A Real Case Study on Culture Transformation

Beyond Business-as-Usual


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Beyond Business-as-Usual

by Michael J. Krahe, Ph.D.

Our company’s culture transformation started back in August 2004. The Erie Insurance executive and senior leadership groups invited Dr. Kevin Freiberg and Dr. Jackie Freiberg to share their “Blow the Doors Off Business-As-Usual” message at our leadership retreat.

The day started out pretty uneasily for everyone. You know the drill, you get pulled away from the day-to-day details and encouraged to come together at an off-site location to “get perspective,” to focus on the future, to stretch, grow and yes, to change. The tension at breakfast was as thick as the pancake syrup. Heck, we were about to embark upon a journey that didn’t have a roadmap. “Where can such a risk lead?” we all wondered. But once the two change-gurus shared their message and passion with us, they ignited hope and passion in all of us. The Freibergs inspired and equipped us with stories, insights and tools for blowing the doors off the insurance business-as-usual. Our courage grew as they reminded us of the gifts and talents we all bring to the table. They cautioned us about the resources we needed and the challenges we’d be up against in charting a new course for the future of Erie. Kevin and Jackie provided the necessary fuel to ignite our transformation. Let me tell you the whole story.


Erie Insurance has always prided itself on the strength of its culture: To Be Above All in SERVICE. Our cultural core values came from founder H.O. Hirt’s founding principle: “To provide our policyholders with as near perfect protection, as near perfect service as is humanly possible—and to do so at the lowest possible cost.” But, over time, we came to realize that some aspects of our culture were actually holding us back from moving forward into the future. We could certainly be above all in service. The roadblock for us was trying to be all things to all people at all times. This caused us to be unfocused and inefficient at innovation and execution. The very culture we wanted to preserve was faltering under this lack of direction.

Enter Freibergs

Our Senior VP of Human Resources had just finished reading the Freibergs’ book, GUTS! The message impacted her thinking and generated ideas about our culture and the possibilities. GUTS! was then shared with our CEO and all senior and executive leadership teams. With our CEO leading the way, the Freibergs were invited to share their message with us.

That initial message and its ensuing conversation were the tipping points for our organization. Kevin and Jackie’s words about having the courage to take risks and about the power of culture in organizations resonated deeply with everyone. Our CEO said, “This is a message that is not only powerful but one that will disturb our thinking.” The Freibergs set us in motion and helped us begin to see the possibilities of what we could become. Their message propelled us toward a new level of performance, focus, and execution—adding new capabilities while keeping all the good of Erie Insurance. The Freibergs lit the fuse!


Much work needed to be completed to make our transformation a reality. We started identifying our strengths and weaknesses as a company. We began developing deeper strategic capabilities in the organization and exploring the external world to better understand the myriad forces that would affect us.

We crafted a strategic plan targeting 2012 and populated it with projects that would best ensure our success in attaining our objectives. At the same time, we jettisoned those things that added little or no value. But learning to think and behave differently compared to our traditional paradigms was the constant challenge that needed to be managed. And it was, carefully.

Business-as-Unusual—the Strategy Management Office

To help us continue to manage our strategic direction it became apparent that we needed to develop additional capability. So, we created a Strategy Management Office. The purpose was to create a strategy-focused organization. Our goal was for the strategy work to serve the purposes of the entire enterprise. Therefore, the Strategy Management Office reports to an executive who is neither in the business nor the finance domain.

The Office’s primary responsibility is the refinement and management of our strategic plan, ensuring continued clarity of our planning process. The office does not set strategy; rather, it acts as a facilitator for the business which continues to formulate its strategic direction. The Strategy Management Office responsibilities include:

  • Helping the business discriminate between which projects would bring value and which would not.
  • Examining and developing specific objectives to strengthen the organization’s capabilities. This includes developing more streamlined annual budgeting processes, metrics, alignment of reward systems, customer understanding, etc.
  • Creating calendars and timelines to coordinate all enterprise business and support operations.
  • Organizing meetings and preparing materials to facilitate appropriate discussions.
  • Assisting the organization and its leadership team in clarifying and modifying the roles and responsibilities for the executive and senior leadership teams—focusing more of their time in the strategic realm vs. the operational realm.
  • Developing strategic information for the executive officers by helping them understand the key issues affecting our industry from an industry and external-world perspective.

Our Present and Future Priorities

  • To educate our senior and executive leadership teams on what strategic thinking means.
  • To explore the future and how it will impact us.
  • To tighten alignment, strengthen measurement, infuse innovation into our culture and engage our employees.
  • To rely heavily on our communications team to disseminate our organization’s strategy and on our supervisory personnel to explain how every individual fits into the plan.

Our Thanks

If not for the inspiration and expertise of Jackie and Kevin in getting us to move away from “business-as-usual,” Erie Insurance would never have taken the leap to thrive and win in a chaotic future world. Their words inspired us to be brave and take our organization to its next level of performance, execution and capability.

The End of the Story?

In some respects, ours is a story that has no end because change is constant and so the story continues to broaden and deepen. Erie Insurance is “embracing change courageously.”

A Postscript

I encourage you to contact the Freibergs to help your company kick-start a culture transformation.

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