A lot has changed since Taiwan Ellis’s first day in the contact center at SmartFinancial four years ago.
For starters, the company has grown significantly, its headcount now topping out at 250+ employees. With a goal of simplifying the insurance marketplace for home, auto, health and more, SmartFinancial’s mission has attracted more than 15 million users across 50 states.
That mission also resonates with employees. Led by a leadership team that inspires instead of demands, Ellis said SmartFinancial’s team is keen to help each other and the company progress. Its culture of deep collaboration has certainly helped Ellis grow his career: He now holds the role of contact center manager and oversees 130 agents. And even though a lot’s changed over the years, there are some key elements at SmartFinancial that haven’t — and that’s a good thing.
“You’re respected here,” Ellis said. “My team knows I’d go to bat for them, and I know they’d do the same for me. That’s been the same since day one.”
Ellis’s story isn’t unique at the company, said Senior Data Analyst Derek Mankaruse. Because of the warm culture SmartFinancial has cultivated, group decisions happen freely, new ideas flourish and careers unfold faster. To Mankaruse, that makes all of the difference in his line of work.
“In my field, wherever you go, data is data,” Mankaruse said. “What makes SmartFinancial stand out is the people. Our company is led by people who know how to motivate us to work hard, have fun together and find opportunities to grow. Every day feels like Employee Appreciation Day.”
Mankaruse, Ellis and Corporate Accounting Manager Derek Kou aren’t letting the executive team do all of the heavy lifting in culture-building. As managers, they’ve been able to grow their leadership skills in ways that echo larger company values, showing their teams the same support and care they’ve felt since day one. Built In connected with the trio to see what that looks like in practice, and how they enable their independent contributors to move fast, have fun and hopefully grow into SmartFinancial’s next generation of leaders.
How do you keep your team connected, even as some employees work remotely and the company scales?
Contact Center Manager Taiwan Ellis: Since the pandemic started, we’ve been bridging the gap between people through frequent one-on-one meetings, happy hours and virtual lunches. We never want people to feel like they’re on their own island, or that they’ve been left alone too long. It’s a little tougher working from home because you don’t have that constant interaction, so we’ve needed to be creative about how we go about bonding. We make sure that if some activity isn’t benefiting the team, we’ll try another. We’ve seen a lot of growth around this area so far, and it’s only going to continue.
Corporate Accounting Manager Derek Kou: Over the last year, we’ve grown to over 250 employees. It’s been truly amazing to watch us grow so fast, but it’s also exciting to be a part of that growth. You feel like you’re actually achieving something greater than yourself and really helping this company.
We have a general companywide Slack channel where everyone chimes in and updates each other on how life is going. We’re always connecting with each other, whether it be discussing what super power we would want or sharing about big life events. We’re all there to contribute to our team members in times of need.
Additionally, leaders here keep an open-door policy. I have one person on my team, and we are always in communication. I think that’s really key, whether you’re at home or in the office.
How do you enable your team to speak up if they have new ideas?
Ellis: I serve my team by focusing on their needs, and removing all of the barriers to their success. Sometimes, that looks like coaching, mentoring and identifying what motivates each one of them. I try to inspire my team through enthusiasm and make sure everyone feels valued. I never like to view myself as a boss, but instead as a leader. I want people to continue to grow and to build people up so they can do the same for others, especially if they want to become leaders themselves one day.
I want everyone here to have a voice, be involved in what’s going on and never feel like a number. That helps people feel inspired. I also ensure my team knows they can always talk to me about absolutely anything. That’s so important for their mental health, especially these days because everyone is dealing with a lot. Being able to have those conversations is helpful.
What exciting projects are you and your team currently tackling?
Mankaruse: We’re transitioning into a new database structure that will allow data to come in in a different format, which will be more accurate for the team and give other stakeholders exactly what they’re looking for. We’re also looking at new data visualization tools. We’re currently using Periscope, but are in talks to switch over to Tableau, since it’s a much better tool and we can do a lot more with it.
These talks are happening quickly. It started with my team collaborating on how to solve certain problems, and what tools we could use to fill any gaps. We’re still in the works of making these transitions, but we are definitely moving fast.
Kou: When I joined, I had pretty much a blank slate to work with in the accounting department. I started out by bringing our accounting over from a third party to us doing it internally, so I was mainly focused on building out new processes. Even now, we’re still looking into how to make everything smoother and more efficient.
Now that I have a new staff accountant, she’s been able to help tremendously with rounding out any edges. She’s found ways to do things that I’d never even thought about and has suggested new tools that we now use. We used to close our financial books in 10 days, now we do it in seven.
What has your career growth looked like at SmartFinancial? What areas of growth are available to your team?
Kou: We didn’t actually have an accounting department when I started at SmartFinancial. I was the foundation for the team, which we’re now continuing to grow and taking advantage of new opportunities.
We have the ability to bring in the resources and education we need to enable us to do our jobs better, and to continue educating our team. For example, my team is given the opportunity to study for their certified public accounting license, which is a big deal. The CPA exam was one of the hardest tests I’ve ever taken: It’s really four exams that you have to complete within one year. But it’s something we give our staff an opportunity to do, because we want to enable them to challenge themselves and move up the ladder.
Mankaruse: I started off managing data for one or two departments before gradually supporting many different teams. You can find a lot of opportunity here because we try to make sure everyone has the right tools they need to succeed in their current role. If there’s a tool or new technology we don’t currently have, we have open conversations about how to bring in new resources and technology. We’ve experienced that a bit on my team, which I mentioned previously about the new database and using Tableau. By providing the best tools, everyone can excel and perform better in their roles.
Ellis: I’ve been here since 2018, when the call center first got started. I began on the phones, then moved up to a lead, then a manager. This growth has been phenomenal. That’s the beautiful thing about this company: Leadership supports you completely in everything you want to do and they work hard to make sure you can become successful in where you want to go.
On my team, there is a lot of growth you can see. For example, you could start here in the contact center and work your way up to being an insurance agent. We’ve had people that have even moved over to account management. A lot of people have the opportunity to further their careers internally, which is something you don’t always see at companies. But at SmartFinancial you have that potential to grow.