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How to Create a Fantastic Work Culture: “People need to be motivated by the broader mission of the organization,” With Michael Z. Stahl

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Z. Stahl, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of HealthMarkets. Stahl holds the chartered property casualty underwriter (CPCU), associate in insurance accounting and finance (AIAF) and associate in reinsurance (ARE) designations, […]


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Z. Stahl, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of HealthMarkets. Stahl holds the chartered property casualty underwriter (CPCU), associate in insurance accounting and finance (AIAF) and associate in reinsurance (ARE) designations, and earned a bachelor of science in economics from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stahl resides in Dallas with his wife and four children.


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

Icame into the insurance industry after being recruited to The St. Paul Companies by a fellow Wharton alumni and childhood friend who worked there and loved it. I later got connected with Kemper after a former COO (Jim Schulte) at The St. Paul Companies went there and met with me and convinced me to make the move. That move involved a relocation to Jacksonville where I ran a region, and Jim was a terrific mentor to me. He tapped me to build and lead the full development of their homeowners business from scratch, and it was an incredible learning and growth opportunity. Several years later, the opportunity to join HealthMarkets came about and I was extremely interested. I joined the company just before the ACA was being implemented, which provided unbelievable growth opportunity.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think one of the most interesting and professionally stimulating opportunities I’ve had at HealthMarkets is rebuilding the marketing department. My team and I have built out amazing and interesting technological and marketing processes, and the journey has been rewarding. Sometimes ideas don’t work — so we learn from them. That keeps the entire journey and story more interesting.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the greatest things about my job is that my team and I are always working on exciting projects. Just the other day, I was speaking with a member of my data science team about building a more dynamic model using machine learning to acquire business leads, and the notion that we can be a part of those initial conversations all the way through implementation is always exciting.

What I love about my team is that we aren’t “order takers,” but rather innovators. We aren’t waiting for others to tell us what they want — we are the innovative and driving force behind moving the business forward.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I imagine that number is high because those individuals aren’t motivated by the work they do, and perhaps they aren’t supported in their journey to find success. Personally, I don’t experience it, but I can only imagine that not having support and motivation would make one unhappy in his/her role.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

If you have a workforce that is not motivated to make the effort to go from “good” to awesome, then it will undoubtedly impact productivity, profitability and overall health and well-being of the workforce. People need to be motivated by the broader mission of the organization, and leaders have to ensure they continually provide and stimulate that motivation.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

I think engaged leadership is extremely important. I have found that too often, executives may be good on “their floor” with other executives, but are less present and engaged with the individuals and teams involved in the nitty gritty work. I think it is important for people to feel like you are beside them and not “over them.”

Along those same lines, I think it is incredibly important to embrace diversity, whether it be age, gender, race, beliefs, etc. I truly believe the varying perspectives of my colleagues — whatever their background is — is what makes our team and company great, and what helps us serve our customers who are also of all different ages and backgrounds.

Managers and executives should have respect and appreciation for their employees. Treat them well, help them succeed — it seems simple, but I suppose not enough people are doing that if employee morale numbers are low.

I’ve also always believed in doing the right thing. It’s something that was instilled in me at a very young age thanks to my maternal grandfather, who was a small business owner and took the time to talk to me about his work and how to manage others. He always emphasized the importance of doing the right thing for your business, your employees and your customers — and thanks to him, so do I.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

As a society, I think we need to be more engaged with one another and show more respect and appreciation for one another. Everyone wants to feel appreciated at some level, and I believe that doing interesting things as a team, showing interest in one another, wanting to succeed together — those kinds of cultural benefits within the workplace will naturally result in more engaged, happy employees and more success for all involved.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I believe I am an engaged, entrepreneurial and innovative leader. I have no problem getting into the weeds to get the work done. I am fortunate to work with a tight-knit team and we celebrate our wins, and we learn from our mistakes. I am not the kind of leader who yells at someone if they make a mistake. I believe in the “Edison process,” whereby we might try one hundred things and see if just one will work.

I am not one who worries about what I’m going to do next and be overly ambitious for ambition’s sake — I just want to go in everyday and provide value, work with people I like and do good work — then good things will happen to me and the people around me.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My maternal grandfather was a major part of my first ten years of life. As I mentioned previously, he was a small business owner who worked hard and took the time to talk to me about his work and business at large. I used to sit on his knee and watch old financial news networks and talk business with him — as a little kid! He instilled a keen interest in the world of finance and business that has been with me ever since.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m fortunate to work for a company that helps people protect their health and financial well-being. We’ve enrolled Americans in more than four million insurance policies since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) began. That alone, I believe, helps bring goodness to the world.

On perhaps a more granular level, I am a proud co-founder and supporter of HealthMarkets’ #OurCare campaign, whereby we provide a tool for consumers to “BYOB” — Build Your Own Bill — related to healthcare. It allows consumers to have a say in what they believe should be a part of healthcare legislation and share that bill with their own social networks, send it to legislators — or even tweet it to the President.

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

I would have to go with the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have done unto you. Do the right thing. As I’ve mentioned, it was a concept instilled in my psyche at a young age and one that I believe in and abide by today and every day.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

From an environmental standpoint, I would love to help figure out how to better sustain ourselves as a society. And if I could support a movement to make workplace culture better everywhere, I absolutely would.

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