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Thomas Lea, American Family Insurance

IB’s Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet Dane County’s professionals. This week features Thomas Lea, HR service center manager, American Family Insurance.

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1. What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job and why?

The answer is simply the unknown. I have the privilege of managing a team that helps our employees with any HR-related questions they may have. I haven’t figured out how to predict the future, so trying to guess what kinds of questions we’ll receive on a given day makes planning somewhat challenging. But it also provides us the opportunity to leverage the data — the types of interactions we have with customers over a period of time — to understand what our opportunities are. So on a day-to-day basis it’s challenging to be prepared for what we don’t know is headed our way, but it’s incredibly rewarding and gratifying to sit back at the end of the day and recognize the range of questions we were able to answer and the valuable impact we have for our customers.

2. Who do you look up to or admire in business and why?

I admire Leslie Ann Howard, the former longtime CEO of United Way of Dane County. I’ve gotten to know Leslie through many United Way functions and couldn’t be more impressed and inspired by her passion for community and her relentless pursuit for bringing positive change to Dane County. Her vision, especially as it related to education and closing the racial achievement gap, and the work that has been started and continues under Renee Moe’s leadership, is going to make this community a better place for people today, and also lead to generational success and stability for families throughout Dane County as we move through the next 10, 15, 20 years and beyond.

3. What has been the high point of your career so far?

That depends on what career you’re talking about? Right out of college I had the opportunity to cover Wisconsin Badgers football and basketball for ESPNWisconsin.com. I never would have guessed I’d have the chance to cover three straight Rose Bowls. That experience is something many reporters never get the chance to do, and I did it three years in a row.

Since I’ve been at American Family I’ve also had some pretty cool moments. I was lucky enough to serve on our internal United Way team that raised more than $1 million (2013) and more than $2 million (2014) to benefit our Dane County community. I also helped our Rosenberry team grow from 48 members to 175 in a two-year span, again benefitting our community and engaging young professionals in the world of philanthropic giving. More recently I’ve enjoyed the chance to help build communication plans for a couple of our corporate-wide strategic initiative rollouts. And I’ve also really enjoyed my first management role. I’m learning a ton every day and enjoying every aspect and challenge management brings.

4. Thinking back on your career, what advice would you give your 21-year-old-self?

A few things: 

  1. Spend a little more time in the gym and a little less time eating Ian’s Pizza. Getting fit at 30 is much harder than it is/was when you’re 21.
  2. Don’t be afraid to bet on yourself. If it feels like you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you feel like what you’re doing isn’t leading you anywhere, find a way to recognize what you’re good at and use that to make things happen. If that means you need to get out of your comfort zone, do it. Pushing yourself is how you grow.
  3. Your 20s represent a great time to enjoy yourself and your friends, but don’t forget how important that foundational decade is as you begin your career — even if your career changes midway through. I’d make my 21-year-old self read Meg Jay’s book, The Defining Decade. And I think that would have motivated me at 21.

(Continued)

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