Leaders, This is Our Time

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank

In my early twenties, I was sure I was going to be a Russian Orthodox priest. I even earned my master’s degree in theology from Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

But another path called. I had studied philosophy as an undergrad at Pepperdine and missed it, so I enrolled in a post-graduate program at Boston College, certain that I was meant to be a philosophy professor, teaching undergrads the ways of the Plato, Kant and Kierkegaard.

Then one day, during a lecture on Plato, my path veered again. My mind drifted to an idea I’d been mulling to expand my family’s small business back in Traverse City, which provided insurance for wooden boats and collector cars. The business was doing fine, but it was a tough slog. Insurance is not a fun topic at a car or boat show.

What if, I wondered, we evolved the offering to look more like a club? What if we treated our customers like a community? What if we focused on celebrating cars and driving with our clients, thereby enlarging the hobby and serving it?

It sounded like a great idea to a young man weary of books and lectures, so I left school and returned home to Traverse City, eager to give it a try. It has worked out pretty well.

Hagerty today is not only the largest provider of classic car insurance in the world, but also a major automotive media company and the hub of an international community of people who love cool older cars and even cooler car experiences. We focus on the member, not on the transaction, and that has made all the difference.

I am very proud of the company and all of the people who helped build it and sustain it to this day. But what I am most proud of is that Hagerty is making a difference in the world. We are a rapidly-growing company that provides a lot of good-paying jobs, which profoundly affects the communities we work in, thereby improving the world and impacting lives.

Just as important, we pride ourselves on being a “growth mindset” organization, one that focuses on helping employees grow as people and professionals. Those are two of the best – and most overlooked ways – that business can be a force for good in this world.

But there is third, and it is very powerful: Leadership.

Yes, leadership. While COVID has done an enormous amount of damage, I am in agreement with the scholars and researchers who tell us that, objectively, humanity is in a Golden Age of sorts. More people in more places are living longer, safer and more prosperous lives than at any other time in history.

That said, I also agree with those who think that when it comes to COVID, we could have done far better. With better leadership at all levels – with more people speaking out and speaking up in productive ways – fewer people could have lost their jobs, their livelihoods and their loved ones.

It’s clear that people worldwide recognize that fact. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer survey indicates a historic decline in faith in the institutions that we usually turn to – including government, non-government organizations, religion and the media.

The sad truth is people don’t know who to trust anymore, so where are they turning? This may surprise you, but many are turning to us – business people. According to the survey, business is not only the most trusted major institutions across the globe, it is also the only one viewed as both ethical and competent.

That’s an amazing reversal from the Great Recession when business leaders were anything but trusted, and we should be proud of it.  But why, you may ask, should business leaders here in northern Michigan care? The answer is simple: Because while the survey says people trust business in general (61%), they trust local businesses and the businesses that they work for even more (76%). And not only that, but increasingly business is expected to fill the void left by government, with 86% saying they expect CEOs to speak out about societal challenges like COVID.

I take CEOs to mean “all business leaders.” And I think we should up our game – particularly now. We are at an important crossroad. Recently, research compiled by a group I belong to called Business Leaders for Michigan indicated that we, as a state, are finally making solid progress on COVID. People are wearing masks and social distancing.

With fewer hospitalizations, health care workers are now able to concentrate on getting more vaccines into arms. And now, with ever-increasing availability of vaccines, the flywheel of recovery is finally starting to turn. But this is no time to whip off our masks, gather in big groups and act like the crisis is over. We still have work to do together.

When I think of my somewhat unorthodox life path from would-be priest to teacher to business leader, I see a clear theme: I seek higher ideals but I like to put them into action. I think this is what we need today from our business leaders: High ideals coupled with pragmatic, consistent action. This is the formula for rebuilding and maintaining trust.

Fellow business leaders, this is our time.

McKeel Hagerty is CEO of The Hagerty Group.