A couple years back, while I was attending a conference where I was scheduled to speak, I received a generous invitation to briefly address a group of claims people who were attending CEU training in a concurrent program. The organizer had asked me to stop in and briefly discuss my company, and specifically our legislative research library, WorkCompResearch.com.

I had just been introduced and had barely spoken a word when a young woman near the front of the room shot her hand upward indicating she had a question. I paused and acknowledged her pending query.

No one informed me I should have worn my titanium plated undies that day.

I am guessing from both her intensity and intonation that she had read this blog, and was not particularly a fan. Her words were terse; her tone sharp. She looked directly at me and forcefully asked, “What qualifies you to be here and speak to us today?”

The room grew deathly silent. All eyes were cast upon me, as if I were a school bus teetering at the edge of a cliff. Would I tumble over, and plummet to an ultimate destruction? Or would I slide back to safety for a triumphant return from the abyss? My impulsive reaction was to, with a snap of my fingers and a telling nod of my head, have my security people drag her from the room and beat her mercilessly; a fitting punishment for daring to pull back the curtain exposing the tender and human frailty of the wizard himself. But then I remembered, I don’t have any security people. I’d look pretty stupid just standing there, snapping my fingers and bobbling my head. Absent that option, I was left with two choices. Fake a heart attack or answer the question.

I didn’t want my shirt ruined being ripped from my chest, and I worried someone would be far too eager to use a defibrillator on me, so I answered the question.

My response was to tell her it was a good question, as I am not an expert, and have never managed a claim. I was invited there, however, because I have had the extraordinary fortune to occupy a very unique position within the workers’ compensation industry. For almost 16 years (at that point in time), I had operated a company that not only served millions of visitors per year, but was positioned at “ground zero”; serving all sides of the workers’ compensation industry. That is not something many people can say. I have literally spent years of my life engaged in extensive conversations with injured workers, claims professionals, MSA specialists, lawyers, doctors, regulators and more. While that does not qualify me to perform any of those functions, it does give me a unique perspective that others may not have the opportunity to experience.

You will be pleased to know that, as part of my response, I did not stick my tongue out at her, or say in my best Pee Wee Herman voice, “I know you are, but what am I?” I was the consummate professional.

I thought of that exchange recently after an email discussion with another workers’ comp writer. It was a broad discussion related to adequacy of benefits and his conversation with some legal experts about potential national trends. He made the comment that attorneys are generally not good at looking at the picture beyond their immediate sphere, saying, “I have found that attorneys are really bad at going beyond the individual case or client load and generalizing.” He was right, but to a great degree that is not an issue solely for attorneys. Generally, most people in the industry are fairly heavily siloed within their job classification, and spend the vast majority of their day within the realm of their immediate expertise.

That is by no means a critical observation. It is just reality, for our industry or any other. There are very skilled people deep in the trenches of corporate America, and every one of them is afforded a different view based on the nature of their jobs.

For over 100 years, the US military has employed the services of “aerial observers”; people (and now drones) that fly high over a battlefield to observe and report on the positions of all the essential players engaged in the battle. Their work and contributions may not be any more important or critical than those folks on the ground, but they are a necessary cog in a much bigger machine. Aerial observers are not artillery experts, or marksmen. They may not be able to successfully launch shoulder fired missiles. They probably couldn’t navigate a tank to save their life; but they do have an appreciation for the important role that tank plays in the greater objective.

There are a number of us within the industry, who, through the benefit of our positions, do function more or less in the role of aerial observer for the workers’ compensation industry. It doesn’t mean we are more talented or smarter than anyone else (in my case, far from it); it simply means we are afforded a different perspective by the nature of what we do. I do not know the role of the young woman who boldly challenged me that day. She might be the equivalent of a foot soldier, or a tank commander. I would never presume to understand the detailed nuances required to fill her position, but by the same token, she should not automatically reduce the value of others experience, simply because it is not specifically like hers. Neither of us should be discounting the importance of the others potential contribution.

The dilemma of the writer with whom I was conversing, a fellow “aerial observer” for workers’ comp, was real. Many people do not take (or have) the opportunity to “generalize” beyond their caseload. That is why communication between all sectors is so important for the industry.

One of the overriding positives about holding the Workers’ Compensation Summit (The National Conversation) was that so many participants told us that they saw huge benefit in simply talking with people in different sectors of the industry. Numerous participants indicated that they had never experienced an exercise such as that – and they recognized that they did not understand the challenges that “opposing sides” often face. It was one of the most satisfying things to date about that ongoing effort.

Workers’ compensation is an enormous and complex machine, where everyone has an important role. From the people on the front lines to those with a broader but much less detailed view, we all have something to share and contribute. I am just glad that people challenge and remind us of that from time to time. It is important that we communicate and understand from the perspective of others.

Unless I eventually get security people; then all bets are off. When that happens I could go full Pee Wee on her ass, and little Toto, too.

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