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Recurring Themes Among Agencies

agency leader being pulled in many directions

The key frustration with many agency leaders and their teams usually revolves around three specific things they lack: time, money, and people. However, if I had to pick the number-one source of frustration in most agencies, it would be people.

I always joke that agency leadership would be easy if only it weren’t for the darn people! But seriously, addressing this problem is no laughing matter. For the vast majority of leaders, it’s an ongoing challenge to attract, develop, and retain the best people. So how do the best agencies do it?

If you were to survey 100 agency leaders on how to recruit, develop, and retain top talent, you’d probably get 100 different answers. That’s because independent insurance agencies are just that: independent. Yet, despite their distinctive differences, there are some recurring themes I’ve observed among agency leaders with a knack for cultivating top talent.

Establish a culture that attracts talent

We’re told from an early age that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” That’s especially true when it comes to attracting the best people. According to a concept known as The Law of Magnetism, “We don’t attract what we want; we attract who we are.”

So, who are you? As an agency, what do you have to offer and why would someone want to be associated with you? It really boils down to the quality of your agency’s culture.

We define culture as the normal language and behaviors of an agency. What are people in your agency saying and doing? How is the energy in the office? What are people’s attitudes? All of these things reflect your agency’s culture. It’s nearly impossible to bring good people into a bad culture.

Management consultant, educator and author Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, although strategy is important, a poor culture will sabotage results, no matter how great your plan to acquire and retain the best talent.

As a leader, you must establish who you are, what you stand for, and what is and is not acceptable in your agency. Are you living up to that standard? If not, what are your aspirations? For example:

  • What is the vision for the agency? (Where are you going?)
  • What is the mission for the agency? (Why do you exist?)
  • What does the agency do at the highest level? (What differentiates you in the marketplace?)
  • How aligned are the agency departments? (How do you communicate and work together?)

There are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, because every agency is unique. At the same time, if culture is not addressed and consistently improved, your agency’s internal problems will be apparent to outside talent. The quality of a company’s culture may not come across in a virtual interview, but it will be obvious the minute someone walks into the office, especially after hours. It’s impossible not to feel what’s going on in the organization.

Does your agency project an atmosphere of growth and positivity or one of stagnation and frustration?

Create a talent development plan

While the best talent can succeed naturally in most circumstances, talent wants to be developed. At Sitkins, for example, we help develop people so they’ll get results they wouldn’t achieve on their own.

What’s your talent development plan? By that, I mean what are you doing to help agents develop their skills, habits, communication, etc.? While you’re probably doing some of these things, you may be doing them sporadically and unintentionally. For instance, in describing your talent development process, which of these statements would you make: “We match our producers with mentors,” or “We try to match producers with mentors.” Typically, an action plan prefaced with “try to” means there’s no actual schedule or definitive plan.

If you’re an average agency competing against the largest, most successful agencies, it may be difficult to recruit the best people. However, if you can show them a long-term career path and provide a personalized plan that will help them reach their destination, you’re much more likely to attract superior talent.

Are you strictly looking for producers who can produce? Or do you offer individual attention and customized training and development to help growth-minded producers succeed?

Basically, your talent development plan should do three things:

  • Educate (what they need to know to succeed)
  • Equip (the tools you must provide for them to succeed)
  • Empower (the beliefs and confidence you transfer to them)

In crafting a plan that will appeal to sought-after producers, it’s critical that you not only understand their goals and desires, but that you’re able to articulate how your agency can help them attain those things. It’s equally important that you specify the results they can expect by following your individual career plan for them. For example, “We’re looking for an individual with the ability to grow 20% the first year and 40% the second year.” You could also spell out your expectations for their career growth using shorter- and longer-term increments:

  • The first 90 days
  • The first year
  • Year three
  • Five years and beyond

In recruiting new talent, agencies must do a better job of marketing the many options and rewards of working in our industry. Typically, college graduates don’t think of insurance as an exciting industry. But it can be. The best agencies understand this, and promote insurance not just as a challenging job, but as an outstanding and interesting career.

Recently, in an effort to attract new producers, one of our most successful clients created a producer academy, targeting young people at job fairs and recruiting events. This innovative outreach has enabled their team to directly market the benefits of the insurance business to potential recruits, such as flexible hours, excellent compensation, and opportunities for growth. The ability to convey the message that insurance can be a fun and enriching career choice has given the agency a competitive advantage.

In sports, the best coaches develop the best talent and then put them in the best position to win. The best talent doesn’t always win, but the best positioned and best trained talent does. The same is true of our industry, but we must provide a plan to encourage talent buy-in.

Remove lids to retain talent

If you do the first two things right, retaining great producers shouldn’t be a major challenge. Even so, top agencies occasionally lose their best talent. It can happen when producers move on to a bigger agency that offers more money or when they seek new challenges or simply get bored. That’s why agencies need to keep challenging their professional teams to always grow and learn. Otherwise, their best talent may feel frustrated and trapped.

I like to use the analogy of a pot filled with water on a hot stove. If you put a lid on the pot, once the water starts to boil, it won’t be contained. The steam that builds up needs to go somewhere. Similarly, talent may reach a boiling point where it needs a bigger pot or an environment that doesn’t feel so confining. Often, that happens once a producer thinks they’ve reached their limit on the job and/or no longer feels appreciated.

One of the best ways to prevent this is to always reward results. Never assume that your best talent knows how pleased you are with them, because eventually they’ll feel taken for granted. That’s why it’s critical to consistently show your appreciation for their accomplishments and offer tangible rewards for a job well done.

Being recognized for excellence may be especially important to producers who’ve reached the pinnacle of success and have nothing left to prove professionally but still seek satisfaction in what they do. An expression of gratitude can go a long way in keeping them from becoming stagnant and looking elsewhere for a challenge.

Prepare or repair

Just as producers must always be prospecting, agency leaders must always be on the lookout for talent. Unfortunately, most agencies don’t start looking for talent until someone leaves, forcing them to scramble at the last minute to fill the void. Desperation often leads to disappointment when they settle for someone who’s not too bad, but not all that good either.

In contrast, the best agencies understand that people will leave unexpectedly, expand their family, change careers, move away, etc., so they always have their antennae up. Their leaders are always forging new relationships and nurturing their agency’s talent pool. They may not engage with a potential producer for another three months or three years, but they’re consistently proactive about facilitating growth and attracting talent. They adhere to the adage, “Hire slow, fire fast.”

Ultimately, you must choose whether to plan ahead of the need to hire, or rush to make a bad hire and either cover your mistake or admit to it and fire them. Wouldn’t it be better (and easier) to be intentional and prepare? If you’re doing more repairing than preparing, it’s time to own it and make some changes.

Remember, recruiting and hiring is a sale, and a sale is an exchange. What does your agency offer that would attract and retain the best and the brightest? Would you want to work for you? Would you be energized and excited to work there? Would you see a better future? While people issues may be one of the greatest challenges for agencies, they also provide tremendous opportunities to have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. 

The author

Brent Kelly, president of Sitkins Group, Inc., is a motivating influencer, coach and speaker who has a passion for helping insurance agencies maximize their performance. He spent 15 years in the insurance industry 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 email him at [email protected] or visit sitkins.com

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