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From the Magazine, Leadership, Profile

When Opportunity Knocks

Carra Simmons already transformed learning at State Farm once. Now she’s taking on the task of leading the insurance company’s learning into a technology-enabled future.

One day when she was living in Yuma, Arizona, Carra Simmons heard a knock at her door. It was her neighbors with a business proposition for her. Little did she know it would change her life.

A full-time teacher with a real estate business on the side and a master’s degree in the works, Simmons wasn’t looking for a change. But the more she learned about that proposition — an offer to become a State Farm agent — she was intrigued. Thanks to her neighbors’ persistence, Simmons was sold on the opportunity and today remains happy she did.

After running her own agency for four years, Simmons moved into a management role, eventually landing as vice president of learning and development at State Farm’s headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois. The Iowa native took on the role nine years ago after spending most of her career on the agency side of the business.

“I succeeded a fantastic talent who was retiring from her long-held position and she left big shoes to fill,” Simmons said. “I came to the role with a completely different background and experience set than she had which provided a new lens and potentially a new approach for learning at State Farm.”

At State Farm, a Fortune 500 company that insures more cars and homes than any insurer in the United States, Simmons oversees the education of 70,000 employees and nearly 19,000 agents with about 60,000 of their own employees.

Carra Simmons

Roots in Education

After leaving the classroom to become an insurance agent, Simmons once again found herself an educator, but this time explaining the complexities of insurance. As she stepped into management roles, she was able to see learning more broadly. “You glean all these great ideas and systems and then have the ability to help people collaborate and improve,” she said.

In her role now, Simmons does little teaching herself but manages her team of 320 who develop learning strategies for their business partners.

Simmons said her family is influential in the choices she’s made in her career. Her mother started college to become a teacher but dropped out to get married and raise Simmons and her four siblings. Simmons said her mother knew what she missed and didn’t want her kids to miss out on educational opportunities.

Simmons and her siblings heeded her parents’ advice when they said: “No one can take your education from you.” One sister is an attorney, another a nurse and another a teacher. Her brother is a veterinarian.

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. When Simmons was 39, with a 2-year-old son and a daughter on the way, she lost her husband to cardiac arrest. He was also a teacher and in her eyes a phenomenal one.

“He is one of those that I truly would call a master teacher,” she said, adding that he had the ability to take the complicated and simplify it. Simmons said that’s what she tries to do in her role now. When business gets complicated, she asks how she can simplify, organize and get it done.

“To overcome adversity, you see a different side of yourself, you see other people like you,” she said. “Some things are within your control and some things are not within your control — what you must do is figure out the best you can do with your given circumstances.”

Like a Good Neighbor, Learning Is There

Simmons said that philosophy bleeds over into how she works, trying to bring the best value and benefit to learning at State Farm.

“We’ve got to ask the right questions first because we’re in a day and age where we need to prioritize and sometimes it’s not even a training issue once we peel back the onion a little bit,” she said. “To respect everyone’s time, budget dollars and resources, it’s important for us to get to the objectives and strategic learning priorities.”

Annette Martinez, vice president of human resources at State Farm, who has worked with Simmons for nearly 20 years, said Simmons’ experience as an educator plays out in what she does every day and how she builds a culture of learning in the organization.

“Learning is something that you can just tell she lives and breathes and believes in,” Martinez said. “And it actually is represented in the products that her department offers to the organization and in how she influences the organization around education and continuously learning.”

State Farm has a federated model for learning with Simmons and her team at the center and each business area with their own learning team. The claims department, for example, runs their own technical training but they adhere to all the company’s standards for learning developed by Simmons’ department. Her department designs the programs based on what they want every employee and every leader to understand.

“Just because we think we’ve got it figured out today, we’ve got to listen to those who are using it — there’s always something new and better,” Simmons said. “From a best practices standpoint, it’s never stagnant — and that’s the exciting piece of it.”

Centralizing Learning

Centralizing learning and development was one of Simmons’ first big tasks when she took on the job. Every department used to run their own leadership training and while well-intentioned, Simmons said she was confident the new change would allow for more personalized and intentional learning.

Carra Simmons

“It took some convincing in the early days to say, ‘I’m not sure your program is as good as this one is going to be, so please send your people here,’ ” Simmons said. “It’s what they knew and loved, so the pressure was on for us to deliver.”

Ken Heidrich, agency vice president, said he has seen the benefits of centralized learning but it didn’t happen without some big questions. “Anytime you centralize something, someone is going to look at it as decentralizing something else that they used to have control over,” he said.

The shift wasn’t easy but it was necessary, Simmons said, allowing her learning team to refine processes and scale learning more efficiently. “We have much more data today than we did when we started this journey [and] centralizing allowed us to deploy training solutions to meet the tremendous size of some audiences,” she said.

Through the process, Heidrich said Simmons was disciplined in her approach. “She was unwavering in the ability to continue to push the methodology of why we were centralizing, not only for the cost benefit side but to create the inventory of all the learning pieces,” he said. Simmons is continuing to make sure she delivers so people see it is a more sustainable structure, he added.

One of Simmons’ favorite programs was developed out of the new centralized learning structure. The Leaders Leading Leaders program is for early career high-potential leaders. Just before the program was created, State Farm was growing fast and bringing in a high volume of new leaders with a resulting gap in learning.

The program is an in-person session lasting two to three days with a cross-section of departments, fields and market areas represented. Simmons said one of the great benefits of the program is that you can learn just from being around those in the room.

“In their day-to-day, they may not cross paths with most of these individuals, so there is tremendous learning just to network and understand people,” Simmons said. “It’s really a targeted development learning experience and it’s also this broadened message and connection from executives.”

There are general sessions where executives speak in front of the group which employees love, Simmons said, and there are also a couple different tracks tailored to individuals’ specific needs so people with similar needs can learn together. Executives teach portions of those sessions, too.

“That has been overwhelmingly positive,” Simmons said. “As a leader, you may want to come back to a future session as well to take something else that was offered.”

Though they are not trying not to do all learning in person, Simmons said when people do come together she wants it to be meaningful, intentional and purposeful. “I think this has really hit the mark for us in that regard,” Simmons said, noting that the program has achieved a Net Promoter Score of 88 out of possible 100.

“The fun part for me is hearing about it at my level,” she said. “These leaders come back and rave about it and then word gets back to me. The beauty of it is that those departments or market areas are very anxious to send other leaders through it as well since the leaders who did attend got so much out of it.”

Carra Simmons

The Future at State Farm

Now Simmons and her team find themselves at a point where technology is pushing them to take another look at learning and ask how they modernize their approach again.

The insurance industry is changing based on federal and state oversight and the actions of regulators and legislators, Heidrich said. Each state has specific continuing education and licensing requirements on a statewide and federal basis that must be constantly managed in the L&D field. He and Simmons are working on how to take topics that would typically be fact-based and dry and turn them into interactive gamification-type learning.

Overall, Simmons’ team is pushing for more hands-on practice and simulation environments. She said if they can have these resources built into the workflow to provide key information when it’s needed, then training isn’t about the content but instead how to access it and what to do with it.

“She’s doing a nice job of getting her arms around it,” said Heidrich, who has worked with Simmons for nearly 20 years.

With technology, learning is easily embedded in the workflow so much that employees might not even realize they’re learning, Simmons said. But it remains a continuous challenge to bring the biggest impact and value.

“It’s challenging but you do see the benefit of it and it circles back into the classroom teaching piece where I started my career,” she said. “You really do see the lightbulbs come on — see the students learning — and that’s really no different today.”

Ave Rio is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com

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