A Successful CEO Shows How For All Leadership Is Done

A Successful CEO Shows How For All Leadership Is Done

By Lorena Martinez and Ed Frauenheim

Josep Santacreu surprised his fellow insurance CEOs. 

It was 2001, and his company, Spanish insurance firm DKV, was laying off about 90 of its 600 employees in the wake of a merger that led to job redundancies. But Josep wanted to do all he could to help those people find new jobs. 

Of particular concern were 10 employees between the ages of 50 and 60, who faced difficult employment prospects given their relatively high salaries and the possibility of age discrimination.

Santacreu picked up the phone and called the CEOs of several competing insurance companies. He asked his fellow CEOs if they might be able to hire the people he was laying off. “Some of them said, ‘What? This is the first time in my life I received a call like this,’” Santacreu recalls. 

Although the CEOs were taken aback by the calls, several answered yes to the request. With Santacreu and some of his senior managers reaching out to the rival firms, 9 of the 10 employees in that age bracket found new positions.  

Leadership For All: Better for People, Better for Business, and Better for the World

This story captures how what we call For All™ leaders are humble in a hard-working way. For All leadership is a people management approach that brings out the best in everyone, no matter who they are or what they do for the organization.

Our research shows that these leaders create a great workplace experience for nearly all their people, and they do so by demonstrating traits, including:

  • Modesty
  • A focus on purpose
  • An ability to foster trusting relationships among teammates 

It’s a leadership approach that’s needed now more than ever. As organizations around the globe navigate the simultaneous crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic downturn and a racial justice reckoning, For All Leaders are meeting the moment – by blending, bold, purpose-driven actions with humility and kindness.

With his calls to fellow insurance executives, Josep illustrates how For All leaders are willing to risk looking odd or unconventional while trying something new to create a great experience for everyone – even those losing their jobs.

Josep illustrates how For All leaders are willing to risk looking odd or unconventional while trying something new to create a great experience for everyone – even those losing their jobs.

Not surprisingly, DKV earned a spot on the 2020 Best Workplaces™ in Spain list, and has done so for more than ten years. 

Josep also represents other features of For All leaders. Perhaps most importantly, they achieve outstanding results.  Compared to teams with leaders at the lowest level of our five-stage leadership model, teams with For All leaders demonstrate:

  • 300 percent higher agility
  • 124 less turnover risk
  • 353 percent higher productivity 

In keeping with those findings, Josep has seen his insurance company grow significantly since he became CEO in 1999. DKV’s 2019 revenues were $53.2 million, making it the fourth-largest health insurance company in Spain.

Making all voices count

Josep’s perspective on whose voices should count in the organization also reflects an aspect of For All Leadership. Put simply, Josep deeply believes in people having autonomy at work. And his viewpoint shapes how decisions are made at DKV.

Whether the issue is creating a company vision or launching concrete initiatives, Josep has cultivated a non-hierarchical climate 

For example, consider how DKV became certified by non-profit organization ECODES as a zero-emission company in 2007 – making it one of the first insurance companies in Europe with such a credential.

That certification stemmed from a sustainability effort begun by an executive assistant. “I noticed she was interested in this and she ran with it,” Josep recalls. This certification is given to companies that show a full commitment to climate change and the greenhouse effect.

The ability for anyone at DKV to generate ideas and see them come to fruition dovetails with the Innovation By All approach to agility and invention we see at leading companies.

Volunteer work inspiration

The way Josep is willing to distribute power widely at DKV is in keeping with another of our findings. Our preliminary research shows that organizations that consciously embrace a “flat” mindset tend to have a higher proportion of For All leaders.

That is, organizations that explicitly minimize hierarchical practices, deliberately decentralize power and avoid having special classes of employees are more likely to feature leaders who create a great experience for all their people. 

We don’t know yet which comes first, For All leaders or flatness. But it is clear that they mutually reinforce each other.

Josep’s background contains a history with flatness practices and egalitarian personal beliefs. He began his career as a physician doing work for non-governmental organizations in Africa.

He was amazed by the strong results generated by these high-purpose, decentralized organizations – despite their very limited resources. Josep also brings the ethos of a doctor – the spirit of administering care to anyone in need – to his work.

In fact, he became CEO of an insurance company unintentionally, due to his service mindset. He wanted to manage hospitals after his NGO work, but he agreed to help DKV during a difficult period as a temporary executive. His initial focus was on selling the firm.

But the buyer wanted Josep to stay on as part of the deal. Josep said yes – not wanting to jeopardize 900 people’s jobs if he said no.

That For All philosophy is how he’s led the firm ever since. And it explains his willingness to work hard, humble himself and shock his fellow CEOs when jobs were at stake in the 2000 layoff.

Josep sums up the way For All Leaders can step up in difficult times: “Even in the more difficult moments, you are able to go far and lead in a different way… And to give the message to your stakeholders – in this case, the employees – that you are doing the maximum,” Santacreu says. “You are trying to take care of the person.” 

Rising to the challenges of COVID-19

Josep sends a voice note to all employees every week through various WhatsApp groups for different departments and locations to keep them informed of the COVID-19 situation and its impact on DKV’s business.

DKV has avoided layoffs during the pandemic, and increased flexibility to support employees working from home. About 98% of the company’s employees have been working from home since the beginning of the health crisis. 

DKV also has launched a number of initiatives to help the community during this crisis:

  • Doctors Against COVID-19 (Medicos frente al COVID-19): A free telemedicine app that brings together over 870 volunteer doctors to answer people’s common health questions. With over 30,000 free medical consultations, DKV is helping to reduce visits to strained hospital systems and to prevent COVID-19 spread. 
  • #NoLonelySeniors (#NingunMayorSolo): Now more than ever, our elders need company.  DKV, together with many other organizations, launched a free telephone service for emotional and psychological support for the elderly. The aim has been to mitigate the negative psychological impact from COVID-19. More than a thousand volunteers have signed up to support seniors across Spain

Humble, hard-working and willing to share power. Is your company run by leaders like Josep Santacreu? Do you have a culture of trust? Get recognized for your company culture and apply to get on a Best Workplaces list. 

Lorena Martinez