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Leading through adversity, MBA Thought Leadership with Glenn Renwick

30 April 2021

In times of uncertainty, seeking insight from people with experience leading businesses through change is critical.


Glen Renwick

In the first event in the MBA Thought Leadership series for 2021 held on 27 April, a large group of industry leaders and alumni were privileged to hear from University of Canterbury alumnus and UC Business School Adjunt Fellow, Glenn Renwick.

Glenn’s impressive career included 32 years with American insurance giant Progressive (16 years as CEO), building it from a US$20 billion revenue insurer to a business that is now approaching US$40 billion in revenue. He is also on the board of the world’s largest health insurer, United Health.

Glenn shared anecdotes of his experience leading people and business through the global financial crisis and Hurricane Katrina, and reflected on some of the decisions that went well and some that did not.

For Glenn, the most critical thing for any business, whether facing adversity or not, is knowing what business you’re in. 

“Know your key competencies and focus your business model,” he said.

For Progressive, a car insurance company, this meant focusing on highly reproducible events, with low severity. Glenn described Progressive as a “statistics factory”.

Something Glenn says is essential for leaders, and he admits he “didn’t do a great job of at the beginning” is communicating all the time.

“Forget fake news. If you don’t [communicate] people will fill the voids. You’ll find yourself asking ‘how did you come up with that conclusion’ to be told ‘well you didn’t tell me differently.”

The approach Glenn has adopted is an agreement with the people he leads that “you can ask me any questions so long as you accept ‘I don’t know’ as the answer.”

But when it comes to times of adversity, Glenn says it is essential to know who the decision maker is and then be prepared to be a good second if that decision is not yours.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Glenn made a bold and risky decision. Progressive would pay out all claims and crush every car they collected rather than risk a potentially substandard vehicle returning to the road to face problems or potential accidents in the future. It was a decision that resulted in Progressive’s market growing faster post-Katrina than at any other time and resulted in people wanting to work for the business.

He adds, “Leaders must have the personal integrity to call it when it goes sideways.”

As businesses continue to manage the post-COVID environment, these lessons provide valuable food for thought.

To keep up to date on future MBA Thought Leadership events, connect to the UC Business School on LinkedIn and share your ideas for future topics.

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