Flexibility is the key to stability — John Wooden

As an underwriting leader I’ve worked with many talented underwriters. Some of these stood apart as champion problem solvers that routinely wrote more profitable business than their peers.

This made me wonder about their common characteristics. After reading thousands of comments from independent agents, the key characteristics become much clearer.

This quote from an agent makes the whole process sound so simple:

Come up with a solution for both client and agency

However, effective problem-solving is not simple or even natural for everyone. It stems from three key characteristics — and a multitude of behaviors that ultimately produce those characteristics.


Companies and Underwriters that are good problem solvers typically demonstrate the following three characteristics, with their related behaviors:

Problem Solver CharacteristicsLevel One: Competence

Competence is the foundation of effective problem solving. Champion problem solvers have a profound knowledge of their product and how to assess & price for the risk exposures inherent in the types of business they want to write.

Their analysis results in decisions that are fair and consistent. Because of this, the agents who work with them can reasonably anticipate how they will respond.

This representative quote from an agent illustrates behaviors that make underwriters seem particularly competent:

Our underwriter understands if a call is necessary and is willing to work with me to make the account work.

Champion problem solvers realize that they operate in an ever changing and risky environment. As lifelong learners they continuously update their knowledge. Their willingness to learn new things allows them to listen to new ideas, ask questions, and challenge long held beliefs.

Other behaviors such as tenacity and critical thinking then orient them to find winning solutions.

While an average underwriter knows the rules and follows them, a champion problem solver also knows why the rules exist. Understanding the intent of each rule allows them more flexibility in their analysis and helps them make more effective decisions.

In short, their deep knowledge and understanding of the “why” helps them correctly justify expanding the boundaries of what is considered good decision making.  This allows them to be more flexible, develop stronger relationships with their agents, and grow a profitable book of business.

Level Two: Accountability

With competence comes confidence in one’s decisions.  Champion problem solvers are comfortable taking ownership of their timely and responsible decisions. They hold themselves accountable.

Their competence also inspires confidence in others. Their company and agents empower and support them. This trust reinforces a champion problem solver’s desire to take action and get the job done for their company, for the agents, and for the policyholders.

Here is a representative quote from an agent:

Usually, our underwriting team works to meet our needs, appreciate that rather than just saying… we can’t do that. 

Accountability is one of those words that can remind us of those talks we had with our parents when we were kids. As a child, I didn’t enjoy being “held accountable.” Many people equate the word with punishment for wrong-doing. Therefore, they avoid situations that will make them “accountable.”

However, the reality is that to be a champion problem solver, you must embrace accountability. Let me share an example.

My dad worked for a person who was an exceptionally talented problem solver. He successfully built an insurance company and sold it. He then developed another company and passed it on to his family. In the process he became very wealthy. In awe, I once told Dad that his boss seemed to never make mistakes. Dad told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “He makes mistakes all the time. He just doesn’t live with them very long.”

This is what I mean by accountability in the context of a champion problem solver. They don’t evade making decisions by blaming others or make excuses. Their decisions are carefully reasoned in a way they can justify.  When some of these decisions don’t work out, they recognize it and fix it.

He makes mistakes all the time.
He just doesn’t live with them very long.

Level Three: Creativity

Insurance companies and underwriters make decisions in a world that is uncertain and ever changing.

Champion Problem Solvers are curious and clever. Their competence makes them aware of changing conditions, and they have experience assessing their options. Their accountability enables them to accept their situation and the need to adapt.

At this point our third key characteristic comes into play. Their imagination leads them to creative new solutions.

The following quote is one we see commonly regarding creativity:

They are also willing to hear an explanation or take things into consideration without just an upfront “no” response.  They think outside the box.

Competence enables champion problem solvers to push the rules and expand the boundaries of what is a good decision. Add creativity, and they can push the boundaries into entirely new, profitable territory.

Curiosity leads to the creative process of questioning why things are done the way they are and how we can do better. Creative problem solvers eagerly consider and analyze new ideas. Their drive to improve and willingness to be held accountable encourages them to turn these ideas into new actions.

Key Takeaway

Champion Problem Solvers tend to be competent, accountable, and creative.

Champion Problem Solvers help property & casualty insurers build their business with “Profitable Flexibility.”

P&C carrier management can nurture competence, accountability, and creativity among their underwriters. We will discuss how in a future post.