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North Star Leaders Podcast

Allison Arzeno

Season 1 Episode 5 7 Nov 2023

Transcript

Allison Arzeno:

When you define that North star on day one, things are going to change about your company, about your consumer, about the space you operate in. You have to be ready to change with it and to continue to develop new strategies and new things to really fulfill that North star.

Lindsay Pedersen:

The world needs what only your business can bring, and as a leader, it's your job to deliver, but where do you focus? Where do you direct your time, your team, your budget, and your emotional energy? We are learning this together on the North Star Leaders Podcast. I'll be talking to purpose-driven leaders about the choices they make to create audacious economic value while also realizing their distinctive purpose. I'm Lindsay Pedersen, brand strategist, author of Forging An Ironclad Brand and host of the North Star Leaders podcast. Let's get to it. Today I am so happy to be joined by my guest, Allison Arzeno. Allison is CEO of Assurance IQ and was previously chief data scientist for Assurance IQ. She has been a data science consultant for startups and she has taught data science at Stanford's Graduate School of Business and at MIT, which is also where she earned her PhD in data science. Allison, welcome to the show.

Allison Arzeno:

Thank you for having me.

Lindsay Pedersen:

To start us off, Allison, what is your favorite thing about what you do?

Allison Arzeno:

I love to use data science and technology to impact people's lives and impact the world. That is what drove me to the field of operations research in the first place. The tagline for that field is the science of better. It's what attracted me to work in healthcare analytics for some time. It's what inspired me to teach MBA students and also what brought me to Assurance.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What's the granular thing about this that's so empowering of better? Why? How does data science do that?

Allison Arzeno:

I always say that data is one of the great equalizers of our society. So it allows you to collect many different opinions or thoughts on an issue, it allows you to see trends or things that happen over time, and I think it allows us to use not just our own experiences as people, but all of this additional information that we can collect out there in the world to actually build better solutions and to come up with new innovative technologies. I believe data has actually unlocked a lot for us in terms of how we can learn, what we can learn from and how we can apply that in different ways throughout various industries and parts of business.

Lindsay Pedersen:

How is Assurance IQ in particular harnessing that power that you just described?

Allison Arzeno:

We use data in many different ways. Our core product and what we really strive to do for consumers is personalize recommendations, and that involves us not just deeply understanding the individual and who they are, what are their data attributes as an individual person, but also a deep understanding of all of the different insurance of financial products out there, both the ones we sell, but then also other options that that consumer might have. And then pulling those two data sets together, the one about the consumer, the one about the products, and to say how do we find a great match between those two and explain that match to the consumer.

Lindsay Pedersen:

So the sheer volume, the sheer mass of data is like an engine that allows for that unlock?

Allison Arzeno:

That's exactly right, and it's the raw data at the foundation of it and then the intelligence and the technology that we've built on top of that. And then of course the art of taking those personalized recommendations that our data science team and our technology team come up with, layering in all of the great knowledge and experience of our agents and our sales staff, combining that science with that art and really explaining that in a way to the consumer that makes sense and resonates with them.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, as you say that, I was just thinking about how as a data science, or at least I think of data science as very analytical and logic loving. Also, I know Assurance IQ very well because we work together. This is also a business with a very big heart, and it's a company, just like any company in commerce, you need to be economically vibrant and valuable. And with Assurance IQ, you also stand for a purpose that stands above that profit. So there's this kind of blend of these two worlds. Is there ever a tension between those two drives for you as the CEO that you have to navigate?

Allison Arzeno:

Definitely. There is a tension there. At the same time, I would say our most powerful projects, ideas, moments in time are when we're doing both very well. So if we can focus on those areas where we become stronger as a business and we help the consumer more and we fulfill our mission and our vision in a better way, those are the areas we should be focused on. And I will remind my team of that all the time. If we're doing something that only does one or the other, what can we do to actually focus on something that actually does both?

Lindsay Pedersen:

Where do they challenge one another? What's an example of when push comes to shove and you actually do have to say, oh no, we're going to lean, we're going to say no to that thing that favors the economic desire and service over the purpose or vice versa?

Allison Arzeno:

I would say a few examples. One would be consumers who come to us, who come to our site, either through paid marketing or some other channel, some cost has gone into the system to attract that consumer into our site. And when talking to them about the products we have, we actually reach the conclusion that they shouldn't buy. Right. It would be the equivalent of walking into REI and shopping for a tent and the store clerk saying, actually, you don't need a tent. You should probably leave. And that's a really hard thing to do. It's also the right thing to do for the customer.

You're operating net negative now because you paid for that consumer to come to you. That consumer was interested in coming to you. They walked in the door to hear about those products, but through our analysis and through the conversation that the consumer might have with an agent, the right decision, and the thing we need to do is to say, I'm sorry, you shouldn't buy something from us today. And that's just a great example of something where that is our mission, that is our purpose, that's what we need to do. But it can be hard economically to make that decision.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, yeah. That's amazing. I'm just thinking, I mean REI is such a wonderful brand example because there's such deep trust in REI because they would do something like that. We've talked about purpose and you used the word mission a second ago. What do you consider to be the North star of assurance? What's the guiding phrase or word or a sentence that you use?

Allison Arzeno:

Our mission at Assurance is to help consumers improve and protect their personal and financial wellbeing. And ultimately that is in the service of our broader vision of creating a world in which every person has the assurance of wellbeing.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Boom. I love it. I love it. Talk for a minute about your target audience and how the asset and core competency around data science is particularly well-suited for this type of customer, audience.

Allison Arzeno:

Our customer is the mass market consumer, and that encompasses a wide range of individuals, but it is mostly people who have a annual household income in the 40,000 to $150,000 range, sometimes lower than that, especially as we think about the individuals we serve over the age of 65 who are operating on a fixed income. And we specifically have chosen to focus on that consumer because we believe that they are underserved by the financial services and insurance industries today. They for the most part are trying to buy products that don't have a huge return to a financial advisor or investor.

Therefore, it's really hard with the traditional model of face-to-face financial advisors to make helping those consumers pencil economically. When we founded Assurance, we set out to say, Hey, if we can use data science and technology to power our business and our model behind the scenes, all of our agents interact with our consumers on the phone. And if we can use our engine behind the scenes, we can still give that human interaction to consumers that allow them to benefit from the deep knowledge of a licensed agent and have a super efficient engine behind the scenes that makes that whole thing economically viable as well.

Lindsay Pedersen:

So without the power of the data science, these people are kind of left behind because there isn't an economically attractive way to serve them. Am I getting that right?

Allison Arzeno:

That's right. And there have been many companies who have gone out and said, well, we see that problem. So here is a self-serve digital solution for those consumers where you can go in and you can buy all of these policies online and get the help you need digitally. And I think for some consumers that's fine and that's sufficient, but why shouldn't all consumers have the ability to talk to a licensed agent, a financial advisor if they want that human connection and human help? And that's what we really sought to provide. If you want to buy digitally, great, we can offer that to you as well, but if you want that human connection, we set out to say how can we actually deliver that and make it work as a business?

Lindsay Pedersen:

When is the best time to define that North star? You said this has actually been the mission from the very beginning of Assurance. Is that the best time to put that stake in the ground for what our purpose is? Is there an advantage to waiting until there's more traction in the market, until there's more insight from customers? What do you think is the, kind of the optimal time for that knowing there's probably trade-offs?

Allison Arzeno:

I think it is right away, that you put the stake in the ground and you declare what your mission is as a company. That being said, I think you have to embrace that that stake might need to move to be adjusted, maybe paint it a different color, shift it. I also think that you have to acknowledge that that stake might be really hard to achieve. When you define that North star on day one, things are going to change about your company, about your consumer, about the space you operate in. You have to be ready to change with it and to continue to develop new strategies and new things to really fulfill that North star.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that. Put a stake in the ground early, but be willing to change its color or refine its placement. What do you consider to be the overlap between your brand strategy for Assurance and the North star for Assurance? How are they similar or different?

Allison Arzeno:

Our North star is the mission and vision that I described earlier, and that has been more or less true since day one at Assurance with some refinements and some adjustments. But that is what we've always been marching towards. When we started working together last year, what I thought was really powerful about the work we did together was to say, how do we develop a brand strategy that can be in service of that North star that can actually help us achieve that North star that we're striving for? And I think if we can execute on it well with the brand strategy that we created, it can be one of the biggest amplifiers of our North star and really help us get there.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, I love that. So it's a little bit closer to the ground since we're using North star in elevation as an analogy here, it's a little bit closer to the ground, but its purpose is to serve the North star. Its purpose is to make the North star more possible, magnified, amplified.

Allison Arzeno:

Completely.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Can you tell me about an example or two of when either the mission, vision, the North star or the brand has been super useful for a decision you've had to make as a leader where you're looking for a filter to guide you one direction or another?

Allison Arzeno:

I would say one great example was back in the 2018, 2019 timeframe when we decided to move a bit bigger into the Medicare Advantage space. Historically, we were more focused on life insurance and helping consumers with under 65 health solutions, and we saw a big opportunity in Medicare Advantage because carriers were coming up with more and more variations on their plans. So consumers were being faced with a increasingly complex set of decisions that they needed to make, not just in terms of do they buy a Medicare supplement plan or a Medicare Advantage plan, but if they choose Medicare Advantage, the average consumer today has north of 40 different plans to choose from. And that has been increasing over the past few years and I think will continue to increase.

And so we saw that as a great opportunity when we're looking at our mission in helping people improve and protect their personal financial wellbeing. If you are over the age of 65, making a great choice when it comes to your Medicare plan or your healthcare can actually be one of the most important decisions you make when it comes to your personal financial wellbeing. And so that was a very deliberate decision to say, Hey, this market is changing and growing and if we want to fulfill our North star, we better be part of it.

Lindsay Pedersen:

So it can filter in a market, it can filter in and shine the light on, we need to win here, we need to go here.

Allison Arzeno:

That's right.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Just like it could filter out a market, at least theoretically, it could guide us toward, no, that's not where our strengths are best applied.

Allison Arzeno:

Definitely.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Is there ever a disadvantage to having a North star? Is this a no-brainer, like every CEO should have this, or is there ever a time you wish you didn't have this tool that holds your feet to the fire on what you're optimizing for?

Allison Arzeno:

I do think every CEO, every company should have it. At the same time, that doesn't mean it's always easy. There are some moments when it would be easier to not have to worry about that North star and just make the decision staring at your P&L and your financial statements and saying, Hey, this is what we should do to maximize our return at the end of the day. That would be easier, but I never question whether or not it's right to have it.

Lindsay Pedersen:

So for the leader who is looking for ease, and there are good people who are leaders like this, so I don't mean this to sound judgmental, but they're not doing this to save the world and that's okay. It's serving an economic purpose as opposed to a more worldly purpose. For those people, the North star, it might actually detract them from just blowing out the numbers. In theory.

Allison Arzeno:

In theory, totally. I think the catch will become if you want to grow your employee base and if you want to be a big company and if you want what you're doing to resonate with hundreds or thousands of employees, I think even if you as a leader maybe okay with not having a North star, those hundreds or thousands of employees won't be. How do you motivate them to show up every day? And again, maybe 20, 30% of them will be like you and not need or care about that North star, but a lot of them will want that North star. Will be searching for it, will be motivated by that, not just the financial return. And I think as a leader, we have to care for that no matter what our own perspective is.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that. I heard two things in there. One is scale. If you want to scale, it enables scale. And two, separate but related is you could say that you have an audience that is not just your customer audience but your employee base and they're human beings just like your customers are. And tapping into something in them that creates meaning and also creates a reason for them to do their best and give a lot is also going to be served by a motivating resonant North star. Also, I think that if it's a North star that does not resonate with the people that you're bringing in, that actually might be useful to know as well, that either you don't have the right North star or you're not bringing in the right people.

Allison Arzeno:

That's right.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love it. I want to talk more about your leadership style and first your background as a data scientist. How does that shape your approach as a leader, your style as a leader?

Allison Arzeno:

One of our leadership behaviors at Assurance is to come to the conversation with data. And while you can't always do that, every decision you need to make and everything you're considering as a leader in a business doesn't always have a robust dataset to lean on. We are a very data-driven company. We have a massive data lake and we give access to Looker to all of our employees as our data visualization and data analysis tool. And so 98% of the time, there is some data for you to bring to the conversation.

And what I love about bringing data to the conversation and being a data-driven company is that it allows people who maybe don't have dozens of years of experience to actually come to the table with a clear point of view and a clear argument based on experience in the data, maybe not necessarily their own personal experience, but it allows you to see a much bigger picture than you would without that data. And on top of that, I also think it can give people confidence in saying, Hey, this isn't just my opinion, but this is actually backed by this data and this analysis I just did. And so it drives really great conversations where we can debate the principles of the concept and what we're seeing in the data versus being stuck in debates between different people's opinions.

Lindsay Pedersen:

It sounds like the great democratizer, like it allows people with less experience to still have really robust conversations with those who have much more experience or depth and data science even because they're armed with data and that empowers them.

Allison Arzeno:

That's right. And when you think about data science in particular, being a fairly new field under that definition, and then everything going on in AI being even newer, you have to be able to tap into your younger employees and the employees who maybe don't have decades of experience under their belt. If we want to be data forward and tech forward and really leverage these new technologies, how do we create an environment and a space in which the people who are experts in that actually have a seat at the table that is just as strong and just as compelling as anybody else sitting in the room?

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love it. It's like a demystifier. If it's demystifying, then it's empowering and that it increases their ability and confidence to bring the best ideas to debate the best ideas, to analyze what's the best path forward. And it's not just for the people who have the gray hairs to decide.

Allison Arzeno:

That's right. And I also emphasize too that not everybody has just as much comfort or ability to pull that data and analyze that data at the same level. But again, you don't have to, to be successful at Assurance or in this type of environment. You just have to be willing to listen to and work with those who are. And so we have many employees who will dabble in Looker themselves and use data maybe a little more lightly than others, but they are collaborating with and listening to other people who are able to bring more data into the conversation. So I think it's not just using data and bringing data to the conversation yourself, but being willing to and open to listening to those who are.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yes. It sparks humility and openness and curiosity.

Allison Arzeno:

Definitely.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What do you do outside of work to fill your tank so that you are the best leader when you come into the office, whether you're working from home or at the actual office so that you're showing up as the leader that you want to be?

Allison Arzeno:

Two things come to mind. One is I love to read and specifically my favorite books are actually nonfiction memoirs or biographies about people. Reading the recent Michelle Obama book, read Angela Merkel's biography, a bunch of those where I feel like I get to learn about other people's experience and lives. I really enjoy doing that. The other thing that you'll constantly find me doing on the weekends or my time off is hiking and just being outside. So it's perfect in the Seattle area to do that, but I love going for a long hike with my husband and really just being in nature and taking that time to unwind.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that. If you weren't or you couldn't be the CEO of Assurance, what would you do instead?

Allison Arzeno:

I really enjoyed being a lecturer at Stanford and at MIT. I loved teaching students about data science and analytics and helping them appreciate how they could use those tools and techniques in their careers, whether they were executive MBAs and actively could go out and use it, or MBAs dreaming about where they're going to go when they're finished. I loved doing that, and so if I wasn't the CEO of Assurance, I would probably be a lecturer at a university.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I can see it. I can see it. And I've learned so much from you, Allison, so.

Allison Arzeno:

Well, thank you.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I see you on the podium. Okay. We are going to move to a few rapid fire questions. I have five and each one of these should have a one word answer.

Allison Arzeno:

Okay.

Lindsay Pedersen:

All right. Morning person or night owl?

Allison Arzeno:

Morning person.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What's a pet peeve?

Allison Arzeno:

Inefficiency.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Favorite thing to do on a Saturday afternoon?

Allison Arzeno:

Hiking.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Favorite salty snack?

Allison Arzeno:

Ooh, that's a tough one. I am more of a sweet snack person.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, give me a sweet snack.

Allison Arzeno:

Probably ice cream.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What flavor?

Allison Arzeno:

Anything with caramel, chocolate, peanut butter kind of swirled in.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love it. And finally, your favorite guilty pleasure TV show?

Allison Arzeno:

I really enjoyed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that.

Allison Arzeno:

I just thought it was smart and funny and light, but also very interesting.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Allison Arzeno:

Maisel a reset one for me.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Original. I love it. Allison, this has been so fun. Thank you for joining me. If folks want to stay in touch with you, where should we send them online?

Allison Arzeno:

Yeah, they can check out more about Assurance IQ online at assurance.com or visit me on LinkedIn and send me a message there as well.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Awesome. Perfect. Thanks for joining me today.

Allison Arzeno:

Thank you so much for having me.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Thanks for listening to this episode of North Star Leaders. Make sure you don't miss an episode by subscribing on your favorite podcast app. For show notes, transcripts and newsletter signup, visit ironcladcloneeight.com. Please join us again for another episode of North Star Leaders.

Lindsay speaking

About Lindsay

Lindsay Pedersen is a bestselling author and brand strategist with a scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She has advised companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar, and IMDb.

Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered in Lindsay a deep appreciation for the executive’s charge: increasing the company’s value. There, she led mature, billion-dollar businesses and newly-launched categories, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Brita. In each case, she was solely responsible for increasing the business’s value.

Thanks to this executive perspective, Lindsay demands that brands be hard-working, disciplined and rigorous in growing a business. Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an ironclad brand strategy to guide choices as they grow.