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Posted: August 03, 2011

Leadership Lattice: Ken Ross

A conversation about building business strength from the top down

Ann Spoor

The Leadership Lattice, an interview series designed to cultivate conversation on building strong leadership in the public and private sector, presents: Ken Ross, President and CEO of Pinnacol Assurance in Denver Colorado. You can view the video of this interview by going to YouTube and searching "Leadership Lattice"

What is your approach to leadership and does your approach vary because Pinnacol is a quasi- governmental organization?

There is no quick answer to this question. It's an approach that has evolved over time and through experience. I have an open style and welcome ideas from all of our employees. I may not always agree but I will always listen and receive you. I believe in staying close to my employees and am honest with them regardless of whether it's good or bad news. Employees want to know where they stand. CEO's have to be open to learning and evolving. I have always been open to learning. As a quasi-governmental company, my style doesn't change, the same skills apply. The biggest difference is that we have additional stakeholders in terms of the Governor and the Legislature.

How do you create culture?

It's common to hear a company say that they have a ‘strong culture.' What does that really mean? Culture evolves over time. Our culture encompasses a number of things- we have a strong business culture of providing the best service in the industry. We also believe that our employees are our strongest assets. We are a service oriented business; serving policyholders and our staff embraces this service orientation. We hold everyone to the same standards at all levels. Our culture and values are the subject of constant conversation. You can't be complacent as a company. I set the tone but it's not just me that determines our culture, it's all 600 employees that create the culture together.

How has Pinnacol weathered the storm of the recent recession?

We are very directly affected by the state of the economy. Our revenue is directly tied to payroll. Our bread and butter customer is the small to middle market company. We weathered the recession well because of the financial strength we have built up over the past several years and so were able to reduce our rates and return dividends to our policyholders to help to ease their burden. Colorado in particular was slow to go into the recession and is still slow to come out. We don't have the big companies that can be the big hiring machines as is the case in some other states. The signs are positive though but we are not there yet.

What have been some important leadership lessons?

Early in my legal career in New York, I was working in the prison system. I received a call from a very angry sergeant- he yelled and screamed at me, very colorfully. I never forgot this. The lesson I learned was if you treat people with respect, you get a better result. If you just sit down with people and have a calm discussion, even if you disagree, you are more likely to get something done. The CEO is in the spotlight, you set the tone, and your employees take their cues from you on how they should act. You always have to keep your cool even in the most difficult situations to get to the proper solution.

Did you have a mentor that had a big impact?

My Dad was my most important mentor. He was a self-made man. He put himself through college and law school and ultimately became a judge and leader in New York. I don't profess to be my Dad, he was a ‘take no prisoners' type of guy but he was well respected. From an early age, I learned many valuable lessons on how to deal with people, how to support your people but also to motivate them. He had a very strong work ethic. He was the most influential person in my early career as a lawyer and also now as a business leader.

How do you hire?

We hire first for culture. You have to fit into the team. You may have the best skills but if you don't fit the culture, it won't work. I am only involved in hiring my direct report team so I don't interview candidates very often. When I do, I focus on behavioral interviewing. I want to know how this candidate will react in a certain situation. Past behavior is a great barometer for future behavior. In addition, we hire very strategically. Everyone has to make a business case to fill an open position. Just because we have an open position, doesn't mean we'll fill it. We have a very high retention rate. Getting the right people on board is the most important decision we make. We like to see people move up the ranks and we promote from within. Our HR team does a great job. We are working on an overhaul of our leadership development program now. We try to identify our future leaders and what skills they need to develop their career. We also continue to work on succession planning at all levels. We are always fine tuning and improving in these areas.

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Ann Spoor is the Jerry McGuire to Corporate Executives and Professionals. She is the founder and CEO of Executive Lattice www.executivelattice.com Ann is an Executive Talent Agent, Executive Coach, Career Manager, Executive Branding Expert, and Social Media Coach. She lives in Denver with her husband Mark and their two kids.

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