The Leadership Lattice presents: Ken Ross, President and CEO of Pinnacol Assurance in Denver Colorado.

The Leadership Lattice– an interview series conducted by Ann Spoor, CEO of Executive Lattice. These interviews are designed to cultivate conversation about building strong leadership in the public and private sector.  You can view the video of this interview by going to YouTube and searching “Leadership Lattice”   Please subscribe.

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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Graduated Magna cum Latte

Your LinkedIn brand represents a significant part your professional brand. What do you want the world to know about you?  What do you represent?

My friend David sent me a profile that had this – “Graduated Magna cum Latte” under Education.  We were both in total disbelief.  We laughed and wondered if this person had graduated from the University of Starbucks.  So I did a search on LinkedIn for the exact phrase and found several other profiles with the same representation.  Seriously, could someone have graduated magna cum laude and never learned how to spell?

Are these people embellishing their profile?  Probably.
Are they also embellishing their resume? Again, probably.

Another friend of mine says “how you do something is how you do everything.”  In other words, if you cheat on one aspect of your life, you are a cheater in other aspects too.

Several years ago, when I worked for a Fortune 500 company, I found with unfortunate frequency that people lied about having a Masters Degree.  The jobs I was recruiting for at the time didn’t require a Masters.  The candidates I was trying to hire would have gotten the job anyway.  When we found out by a simple background check that the candidate had lied, we rescinded the offer.  A lie is a lie.

If you graduated magna cum latte, there are only 3 possibilties-

  1. You’re lying
  2. You’re not the brightest bulb in the pack
  3. Both

Branding 101


                    BAR       OPEN


I point out what the sign says because it isn’t easy to read, not only in the picture, but imagine yourself driving by this historic hotel in the mountains of Colorado.  Would you even notice that they had were serving food?

Even for the locals or occasional locals (we have a cabin not too far and are always looking for a place to eat in town), the hotel has been closed for a couple of years at least.  The new owners renovated and re-opened around Memorial Day but the restaurant has remained closed over the summer – what would have been their busy season. 

As we drove by this weekend, our last weekend for the season (we close our cabin in the winter, no water, no heat) we did a double take.  We had to stop and snap this photo. 

Either they didn’t want anyone to really notice that they were now serving food or the marketing and advertising was an afterthought!  Obviously the BAR being OPEN was a priority.  But the FOOD was not. Now I haven’t gone into the Bar in the evenings so it could be a happening scene, but when I went in to ask about the FOOD, it was dead in there, at lunchtime.  This is a tough town to make money and make a small business into a success but come on- at least try! 

If you are going to pour money into launching a brand, how are you going to promote your brand?  If you aren’t an expert, there are lots of people out there anxious to help.  A permanent marker in your teenagers hand, probably isn’t the best tactic!

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