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5 Ways To Attract And Retain Talent with Michele McDermott Of Assurance & Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

Assurance Human Resources Hiring Strategies

Creating a culture of openness allows employees to feel like they are part of something bigger and that they can be comfortable in their work environment.


As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Michele McDermott.

As the top Human Resources professional at Assurance, Michele is responsible for developing, managing and administering all human resource-related strategies, programs, policies and procedures. Leveraging more than 25 years of experience, she develops Assurance’s current and future leaders, recruits top insurance talent and enables business scalability while maintaining a “Best Place to Work” culture. She’s a key driver for minimizing risk and maximizing the health of Assurance’s employee-base. Michele has driven over 95% employee participation in Assurance’s wellness program since its inception. Prior to joining Assurance, Michele was the Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Safety for National Express Corporation, where she improved employee engagement, rebuilt benefits programs, implemented new safety training and aligned programs with the company’s vision.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Iknew in high school I wanted to work in HR. It was a profession going through change in the late 80’s and early 90’s from being the “personnel office” to becoming a more strategic part of a business.

When I went to college, HR hadn’t quite evolved at the university level — classes were under psychology, not business. I wanted to be an HR business leader, not a psychologist, and I thought I would be more marketable if I had a business degree. So I received a business admin undergrad but made sure to take the core HR classes as well.

Out of college, I worked for American Stores which was the parent company for Jewel and Osco at the time. I learned how to run a business by going through their training program at their corporate office and putting those skills to practice in the stores. I worked in essentially every department and eventually became an assistant manager. Without those three years of learning how to run a business and be a solid manager, I don’t think I’d be as successful as I am in HR. That backdrop was a great foundation for much of the work I would eventually perform in HR.

I eventually broke into HR about three years after college at a family owned waste management company. I helped them grow their business, including going through two sales of the business. Because it was a small business environment, this job allowed me to do everything possible within HR, which was wonderful.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There are so many stories that have made me chuckle over the years. Sometimes reality can be so much better than fiction in the HR world. A common phrase I’ve said in my head is that I just can’t make some of this up!

There was a situation I encountered that was not actually funny, but it’s stayed with me since it happened and has shaped me as a leader.

Many years ago I was in a difficult work situation where I was faced making a decision that could cost me my job. I had to decide between staying at an important industry conference or traveling across the country overnight to be at a location where one of our employees had been tragically killed. I was compelled to go and be present with everyone at the location, but was told not to go by my boss.

I decided to go against his wishes. I knew it could affect my employment, but I couldn’t stay where I was knowing the difficult time everyone at the location would be having.

A week or two later, my boss visited the location and heard the impact my presence made. He let me know in hindsight that I made the right call, and he admitted he was wrong.

As an HR professional it’s extremely complicated balancing the needs of the business and representing the needs of employees. There are times when you have to make choices and those choices have implications. Employees may not agree with how a department is restructured or if a co-worker is let go. At the same time, business leaders may struggle with counsel from HR if it presents business challenges or impacts the financial success of the company. HR leaders have to perform a daily balancing act in order to remain a trusted business advisor to senior leaders and a trusted confidant for employees.

Someone once said to me, if there isn’t something you’re willing to take a risk for and lose your job over at least once per year, maybe you’re not in the right job.

Having the courage to make that decision and go where I needed to be ended up having a positive impact on how I hold myself in my career now. I trust my instincts so much more.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

I’m working on an initiative called DNA leadership — driving consistency in how we lead our employees. This has become Assurance’s manager training program.

DNA Leadership informs how we present ourselves as leaders and manage the employee life cycle. This is a big project for our company. We are a growing company that promotes within, and if we don’t have a solid training program to manage expectations of what it means to be a leader, we would risk losing the robust culture we have created here — a culture that has consistently been named a really great place to work.

DNA Leadership is also a big retention piece. If we are able to home grow our leaders and managers, we can prevent them from going somewhere else. Having this structure allows employees to see a path within the company where they could be trained as a manager and continue to grow with us. It also instills more confidence into existing leaders in the way they lead their teams.

The core of DNA Leadership is “Know, Lead, Manage, Grow.”

Know focuses on knowing Assurance inside and out — our company leadership structure and business plan, our culture, our wellness programs, our systems and technologies, and the foundations of employment law.

Lead walks managers through the employee experience and focuses on how Assurance leaders make decisions.

Manage focuses on the employee life cycle and how managers execute in their role, walking through hiring, onboarding, budgeting and planning, time management, and DNA Performance — Assurance’s unique approach to performance management. DNA Performance is a system that focuses less on reviewing history and more on leveraging past results to fuel future growth, development and performance of employees. DNA Performance facilitates conversations, identifies goals, stretches abilities, empowers growth and inspires employees.

Grow is about professional development and developing in your role. This part of the program dives deeper into the knowledge and skills developed in Know, Lead and Manage.

That’s fantastic. Now let’s jump into the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill?

1. Internal referrals– Our employees have a great perspective to know our company and the talent in their personal network. Half of our hires every year come from our existing employee referrals.

2. External referrals– Clients, vendors and also insurance carriers. We interact with so many different groups and these groups know our company well. We have a reputation for being a successful company with smart people who appreciate the hardworking efforts of employees.

3. Clear job descriptions and skill requirements — We revamped our job descriptions a couple years ago and found that many jobs had evolved over the years. It’s important to know what the skills are that will make someone successful and hire based on those requirements.

4. Technology– The number of options in the market today for applicant tracking and onboarding is overwhelming. Having a robust platform for recruiting can make a big difference in making the process highly efficient. We recently switched to a new platform and we’re now able to better leverage talent pools and provide automated links to social media/job sites. We have mobile access to our portal and completely automated onboarding.

5. Succession planning– We look to fill as many roles as possible with our home-grown talent. We work with our employees to identify when they’re within 12 months of being ready for a promotion. Managers assist employees in creating development plans to get them prepared and ready. We promote 20–25 percent of our employees each year and that has been our best source of all for talent.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are the top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

1) Be successful. Top talent wants to work for a growing successful company. So, set your company up to fulfill that role so that when potential employees start their job search, your name is at the top of the list. Assurance works hard to be a continuously named best place to work, and we are very vocal and public about our culture, benefits and wellness structure. These are the types of things that potential employees are attracted to.

2) Have a strong positive presence in the marketplace. Assurance does this by encouraging all employees, managers and leaders to constantly network. We are also heavily involved in the community. Our employees get a paid day off to volunteer and we have a program called Assurance Caring Together (ACT) that manages multiple charitable outings for employees each year. We are also really consistent in getting content out there — whether that be through social media, our blog or speaking engagements. Thought leadership is an important piece to having a presence in the marketplace.

3) Community Involvement — Our ACT program draws a lot of attention to us, and the things we do for charitable work draws a lot of talent. Companies that are involved in their community are really appealing to millennials. They don’t want to work for a company that isn’t involved in the community.

What are the 3 most effective strategies used to retain employees?

Benefits Offerings that go Above and Beyond– Offering benefits that meet employees where they are, personally and professionally, are key to retaining employees. Benefits offerings should go beyond traditional benefits to include things like financial wellness or education assistance. Not every employee wants or needs the same thing. Offering options that cater to multiple types of employees translates into retention.

Employee Recognition– Creating a culture of recognition is a really easy and cost-effective way to retain employees. Recognition should come from both leadership and peers. Give your employees to tools and encouragement to recognize each other for a job well done. At Assurance, we have an internal, digital high five system which is a public way to give employees social recognition.

Culture of Openness — Creating a culture of openness allows employees to feel like they are part of something bigger and that they can be comfortable in their work environment. Assurance is a 500+ employee company, but we go out of our way to make it feel like a small company. Our CEO meets every other week with 4–5 employees chosen at random to get to know them and get feedback on how they feel about the company. We’ve also instilled a program called Salutes to Our Recruits that recognizes new employees publicly, sharing personal information about each one so that other employees feel comfortable approaching them and welcoming them. These are the types of things that make people want to come to work in the morning and stay for a long time.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? Can you give some examples of what this looks like?

Yes, this is very important. Each year, I do research on the latest trends in the industry, looking for the next big changes in HR and how that will affect our organization.

A few years ago, performance reviews became a hot topic amongst HR circles. Companies started doing away with once a year performance reviews. We were actually ahead of the curve on this because we put such an emphasis on keeping up with the latest trends. We knew that our employees didn’t get any value out of our existing performance review process, and it was a huge investment without much payback.

So, we put a more continuous feedback model in place. We coined the program DNA Performance. The model incorporates more alignment between employees and leadership, and an emphasis on where employees need to develop to continue to reach their goals. Continuous two-way feedback is a big part of the program, and we’ve seen a lot of success with it so far.

Staying on top of the latest trends helps HR leaders understand what will affect the organization as a whole and how you should evolve your current processes to keep up and stay effective.

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

There are a lot of great ways to provide employee recognition without breaking the bank. One of my favorite programs we’ve implemented at Assurance is Power of Love Cards. All our offices are supplied with custom Assurance stationary so our employees can send handwritten cards to each other and to their clients, prospects, friends and family. The cards are planted in common areas across the office so they’re really easy to access and use. There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned handwritten thank you card.

Another easy, cost-effective thing organizations can do is public displays of congratulations. At Assurance, we have a dedicated congrats announcements section on our company intranet that houses photos and details of employees’ latest successes, from engagements to weddings, babies, educational achievements and beyond. We also spread the news via our office-wide LCD screens, which continuously scroll congrats details and photos for all to see.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Years ago I was getting an MBA in finance and operations, and I needed to re-learn math from the beginning to be successful in the classes. So I went to Kahn academy online and tutored myself. Kahn Academy is a non-profit educational organization that provides short lessons in the form of videos for a variety of subjects. It was started by Sal Kahn when his cousin was in college and struggling in math — he created YouTube videos to tutor her and they quickly went viral.

So, when I translate that into what movement I would want to inspire…it would be to make job skill training just as accessible as Kahn Academy was to me in math. It would be so great if we could have accessible training for people to learn new skills that will be needed 10–20 years down the road. If job skill training were made accessible to the people who wanted it, we would solve the skill gap caused by technology evolutions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” -Wayne Dyer

At some point in my life I stopped seeing challenges or mistakes as failures, but instead as opportunities. It freed up so much mental energy and allowed me to focus on solutions or improvements. I decided to look backwards only long enough to know what not to do and look forward with a solutions-based mindset.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

It would be Condoleeza Rice. I admire what she has accomplished in life and that she had a powerful position in the leadership of our country. Throughout my career, I’ve felt as though there weren’t a lot of female role models in positions of leadership or influence that I could look up to. I think Rice is a great role model who is smart, determined and able to be in a great position of influence in our country. I’m an ambitious person and I want to make a difference. Since I have similar ambitions in helping a business be successful, I would love to be able to learn from her and make a similar impact on a company I work for.

A few years ago I was able to see Condoleeza speak at a human resources convention and it was just as inspirational as I had hoped.

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

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