Apple Podcasts Spotify Google Podcasts

Servant Leadership

Season 1 Episode 8

Servant Leadership with Jim Ballew

Season 1 Episode 8


[00:00:00] Intro/Outro: Welcome to the Insurance Leadership Podcast. The podcast designed to bring new perspectives and principles from leaders in the life and health insurance industry. We trust you will enjoy today's episode.

[00:00:25] Ryan: Welcome to another episode of the insurance leadership podcast. I'm Ryan Eaton, your host for today and honored to have you listening in. If this is your first time listening in, let me provide you with an overview of what we do. Our goal is to provide you with quality leadership and business advice from leaders in the life and health insurance industry.

[00:00:42] We release a new episode the first Thursday of every month, and also publish a leader's guide each month that we post on our website at If you listen to this with a team or reviewing on a monthly basis, this guide will help you follow along. It's also great to be able to help if you have an issue that you may want to address with your team or something you really feel like you need to drive home to have someone else saying, instead of yourself. We've had several listeners kind of send emails and make comments in that has been a real benefit to them.

[00:01:11] So I hope it helps you the same way. If this podcast is a help to you or your team, we would greatly appreciate if you would write a review on it, rate it on whatever platform you are listening in on. So with that being said, let's go ahead and dive into our content for today. We all know that great culture does not just happen.

[00:01:28] It requires intentionality. It requires leadership, sharing their beliefs, their values, their vision, and communicating this throughout the organization. The by-product is that it ultimately shapes employees perceptions and behavior. So today we want to spend some time talking about servant leadership and how to build a positive culture. 

[00:01:46] With us today, we have Jim Ballew. Jim is a wonderful friend and I'm so glad we get to have him on the podcast. Just to give you a little overview: Jim got a bachelor's degree in finance at Kent state university. He got his feet wet in the insurance industry by getting started in the underwriting and claims arena. From there, he worked his way up to the vice president position at several insurance companies and TPA's before starting his own company. 

[00:02:12] Jim and several friends started a TPA called covenant administrators back in 1992, Jim later became sole owner of the organization. And then after that, he ended up selling his organization to blue cross blue shield of Alabama who he still works with today. He is currently the president of 90 degree benefits, which is a group of TPAs working to provide self-funded benefit plans, healthcare risk management, and fully insured gap plans.

[00:02:39] Jim is a family man, still married to his wife. He's blessed with kids and grandkids, some of which visited him just a few weeks ago, so I know Jim is still on cloud nine. Jim, welcome to the podcast. 

[00:02:51] Jim: Ryan. Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here. 

[00:02:54] Ryan: Well, we're honored to have you, before we get started today, I would like you to maybe give a little bit of an overview about your office. Maybe how many people you have on your team, the tenure that they've been with you, just kind of give our audience a little overview. 

[00:03:09] Jim: Certainly. As you alluded to earlier, we're right at our 30th anniversary. And we have grown to about 35 employees overall, primarily based here in the Atlanta metropolitan area and uniquely we have had, or tried to promote, the type of culture that folks would want to stay and be a part of for the long term.

[00:03:35] And consequently, we have folks that are celebrating their 24th and 25th anniversaries. And we couldn't be more happy with that kind of seniority and skillset our team. So we're very pleased with our overall team and all of that. 

[00:03:53] Ryan: For those listening in, I was at Jim's office probably three or four months ago. And I can tell you that just the culture there, the energy in the rooms, the people there just, he has a wonderful team. And I know it's a lot to do with Jim's leadership there. So, man, yeah, well look, kind of before we jump into the servant leadership, why don't you tell everybody for the people who may not exactly know what servant leadership is, or haven't heard that term used before.

[00:04:19] Why don't you kind of put it in your own words to kind of get us started? 

[00:04:23] Jim: So much over the years has been written about this subject. And I think without trying to complicate it too much. In the simplest form, I think it's serving others before you serve yourself. And it's kind of a unique topic when you're talking about senior leadership serving other people. 

[00:04:44] Not a system of, or process of manipulating people to do what you want them to do, but actually showing a genuine desire, I think, for what is best for that person. And ultimately by doing what's best for that individual what's best for the company. And I think historically this is a concept that goes way back.

[00:05:10] But historically most senior executives and leadership have been in the mindset of a command and control type of approach, which works perfectly fine in the military. But the world has certainly changed. And the more you read, the more you see and the effectiveness of various organizations.

[00:05:36] Rockstar CEO. I started to say someone like a Lee Iacocca, but I doubt there are many people on this podcast that know who Lee Iacocca was. So I'll say Elon Musk, folks that are just literally the entire organization. And they need to make others aware of how much they know, how much they do, how much they create instead of moving that down the organization.

[00:06:04] So I go back to something I read many years ago, Ryan, a book called good to great by Jim Collins. And he was talking about this very issue. And the key he had mentioned that I never forgot. He mentioned a gentleman by the name of Scott Walgreens, Walgreens pharmacies, and one of those senior executives who showed up every day, who was a servant leader, was under the radar.

[00:06:34] He was there to do what was right for his team and extremely successful. So that's really what we're looking at as how can we help others, and in the process we're helping ourselves and the organization. 

[00:06:51] Ryan: I like it. Well, you mentioned a great book and you're dead on when you start talking about servant leadership and I've seen it in Sherm recently.

[00:06:59] I think I saw that the actual term was coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf. But you and I have mentioned this before, this goes back thousands of years, the servant leadership. And it's phenomenal when an organization, when this has kind of led from the top down with that mindset. What do you think, Jim, are some of the qualities that you look for in a leader who is operating in a servant leadership mindset?

[00:07:25] Jim: Well, as you and I've talked in the past, there's like a couple of, I think key traits, notably empathy and being an empathetic person. And that's I think the core trait. But with that is packaged, I believe, just listening and sounds funny to say it this way, but a sense of humility when you recognize that it's your position to get the best out of your organization and the best out of your associates. You aren't doing all the work.

[00:08:04] They are. You're setting strategy, you're setting policy, but you have a plethora of people out there getting the work done and making it happen. So I'd have to say that those would be the three key things Ryan that I would say are really essential. And the listening piece is probably one of the hardest things for most of us to do.

[00:08:31] Probably could ask our spouses, but in reality, there's no better way to really gain insight into someone than listening to what they're really saying and not listening to respond, but really listening to understand and learning what's going on. Then through that process, we're able to better lead them.

[00:08:57] Ryan: I love it. Couldn't agree with you more Jim, and you know, you mentioned empathy and there's a huge difference between empathy and sympathy, right? However, they get used interchangeably a lot. I was once told that the difference between empathy and sympathy was, was pretty basic. They said, if someone is drowning and you throw them a life ring, that's empathy.

[00:09:15] If you tell them, you're sorry they're drowning, that's sympathy. Right. And so explain real quick to the people on the call how you use empathy instead of sympathy in your leadership when you're working with your team. 

[00:09:28] Jim: Well, I've alluded to it in that I think empathy focuses really on a desire to understand what's going on, what's happening, what they're going through.

[00:09:41] And that's, I think the core issue is if we understand that and we're attempting to understand on a different level, then that's going to give us as leadership, a number of insights that we wouldn't even be aware of if we were just continually talking and marking out orders and assuming that command and control kind of position.

[00:10:10] So if we're truly looking to hear, to understand, I think that's the core of what we're talking about.

[00:10:16] Ryan: No, that's great. Listening to hear versus listening to respond. That is, I could probably be reminded of that every day and not hear that enough. That's a, that's a great point. So look, I've found that leaders in an organization when they operate with this type of mentality, that there's a byproduct of an absolutely amazing work culture.

[00:10:37] Explain kind of the domino effect of how this creates building great teams. 

[00:10:42] Jim: Well, I said something early on that we all remember the motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, one of my favorites. But he had that, he made that famous statement that if you help people get what they want, they will help you get what you want.

[00:11:02] And so by serving them, you're serving yourself. I truly believe that servant leaders and the corporate culture are tied at the hip. We are very closely related because as you're serving others, they are serving you serving in the organization. And that changes the way things work within the corporate culture.

[00:11:29] As you and I've talked about in the past, Ryan, corporate culture is catering of interest to us. With a name like covenant administrators, it's always been something that's been a high priority to all the senior management team here. 

[00:11:48] Ryan: Now I liked that. I liked that a lot. So kind of moving it a little bit over to the, kind of the culture side of it through this servant leadership, we both know you can kill it by bringing on people that are toxic to your organization, right.

[00:12:02] Someone with just that negative attitude. The people don't share the vision, they'd complain about everything, nothing's ever right. It just, it will drain just the life out of the team. It'll drain the life out of the leadership and the vision, really at the end of the day. How have you ensure that you make sure that you bring on winners onto your team and that you're not bringing on people that are really energy drainers at the end of the day?

[00:12:26] Jim: Well, you are so right. If you happen to bring that bad apple into the barrel, it does spoil things. It does quickly. And I have found that it truly is more of an art than a science. I wish it were more scientific, but in my career, I have not seen that nor experienced it. But you make a great point. Our, our interviewing and hiring practices have been illuminous over the years in that we have always insisted at the senior executive in charge and me finally, we literally interview every single person at some stage in that process. You do that enough as I'm sure you have, you begin to get a sense and a feel for personality. You're able to describe to that individual sitting in front of you what you're doing as a company, what your culture looks like.

[00:13:28] And as you and I have talked in the past, we've been very clear with everyone from the file clerk to a senior executive that we're interviewing who we are as a culture. And we, we do go through a certain discussion with everyone to make them understand who we are as covenant administrators and not that we expect anyone to bite off in our belief system.

[00:14:00] That's entirely an individual responsibility, but we do want to make sure they understand who we are corporately and how that will impact them in their day to day. So we we tend to spend some time going through all that so they're aware, and I don't want them to be surprised nor do I want to be surprised.

[00:14:22] Ryan: Right. You know, you mentioned that kind of the interview process and your senior management, senior executives, kind of all going through the process. I heard something the other day that I was reading a book-- Dave Ramsey-- we all know him as the financial guru, I guess, of simplicity. And, you know, they have a ninety day hiring process and you'll go on several dinners in the process.

[00:14:43] And this is bringing on the, the, you know, the secretary all the way to an executive. They go through the process and he says he makes a, he makes his wife go on the dinners with them kind of when they get to that process, because he said she has, she has that feeling right. That that a lot of these Southern belles have that can know if someone's just giving you a show or if they're, if they're the real deal, he said, she helps me keep crazy out of the office. 

[00:15:08] So it's a hearing you say that you have a feel after doing it for so many years, have that feel for the personality. I think that's huge because keeping those toxic people out, keeping your culture, keeping your values.

[00:15:21] All of that lining up and making sure that everyone's buying into this individual and they can.. Cause we all see different things, right? We're all different personality types on the disc profile. We're all different personality types on Enneagram. We all kind of see things a little bit differently. So I love, I love how you go through that.

[00:15:37] So look, a lot of people have started companies with mentalities of kind of changing the world, right? Their corporate vision. They, you know, they're going to build a great place to work. They're serving their clients. And somewhere along the way, maybe their servant leadership kind of changed. Maybe their missions changed.

[00:15:53] Maybe their goals changed. There's a lot of things that can do that, but people who are leading with great cultures and then they let it fade or they let it slip. What do you think it is that that causes that or what's the distraction that pulls them away from keeping a great company great? 

[00:16:08] Jim: Well, I think the pressure Ryan to perform, to hit the next target, to make the next sale, to, to make those bottom line numbers for the next quarter sometimes is so great that it's easy or easier to step away from your core value and step away for that moment in time. Or at least you're trying to justify within your own mind that I just need to get this done, I need to make this happen. 

[00:16:40] So that one degree of separation that we often hear about soon becomes a wider and wider gap between what you were trying to do, what your mission was, and it's a struggle for folks and doing the right thing. We've all heard the description of integrity. Doing the right thing when no one's looking is a very strong test of the commitment of senior leaders.

[00:17:14] Ryan: I like the wording you use the pressure to perform, and there's a real pressure. It's you, you did a great job with that. So look, Jim, we're, we're getting close to time and you've already been so gracious with us to give us time. I know you just got back from out of town and you're dealing with a sinus infection, so I'll try to help you out here.

[00:17:30] But one last question is-- what has been the most impactful leadership lesson you've learned in business? 

[00:17:37] Jim: Wow. That's a great, great question. And I'm going to go way back early in my career, I was blessed to be under a CEO that was a significant man of faith. A man that indeed was strong in his belief system and wanted to incorporate and did incorporate that belief system into his business. 

[00:18:08] So I was under his mentoring if you will, for a number of years. And I'll never forget that because too many times, I think, in senior leaders' lives and careers we're under so much pressure to do certain things. And the more we can involve our core belief system into everything we do, the better off we are.

[00:18:38] And we can continue this culture that we've talked about. Far too often, you and I know that we can compartmentalize our beliefs, whatever they might be, whether you're a person of faith or not, but when you can remove that compartmentalization and inegrate it into everything you do. And I think that's probably the single biggest lesson that served me in my career.

[00:19:13] And I'm so terribly grateful to that particular man-- in fact he just passed away a number of years, a number of months ago. 

[00:19:20] Ryan: Jim. That was, that was great. Remove separation from your core belief system, man. That was, that was good. Well, look, Jim, that wraps us up for today, buddy. I can't tell you how much I appreciate you being on the show and for everyone listening in, we want to say thank you for listening in today and just remember that a good plan today is better than a great plan months from now.

[00:19:40] Thank you so much.

[00:19:46] Intro/Outro: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the insurance leadership podcast. Make sure you subscribe on your favorite podcast app so you'll be notified of future episodes or stream online at