Tricia (Thomas) Griffith’s accomplishments as chief executive officer of The Progressive Corporation are so impressive that she is the first woman named Fortune Magazine’s Businessperson of the Year. The 1986 marketing graduate captured the honor in 2018, just two years after taking over the leadership role in the company that she joined as a claims representative in 1988.

Griffith, 54, is one of only 24 female Fortune 500 chief executive officers. She has led Progressive to become the nation’s third largest auto insurer, orchestrating sales growth that has outpaced both Apple and Microsoft in recent years.

Progressive grew by $2.8 billion and 6,600 employees in Griffith’s first year as CEO in 2016. The following year, those numbers were $3.8 billion and 6,000, respectively, and in 2018 more than $5 billion. Expansion has been managed in such a positive way that the company was included in Fortune’s Best Places to Work list last year.

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Only Geico and State Farm now insure more auto drivers than Progressive, which is a testimony to the fact Griffith’s vision for the company and leadership of its more than 38,000 employees is a winning combination.

“My biggest role is to create a great culture of trust at Progressive,” Griffith said. She credits her ISU College of Business education and campus opportunities to nurture leadership skills for starting her on a professional path toward the pinnacle of the insurance industry.

Griffith leads Progressive with a commitment to five core values that enable the company to “grow profitably and in the right way.” They are to maintain integrity, follow the Golden Rule, work from clear objectives, and stay committed to excellence while making a reasonable profit.

Griffith shared these fundamentals during a visit to campus last year. She delivered the keynote address during Business Week. She candidly chronicled her journey from the University to the top job of the company known for having Flo as its spokesperson.

“Illinois State is really where my leadership started” Griffith said, pinpointing pivotal experiences as a Preview Guide. “It was a life-changing summer. I realized then that if you lead with your values, you can really influence people.”

The death of her father while still an undergraduate resulted in Griffith returning from her apartment to once again live in the residence halls. She became a resident assistant in Watterson Towers as one way to help cover college expenses. The work allowed Griffith to hone skills that bolstered her confidence going forward following graduation.

Griffith’s career start was in retail, and included working for a home building materials firm in Indianapolis. As a management trainee, she learned to drive a fork lift and mix paint, but wanted something more. A decision to answer a classified ad resulted in her first job at Progressive, where
she was initially a claims adjustor trainee.

“I was estimating car damage and meeting with injured people,” Griffith said, recalling crawling under wrecked automobiles in body shops while wearing a skirt. The company was so young and unknown in the 1980s that even her mother thought Griffith’s job was with the soup company, Progresso.

“I fell in love with the people, the culture, and the fact that every day I learned something new,” said Griffith, who furthered her education by completing the Advanced Management Program through the Wharton School of Business.

Her longevity at Progressive resulted in her holding many titles. She served as the company’s chief human resource officer, launching Progressive’s first inclusion and diversity program. Griffith was later chosen to lead the claims division, followed by working as president of customer operations and later chief operating officer of the company’s Personal Lines area.

Each new role and its challenges prepared her to become a unique CEO, who is committed to remaining approachable. She addresses each group of new hires, and randomly selects a table of employees in the corporate’s cafeteria to join for lunch.

Griffith works diligently to ensure all in the company know its purpose statement, strategy, and vision, which is to “become consumers’ number one choice and destination for auto and other insurance.”

There is a confidence the goal will be achieved, in part because Griffith is personally and professionally anchored by solid principles. These include knowing when to lead and when to get out of the way, making certain her actions match her words, and maintaining a life balance with priorities that are “faith, family, and then Progressive.”

Griffith is equally committed to openly communicating both good and bad news. She encourages healthy debate, takes the blame while giving credit to others, and firmly believes that “management comes from hierarchy, but leadership comes from anywhere” across the company.

The latter truth is one proven by her own life story. It explains how the young woman who started in claims at a little-known business is breaking barriers as she leads that same company, nurturing it to become a giant in the competitive industry of insurance.