Rusty Reid: If you want people to scale the heights remember to lower the ladder

Rusty Reid

Sure, on a basic level, all businesses are about dollars and cents. But here’s a little something I encourage my fellow business owners in Texas to consider: When you get the people part of your business right, the economics will take care of themselves.

It’s a lesson we all learned here in our backyard from the late Herb Kelleher. He understood that, while workers care about getting a fair wage, they care about a company’s purpose as well. By building an incredible corporate culture and showing that he valued his employees, Kelleher grew Southwest Airlines into a national powerhouse.

Today, every business owner in the metroplex has the potential to build a Southwest-style culture that attracts and retains the best people. The secret: remembering to lower the ladder so people can scale their careers to new heights. Three ways to do so:

1. Show employees how to ‘walk the walk.’

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I’m a big fan of not just talking the talk but walking the walk. That’s why I believe that mentorship is a critical element of a winning organizational culture.

I saw the impact of mentorship firsthand. My dad passed away seven days after I graduated from Hillcrest High School, so having a male figure in my life who I could look up to was essential. I was fortunate that two of my mentors – Terrell King and Randy Minnis who were the principals at the first insurance agency where I began my career – took me under their wings. They taught me about insurance and showed me the importance of dressing appropriately, treating clients with respect, and showing up properly to work.

Today, I pay their generosity forward by hardwiring mentorship into our corporate culture at Higginbotham. We assign mentors to between 60 to 100 new brokers annually through our Higginbotham University (HiggU) program. Those mentors show our newbies how to “walk the walk.” This enhances our organization’s culture on two levels. First, it enables us to recruit talent from different industries and show them how to succeed in insurance. Secondly, it enhances employee retention. Three-quarters of our HiggU participants stay with our firm for five years or more.

2. Give employees a ‘slice of the watermelon.’

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Years ago, I read an article that posed a fascinating question: Would you rather own 100% of a grape or a slice of a watermelon? While owning the entire grape might be enticing, you get much more food when you own a slice of the watermelon, right?

This tiny tale gets to the heart of the employee ownership plan at Higginbotham. I implemented it shortly after becoming CEO in 1989, and it was rooted in my experience as a trainee at American General years earlier. There, I saw rockstar salespeople pack their bags and head to a competitor because they lacked an opportunity to obtain an equity stake in the company. They wanted to own a slice of the watermelon.

At Higginbotham, the employee ownership plan gives our people that option. It empowers us to reward the people who drive our culture and our business forward every day. It also helps us build loyalty. Our voluntary and involuntary turnover rate is just 7%, and our broker turnover rate is even lower.

3. Help employees give back.

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Early in my career, David Minor, the CEO of one of my largest accounts, recruited me to follow his personal passion: raising money for people impacted by multiple sclerosis. Because he left the ladder down for me, it allowed me to support an amazing cause. It also helped me enhance my leadership skills and build credibility among my peers, which is important when you’re a young man just starting out.

Today, we give our employees at Higginbotham the same chance to grow and support others, and they answer the call in amazing ways. Last year, during our 75th anniversary, more than 600 of our people donated their time and talent to 9 local causes during our Higginbotham Volunteer Extravaganza. Additionally, our Higginbotham Community Fund that is made possible by our employees’ donations has granted nearly $10 million, supporting charities they care about the most.

Others in our industry are taking notice. Recently, I had the honor of accepting the 2024 Southeast Philanthropic Leadership Award from the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF) at the annual IICF Southeast Gala, where they raised more than $1 million for charity. Many of the causes we support are also enhanced by the IICF, which unites our industry’s strength to help enrich communities and change lives. This award isn’t about me. It’s about each of Higginbotham’s 3,000+ employees and their unwavering commitment to helping others.

It’s all about what you stand for.

Today, employees want to join companies that reflect their personal values. When companies in Texas commit themselves to putting people first and leaving the ladder down, they’ll empower people to achieve personal growth and strengthen our communities.

About the author
Rusty Reid is Chairman and CEO of Fort Worth-based Higginbotham, the nation’s 21st largest independent insurance firm with offices coast to coast. Reid is also an avid philanthropist, a member of the National MS Society Fundraising Hall of Fame and a strong supporter of the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation.