Like many industries, the insurance industry has been influenced by both positive and negative leadership over the years. Today, with the rapid pace of new information, changing technology, and younger workforce, strong leadership is needed now more than ever before.
What is true leadership?
For much of my life, I thought leadership was about power, experience, or position. What I have come to realize is that true leadership isn’t really about any of those things.
After 17 years of insurance industry experience, both from the inside and outside, I have seen countless examples of both strong and weak leadership characteristics from agency leaders, company personnel, producers, and administration.
Let’s discuss what I’ve discovered to be the 4 key principles of authentic and effective insurance leadership. I believe that by understanding and implementing these leadership principles into your life and business, you will become a stronger leader, gain influence with those around you, and grow your agency.
There is no part of your organization that leadership does not impact. When I first heard the phrase, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” from author and mentor John C. Maxwell, I thought it was cute and catchy, but I didn’t completely grasp the full importance of this quote until I really started to examine my own leadership experiences and began working with numerous insurance organizations across the country.
Your ability to lead determines your effectiveness. Period.
I often work with insurance agency or company leaders who feel stuck. They are looking for the next new idea or process to implement. Even though they may be searching for a new idea or process, what they most desperately need is improved leadership ability.
Whether you are leading your agency team, leading your clients, or leading your community, leadership is the lid to your potential. The higher your leadership effectiveness, the higher the lid is on your potential. Remember, everything rises and falls on leadership.
So why do so many organizations fail to develop leadership ability? Why is the insurance industry lacking in the number of positive leaders? There are countless reasons, but the bottom line is that great leadership takes daily hard work, and as I will discuss in the third principle, it doesn’t happen overnight.
When I work with growing agencies and companies, there is always one common theme. Successful agencies and companies understand and live the principle that everything rises and falls on leadership. They work every day on becoming better leaders. There is no magic leadership pill or potion. You must be intentional about developing your leadership ability.
Whether you feel that your current leadership effectiveness is a 2 out of 10 or a 6 out of 10, your effectiveness as a leader will never rise beyond that number until you are willing to invest in your own leadership development. Since I do truly believe that everything rises and falls on leadership, there isn’t a better investment you can make than in your leadership development.
I recently had a meeting with an insurance agency leadership team. After the meeting, I had a private conversation with one of the team members. In our discussion, I heard something that really struck me. She said, “I don’t have the highest title, ownership, or even the most experience at this agency, but if I left the agency, I know that most of the agency staff would want to follow me because I have the most influence.”
The leader just exemplified what true leadership is all about. Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.
As I said in the open of the article, leadership is often misunderstood. While you can have title and influence, it’s not the title that gives you true influence.
Sometimes the words leadership and management get thrown together as if they are the same thing. While both leadership and management are important for all organizations, they are very different skills.
Management is focused on maintaining systems and processes, whereas leadership is about influencing people. Again, both attributes are important, but they are not one in the same.
Former Chrysler chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca once commented, “Sometimes even the best manager is like the little boy with the big dog, waiting to see where the dog wants to go so that he can take him there.” True leadership is about inspiring positive change.
I also used to think that leadership was about the position you held. For most of my business career, I was an insurance producer. Although the title of “producer” or “agent” doesn’t sound like a leadership position, nothing could be further from the truth. Why do you think that most insurance agencies ask producers to sign a non-compete agreement? Yes, there are financial considerations, but think a bit deeper. Who has the greatest influence on the most important relationships…the clients…in every organization? That is influence.
In my 15 years of insurance production, I don’t know of one client who did business with me because of a positional title that was given to me or given by myself. As Stanley Huffty stated, “It’s not the position that makes the leaders; it’s the leader that makes the position.” The same is true of agency leaders I have worked for. Some of the most influential people I have worked for did not have the highest position, but they did have the most influence.
So how do you know if you have influence? The best indication is in your followers. There is an old proverb that says, “He who thinks he leads but has no followers, is only taking a walk.” Who is following you? Are they going where you want them to go or are they wandering off in their own direction?
Regardless of your current title, position, or experience, how can you gain more influence as a leader? There are several ways to gain influence, but I want to focus specifically on two that I will discuss in my next two pillars of insurance leadership.
Before you can lead anyone else, you must first be able to lead yourself. That’s why I believe that the highest calling of leadership is self-leadership.
When I conduct a live training on self-leadership I often demonstrate the power of self-leadership with a couple of drinking glasses. In the first example I try to pour an empty glass into another empty glass. Too often leaders try to serve others without filling their own cup. It simply doesn’t work.
In the second example, I pour water into the first drinking glass. The water represents self-leadership through personal and professional growth. When you begin to grow yourself, you can then more effectively grow those around you. The great thing about self-leadership is that it is never ending. You can always reach for more water to fill your cup…but you must be thirsty.
One of the top characteristics I see from the best leaders is that they are lifelong learners. No matter what they know and what they have learned, the most successful leaders are always hungry to learn and grow more.
Influential leaders understand that leadership is a process, not an event. They don’t attend one workshop or take one class and suddenly think they have arrived at the final destination. In fact, the more top leaders learn, the more they realize how much more there is to learn. Just like interest in your bank account, leadership skill compounds.
In 2003, I hit the lowest point of my personal and professional life. I was deeply in debt, unmotivated, and unsure of where to turn. That year I was introduced to my first personal growth mentor, Jim Rohn. I listened to an audio recording of Jim teach and realized that all my problems were caused by one person…me. I started to make small changes in my attitude and habits and thus began the process of my own personal and professional growth. Many years later, I am still working on growing and developing every day as a leader.
Jim Rohn said something that I have never forgotten. He said, “Work hard on your job, make a living, work hard on yourself, make a fortune.” I was 25 years old when I first heard that quote and at that time I wasn’t completely sure what he meant. Now looking back and reflecting on those words, I realize that was some of the wisest advice I have ever received.
How are you growing and developing yourself every day? Are you in the constant process of growth or have you become stagnant? Self-leadership is a lifelong pursuit, a process, a daily pursuit.
Self-leadership isn’t easy, but it is extremely rewarding. That’s why I feel self-leadership is not only the highest calling of leadership, but also the most challenging.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” This expression is used when you get so caught up in the details of a situation that you often miss the point of the situation. This is often true in leadership.
Leaders commonly get caught up in micromanaging details that they forget the most important purpose of leadership…to add value to those they serve.
“The bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others. That is achieved by serving others and adding value to their lives.” John Maxwell
How do you know if you are adding value? Ask yourself one simple question: Are you making things better for the people who follow you?
Not too long ago, my mentor shared the most important aspect of adding value to others. He said, “To add value to people, you first must value people.”
Isn’t that so true? The insurance industry commonly uses the term “value added” when it comes to products, services, or experiences, but if the person or business you are trying to add value to doesn’t first feel valued, there is little you can add that will make an impact.
I was recently working with an insurance leader who truly desired to add value to his team, but said he realized that he doesn’t always show it. He mentioned an example that some days with his high workload he didn’t feel he had time to say hello or acknowledge his team. What a leader must understand is that effective leadership is work and that leadership is first about people.
Adding value is also about listening. It’s almost impossible to lead anyone or anything when you haven’t listened enough to know how to best serve them. This is true in leadership, sales, or in anything where you want to add value to someone else. The best leaders I have spent time with listen, learn and then lead.
So, what will becoming a leader who is consistently adding value to others do for you leadership? You will earn loyalty. You will accomplish more. You will grow your book of business. You will know that each day you are making positive influence on those you serve. Adding value to others is truly the greatest purpose of leadership.
The insurance industry is desperately seeking leaders. Leaders who inspire, encourage, add value, and are consistently growing themselves so they can help grow others around them. What kind of leader are you? Are you wanting more for your agency, your team, your clients, your partner carriers, and your community?
My wish is that you will be a growing leader who desires to make a positive impact on everyone around you. Regardless of your title, position, or experience, if you seek influence with others, you must continually develop your leadership skills.
Remember these four principles of insurance agency leadership.
1) Your effectiveness is determined by your ability to lead.
2) Leadership is not a title.
3) Your greatest leadership challenge is you.
4) Leadership is about adding value to others.
If you want to grow your agency, become a leader that others will follow.
Brent Kelly is an executive coach and keynote speaker with the Sitkins Group.
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