President's Message

By Taking Ownership, Leaders Succeed and Inspire Others 

What a couple of weeks it’s been….

Week before last, six sureties in five states over three days, insightful interviews with surety execs in companies of all sizes, and, loads of fun with fellow NASBP officers Lynne Cook and Bob Shaw. Lynne and I did a girls’ road trip last year and this year Bob offered to be our driver. He called it our “Thelma, Louise & Bobby” tour. You’ve all heard about the friendships built through participation in leadership, but one of the biggest benefits of serving as an officer of NASBP is the perspective you get from the surety company interviews conducted each spring. While it would be wonderful to be able to visit every surety every year, that’s simply not feasible. We try and hit a wide variety of companies each year in 15-16 visits conducted by leadership; and, share the information developed with CEO Mark McCallum, who uses it to develop his State of the Surety Industry presentation. This year we incorporated social media into the tour by Tweeting along the way. Needless to say, I’m not the most tech savvy person and only have 71 Twitter followers, but NASBP retweets us. Two things of which I’m certain are this is a fabulous business and our association is in great hands for the future. Check us out at @NASBP.

Last week several of our officers and staff went to the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City together to attend ENR’s Excellence Awards, where we proudly watched our very own Mark McCallum accept his award as a Top 25 Newsmaker of the Year for 2015. ENR recognized Mark as an “unabashed advocate and strategist” in pursuit “to end pervasive individual surety fraud by reforming bond asset rules in federal contracting.” The events started with a luncheon to honor the Top 25 Newsmakers and concluded with a black tie evening affair where the Best of the Best projects were named and the Excellence Award was presented to the grand winner of the Top 25 Newsmakers. All of us in attendance were a bit in awe of the other 24 Newsmakers who have made such a difference in the construction industry in many ways. It was an incredible honor for Mark and a wonderful reflection on NASBP for the countless work our Members did on Capitol Hill to secure passage of the bill Mark championed on our behalf.
It’s hard to believe this is my last Pipeline article; time flies. It seems like yesterday when I sat down to write the first one and gave you the heads up to expect leadership topics told through sports analogies. Many of you have reached out to me over the last year to let me know one of the stories resonated with you along the way–whether it was team chemistry and the Dodgers, resilience with the Tennessee football program, unselfish play with the Warriors or the authenticity of two great football coaches–Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh. Now that it’s time to write the last Pipeline, I didn’t have to look far to know where I needed to go with this one.

March Madness is in the rear-view mirror. Many of us have suffered disappointment, and now we know Villanova beat North Carolina in a game for the ages; and the UConn women made history with their 4th National Championship in a row. I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m a Tennessee girl and have been a fan of the Lady Vols my entire life. Our program has known great success; however, we recently fell out of the Top 25 NCAA rankings for the first time in 31 years. Week before last before the Final Four I was in Hartford with one of our Affiliates when some controversy arose in the media about whether the dominance of the UConn women has been bad for the game. Admittedly when finding out about Pat Summitt’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, one of my first thoughts was “Oh, no! Now Geno is going to surpass all her records.” Well you’ll be pleased to know I sucked it up that day and not only congratulated our Hartford friends about their team’s success, but also I took up for their program and Coach Auriemma. He’s been a terrific coach and their program is deserving of all the accolades they’ve received. What they’ve accomplished has never been done in the sport before and deserves to be celebrated and admired by all of us. The rivalry between Pat and Geno did a lot to elevate women’s basketball, and now there is a lot of parity in the sport with great teams from Notre Dame, Baylor, Maryland, Stanford, South Carolina and Oregon State, Syracuse and Washington advancing to the Final Four. There’s no doubt in my mind there will be great teams capable of challenging UConn in future years, and I expect Tennessee to be one of them.

Our Warriors took a couple of major blows in their quest to chase history when the Celtics beat us in a home game that went down to the final second. It was our first loss at home and ended a 53-game home win streak—the longest in NBA history. Then we lost to the Timberwolves in OT a couple of games later. We’re now 71-9 with 2 games to go in our attempt to surpass the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls record of 72-10 and play the Spurs tonight in San Antonio. They’re also chasing history, trying to go undefeated at home with two home games to play. One way or the other lots of people will be disappointed tonight. As each game has played out, we’ve been proud of how Coach Steve Kerr and our players have handled the media. There were situations when I was hoarse from yelling at the TV with steam still coming out of my ears from a number of questionable calls, but our guys took ownership for their turnovers and sloppy play and congratulated both Boston and Minnesota for their outstanding defense. We kept our eye on the goal and have captured the #1 seed in the West; and Coach Kerr now must achieve balance in allowing our players to continue to play for the record while using common sense to get ready for the playoffs. The record will either fall or it won’t, but regardless, we’re extremely proud of our team.

Over and over again this month we’ve heard the really good coaches and players accept accountability and take ownership. One of my favorite quotes from Pat Summitt is “Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organization can have.” Whether we’re talking about Coach Kerr, Coach Auriemma or Mark McCallum showing ownership and being recognized…it’s pretty easy to spot ownership if you look for it.
So how do we take ownership in our own lives and within our businesses, and why does it matter so much? I dropped a ball recently and failed to communicate with a contractor a lengthy laundry list of questions that had come in from its surety underwriter in preparation for an upcoming meeting nearly 30 days before. This was going to be one of those meetings where we had people flying in from multiple places with limited time. If we could get many of the basic underwriting questions out of the way first, it would leave the meeting time for important business plan discussions. When I realized my mistake, I picked up the phone and called the contractor, admitting what happened. We now had just a few days before the underwriter went on vacation to finalize the meeting agenda. Fortunately, our customer stepped up, quickly gathering the information needed to make sure our meeting was productive and wasn’t angry at the fact he had to scramble. Is this a good example of owning a mistake? I don’t know, but I know someone who lost all credibility with a customer, his colleagues and ultimately his job when he dropped a similar ball and went to extremes in a misguided attempt to blame it on the underwriter. We operate with the premise you don’t get in trouble in our shop when you make a mistake—as long as you raise your hand high for help and do whatever it takes to make it right as soon as you realize what’s happened.

Here’s what a collection of leadership experts think about ownership:

  • People can see a leader leading by how he/she controls. People can see an owner “owning” what he/she does, and strive and imitate to be like that person. Leaders have goals and endpoints: owners have passion–in both the journey and the destination. Owners are invested in the result.
  • Companies must step up to job ownership by defining it in writing and communicating what it is. Most businesses make it a silent expectation. Fail to explain the big picture and the rewards it brings can lead to lack of buy-in from our employees. As leaders we must spell out what we want and clarify our expectations. Performance issues must be addressed timely and with civility. We must create a culture of ownership. 
  • Current and potential team members have to buy in. For this to happen, first and foremost, they have to trust you. Trust is earned every day. You are constantly on stage with your employees. They watch and listen to everything you say and do. But if employees can’t see how their efforts will lead to something better, they won’t buy what you’re selling.
  • Job ownership is an attitude of excellence, achievement and expertise. Attitude is front and center and is the difference maker in every task the employee does. The “ownership attitude” insures that everything is done to the best of one’s ability–first time and every time. It’s further expressed by a willingness to learn, to get better and not settle for just getting by. Not letting things fall through the cracks, putting forth extra effort, volunteering for difficult assignments become the standard operating procedure of someone who takes ownership of his/her job.

 Five ways to demonstrate true ownership:

  • Owners do the thinking for the things they own. They don’t expect anyone else to do it and they don’t wait for anyone else to generate ideas related to the things they own. They think about it at work and sometimes when they aren’t. Owners puzzle on lingering questions about problems or their assigned responsibilities. Great owners always seek advice or input from other stakeholders regarding the things they own and approach those conversations thoughtfully.
  • Owners plan for the future of the things they own. They envision what’s possible–positive and negative–for their things. They work to mitigate risks and make plans to enhance or improve their ownership areas over time. They don’t wait for trouble to percolate or to be told where to direct their areas of responsibility.
  • Owners enroll the ownership of others. They encourage feedback from stakeholders regarding the health and well-being of the things they own. When they’ve done the thinking and planning, they elicit the input of others on their plans and modify those plans when feedback warrants.
  • Owners communicate about the things they own. They make sure firm leaders don’t wonder about the plans for, the status of or the progress with the things they own. Owners reach out to any stakeholders who provide input for or are affected by their items.
  • Owners take responsibility for the areas they own when they’re off track. When an item isn’t performing well, goals aren’t being met, mistakes are made or an action hasn’t been completed, true owners raise their hand and acknowledge they own the shortfall. They then devise and communicate their plan to get the off-track area back on track. They do not blame others or look for excuses. They simply own the failure and act to return the area to positive performance.

Bringing things full circle, I’ve tried hard to take ownership in areas where I believed shining a light might help our industry prosper. This last year has been a simply wonderful experience for Jeffrey and for me. We’ve had a blast. There’s much to be done in these last four weeks before we gather at The Broadmoor. Shortly Jeffrey and I are off to visit our colleagues in Puerto Rico for their Regional Meeting, and then I’ll head to Washington, DC, for the annual SFAA meeting, while continuing to finalize the Annual Meeting preparations.

We talked a lot about leadership this year, whether it was at the Leadership Conference Chubb helped us provide in Nashville at the Mid-Year Board Meeting, the Leadership Series of Virtual Seminars underway being provided by Mark Harris of the Harris Development Group in Chicago or through stories told through sports analogies in my Pipeline articles. We have a lot of challenges in our industry. By focusing on takeaways to improve our leadership skills, the hope was to help you build your own thriving businesses—with the ultimate goal if your business is thriving—to increase the number of fully engaged people working together on those challenges.
We’re also focusing our efforts on the issue of talent development, which is the biggest challenge of all. Many of our Members, as well as our customers are struggling to retain high potential performers, to navigate generational gaps and are having trouble getting their older people to transfer their knowledge to the next generation. We’re going to spend a good portion of our program on Monday at the Annual Meeting with Ron Magnus of FMI speaking to us about this topic in his keynote address and then facilitating a panel discussion of our Members and Affiliates after the break. My hope is we’ll start a dialogue as well as take away some key points, which will also benefit our customers. We’re also going to showcase NASBP’s 5-15 leadership group and many of them have a meaningful role in the Meeting program. I’m thrilled to have played a small part in getting the SFAA’s Young Professionals Group off the ground this year, and it will be exciting to see all the young people networking together at The Broadmoor. 

For those of you who know me well, it’s always all about the people. You are all my people, and it’s been both an honor and a privilege to serve as your President. All the best.

Susan Hecker is Executive Vice President and National Director of Contract Surety at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in San Francisco, CA. She can be reached at