By Michael C. Sayles

In decades past, people entered the insurance field and spent their entire career with one or two organizations. That scenario is increasingly unlikely since the revolution that spread through the industry in the 1990s.

Then, mergers combined with a fundamental restructuring of how insurers operate produced massive layoffs that put many long-time industry people out on the street for the first time in their career.

It was shocking to see insurance professionals–including good performers–being jettisoned much more often and more quickly than ever before. For some agency leaders, the shift served as a wake-up call that alerted them that they could easily be out of a job next year, next month or even next week.

Not everyone heeded the alarm, however. Many insurance professionals still cling to the natural human tendency to believe that the job theyre doing is so invaluable and that theyre doing it so well that they cant possibly be categorized as dispensable.

Well, think again. In todays brave new insurance world, no one is indispensable. Its a simple fact of life. The agency system and its environment are constantly evolving and doing so at a pace never before seen in the industry. And the likelihood that the pace of change will slow is nil.

So, you can sit back and wait for this wave of change to sweep over you and hope you manage to survive, or you can take proactive steps to stay in control of your career.

For those of you who are still feeling complacent, here are some questions you should answer. Do you really know where your company is goingand is that where you want to go? Is your career gaining or losing momentum? How well have you adjusted to the changes that occurred as your company morphed into its new way of operating during the recent revolution? Based on its current direction, how comfortable are you likely to be with the cultural changes that may occur as the company continues to evolve?

These are all questions that anyone in an agency management position needs to ask himself or herself soon. They speak to the heart of the question of whether where you are now is the right place for you.

In short, its time to do two things. First, take a long look in the mirror and realistically evaluate where your career stands right now and your potential with your current company. Next, decide what you want your future to be and what you need to do to get there.

For many people working in agency management, this may be the first time youve ever had to consider the questions that arise during such a self-examination. Until now, the idea of needing a Plan B may never have occurred to you.

But in todays insurance world, everyone needs a Plan B. And its better to prepare a Plan B now that you may never need than to wait around until the bad news comes and then start scrambling.

Here are the steps to take to be prepared for all potential eventualities in todays volatile insurance job market. Fortunately, some of these steps are things youre probably already doing as you work to excel in your current position.

Perform a self-inventory. Do a thorough evaluation of your skills. Be as objective as it is possible to be when doing a self-evaluation. Look at what youre really good at and decide whether thats a skill that is still relevant and marketable in todays new industry reality. One question you might consider is whether executive search firms have been calling you. If not, try to learn why not. What is it that theyre looking for that you dont have?

Also consider what you love doing and what you hate doing. Design your ideal job and see whether your current skills match that position; if they dont, start working on getting the skills you need to move into that dream job.

Make professional development a top priority. Are there professional designations youve been meaning to go after but just havent found the time or motivation to proceed with? Stop delaying. The hard work and time commitment that it takes to participate in continuing education programs will pay off whether you stay with your current company or move on to other opportunities.

Stay alert to industry trends and directions. As mentioned before, the speed of change in the industry is rapid, and you must be prepared to move at the same pace by being aware of burgeoning trends and shifts in strategy and direction. Be especially alert for developments that may impact your company or your desired career direction.

Be ready to act quickly by putting together an up-to-date resume that is brief, on target and completely accurate. You may not need it tomorrow, but you never know when you might hear of an opportunity that is perfect for you. Also be ready to supply company-generated statistics that support what youre saying about your skills. For instance, to position yourself as an outstanding recruiter, make sure you have data that prove that claim.

Make sure your interviewing skills are strong. It may have been years since youve been in a job interview situation. If so, freshen up your skills by reading up on current interviewing techniques and perhaps even asking a friend to role play an interview with you so you can practice.

Build your brand. Having a reputation as someone who is active in the industry is important to increasing your career opportunities. If youre not already doing so, become active in industry groups. Participate on committees and consider speaking at industry meetings.

If public speaking makes you nervous, start out by volunteering to participate in panel discussions, where the focus will be more on the group and less on you as an individual. After several of these appearances, you will be more confident about going it alone and making a solo presentation.

Or consider taking a public speaking course to build your skills. Write articles for industry publications. In short, do whatever you can do raise your profile and build your name recognition as a knowledgeable professional.

Have your personal financial affairs in order. You can bet that any new employer will want to do a credit check. Make sure they dont find something that makes them question what youre telling them about how successful youve been so far in your career.

Talented people will always be in demand. Decide where you want to be and how you are going to get there. You may decide that the best place for you is right where you are. If so, start working proactively with your company to make sure you are part of their plan for the future.

Michael C. Sayles, CLU, ChFC, CLF, heads StoneTower Search, an executive search firm specializing in the insurance industry. He can be reached at Mike@stonetowersearch.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, May 5, 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.