was with us, left us, and has applied to come back, and said to me that he knew the second day in his new job that he’d made the biggest mistake of his life.

Andrew: So yeah, we do get that a lot.

Mike: Well, you know, it’s interesting, the CEO of, the founding CEO of LinkedIn, Weiner, he said it’s like a tour of duty, and sometimes they do a tour or two at your company, and they might do a tour away, but good employees are always welcomed back to do another tour with you. So that’s great. That’s a testament to what you’ve built.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely.

Mike: So I can’t let someone with your background go without, you need to tell us a colorful story about managing people in the Premier League, and for the Americans here, that’s real football. 

Andrew: I’m glad you said that, because I’d have got shot.

Mike: I could get away with it, you would, not so much.

Andrew: Yeah, I mean I have to say I’ve loved my job. Once I got out of the legal profession, once I was on my own, and then coming here, I just love … There’s not a day goes by that I don’t get up and think, yeah, this is a great place to be, a great job to do.

Andrew: But you can imagine sitting on a team bus of the Premier League soccer team with the players, sitting on the bench with the coaches, and worked with European Tour golfers, walking down the fairway with Darren Clarke, the European Tour golfer, and I just feel, and getting paid for it, it’s like, somebody pinch me. But it’s very, very interesting, as I’m sure you can imagine, a bunch of professional soccer players.

Andrew: But I’ll give you a PI story, if I may, because one of the things we did with the team was we used a behavioral assessment tool, and the manager used to get frustrated, the head coach used to get frustrated with his players ’cause, for example, he wanted his goalkeeper to dominate the area, to be in control, to shout.

Andrew: And when you look at his goalkeeper, his goalkeeper was a nice, kind, helpful, introverted, calm, relaxed team player who followed rules. And you just, you can’t be further removed.

Andrew: But I’ll try and make this relate if I can, we have … When the team used to kick off at the start of a half, they had a set way of getting the game going. So there’d be two guys on the ball, one would pass to the other, and then that player would put the ball back to one of the guys in defense. So it was the same guy in defense all the time who’d then shoot the ball 70 yards up field. And that was the way they kicked off every single game they played.

Andrew: One particular game, the head coach decided to be revolutionary and changed the kick off. Instead of passing to this same defender, he decides he’s going to pass to a different defender. And this is five minutes before kick-off, before they go out onto the field. And he looks at the defender and says, “So you’re okay, the ball’s going come to you and you’re kick it, are you okay with that?” And he stood there and went, “Yes, boss.”

Andrew: What we didn’t know at the time, because we hadn’t done it, was this defender was also this low A, low B, so real, just a nice, kind team player, introvert, analytical, very calm, very patient, doesn’t like change, likes to follow rules, high C, high B as well.

Andrew: So the ball came to him, he didn’t know what to do, he stood on the ball, fell over, and the opposition striker came in and scored the fastest goal in the league that season.

Andrew: And after that … But we then used that to say, “Okay, so let’s assess these guys,” because what he needed was a playbook that said, “So we have five different ways of kicking off,” and as long as he can go away and study and learn it, then we’re going use number three today. Then he’d [crosstalk 00:42:23] … It was real, just yeah, but yeah, some real fun times.

Mike: Great, so changed management on the fly, that’s wonderful. Well, that’s a great story. Thank you for sharing that with …

Mike: How about if you could tell your 22 year old lawyer self, or even your 28 year old sales self, sales manager self, something that you’ve learned, what would it be?

Andrew: Well, I guess 22 or 28, I think the first thing would be eat less, exercise more. But I don’t think that’s what you mean.

Mike: That’s a great lesson.

Andrew: Yeah, I know. A couple of things, and they’re probably kind of intertwined, thinking about the question you asked earlier about attracting talent and attracting millennials, I think one thing I would’ve told myself at 22 or 28 is give people your time as far as possible when they want it.

Andrew: If I go back to my early days as an attorney, to 22, 23, you come out of college, you get this, I mean it works slightly differently in the UK, but you’ve got this degree, you get straight into a job, you know nothing. And you’re in an environment where you’ve got people who are very much driven by charging per minute, or per six minutes as we did, and they just don’t have time for you. And a number of times I felt isolated or lost. So I would say give people time.

Andrew: And I think that leads into kind of a bigger message really in that everyone needs leading and managing differently, we all have different leads, different needs, sorry.

Andrew: And linking it with the sales side, when I was selling, as I did most of my career, I learned sort of halfway through that I had a particular way of selling that was very much linked to my behavioral style. So I’ve got this high B who likes to talk a lot and goes into a meeting and dominates. And I learned I needed to modify, so sometimes shut up is the best tactic.

Andrew: But that applies in management and leadership as well. I’ve have to … We’re back to the understand yourself, understand who you’re dealing with, and then modify. So, I’ve got to adapt, and I’ve have to give you what you need.

Andrew: One thing I think we’re pretty good at here is that all our leaders are taught, in the one-on-ones that you have with your people, let them set the agenda. This isn’t a meeting for you to update you on projects, do that some other way. Give them time in their one-on-one to let you know what they need from you.

Andrew: And I don’t think I did that in absolutely my early career, and it’s something that I’ve come to learn as I’ve got older.

Mike: Well, I do hope our audience takes away those two valuable lessons, the time as well as the modify yourself. Well, Andrew O’Donoghue, I’ve really enjoyed time with you. You are a colorful character, I’m so glad that you’re at Arbella, they’re lucky to have you. It’s no surprise that you have done so well in great places to work in your recent history.

Mike: Thank you for your time today

Andrew: Thanks so much.

Mike: We really appreciate your knowledge. You take care.

Andrew: It’s been my pleasure, thank you, anytime.

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