Editor's Note: This is the second in INN's "Day on the Job" series, in which INN editors spend a day with insurance executives to find out how they overcome the challenges they face on a daily basis.

It may be difficult to anticipate what the typical work day holds for a senior-level executive at State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co. For Susan Hood, a "typical" day doesn't exist.

Late the evening prior to our sharing a day on the job together, an e-mail from Susan arrived-could we meet at 6 a.m. instead of 7? Before spending a day with me, she'd like to get to know me, have a quiet cup of coffee and chat.

At a Starbucks in Bloomington, Ill., State Farm's headquarters, Susan was focused on our conversation, but also attentive to her grown daughter, who sent her a text as part of their routine morning check-in. "I love these types of interruptions," she says, smiling. Further interruptions occur as she greets by name many of the people entering and exiting the coffee shop calling out a "good morning" to her. As claims vice president for the nation's largest auto and home insurer, Susan is indeed a familiar, friendly and commanding leader. She welcomes each "untypical" day with its myriad issues and people, while always keeping the customer at the forefront of her focus.

Susan's work day starts between 6 a.m. and 6:20 a.m., and so far, we are on schedule. The entourage of communications specialists to help facilitate my visit can barely keep pace with Susan as she ushers us into State Farm's media room to film interviews for insurancenetworking.com. It's apparent that Susan likes being on time.

Surprisingly, her day's agenda includes dealing with topics that don't necessarily connect directly to the company's claims organization's day-to-day existence, but are nevertheless key to the foundational health of the enterprise. For example, after filming, Susan met with a group of mentees in a conference room-some who had dialed in as well as in-person attendees Jennifer Kensinger, claim consultant, P&C Claims, and Kevin Elliott, claim section manager-to discuss the positive impact that relationships, trust and social networks can have on one's career. "We can influence people in a positive way if we are thought of as a name, not just a title," she said. "We have a responsibility to build relationships based on trust with an individual by name, especially during challenging times when trust is needed. Your staff looks to you for 'calm confidence,' and we all need to be thoughtful of that."

State Farm's mission is to help people recover from the unexpected. "We handle 25,000 to 30,000 claims daily, each one individually, one at a time," Susan points out as we head to her next meeting, "so our systems-people and technology-need to be streamlined."


Preparation

It's clear that State Farm is taking extra pains to streamline both. Outside her office, Susan's assistant, Janet Kirk, hands her an update on the weekend's legacy claims system conversion. A massive effort years in the making, the new Web-enabled system will enable greater portability and scalability and further improve the entire claims process for customers.

"I liken it to keeping a 747 in the air," she says. "Consider all the claims coming in today, and the claims that have happened and those that haven't happened yet. You have to keep this jumbo jet in the air, keep the people inside it comfortable, service their needs, proceed without bumps, and at the same speed, and you have to land it on time-that's what we have to do as we implement this new claim system."

Before going live with the new system, Susan adds, the organization tackled an enormous training effort, as all levels of claim employees-from support-level employees to claims handlers to estimators to claims leadership-needed to learn the new system and its workflow requirements. To date, the company is on track-converting about a quarter of the records the weekend prior to my visit. Ironically, it was the same weekend marked by a record 160 tornadoes that wreaked havoc over the lower Midwest, which put many in Susan's organization into instant response mode.

Neither the legacy system conversion nor the swift efforts required to deal with the expected tornado-related claims seem to stop Susan's stride. "We are always about being prepared," she says calmly. "Our customers are counting on us."

Of the 4,000 people within Susan's immediate business area, approximately 25 percent provide guidance, philosophy and oversight to the 31,000 employees throughout the claims organization. The other 75 percent provide customer-facing services, the largest being the catastrophe services operation. Before, during and after a catastrophe (i.e. tornado, hailstorm, hurricane), her catastrophe services employees, along with the corporate catastrophe response team, communicate constantly with employees in the impacted areas-merging efforts into a well-choreographed response.

"We have about 2,000 people within our State Farm Catastrophe Services operation," Susan tells me as we head to her office, "but that number can be significantly increased by engaging independent adjusters. The employees within my catastrophe services operation can be deployed anytime, anywhere a catastrophe hits."

Susan is very proud of this catastrophe services operation, calling it second to none in its ability to quickly respond to customer's needs following a catastrophe.

"There is nobody in the world that can do what this operation does, which is to scale up and deploy several thousand people very quickly. We have mobile offices, trailers and vans that we deploy to areas hardest hit, and have a large semi that can be positioned as a large drive-through estimating facility. When there is no power, no infrastructure left in an area that has been impacted by a natural disaster, we can go in and bring up an operation, power up an entire hotel or a building with generators. The goal is to get our people in quickly, so that as our customers get back in, we're there and we can help them recover from that event."

Reflecting back, Susan says that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a game-changer in terms of damage, number of claims and its impact on infrastructure. And it followed several significant events earlier in the year so there were a large number of catastrophe employees already deployed. Coordination on an enterprise scale was critical to the response in Katrina's aftermath. "With natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and even earthquakes, it's not a matter of 'if' but more a matter of 'when,' and being prepared enables us to keep our promise-to help people recover from the unexpected."

We finish chatting as Barry Lowe, claims director, and Jill Clauss, claims communication manager, P&C Claims, enter Susan's office from their daily team "huddle" to discuss enterprise communication workflow changes. Susan admits that she prefers to "travel" to internal meetings, but my presence makes her day even less typical than usual, so we gather at her conference table to discuss some communications that need to go out to the 31,000 claims employees and 18,000 licensed agents.

The variety and volume of these communications seem endless, yet Susan stays on track, asking direct questions, from whether Chairman Ed Rust's messages were being incorporated into specific claims communications to the mechanics of how the team will accomplish its goal of being able to transmit information from the call center data-conversion project and more to the organization in one day. Susan looks at her watch, noting that this meeting is running a bit late.

Satisfied that the right information will be shared with the appropriate audience in a timely fashion, Susan waves staff director Kevin Heiser into her office, the cue that this meeting has ended.


Risks and Opportunities

The staff director for State Farm's research and strategic services has updates to share with Susan on changes taking place within his area of responsibility focusing on trends. Sitting at Susan's conference table, she explained that the "trends" group helps identify potential issues that may not be seen from a macro level. After hearing that the group felt some of its work overlapped other efforts within the organization and plans were in place to streamline those efforts, Susan sits upright in her chair to ask about plans to manage this critical work going forward. Kevin assures her that the team and its work will be merged into another group that deals specifically with global business analysis and looks at both risks and opportunities across all of State Farm's functional business areas and within all lines of business.

After confirming the names of team members who would be affected by this improvement, Susan nodded her approval, saying "It's important to communicate this proactively," she said as he stood up to leave.

As he nears her office door, Susan stops him to ask about his family, and briefly chats with him about how his weekend hobby was progressing. After Kevin leaves, Susan turns to me and says, "What's next, Pat?"

I'm told we have some breathing room before the next meeting, so I tell Susan that it's clear that she has a knack for remembering details, for having a distinct grasp of her organization's many moving parts, and for walking the talk as a relationship builder. How does this play into her management style?

"I call it my leadership style," she answers, "because I think there's a difference between managing and leading. I used to manage; I'm leading now. For me, it's about focusing on the right things; taking an enterprise view and creating alignment and understanding about our vision, strategy and direction. It's about being accessible, visible and interacting with my people, relentlessly communicating the 'what' and the 'why.' I never ask somebody to do something that I wouldn't do myself."

Susan is aware that, as a top executive in a Tier 1 insurance organization, she is observed and looked upon as a role model. "When I walk out of my office, I'm on stage and I know that whatever I do or say can signal something, so I always try to exude a calm confidence, because if people are looking at me and I'm calm, then they are reassured. If I'm not calm, people can become concerned."

Leading with "calm" at the center, Susan prides herself on being authentic, approachable and collaborative. "It is essential to have the right people, with the right expertise, at the table to weigh in. So I lead with a spirit of collaboration and fair process, because everybody's idea should have a chance, and I want those ideas at the table for consideration. Ultimately I'll make the decision but I make better decisions that way," Susan says.

Finally, says Susan, being humble is an important competency for a leader. "It's acknowledging that I may not have all the answers, it's asking questions, saying I don't understand and asking for help. It's also about thanking people for their contributions and recognizing what they bring to the table."

Perhaps one of the greatest tenets of leadership, she believes, comes with first-hand experience. Having started her career some 30 years ago, Susan describes her early years as a fire claims rep. "I know what it's like to drive around with a ladder, pull it out and climb onto a roof. I know what it's like to sit with a person who's lost their house, and I know what it's like to engage with someone who has been injured or lost somebody, to sit there and hold a hand. When I think about the leader that I am today, I think part of my credibility is that I've done what my people are doing."

Without looking directly at the woman now standing at her office door, Susan smiles as she finishes her sentence and waves her in. This meeting is more routine than the others; but not as frequent. Denise Leech Shaughnessy, claim review team manager, joins us at the conference table, and Susan introduces her as the newest employee to join their claim review team. Today's "get to know you" meeting is designed to welcome the new manager to the department and familiarize her with Susan's organization, answer any questions she has and open the door to future conversations. Susan queries the manager on her experience to date and answered her questions on claims strategy, data analytics and standard claim processes.

As Susan looks at her watch, she says, "What else? Wait, there is one important thing: You need a mentor within the department, and a mentor outside the department. Somebody in an area that you may not know a lot about, you're interested in learning more about, or in a department that you have interaction with."

I ask Susan how she maintains a balance between her professional and personal life. She smiles and says this is something she has worked on and continues to work on. "It's about having priorities, being comfortable with them and putting some discipline around keeping them in sync," she said. "My first priority is my family and their health and wellbeing. My second priority is me-making sure I am eating right, exercising, and getting enough rest. My third priority is my work and my career. If I get the first two right, I can operate at my top performance."

As I began packing my notepad and digital recorder, I asked her to describe her greatest challenge. "Well, the enormity of the job can be a challenge, but because my work days are far from typical, I welcome it. Plus, I happen to be biased about the claims profession," she answers. "We're helping people recover from the unexpected. We're helping them build back their house, repair or replace their automobile, helping them through an injury or even worse. You have to come to this position with a focus on serving ... on taking care of people. It means helping people recover from whatever impacted them. So I deeply believe that what claims professionals do is a noble profession."

For INN's first Day on the Job installment, featuring Pat Rayl, VP of Technical Process Management at Aflac, click here.

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