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Building Blocks of Agency Leadership

leadership Jun 13, 2019

KNOW WHERE YOU WANT TO GO AND HOW YOU’RE GOING TO GET THERE

For the last 30 years, international leadership guru John Maxwell, who was my mentor and with whom I’ve had the privilege of sharing a stage, has said that everything rises and falls on leadership. Although I used to question that idea, my experience has convinced me that it’s true! Leadership affects every area of our personal and professional lives.

To me, leadership is not a destination, a title, an expensive car or a corner office. Although all of those things may be the result of great leadership, they are not one and the same. Leadership is an action, and the way you measure that action is influence. Are people listening to you? Are they buying in to what you’re trying to accomplish? Are you building relationships?

Ultimately I believe three main building blocks form the foundation of great agency leadership:

  • Clarity of vision and direction
  • Confidence in your entire team
  • Culture with buy-in and accountability

Clarity

As business leader and author Keith Cunningham has said, “Running the wrong way enthusiastically is stupid.” Not only do I agree, but I see this in many agencies today.

Many agency leaders have good intentions and work extremely hard to get ahead, but their actions are like those of a hamster on a wheel. They’re running faster and faster, but they don’t know if they’re going in the right direction or if they’re going anywhere at all. In reality, the only place they’re going is nowhere fast! To gain clarity, they must ask—and answer—the following questions:

Where are we today? All progress starts by telling the truth, so let’s not sugarcoat it. Make a brutally honest assessment of where your agency stands today, be it good, bad or indifferent. Know your agency numbers. Without them, you can’t know the status of your business.

Where do we want to go? As an agency leader, you are the navigator. It’s up to you to steer your agency in the right direction. But first it’s critical that you determine where you want to go. What is your desired destination? What do you really want, and what is your vision for the agency?

How will we get there? Once you have determined where you are and where you want to be, you must develop strategies to get you there. For example, let’s say you own a $1 million revenue agency and I ask you where you want to be in three years. The typical response is, “In three years, I want to be a $5 million agency.” Great! How will you do that? “We’re going to make more sales.” Okay—how? “We’re going to sell more.” To me, that sounds more like wishful thinking than an actual plan of action.

Hope is not a strategy! You can’t just hope that things are going to magically improve. You must have a plan and a way to implement it. Otherwise you’ll never reach your goals.

To get your team on the same page, your business plan should be on one page. It helps to enhance clarity. I think a lot of agency leaders have a lot of abstract ideas, hopes and dreams, many of them quite good. To clearly convey their message to the team, however, they’d be well advised to distill it into a single page that addresses the following key points:

Vision and mission. While the one-page business plan should be simple and straightforward, it also should clearly define the agency’s mission (its business and objectives, and its approach to reach those objectives) and describe its vision (where the agency would like to be in the future). I’m not talking about an inspirational message on the wall that people tend to ignore. It must come from the heart and define your agency’s objectives. It should not be an empty statement such as, “Our mission is to serve our customers well.” That’s fine, but doesn’t that go without saying?

I believe that when leadership comes from the heart—and not the mouth—it comes with conviction. A true leader inspires others to believe in the mission and help realize the vision.

Critical Success Factors. What do we have to do consistently (e.g., daily/weekly/always) to become successful? What are those things we consider non-optional behaviors? What are the strategies we truly believe in?

Key Performance Indicators. What are the metrics we’ll use? We can’t just guess that we’re making progress; we have to be able to measure it. Revenue, for example, is an obvious indicator. What is our operating profit? What is our organic growth rate? At Sitkins, we use GROFIT (your agency’s Organic Growth Percentage plus Operating Profit Percentage). We believe agencies should strive for a minimum of 40%. For example, if you have a 25% operating profit and 15% growth, you’re at 40%. You’re doing really well! It’s a matter of understanding where you are today and building on it.

Other key indicators we look at include revenue per relationship, closing rate and retention rate. Every agency has its own indicators, but these are some of the main ones we look at.

At the bottom of our one-page business plan, we have The One Thing, which is meant to clarify your intentions and provide continuity to your team. This is the single thing you will be laser-focused on and do exceedingly well.

Confidence

Confidence is a key building block, which according to Robert Kiyosaki comes from discipline and training. Unfortunately, most agencies don’t have a team development plan. Although every agency is unique, the highest performing ones all have something in common: They all provide coaching and training. In fact, this is the case at almost every business in any industry. It takes confidence to reach the top, whether in athletics, music or insurance. And the best way to develop it is through training, coaching and discipline.

Many people mistakenly believe that the #1 responsibility of a sales leader is to increase sales when it’s actually to improve the people on the sales team. Similarly, the #1 responsibility of an agency leader is to develop people, whether it’s producers, service team members or sales managers.

If you’re an agency leader, you understand that your employees are your most important asset. When they know that you want to invest in them, train them, mentor them and believe in them, their confidence grows. In turn, their confidence in the agency begets confidence that extends to your clients and the entire community. Your agency’s numbers are simply a reflection of the behaviors and strategies you have in place.

What does good training look like? If you aren’t doing it, you probably haven’t made it a priority or you’re not sure how to do it. Here’s what I believe should be the three focal points of an agency’s team training:

  1. Prepare. Of course you have to write business and make sales, but first and foremost, you must prepare. When we look at high-performing, high-growth agencies, we find that their producers are simply better prepared than their competitors. Preparation is their #1 competitive advantage. For instance, they prepare their production team to ask better questions. They prepare their production team to tell their story of differentiation. They also prepare their producers to build overflowing pipelines with the future ideal clients they’ve identified. All of these are skills that must be defined and developed.

One of the best ways to prepare is through role playing. Doing so ensures that when producers show up to play, they’re ready! It’s no different than what any other professional does to prepare for a public performance: practice, practice, practice! Can you imagine a professional sports team that never practices between competitions but shows up on game day expecting to win? Or try to envision being a musician in a symphony orchestra that never rehearses for concerts. Instead you’re given only a score sheet and a date to perform. Neither scenario will have a good outcome. Similarly, a sales organization that doesn’t appropriately prepare its team should not expect great results.

  1. Play. Now that you’re prepared to give your best performance, how will you execute it? What’s the plan? What play are we running? If everyone has a different approach to playing, the game will not end well. What is your agency’s way of doing business? Do you have a true sales process? How do your sales and service teams collaborate? All of that (and much more) must be defined. Otherwise you’re just hoping that somehow the pieces will fall into place when it’s game time.
  2. Stay. At the end of the day, your job as an agency leader is to do such a great job that you keep clients for life. That’s what the best agencies do. Remember, you don’t want to renew accounts, you want to continue relationships. And there’s a significant difference in both the process and the mindset.

Even in today’s technology-driven world, this will always be a relationship business. Your tool of the trade is insurance and risk management, but what you do is still all about building relationships with clients who can’t imagine doing business with anyone else. How are you coaching and training your sales team to cultivate lifelong relationships?

Culture

What is culture? Basically, it’s the attitude, language and behaviors that are normal in your agency. That’s it! How do people talk? How do they react to one another? How do people communicate internally and with clients? Do employees dread Mondays and celebrate Fridays?

We know from working with agencies and their owners that the best processes will not save a poor culture. You can have all the tools and technology in the world, but if people don’t buy into it or if the culture’s not strong enough to support it, you’re wasting your time. It’s not going to work. So what should you do if you’re an agency leader who wants to change your company’s culture?

First you may want to reconsider your use of the word “change” because the idea of behaving differently tends to make people feel anxious. At the same time, it’s not entirely true that people don’t like to change. For instance, if I offered you a million dollars, I bet you’d have no problem changing immediately!

People don’t resist change, they resist being changed. That’s why we suggest that agency leaders focus instead on improvement. The word “improve” has a lot more power and appeal than “change.”

Frequently, leaders who want to make fundamental changes or improvements in their agency start by implementing a sales process, a continuation or renewal process, and new metrics. While those things are important, any meaningful improvements must start with culture. To do that, you must continually communicate what the agency is all about. What is its mission? What is the vision? Incidentally, when you begin to think you’ve over-communicated about the culture, your message is probably just starting to sink in. You really can’t say it enough. Keep in mind, you are the heart of the agency! It’s up to you to continually pump blood into the organization.

Accountability is another key component of culture. A culture without accountability is a culture of chaos. Conversely, a culture of accountability is a collaborative effort that results in a win-win. It’s the shared vision of two parties who have agreed on what they want and what each will do to help the other succeed. The greatest producers want to be held accountable to perform at higher levels than they ever thought possible.

Discipline and accountability go hand in hand. Discipline is not about punishment, however; it’s about performance. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, puts it, “A culture of discipline is not a culture of business, it’s a culture of greatness.” It’s true. At the best agencies we work with, everyone—producers and leaders alike—buys into being accountable. Because of that, they produce the greatest results.

Ultimately it’s about living a life of abundance versus a life of scarcity.

John Maxwell was right when he said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” As a leader, that may seem like a huge challenge. However, when you become clear on your vision and direction, develop confidence in your team, and build a winning culture, this challenge becomes your greatest opportunity.

What is the best version of your agency? Are you committed to making it happen? It starts with you.

The author

Brent Kelly is vice president of Sitkins Group, Inc., and is a coach and speaker who has a passion for helping agencies maximize their performance. He spent 15 years as a successful commercial lines producer and was named one of the top 12 young agents in the country in 2012. To help your agency gain clarity, build confidence, and improve culture, please contact him at [email protected] or visit www.sitkins.com.

 

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