Dawn Sly-Terpstra, Grinnell Mutual
The phenomenon of a college degree not exactly matching up with an executive’s career isn’t unusual, but it makes for some interesting origin stories. Dawn Sly-Terpstra, AVP for marketing and customer experience at Grinnell Mutual, for example, is trained as an anthropologist. That came in handy as the company embarked on an ambitious rebranding effort, with her at the lead.
“Anthropology,” she notes, “is the study of culture. Culture is about a shared-belief system. Our shared belief at Grinnell is all about trust and tomorrow— that trust piece has been huge.”
When she first joined Grinnell, Sly-Terpstra explains, “I had the privilege of writing a company history book during our centennial in 2009. And going through all the archives and different publications over the years, the concept of trusted relationships was consistent.”
It was that sense of the company’s history and its culture that led Sly-Terpstra to put Grinnell’s employees at the heart of the rebranding effort. “Our brand is focused on trusted relationships, and that meant putting our employees at the center of our rebranding effort,” she says. “They hold the relationships with our customers. They are our brand ambassadors.”
The example she gives is what’s known at Grinnell as the “Our Voices” videos. These are taped conversations between employees and their customers talking about the impact of a loss the customer suffered, and how Grinnell was able to make the customer whole again. The discussion might take place in an informal setting like the customer’s kitchen table, over a plate of brownies. Says Sly-Terpstra: “That really does paint a picture of the kind of people we have on the front lines.”
But how does she unleash her team’s creative energies to come up with these and countless other original ideas?
“I love a collaborative environment,” she responds. “I don’t like telling my team what to do, but would rather look to them to be the leaders. Maybe that comes with the female leadership style— to allow that kind of interaction.”
To help her team serve as the strategic marketing planning group for all the different stakeholders at Grinnell, she says she aims to give them the space they need to develop their own ideas within a creative and fun environment. But she also says that “while managing a creative team is truly a joy — sometimes it’s like herding cats.”
In order to keep her staff on target, Sly-Terpstra encourages them to “know their audience” and do the research required to produce a good product. “We know that we’re the life and breath for our brand,” she says. “It’s incumbent upon us to keep it alive in every corner of the organization.”
Sly-Terpstra grew up in the Quad
City region of eastern Iowa, where both her parents were teachers. Early on she envisioned herself becoming a lawyer, but she also had a keen interest in advertising, marketing and reporting, and her first-ever job was as a freelancer for the local newspaper.
While in high school, Sly-Terpstra had the opportunity to interview thenFirst Lady Rosalynn Carter, and she developed a passion for politics. For more than a decade, she worked on several political campaigns, including one that took her candidate to the U.S. Senate.
“After several years of field work, my love for marketing and communications was really gnawing at me, and then the opportunity at Grinnell came along,” she says. “That was a very happy accident.”
Her anthropology background has continued to inform her unique strategy for building a successful culture.
“I think it’s vitally important that we model our ability to lead on our own style and speak in our own language, as it were,” she says. “If my style’s a little bit different, that’s OK. As a marketing person, I always say, ‘Think differently.’”
Dawn Sly-Terpstra AVP, Marketing and User Experience, Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company