For a few uneasy moments, it bordered on embarrassing. Eighteen highly accomplished sales managers, hand-picked by their general agents, looked quizzically at a pile of toy blocks in front of them and glanced sheepishly at each other. They had been divided into teams and assigned to stack the blocks, which came in a variety of shapes and sizes, into a tower precisely 3 feet tall. Taller than that would be a waste of resources; shorter would represent a failure to achieve their objective.

The embarrassment soon subsided as competitive juices began to flow, spurring these sales managers to beat the rival teams, and, meanwhile, to learn a thing or two about working together to attain a specific goal.

This is an example of a technique used in training and developing middle managersan area often overlooked by insurance carriers but a very important part of an agencys continued success.

The dialogue between insurance carriers and their agents often has been confined to enhancing the ability to sell. The talking points have been sales materialsfrom brochures and scripts to PowerPoint presentations and giveaways. It is clear, however, that more depth is needed to cope with an increasingly competitive environment in which insurance products are part of a continuum of financial services with overlapping benefits and vendors. Head-to-head competition from other insurers, plus banks and brokerage houses, means good agency management is more critical today than it has ever been before.

At our organization, leadership development means that several times each year, groups of about 15 sales managers from across the country spend 2 days at a suburban conference center participating in a variety of sessions led by trainers from the home office and occasional outside experts.

Using this kind of program to build a more effective agency management force involves 2 key variables, and theyre pretty much the same 2 that make a Big Ten University sports program successfuleffective recruitment and effective training.

The first step–identification and recruitment of sales managers for the program–always has presented a bit of a paradox. The temptation is to turn the best salesperson into a sales manager. In fact, theres often a disconnect: Good sales people are not necessarily good managers, so identifying talented management prospects requires examining a number of attributes besides production figures. These include the leadership and interpersonal skills displayed in working with colleagues, as well as clients. They include an aptitude for strategizing, as well as the ability to focus on administrative matters.

Compare some of these traits to those found in many of the most successful producers. Some of the best producers get there by working on a 24/7 basis, as opposed to having a particularly effective strategy. Furthermore, when it comes to administration, the best producers often eschew everything not directly connected with selling.

Most fundamentally, its important to identify people whose real aspiration is to rise in the organization rather than in the sales chartspeople who want to conduct the orchestra, not be the star soloist.

Identifying the best management candidates from the ranks of agents isnt easy, but most general agents feel it is easier than finding the right people outside the firm and then having to integrate them into the organization. The selection process is based on the observations of co-workers, as well as superiors. This complete picture helps ensure the right people are selected for training.

Once management candidates have been recruited, they need a training program that goes beyond administrative detail. Its easy to learn what forms to send to the home office and when to prepare budgets. Management needs to be taught in a systematic and broadly focused way. That can require several kinds of learning.

First, is the classic method of learning weve all gone through: classroom learning. There is a body of wisdom on good and bad ways to manage, and people need to be made familiar with this knowledge through lectures, presentations, reading and discussion.

But there is also a second kind of learning focused on more intangible ideas and skills, like encouraging trust and building relationships. Managers can read about this, but there are also other ways of communicating this knowledge, such as role-playing and team-building exercises. Some people are resistant to these approaches, viewing them as too touchy-feely; some initially fail to see the substance beneath the games and exercises; and some find it difficult to shuck off office formalities and show up without neckties or in jeans instead of dresses. But an effective blending of approaches helps broaden the understanding of ideas and techniques.

In order to design an effective training program, marshal the wisdom of people from the company and combine it with ideas from experts in academia and management consulting. Ask general agents to think through precisely what sales managers need to know. Combine examples of best practices from many industries with specific insights from the insurance industry. Ensure consistency of message and format by offering these courses on a companywide basis.

The impact of a training program goes beyond the specific skills and ideas that are taught. Individuals who are selected for and participate in a training program emerge feeling more important and empowered. They see themselves as more critical to the success of the agency and more committed to its future. The training is designed to help prepare people to move along a career development path, which the participants appreciate. All of this has a valuable impact on motivation, as well as retention that extends beyond the specific role of a training program in preparing individuals for sales management positions.

But in assessing a training program, as in viewing the tower of bricks trainees must build, its important to remember the principal goal and not be diverted by other issues. Above all else, good training provides a steady flow of trained, talented and enthusiastic sales managers to help lead the company today and tomorrow.

Emily G. Viner is director of agency distribution and development, individual markets, for Guardian Life Insurance Company, New York. She can be reached at Emily_G._Viner@glic.com.

William J. Stevens IV, CLU, ChFC, is director, leadership and practice development, for Guardian Life, New York. He can be reached at William_Stevens@glic.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, March 19, 2004. Copyright 2004 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.