How did “Too Big To Fail” prepare me for the past 4 weeks?

In September of 2008, I was President and an owner of a fairly large privately held insurance agency.  I was in the middle of making one of the biggest business decisions of my life.  Do I buy nearly half the company I built or do I sell the shares and move on?  It was quite a unique situation, which in itself was very difficult.  Along comes an even tougher dilemma, the financial crisis.   There had already been some crazy things that happened to the financial sector, but none would affect me or my company as personally as the crash of the giant insurer AIG.

You see, as an insurance agency I along with my team had spent several years positioning us as a true leader in providing a unique insurance experience for High Net Worth Individuals, their families and the companies that they owned. We had nearly 1,000 different policies written with AIG and in a matter of moments I didn’t know whether AIG would be in a position to protect my clients as they had promised.  It sounds silly when you think about it from your seat, how could a company that big, become that vulnerable so fast, well it did, and it was.

In addition to the clients, the reactions of the several people around me and the company reps themselves were important to me.  My phones were ringing off the hook, some of the wealthiest people in the country were my clients and they wanted to know if they were protected, or should they worry? Should they change carriers? What should they do?  Some people I worked with told me to tell them everything was fine, some people told me they heard it was fine, and quite frankly only one or two people asked me what I thought I should tell them.

I had fairly strong access to top level people at AIG, I actually felt as if my contacts were the folks standing next to the wall or outside the conference room listening with a glass to their ear to the executives sitting there like in the movie “Too Big To Fail” and their message to me was that everything was ok.   Even armed with what was believed to be good intel, I made the decision to tell people my true sentiments.  My true sentiments, were that I didn’t know what the truth was, and that even if I heard it straight from the guy at AIG who was making the decision I would be vigilant, I would pay close attention and I would prepare to do what was necessary to protect my clients and my teams integrity.

I got a lot of pushback for this from multiple directions, I was basically told to fall in line, tell the people what they need to here and basically listen to the noise.  I didn’t do that, nor did I give up my allegiance to AIG because I trusted my friends and business partners there.  However, I told my employees, told my clients and I told anyone who was listening that unless I made the decision for AIG myself, I couldn’t give them a better answer.

That decision and subsequent decisions I made because of that moment have defined me, who I am, and what I stand for.  It has afforded me the opportunity to remain above reproach and maintain relationships at amazing levels in the nearly 10 years since.

If you take away something from my message it should be that you don’t get caught up in all the noise around you, and you make your own decisions based on what you directly know and personally can control.  Lastly, be careful of others, their agendas and what they tell you to be gospel, because quite frankly it may just be their gospel or gospel from others they are listening to, and when the dust settles you want to be able to remain above reproach.  

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