“Fight or flight.” Those are two actions that may come to mind when we face a tough or an unjust situation that makes us want to either pounce back or shrink in our seat.
I recently had the pleasure to chat with Tricia Griffith, President and CEO of Progressive Insurance, who has built an incredible career since joining that bold, U.S. home and auto insurer as a 22-year-old claims trainee.
Having experienced many of the career challenges faced by women professionals – from nagging self-doubt to biting micro-aggressions – Tricia continuously chose to “fix,” rather than “fight or flee.” Today, she helps other women ‘self-talk’ themselves onto successful paths, while she intentionally builds an organization where diversity, equity and inclusion are fundamental.
Self-talk to silence self-doubts
You would never guess that Tricia doubted herself over her three-decade career, since she has a warm but assured manner of someone who could stride into any boardroom, roll up her sleeves to lead a brainstorm session, or cheer loudly at a U.S. college football game. In fact, she seems unstoppable when you hear about her career ascent – having accepted a short-term stint at the insurer to pay off some student debts, she discovered her “passion for the business, especially claims, which is at the heart of customer trust and our company’s brand.”
However, Tricia is quick to admit that, “There were many times when I struggled to be the best version of myself, and doubted my own abilities, and I would think, ‘She’s smarter than me,’ or ‘He’s more creative than me,’ rather than feeling confident in what I could bring to the table. Once I even apologized to other candidates when I was selected over them for a promotion.”
Tricia recalls that this even occurred at the executive level when her peers urged her to apply for the role of Chief Human Resources Officer. “Many people called me to say ‘You’ve gotta’ apply,’ but I thought it was presumptuous to seek that role with no HR background,” says Tricia. She was later chosen for the job, after someone convinced her to at least discuss the job over lunch with the CEO.
“What I learned was, ‘Shame on me for not seeing myself as others saw me,’” observes Tricia. Today, she mentors other women, by referencing a quotation from President “Teddy” Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Tricia describes how, some years ago, before an important meeting, a trusted colleague advised her, “Before you walk into the boardroom, give yourself a little self-talk and when you touch that door handle, transform yourself into that confident person who knows she’s smart and has an incredible strategy to share.’ Today I still do a lot of self-talk. I know my strengths and what I do well, but sometimes you can forget them, so I do that when I touch a door handle and enter a challenging situation.”
Advocate for yourself and others
Looking back, Tricia explains that her unexpected appointment to that HR role was a defining moment: “It taught me that, as a leader, we have to be advocates for others, including women who might not have the confidence to seek a role.” Taking the lesson to heart, Tricia began reshaping Progressive’s human resources function to embrace diversity and inclusion in earnest, incorporate metrics to help measure employee engagement, and create new programs, including employee research groups to support under-represented populations.
But Tricia’s realization that she could fix things – rather than getting furious or fume silently – came earlier, at another difficult career moment. She describes how, as a mother of six children, she often felt the need to conceal the parenting side of her life from her colleagues and clients: “I didn’t want to be perceived as a mother, but rather as a smart young woman building her way through the enterprise. That was the wrong approach for me, because that ‘mom piece’ is an important part of who I am.”
This realization came when a previous manager suggested that she and her co-workers attend an offsite meeting on October 31, Halloween in North America. Recounts Tricia: “Any mom knows that Halloween is so important to their kids. My heart was pounding, since I wanted to say something and suggest another date for the meeting.”
When Tricia did speak up about her personal commitment, her manager retorted, ‘Are you kidding me?’ making Tricia feel embarrassed and devalued. “That was the moment when I said to myself ‘I will never feel this way again,’ and ‘I will never let anyone who works for me feel this way either.’ I’ve got to start changing things and sticking up for myself.”
A long road to inclusive cultures
While Tricia deserves praise for transforming herself and constructing a more diverse and inclusive workplace at Progressive, she points out that it takes a great deal of time: “You really have to invest in programs to lift people up, to give them confidence, and help them be seen. I’m proud of where we are going, but we are not there yet.”
She notes how leaders must be very intentional: “A few years ago, I knew that a senior executive planned to retire, so we thought a lot about how we could change the dynamics of that team, not only by recruiting diverse internal and external candidates for that role, but also by strategizing ways to give other up-and-coming leaders the time and opportunity to prove how good they are. You can’t just suddenly manufacture senior level leadership, so you need to work at every level.”
This hard work has paid off, since today Progressive has six women on its 12-member board, which includes two African American directors. “I believe we are the only Fortune 500 company with a female CEO and Chair, and I can tell you that the conversations we have are categorically different and better than they were six years ago, because we have that diversity.”
Tricia also shows how this effort isn’t just chessboard strategy, but also constant interaction with Progressive employees, where she spends an estimated 20 percent of her day focused on people leadership, from mentoring staff, to hosting candid team talks. “It makes a real difference when women hear my story and they realize how others overcame obstacles. It’s my job to ensure that everyone can be successful, and I believe it really makes a difference for the company, and our individual and combined success.”
Those are inspiring words to think about, if you ever find yourself in a ‘fight, flight or fix it’ scenario.
More about Tricia Griffith: In 2016, Tricia was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer, and elected to the Board of Directors, of Progressive, a major U.S. personal and commercial provider of home and car insurance, well-known for its ubiquitous and enthusiastic black-haired spokeswoman ‘Flo’. Prior to being named CEO, as part of Tricia’s 30-plus years with the firm, she served as Personal Lines Chief Operating Officer since April, 2015, overseeing the company’s personal lines, claims, and customer relationship management groups. Tricia joined Progressive as a Claims Representative in 1988 and has served in many key leadership positions during her tenure, including Chief Human Resources Officer, Personal Lines Chief Operating Officer and President of Customer Operations. In 2021, Tricia was named among Fortune’s Most Powerful Women. Tricia has a bachelor's degree from Illinois State University and is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business’ Advanced Management Program.