Ross Buchmueller is the President & Chief Executive Officer of the PURE Group of Insurance Companies, a specialist group of companies dedicated to serving the personal insurance needs of more than 75,000 successful families across the United States.
Ross’ career spans more than 30 years and has been exclusively focused on the specialised high net worth property & casualty insurance market. After spending more than a decade at The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, Ross founded AIG’s Private Client Group and served as its president for more than six years before launching PURE in 2006.
He was a founder of the Private Risk Management Association (PRMA), and serves on its Board of Trustees and is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organisation. He has been recognised by EY as an Entrepreneur of the Year and by The Family Wealth Report as a Leading Individual in the wealth management industry. He holds a BA from Trinity College and served on the college’s Board of Fellows.
What do you think are the qualities of a successful leader.
There have always been great leaders with a wide variety of talents, but it’s hard to be a great leader without demonstrating integrity and the ability to communicate.
When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?
I think at an early stage of my career, I knew that I had ideas and an ability to see the problems and opportunities of a business. It wasn’t until I was trying to build a new operation within AIG and I had the full responsibility to make others believe that a new entrant could create a leading position in our niche; that then I could then see the impact of my leadership.
Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.
I have started two insurance businesses – first for AIG and then on my own with PURE. I applied many of the same approaches to both, but there is no question that the people at PURE have helped me see the power of humanity. In our business, we are helping people on their hardest days. It’s a business that tends to require and reward empathy. With the inspiration from our team, I have realised greater potential from all of us at PURE by getting hundreds of talented to people to believe in each other and to embrace our purpose to allow our membership to pursue their passions with greater confidence.
We have demonstrated that if you focus on service and humanity, profits will ensue. Too often, insurers pursue profits and bad behaviour may ensue.
Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this.
Last summer, we faced hurricane after hurricane after hurricane – only to be interrupted by the largest collection of wildfires in the history of California. The daily catastrophe briefings were beginning to wear me down, and I could only imagine the fatigue of the people on the front lines.
At that point, I reminded myself – and our team – that these sorts of events are exactly why we were in the business. I am so proud of the work that our team did in service of the PURE membership. You don’t typically need a shining North Star on sunny days. Our strong sense of purpose provided important guidance to me during those dark moments. Our membership enjoys being able to live along the coast. We need to be able to help them respond to hurricanes. Perhaps more than any other event, these hurricanes are a reminder of why we are in business.
We continuously improve our tactical response to catastrophes. I have also learned not to take for granted the stress that these events can place on our staff.
What vision or goal are you working towards in your career? What accomplishment would you like to retire with?
I take great pride in the sustained excellence of service and financial performance of PURE over the past 12+ years. I am committed to sustaining the performance and the fun over the long term – and long after I hand the reigns over to someone else. I would be most proud if I built a strong team that made the business better without me.
Common opinion states that in order to be succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice/kind person?
I have found that the human side of enterprise is more powerful than the financial or analytical side. I don’t feel any temptation to drift towards ruthlessness, but I do admit that small decisions can be more difficult in a world where you value humanity. It can be easier to make quick decisions without much consideration for the impact on individuals. To try to care about everyone is a small cost towards creating an organisation that values trust and partnership.
Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out at those around you is a skill – what are your tips?
We place a great deal of value on improving our respective levels of emotional intelligence. In my case, I have a very high sense of self-awareness and a disappointing level of self-management. This means that I might show my emotions more often than I’d like (but at least I am aware of it). I have begun to work on mindfulness and meditation as a way to strengthen my ability to manage my emotions.
At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?
I believe in the principle that if we are happy, we will create great outcomes. To improve happiness, I prefer to write notes of gratitude. A disciplined way to manage your happiness is a pretty effective immunisation for low points.
Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do you create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?
One of the many great things about the insurance industry is that it is an extremely decentralised industry. The results of our company will be driven by the sum of thousands of actions by individual underwriters or actuaries or claims adjusters. The work we do is an important social service for our membership. With all of these reminders, it isn’t hard to keep the importance of people in the centre of our thinking.
Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. In the absence of monetary rewards, how else do you keep people motivated?
There are many advantages we have as a private company, and they certainly include the flexibility of designing rewards programs. For starters, nearly half of the firm has invested their own money to be partners with our investors. This strengthens an alignment of interests. We also identify group awards to reinforce those outcomes that are a reflection of a concerted team effort.
I think the real challenge is not in creating individual rewards, but in creating an environment where everyone knows what is expected of them. Further, the expectations of each department and each individual need to be grounded in important outcomes for the firm.
There is a large volume of research into incentives and motivations. We are keen to reward great performance, but we also spend a great deal of time helping people master their craft and encourage a growth mindset to realise personal improvement. We reinforce a sense of purpose, foster intellectual curiosity, and challenge people to become more autonomous. Together, this creates an engaged and motivated team.
Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?
I think this is an unrealistic premise. It’s hard to attract great people only to offer them no autonomy. Collaborative decision making is our norm, so much so, that we must guard against the reverse: in our efforts to foster empowerment and delegation, managers may be reluctant to impose their point of view on very important issues where they need to take a stand and provide direction.
I once worked for a leader who reinforced the importance of knowing when to “over-manage” a critical issue. He taught me that some matters are so important, you must remain heavily engaged. I have found that to be helpful advice.
How do you decide to be available to your team and to support them? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?
I tend to set standing meetings (weekly or bi-weekly) with my direct reports to ensure we maintain a connection, and that I know what they are working on and how I can help. Moving from issue to issue and from person to person is not an interruption to my workflow; it is my workflow, my reason for being here.
How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?
With around half of the employees as investors in our company, I try to treat all employees as owners. Our monthly Town Hall meetings detail all key business and financial outcomes so everyone knows where we stand. We strive to be a transparent work environment.
With that said, I see some managers confuse communication and information sharing. We need to reinforce our purpose and our strategy with our staff – and not just forward more and more data.
Great managers improve the context for their employees every day. The information we share becomes more powerful to employees when the way they view the world becomes clearer and more optimistic.
How do you best harmonise your work and personal life – for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this?
I get great joy from my work life and that contributes to my personal life. I get great joy from my personal life and that contributes to my work life. Long may that repeat.
How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?
- We certainly respect the challenges that our employees may face.
- We provide the time and resources and understanding that helps people thrive.
- We moved to a flexible paid time off model almost five years ago and this has provided managers with greater tools to help folks relieve day-to-day stress.
- We also provide the access to professional resources for employees to find the care and treatment they need.
Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?
I’ve read about great managers who claim that they almost never terminated an under-performing employee too early. The theory was that your instincts are likely right – and the longer the person was still on payroll they presented a hard cost (salary) and a soft cost (poor performance).
I respect this point of view, but fundamentally disagree.
For all employees, we aspire to have such clear expectations and frequent feedback that folks should know what’s expected of them and how they are measuring up at all times. We do not want employment actions to surprise employees.
We also want to weigh business outcomes and cultural contributions. This is more than simply keeping nice people. We want to respect that some employees contribute to our long term success even if their productivity is below expectations. We have less tolerance for shortfalls in quality or compliance.
In the end, we aim to have a severance policy that reflects – at least in part – our role in the failed partnership.
Don’t get me wrong. We have great ambitions and high expectations for our team.
However, when you promote yourself as the employer of choice, it is disingenuous to suggest that we’re the best employer “only if you do everything right”.
How do you create, manage and motivate an efficient team when your team works remotely?
We have some areas of the company that are better at this than others. I am not the right expert to speak to the future of the workplace and the role of remote employees, but I can offer a few lessons from my experience.
- We need to communicate more and more effectively. This goes beyond Town Halls and includes tools like Salesforce Chatter and Microsoft Teams.
- We need to reinforce the underlying purpose behind our strategies. If people are on their own, this North Star becomes even more important.
- We need to get people together. The humanity of our business makes it special. People who work remotely need to build relationships and feel a part of our community.
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