CEO Tricia Griffith shares with us the ideals she continues to put at the forefront of Progressive.
Just two years after taking over as president and CEO of insurance giant Progressive in 2018, Tricia Griffith became the first woman to be named Businessperson of the Year by Fortune magazine—such has been her impact on the company and the insurance industry more broadly. Yet she started out much lower down the ladder, joining Progressive as a lowly claims representative in 1988 and climbing the corporate ranks through a combination of hard work, talent, and vision.
The Progressive Corporation is one of the largest providers of car insurance in the United States. It was co-founded in 1937 by Jack Green and Joseph M. Lewis, and is headquartered in Mayfield Village, Ohio. The company insures motorcycles, boats, RVs, and commercial vehicles, and also provides home insurance through select partners. In recent years, Progressive has expanded internationally, offering insurance services in Australia, and is currently ranked No. 99 in the Fortune 500 list of the largest US corporations by total revenue.
Yet Tricia Griffith’s story is arguably as compelling as the company’s own trajectory. As a prominent female CEO, Griffith has not only gained a reputation for innovation, she has also spoken honestly about the challenges facing women in the corporate workplace, including some of the mistakes she feels she made early on in her career and the advice that led her to reach the top.
“If I could distill everything I’ve learned in my career into one piece of advice, I think for years, especially growing up in the claims organization, I really tried to be one of the guys,” Griffith said in a recent interview with Cleveland.com. “I didn’t want to be seen necessarily as a female, and so that didn’t actually allow me to fully be myself. Probably 15 or 20 years ago, (what helped me was) having people, especially, Glenn (Renwick), who was my predecessor, really sponsored me and said, ‘Try this and do this.’ He always said be yourself.”
At 20.2% and 11.4% respectively, Progressive’s one-year and annualized three-year sales growth tops both Apple and Microsoft’s. The insurer’s stock was up nearly 50% over the last year, and profits have more than doubled. In 2017, Progressive vaulted past Allstate to become the nation’s third-largest auto insurer, behind Geico and State Farm. And perhaps most impressively, at the end of the third quarter, the Mayfield, Ohio, company hit $30 billion in net premiums written, after reaching $20 billion just three years earlier—a remarkable growth rate for an old enterprise.
Progressive was founded in 1937 as a personal auto insurer, eventually finding its niche in high-risk drivers. But under Griffith’s leadership, it has moved far beyond that. One key move came in 2015, when the company acquired a majority stake in home insurer ASI for roughly $875 million in cash in an effort to better bundle auto and home insurance. Progressive refers to these bundle shoppers as Robinsons, a move to personify customers rather than using sterile insurance lingo.
Making a difference
After attending Indiana State University and joining the advanced management program at the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania, Griffith began her career at Progressive in 1988 as a claims representative in Indianapolis. She became Chief Human Resources Officer in 2002, launched the company’s first ever diversity and inclusion program, and served as President of Customer Operations and COO of Progressive’s personal lines branch, before being appointed CEO in 2016.
Griffith’s drive and self-belief has not only seen her become a role model for fellow business-women, but also helped Progressive maintain its reputation as one of the most innovative companies in its space: while the company had been trying to sign up homeowners roughly a decade before the ASI purchase, Griffith led the charge to rapidly expand their numbers from around 400,000 to 1 million in just over two years—a major factor driving the recent premium growth surge.
Approachable and authentic
While Griffith’s business acumen has driven results, it’s her approachable and authentic leadership style that many employees will cite as a key to the company’s success. Griffith puts a premium on creating a diverse and inclusive environment for all employees and speaks frequently about the importance of bringing your whole self to work. The efforts have paid off. In 2018, Progressive’s annual Culture Survey placed the company in the 96th percentile of all companies who use Gallup’s survey, highlighting an engaged culture which continues to lead to success.
Griffith has also gained a reputation for her generosity, especially where fellow female employees are concerned. She always agrees to meet with women employees that want to speak to her, stating publicly that she believes personal attention and encouragement to be important leadership qualities. Answering a Progressive employee what advice she’d give to an aspiring CEO, she told them:
“Focus on the job you’re doing now. You will get noticed.”
Griffith says she likes to “set audacious goals” to rally the company around key projects and spur targeted investments. In the home-owners insurance segment, such an investment helped launch the HomeQuote Explorer tool in 2017 to help customers compare carrier quotes. Indeed, technology has always been at the forefront of Progressive’s growth. It was the first auto insurance company to have a website, allow customers to purchase policies via that site, and later to pioneer the use of mobile browsers and smartphone apps for rating and managing policies. It was also the first to offer 24/7 claims reporting.
“We are constantly reviewing our processes to identify areas where we can learn and improve,” Griffith has said on innovation in the insurance space. “Progressive changed the industry when we introduced our Comparison Rater Experience and showed you auto rates of other companies next to our own, even if our rates weren’t the lowest. That level of transparency was unprecedented.”
“If you’re not yourself, you can’t be a truly great leader,” Griffith has remarked on the broader demands of leadership. “I always reflect on that Teddy Roosevelt quote, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ I think a big part of my career was, ‘I wish I was, as smart as him, as well traveled as her, or whatever.’ And so, for me, it is about being true to yourself and capitalizing on that.”