When you started out as an agent, did you dream of screening resumes, creating a sick leave policy, and overseeing a payroll? Probably not! Chances are you became an agent because you’re independent and dislike bureaucracy. The insurance business was an opportunity to make money and have the flexibility to work when you wanted. When you chose this profession, you weren’t looking for a management position.

The irony is that the more successful you became as an agent, the more you needed other people to help carry on your business. At some point you had to hire staff, and now you need to develop some management techniques.

For many of you, this is paralyzing. Why? Because you don’t have the instincts or interest in being a manager. Running a staff with different skills and personalities is a challenge. Who should you hire? What will they do? How do you keep them happy and productive? How do you hold them accountable?

Being a good manager is easier than you think. It requires thought, time, and a willingness to listen–all of which are stumbling blocks for some agents! But it can be gratifying to assemble a team of people whose particular skills support your business. It can be fun to help people reach their potential and enjoy their work. And it definitely improves your bottom line to have competent, well-managed people on board.

The question is how to do it. The three problem areas for managers are:

–Eliminating staff turnover.

–Improving communication.

–Encouraging teamwork.

First, let’s look at staff turnover. If your office is a revolving door–in other words, you’re looking for a new person every two years or so–you need to examine both your hiring and management methods. Here’s what can happen to agents who do not invest the necessary time and thought in the hiring process:

–You hire the wrong person because you are impatient, desperate, tired of the process, or unclear about what you really want.

–You outgrow your employee because you hired someone for your present needs instead of your future needs.

–Your employee outgrows you because you don’t give him or her an opportunity to learn new skills, increase responsibilities, or earn more money.

There are other reasons why things don’t work out with staff, but these three are the main ones. So let’s break down each point: First, how do you hire the right person?

Before you start the process, really think about the position and the skills required. Create a detailed, written job description so you are clear about the person’s responsibilities and your expectations. Look around your office to make sure you have adequate space and equipment for your new hire. Think about the kind of training you’ll provide. And most important, come up with an acceptable compensation package.

If you give some thought in advance to job responsibilities, office logistics, training, and compensation, you will have a good head start.

Next, get the word out about the position. You can run an ad in the newspaper or post one on the Internet–whatever works for you. The key to effective advertising is being explicit about what you need. For example, if cold calling is one of the job requirements, say so. Don’t beat around the bush. Your objective is to get resumes from qualified candidates who will be able to do the job.

During the interview process, don’t rush things. Don’t inflate the job, or disguise some of the tasks. Be honest about what you’re looking for, go over the job description, and be sure the candidate has the ability to perform the job.

Too many agents skip important interviewing steps–such as reference checking and testing–and hire the first person who seems qualified to do the job. Whether you need someone for telephoning, service, or basic secretarial skills, take time to make sure the candidate can handle the responsibilities.

One last thought on hiring. I believe part-time employment is a Band-Aid solution. It seems easier and less time-consuming and might not involve as much training. But does it make sense in the long run? Are you planning to grow? It takes a lot of effort to teach someone your business. Why not hire a full-time employee who can play a bigger part in your future? Someone who meets your needs now and down the road. Why not make the investment in yourself?

Once the new person is on board, you must draft a contract specifying your expectations, training schedule, and employee accountability.

The second problem scenario is outgrowing your employee. Why does that happen? One reason is because many agents don’t look beyond today.

Before you hire someone, think about your long-term needs and goals. This is what I call The Visionary Future! Think about where you want to go in your business and what it will take to achieve your vision. Ponder the future. What kind of staff will you need in a year? In three years? What will they be doing? How will their roles change? Don’t be afraid to dream about the possibilities.

Each day you should focus on four key areas in your business: creating and implementing the vision; meeting with or talking to clients; prospecting and building strategic alliances or centers of influence; and most important, delegating job duties. During the hiring process, think about how your present and future staff can help you concentrate on these key areas. You want employees who will grow as your business grows.

During the interviewing process, make sure the job candidate fits your long-term goals. But think about your present team, too. Many of my clients complain about their staff’s inability to grow with the business. In most cases, it’s not so much inability as a lack of understanding. Your employees usually (but not always) know what your current goals are and how they can help you achieve them. But very seldom do they know where you want to be in the future and how they fit in.

Let’s consider the future and construct the ideal team. How will your vision of the future impact your present staff? What changes are necessary to achieve your goals three years from today? Are all your employees up to the challenge, or are some of them on staff because you’re avoiding the hiring process? How will you implement the required changes? Will you be committed and have the patience to build for the future? Are you up to the challenge of teamwork?

These are important questions for you and your team to consider. Answer them together as a group, and I guarantee you will experience new energy, commitment, and vision in your business.

So one way to keep employees is by building and explaining your vision. Another is by offering educational opportunities. To stay on top of the insurance field, you need to read, go to seminars/classes, and acquire new licenses. Shouldn’t your employees do the same thing? As a consultant, I visit offices where the agent and assistant have drifted apart because the agent is working on new markets, products, or services, and the assistant is left behind.

Employees must be encouraged to keep up with changes in the business. Otherwise, you will become frustrated because they can no longer do the job. To promote the personal development of your employees, arrange for them to read business books, take classes, and attend relevant seminars or company events. If they are not interested, find someone who is.

You may also outgrow your employees if they lack ambition. If there is an unwillingness to grow and change, you may need to find someone more motivated or talented.

Finally, it could be that your employee outgrows you. How and why does this happen? Sometimes, it’s a matter of control. If an agent refuses to give up control, employees get fed up. I hear complaints all the time about micro-managing. Employees have been hired to do a job, but their bosses won’t let them do it.

On the flip side, agents may delegate too much work without giving any kind of direction or feedback. Employees feel lost and unappreciated. Finally, employees may outgrow you if they feel underpaid for their hard work.

Let’s get back to the issue of control. If you have hired someone to do a job so you can earn more, don’t be afraid to let go.

Your staff needs guidance, recognition, and freedom to do the job. If you let them shine, they will. By showing the staff your confidence in them, they will stay with you for a long time.

Keeping employees on board is easier if you take the time to understand their professional, educational, and financial needs. If you don’t have formal job descriptions, create them. If you don’t have employee guidelines, draft them. If you are unaware of their financial goals, ask them. For the most part, people are anxious for feedback and job parameters because they want to perform well.

Next, let’s look at communication, the foundation of good management. Without consistent communication, you are destined for problems. So adopt an open-door policy. If employees have suggestions or complaints, make sure there is a designated time to talk.

Once they are in your office, focus your full attention on them. Don’t shuffle paperwork, pick up the phone, or tear down their ideas while they’re meeting with you. Sometimes all you have to do is listen. Your employees can be very insightful. They hear and see a lot more than you do during the everyday operation of the business. By listening to your employees, you will make them feel important and will get some good ideas.

What is true communication? According to educator Sue Miller Hurst, it can be broken down into four quadrants: talking, listening, listening to ourselves talking, and listening to ourselves listening. While talking is a critical factor in communication, listening is what determines the quality of communication.

Of course, you need to speak up, too. Don’t be afraid to confront employees when their work is not up to your standards. You can easily point out areas for improvement in a supportive way without being demeaning. And don’t hesitate to pat your employees on the back when they’ve done a good job. Praise is often the best motivator.

Good communication can become a habit. I am a firm believer in starting off the week with a Monday morning meeting. To get the most out of the meetings, see the chart for some suggestions.

Following an agenda is essential. It prevents meetings from dragging on and on, causing frustration. The Monday morning meeting is a time to gear up. After the meeting, you and your staff will feel focused and ready for the week.

Tuesday through Friday, you should meet anywhere from five to 15 minutes each day. You can keep the calendar up-to-date and handle problems such as stalled cases in underwriting, an unavailable client, or a personnel issue. By communicating daily, you will become more open and supportive of each other. Too often, sensitive subjects are avoided, only to erupt later as major problems. Good communication strengthens your team. After all, this is a “we” business, not a “me” business.

Finally, how do you foster teamwork? Teamwork won’t happen if the office environment is uncomfortable or if there’s no shared vision of the future. The key is to turn your office into a unified force.

Think about your office. Why would someone want to work with you? Why would someone stay with you long term? Do they know what you expect of them now and in the future? When was the last time you praised an employee’s work? When was the last time you talked about their progress? Do your employees feel valued? How do you think they would answer these questions? Do you care or want to know?

You should! Teamwork means putting your staff first. Take the time to share your vision. Don’t get so caught up in the day-to-day stuff that you lose sight of the big picture. Train your employees and give them your trust and support. Recognize their achievements.

Intangibles make a big difference in employee satisfaction. Surprise them with free tickets to an event, a half-day off, or dinner for two at their favorite restaurant. Communicate daily. Compensate them fairly and challenge them to grow with your business. Hold them accountable. People want to feel the satisfaction of a job well done.

Do these things, and you will establish what I call THE POWER OF TEAMWORK!

In conclusion, you can find and keep the right employees with careful hiring decisions and a fulfilling work environment. If employees do leave–and we all know that someday they will–just remember: the next person will be better because you have learned something about communication, teamwork, and your future vision.

Gina Pellegrini-Crist is founder of #O.N.E. Concepts, a management consulting firm in Eden Prairie, Minn. She can be reached at gina@oneconcepts.com. This is an abridged version of a presentation she gave at the MDRT annual meeting in Toronto.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, June 22, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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