Alum Carlson’s career reflections provide insight for students

By Amanda Weber –

Kurt CarlsonOn Tuesday, May 15, Kurt Carlson (BA, ’85) stopped by to give our students some advice on what to expect when they enter the “real world.” Carlson, President and CEO of Propel Insurance, said that when he graduated he thought he would get into advertising. However, after all these years, he has come to learn that he has always been a salesman at heart.

Carlson said that through his years, he has learned quite a bit that has contributed to making him the CEO he is today. He started out with a failing insurance agency as a commercial insurance underwriter. The company had just scaled down its office from 120 to 45 employees when he joined. Carlson pointed out that in economies like that (and the one we’re experiencing today), “They can the ones that make all the money.” In a sense, he was lucky to have joined in a time when experience was more of a burden than an advantage.

In 1989, he moved on to Propel Insurance as a commercial insurance broker with the promise from his boss that “if you come in, you sell, you win, you can actually own a piece of the firm.” He admits to taking it easy for the first few years. As long as he kept selling and doing his job, he didn’t see a problem with coming into the office maybe once a week, or visiting the ski slopes during normal office hours.  He always had his phone on him so even if he was enjoying the fresh powder snow, “I would answer the phone up on Crystal [mountain],” he said.

Even though Carlson was sailing through his work and bringing in sales as he should, others were taking notice that he wasn’t around. One day his boss invited him to lunch, nothing seemingly amiss. After he ordered his lunch, his boss told the waiter, “I won’t be eating.” That’s when he knew something was up. At that moment his boss began to berate him for his lack of drive, and contentedness to stay at his current level.  After that, Carlson knew it was time to step up.

Now that he’s the CEO of the company, his experiences with climbing the corporate ladder, working with different kinds of people, and finding what truly makes working worthwhile are helping our students learn what to look out for before they start their careers. Here are a few pieces of advice he offered up:

  • Know who you are and try to match yourself to the right job. Be honest with what your personality is, or you’ll end up hating what you’re doing in life.
  • Even though you don’t have any experience right out of college, you can still sell yourself with what you learned as a student, in internships, and what you know about yourself. Let your interviewer know why you would be a great team member. All you need to be able to do is translate your life experiences into how they make you a strong employee.
  • “Somebody is going to have to help you along,” said Carlson. Find a mentor and take advantage of the people who can help you out in your career, but be sure to stay away from “black clouds.” People who are negative are not going to help you. Networking is huge, so “use everybody you can.”
  • Learn how to accept feedback and “start asking questions” about your performance to learn how you can better do your job. “Ask, ‘How am I doing?’ but be prepared for the answer.”
  • LinkedIn is great for getting interviews, but be wary of Facebook. “There is not an employer out there that’s not looking at that stuff.”