Working With Staff: Common Practice Management Scenarios

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No matter what stage your practice is in–even if you are just now contemplating whether to hire your first employee–understanding how differing management styles and staff situations can be accommodated gives you an advantage in your role as an employer.

To work effectively with your staff, the key is systematic communication, no matter whether youre running a business with 20 people or sharing a part-time assistant.

The following are common situations that we have addressed in our organization. Each one illustrates a different kind of situation that can probably be found in any agency across the country.

Too Many Masters. The agent has a partner or junior agent working with him; both producers have different styles of communication and delegation. They also have different ways of doing business, since the junior agent started three years ago and the primary agent started before the advent of personal computers.

The administrative staff struggles with conflicting priorities, since both producers delegate their tasks ASAP. No guidelines are in place to help the administrative assistants determine what to do first.

Internal communication systems and tools have been implemented, but are not used by everyone. One agent leaves voice mail messages; the other leaves sticky notes, and consequently, the admin staff is never sure they are getting all of their assignments.

Suggestions: The primary agent or business owner should designate one method to communicate between producers and administrative assistants, and mandate that everyone will use this method. Computerized methods can be effective even for agents who predate the computer age; their assistants can do the actual computer work.

The primary agent also should establish guidelines for the administrative staff to follow in prioritizing their workloads. It is vital that these guidelines are clearly communicated to everyone in the operation.

Bottom Line: By communicating expectations and following established guidelines–especially the designated communication method–agents and staff can work more efficiently together and tasks will not fall through the cracks.

Dueling Divas. In this situation, the agent has a loyal staff member who has been his office manager for 10 years. This employee resists change and is not open to new ideas, technology or business practices. The agent also has another employee dedicated to client service who has been with him for one year.

The service associate, who reports to the office manager, is very organized, displays leadership characteristics and is enthusiastic about implementing procedures to improve operational efficiency. Whenever the service associate tries to suggest a new idea, the office manager rejects it, saying she knows what the agent likes, and he wont like this.

Suggestions: Assess whether both employees are in roles that suit their personalities, or whether a reassignment of responsibilities would better serve the business. Look at employees from an investment perspective: Are their efforts an acceptable return on that investment? Do they add value to the company or do they hinder growth? Consider promoting the service associate to a position equal to the office manager to level the playing field and alleviate conflicts.

Clearly communicate roles and expectations through written job descriptions and regular performance appraisals. Candid conversations with employees provide valuable feedback as well as opportunities to express a teamwork principle and other core company values.

Bottom Line: The agent has to take on the role of employer–typically not an area of strength for sales professionals–and address the situation right away; if he just ignores it, it will go away, along with his self-motivated employee.

Long-term employees become like family (and in many small businesses, are family), but the owner must consider what is best for his business. Loyalty is an admirable quality, but it alone does not make a good office manager. People who refuse to change do not do well in this dynamic industry. People who undermine co-workers do not do well in any industry.

On The Road Again. Here, the agent travels frequently; she comes into the office for about 30 minutes once a week and is out of the office the rest of the time. (See “Dump and Run” Agent in sidebar.) The administrative assistant has trouble getting the information he needs to do his job. The agent feels like she is bombarded with questions the minute she walks in the door. Both feel like the other one is not communicating.

Suggestions: Consider using dictation to facilitate communication. Adopt a schedule of check-in times–like 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., for example–when the agent will phone the office each day.

Conduct five-minute meetings each time the agent comes into the office. To accommodate the limited time the agent is available, the assistant will have to stay prepared for his opportunities to get information from the agent by keeping a folder of items or a list of questions at hand.

Bottom Line: This is another scenario that can easily be addressed by choosing and using one consistent method or process of communication. By staying organized, the assistant and agent should be able to quickly address a number of issues within a short period of time.

Rules Are Made To Be Followed. In this scenario, the agent has an office manager who is good at coming up with systems to promote efficiency and organization. However, within a week of implementing the systems, no one is following them anymore–and the agent is the biggest offender. Since the rules arent enforced to support the systems, pretty soon the operation is right back where it started: inefficient and disorganized.

Suggestions: Develop new systems as a team, rather than individually. Hold brainstorming sessions to encourage input and promote buy-in from all parties. Incorporate a policy that all new processes will be followed for at least 90 days to provide adequate time to assess their effectiveness. Empower the office manager to remind the employer when hes not following the new system.

Bottom Line: Its important to implement new procedures to promote efficiency, but make sure the pace is achievable. Dont expect to change everything overnight; focus on one or two things at a time. Allow ample time for a procedure to prove itself before changing it.

Darla L. Bean is a staff writer for The Nautilus Group, Addison, Texas. Bean writes materials for Model Office, a practice management program that assists Nautilus agents in working effectively with their staff. She can be reached via e-mail at Darla_Bean@

newyorklife.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 11, 2002. Copyright 2002 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.