Let’s Talk Leadership: John O’Donnell, CEO Allstate Insurance — PART 3


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Strong leaders understand the importance of having a clear vision for their organization. As a leader, one of your key roles is to shape organizational culture and create a high-performance environment, and this starts with a clear mission and vision.

In this interview, John O’Donnell, CEO of Allstate Insurance, discusses the importance of having a clear mission and vision for your organization.

You need to know where you are going before your start your journey. Without the end in sight, you will have a difficult time keeping focused and staying on track to meet your organizational objectives.

Upon joining Allstate in Canada, John made it a priority to review and refresh the organization’s mission and vision statements.  John explains:

“In our mission statement, we talk about providing strength, experience, and care to our customers.  That’s one of the things that I believe resonates within the organization and builds a …  I believe there’s a special pride, at Allstate, in what we do.  Really, it deals with connecting to that mission and sort of the moment of truth with the customer when we fulfill that promise.  It’s not only even then; it starts right away when we’re discussing the right coverage for a customer.  I believe even someone on the sales side can deeply connect with the ultimate mission of the organization.  I’ve found that’s something that keeps people going.  We talk about deep employee engagement.  I think that’s critical and that’s foundational.  I’ve been in other organizations where I’ve gotten energized from the mission, and if I don’t have that, I sometimes struggle with sort of my individual purpose in an organization.”

Ensuring that your mission and vision is aligned with organizational culture and that it’s something that your employees can resonate with is very important. It is one of the main reasons why John wanted to review the company’s mission.

Part of the reason is because if it’s real clear and there’s no ambiguity about it, employees will be able to connect with it and say, “I see where we are and where we are going as an organization.” Even more importantly, employees will have a better understanding of how their specific role fits within the company vision and how they can play a part in helping the organization achieve their goals and objectives.

Disney Example

Disney is an example of a company that has a clearly defined mission, and their employees from the top down understand their role in executing the vision. John tells the ice cream story to explain:

“There’s someone, maybe a custodial worker in the park, [who] sees a little girl drop her ice cream cone.  His job in the overall mission is to sweep up, make sure it looks really nice, and it’s clean.  That’s one of the differentiators I think when you go to a Disney park.  But he also knows the overall mission and the experience that they’re trying to create down there.  When I mentioned empowerment in the organization, that worker, that employee, is empowered to fulfill the overall mission and change the experience for that particular customer.  So without any authority required or bureaucracy, can go over, get another ice cream cone from the nearest vendor, bring it over and create a positive customer experience.”

This is what organizations should be trying to accomplish. Employees need to be deeply connected to their company’s mission so they can focus on creating great customer experiences without unnecessary processes getting in the way.

This is exactly what Allstate is trying to accomplish.

“When we talk about being deeply connected to the mission of Allstate, an example would be in claims.  We’re trying to help our employees – and they want this, as well – to become more empowered, and to remove some of the organizational barriers that they may have, to be able to do this.  If it’s to provide strength, experience and care, as you mentioned, [this is] when a customer really needs us the most.  We’ve actually been training our employees in some critical thinking skills and looking at the end goal of having a positive customer experience and a fair resolution of the claim,” says John.

Purpose Versus Task

A clear vision ensures there is a clear distinction between ‘purpose versus task.’  To go back to the analogy at Disney, the gentleman’s task in that story was to sweep.  That was his task, and that was probably on his job description: you will do these things.  But they made the point of saying, “We’re here for a bigger purpose; we’re here to provide smiles”.

Too often, organizations get so focused on the tasks at hand, and that’s where you get the process and you get the binders full of: here’s your job description, and they forget that they’re connecting with a customer.  So what you’re doing in empowering your teams to be able to respond to those customer needs is really getting them focused on the vision, getting focused on the mission, and understanding their purpose, as opposed to the task at hand.

In the military, we used to call that ‘commander’s intent.’  Everyone would have their certain task, as you say, but would understand the overall purpose, so when things often would not go exactly per plan, you could adjust and still fulfill the overall intent of the mission,” John says.

The only way you can adjust is if you truly do understand the overall intent, because if you’re so task-focused then if you go off the rails, it’s like, you don’t have clarity on your task, and that doesn’t allow critical thinking or common sense to jump into play.

Your people also need to have a safe environment to take actions toward meeting the company’s overall vision. You need to give them leeway to make mistakes. People need to have the safety to make a decision because they believe its right, without fear that there’s going to be a punitive response if they make the wrong decision.  Sometimes creating that culture is hard, and it comes down to trust and giving people the tools to help the organization achieve its vision and mission.


Part 4 of our interview will continue our conversation with John O’Donnell and look at the role of reward and recognition.

Watch the interview video on YouTube


About John O’Donnell

John O’Donnell was President and Chief Executive Officer of Allstate Insurance Company of Canada, and Vice President of the Allstate Insurance Company of the United States from July 2011 until January 2016, before returning to the U.S. to take on a new role as a senior vice president, with Allstate Insurance Corporation. John has also held leadership roles with GMAC Insurance, Walt Disney Corporation, and Goldman Sachs.

John earned his Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from the United States Naval Academy, and served as a helicopter pilot in the United States Marine Corps, achieving the rank of captain prior to leaving the service.  He also holds a master’s degree in business administration, finance, and economics from the University of Chicago.

About Allstate Insurance

The Allstate Insurance Company of Canada, with headquarters in Markham, is a member of one of the largest organizations in the world, the Allstate Corporation.  Allstate Canada has provided property and casualty insurance products to Canadians since 1953.  Allstate provides a full line of auto, home, individual, life, and financial products through a network of 450 agents in over 250 communities and 1,000 employees.  The slogan, “You’re in Good Hands,” exemplifies the commitment, knowledge, and professionalism of Allstate’s trusted advisers to customers, making Allstate one of Canada’s strongest personal line insurers.  You can find out more about Allstate Insurance at www.allstate.ca.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bill Hogg
Bill Hogg works with senior leaders to inspire and develop high performance, customer-focused teams that deliver exceptional customer service, higher productivity and improved profits. Sought after internationally as a speaker and consultant, Bill is recognized as the Performance Excelerator because of his uncanny ability to create profound change and deliver extraordinary results with the most demanding organizations.


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