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The Art Of Giving Back

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By Jack Bobo

From time to time I receive letters from friends who are former colleagues in the service of various parts of what used to be the National Association of Life Underwriters federation (now the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors). Some are past presidents of the national association; others are volunteers at the state and local level as well as professional association execs.

Almost invariably such letters contain expressions of concern over the lack of interest in industry affairs and institutions on the part of newer people in our business. One of the challenges that todays leaders face is to develop an understanding of that lack of concern and find a way to reverse such attitudes.

From what I have read and observed at first hand, we are not alone with respect to this issue. Institutions of virtually all types are reporting a decline in support–particularly the type of support that entails personal involvement. “Im too busy” and “let George do it” are the all-too-familiar refrains replying to calls for help.

But that is not what made America great, and it is not the kind of attitude that will keep it strong. Currently, PBS is running a series called “Freedom: A History of Us.” It is a wonderful series and, while I have seen only half of it so far, it clearly demonstrates that the progress we have made and the comfort we enjoy today resulted from countless struggles and enormous sacrifice on the part of those who have gone before us.

Recent books I have read– one about John Adams, the other about Benjamin Franklin–also detail our struggle for independence and freedom that somehow does not come to full light in our history text books, which only scratch the surface of the reality. Nothing we enjoy today came easy, and it can slip away if we are not willing to work to retain those blessings we cherish.

Our business has not only paralleled the growth and development of most of the history of our country, but it has also played a significant part in its progress. As one Texas insurance company used to say in its literature, “We financed the frontier.” Fact is, as an industry, we helped to finance all kinds of frontiers–science, medicine, social progress and, most importantly, the financial security of the American family.

And, we had our own set of great leaders who blazed the trail before us. We also had our heroes that we looked up to and hoped some day to emulate. In most cases they were heroes not only because they raised the bar and opened new vistas, but because they also practiced the “art of giving back.”

All of the industry institutions that today we often take for granted are the fruits of their vision and labors. How sad it would be if those same fruits were to die on the vine simply because we no longer cared.

It seems to me that people initially join an association because they want to learn, grow, and prosper and in many cases to be like their heroes. But if the heroes are absent, they may logically conclude they dont feel the association is important, so why should they bother. Im reminded of the little old lady who despite being deaf and nearly blind went to church every Sunday. Someone asked her why she attended when she could not hear the music or the sermon or witness the pageantry. She replied, “I just want everyone to know whose side I am on.”

The heroes who show up at local, state and national meetings, I believe, understand how important it is to display support of the organization by their presence.

Some of the people who write to me suggest that field management does not instill in their new people any sense of urgency or importance in association activities. On the other hand, when I talk to managers they tell me they are so busy doing “police work” with respect to compliance rules they have little time left for some of the career development activities that formerly occupied a higher priority in their schedules. Be that as it may, the field manager is still the most dominant influence in the careers of new people. They are the ones who “bend the twig,” thereby deciding how the tree will go, so to speak.

It was a group of general agents and field managers that originally founded NALU in 1890. In reviewing their history it was clear they understood the importance of having an institution that worked for the common good. Down through the years, successive generations of field managers have kept the faith, extolled the feats of our heroes to their new people and by example provided leadership in our institutions. It is a noble heritage, and I believe our system still needs that kind of leadership.

It is also important that faith and support continue to be forthcoming from company leaders regarding their associations. I once complimented Bob Beck, the CEO of Prudential at the time, on the large number of his company people who were involved in industry activities. He replied that he considered industry involvement as part of their management training and such activities were a valuable resource to the company.

On the other hand, I have served on boards and committees with company people who did not enjoy that kind of support from the top, and by and large they had no idea what was happening in the industry beyond their own company. For the most part, they were not able to give anything back to the industry because they did not know how or what to give.

If we want to continue to bring bright new people into our ranks, then I believe that at all levels we need to revive the time-honored “Art of Giving Back.”

Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, March 24, 2003. Copyright 2003 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.