Karyn Buxman

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Lead With Levity: An Interview with Insurance Information Institute President Robert Hartwig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARobert Hartwig is the president of the Insurance Information Institute. He regularly advises Congressional committees, business leaders and the media on economic issues related to the insurance industry.  We’re thrilled to have his insights on Leading with Levity to share with you:

Here are the highlights from our conversation:

Leadership Styles Change Over Time

“I definitely see myself as a different leader now than I was in years past. Today, I give my staff a great deal of latitude. They’re very good at what they do, and I trust them to do it. In years past, I was more of a micromanager.

“My micromanager tendencies emerged early—with my first small business – a paper route when I was 12—and continued through graduate school and into my early professional career. Working as an expert witness in particular reinforced the tendency to prepare thoroughly. There’s no one in that witness stand with you!

“Over time the industry became much more tech driven. Tasks that were really outside my core competencies forced me to build trust. When you hire the right people, this can work very well.”

Have High Standards

“I’ve always tried to run things in such a way that the public sees the Insurance Information Institute as an extremely credible, authoritative source for all things insurance related. My own personal standard is quite high: we always need to be prepared to testify in front of a Congressional body.”

Humor Is A Leadership Tool

“People will listen to you when you make them laugh. A lot of the material I present has the potential to be very dry. I inject a lot of humor. It helps people pay attention and engage with the topic. In a recent session about the future workforce, the focus was on the advances women had made. Women are now well educated, they obtain 60% of college degrees and an increasing percentage of Master’s degrees. When I poked fun asking if this was the “end of men,” all the men squirmed in their seats, the women gave each other fist bumps. It strengthened the relationship I had with that audience.”

Be Aware of Potential Landmines

“During a presentation to the auto insurance industry, I used a clip from a popular MTV show Pimp My Ride to illustrate how technology can make cars less safe—in this instance, a TV screen had been installed in the vehicle’s steering column. I thought it was a funny way to make a point about the risks of distracted driving, but because the star’s rap artist host, Xzibit, and most of the show’s participants were African-Americans, some audience members felt I was making an unfortunate racial depiction. You need to have an awareness of how the material you’re presenting will be perceived.

“You don’t always have to be the originator of the humor for it to be problematic. One year an industry magazine asked me for my outlook for the coming year. On the cover, unbeknownst to me, they photoshopped a Swami’s turban onto my head. Several people contacted me that this image was insensitive and undignified. In that situation, you apologize—and you take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Lead With Levity

karen_handsLeadership styles grow and change as we, as individuals, grow and change. Robert’s not alone in having his field radically transformed by technology. He’s made a great point by illuminating the fact that delegation is easier when you hire good people: crafting a strong team may be one of the most important jobs a leader has to do.

It’s really important that we all learn from Robert’s experiences with humor gone wrong. Presentations, advertising, and other messaging platforms can hurt us more than help us if we’re not careful. Before you take any material live, it’s a good idea to have a few people weigh in with their perspective on your work. Ideally, you’ll want to work with a diverse group of individuals here. Think about who can help you make sure you’re not alienating anyone when you’re trying to be amusing!

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