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Life Health > Life Insurance

Fifty Years Of Learning

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This month marks an important milestone in my life and career. Fifty years ago, in late February 1956, I signed an agent’s contract with New York Life. With that action, the whole world changed for me. One can debate whether the world in general was better or worse in 1956 than it is today–but for me it has been 50 years of progress as I have been privileged to serve in a variety of capacities in our great business.

It is a great temptation to take this occasion to relate the many contrasts between our business today and the way it was 50 years ago. However, I am afraid I would sound too much like the father telling his son how deep the snow drifts were when, as a kid, he had to trudge to school on frigid winter mornings. It is, I believe, best not to dwell on the past–but take the lessons one has learned from it and move forward.

There have been many lessons that I learned over the years and almost all of them from the terrific people with whom I was associated. Perhaps foremost among these was my partner of 17 years, Rulon Rasmussen, past president of the Million Dollar Round Table.

Partnerships of life insurance agents are not known for their long life, although there are some notable exceptions. Rulon had special insight into what makes a partnership click. For example, he did not believe you should send two people out to do a job one could do. While we seldom went on joint interviews, we did actively serve all clients–but normally on an individual basis. Perhaps most important, Rulon believed that for a partnership to work, each partner must believe he has the better deal. I don’t know how Rulon rationalized his end of the deal–but I was convinced I had the best of it.

This was a lesson that helped me later as I assumed the position of CEO at the National Association of Life Underwriters (now the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors). A CEO is in reality also in partnership, because alone one can do nothing. The CEO partners with the board, the employees and the membership, the real stockholders. The CEO partnership also clicks when the other partners believe they have the best deal.

But there were others from whom I learned much. I had the privilege of serving on New York Life’s Agent’s Advisory Council with Ben Feldman and Stan Liss. Out of this service grew lasting friendships with not only Ben and Stan but their terrific wives, as well.

Stan Liss was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. He had the rare ability to be able to see clearly all sides of very complex issues. Most of us are so focused on our own point of view we have difficulty understanding the so-called “big picture.” Stan was a “big picture” sort of guy and was able to articulate his view in such a way that solutions emerged from confusion. I believe it was this ability that prompted New York Life CEO Don Ross to bring Stan into the home office as a consultant, a practice that CEO Harry Hohn wisely continued.

At a time when some companies were dismantling agency forces that had taken 100 years to build, it was indeed fortunate to have a strong and clear voice in the person of Stan Liss representing the field view in a major home office. From the field’s perspective, Stan’s appointment as a consultant at a very high level by Don Ross and Harry Hohn spoke louder than words that the home office really cared about an agent’s point of view. Stan also used his talents well when he provided leadership to MDRT and the American Society of CLU.

I guess the most important lesson I learned from Stan was: don’t equivocate. If you believe in something, don’t be afraid to stand up for it and speak out, no matter who or what the opposition.

Before I leave my mentors at New York Life I would also like to acknowledge the company’s support when I made the transition from agent to association executive. Under the terms of that agent’s contract I signed in 1956, I could have had a substantial forfeiture of deferred income when I left the company. However, the company rewrote my contract eliminating the forfeiture and thereby making it economically feasible for me to move to the next chapter of my career, at NALU.

But there were many others who have enriched my life through the lessons they have taught me, largely by example. The 20 presidents of NALU with whom I served, in one way or another, each brought a special insight to help me better understand and help lead our association. Leaders at the American Council of Life Insurers, and in particular Dick Schweiker, helped me to understand the politics of Washington and how best to work with Congress. George Joseph and Ernie Cragg made available the best thinking and research of LIMRA so that I could have a clearer view of where we were and the possibilities for the future. When I came to NALU, I was short on administrative experience and needed to learn fast. Lynn Merritt and Bill Rabel of LOMA reached out and helped enormously in the early years. I always will remember their kindness and lessons.

Rod Geer and John Prast at the MDRT and John Driskill at the American Society were and are special friends who taught me more than any of them realize by the way they provided leadership in their respective organizations. As Yogi Berra would say, “You can observe a lot by watching.” I did.

And finally, it was Steve Piontek of the National Underwriter who has given me this opportunity the past 12-plus years to air my views on the workings and challenges of our business. Thanks, Steve!

With friends and associates like these, one could not help but have a wonderful 50-year career and adventure. I have loved every minute of it.


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