A key milestone is crossed in the career of a life insurance professional when he or she has to hire someone to handle a core of the function of the practice. For those advisors now weighing this all-important decision, experts interviewed by National Underwriter offer this word of counsel: do it as soon as possible.

Too often, observers say, advisors play the control freak, insisting on managing every aspect of the business, from completing paperwork and servicing routine client inquiries to mailing letters and fixing appointments. Or they believe they don’t have the cash flow to staff up, however great the need. Whatever the reason, there comes a time when the decision can no longer be deferred without putting the growth–or survival–of the practice at risk.

“The only way you can generate billable hours or a commission in this business is when you’re face-to-face with (a) a client or (b) a prospect,” says Herb Daroff, a partner, at Baystate Financial Services, Boston, Mass. “If you’re doing anything other than this, then you have to ask yourself, ‘Who else can do this for me?’ What could be better than doing the one thing nobody else can do for us, which is to create and develop new relationships?”

Joni Youngwirth, a managing partner at Commonwealth Financial Network, Waltham, Mass., agrees. “Ultimately, hiring decisions should be based on where you are in the business, your passions and where you want to be spending your time. Advisors need to push themselves outside their comfort zone, define what they’re uniquely good at, and then recruit accordingly so they can focus on their core competencies.”

That process of focusing starts with the recruitment of an administrative assistant to manage paperwork, appointment-setting, phone calls and low-level client-servicing. If cash is short to pay for the additional staffer, sources say, the advisor might temporarily tap a college intern, spouse or relative to work for free. Alternatively, one can recruit a part-timer or share an assistant with a colleague in the practice until such time as the workload and budget warrants hiring a full-time person.

As the practice grows, observers say, the advisor may need to bring on other support staff to manage the expanding workload. Among them: a customer support person to handle client inquiries and requests; a marketing rep to assist with lead-generation, prospecting and communications initiatives; a para-professional to design the insurance or financial plan; and an office manager to oversee the staff.

The advisor will need to decide, too, whether to recruit other sales professionals holding complementary expertise, such as those with knowledge of business, estate or retirement planning; and/or junior advisors who can help with client-interfacing activities while being groomed to become a full-time partner in the firm.

These other professionals needn’t be on the payroll–at least at the start. Stephen Toth, a chartered financial consultant and president of National Pension Associates, Longwood, Fla., says he hired his son-in-law, a former life insurance agent with MetLife and then Guardian Life, to work as an unpaid paraplanner for one year. The son-in-law used the time to learn the company’s specialty, life-insurance-funded defined benefit plans, before moving into a paid position.

Baystate Financial Partners boasts some 187 advisors, of which more than two-thirds have been with the firm for less than 5 years. To assist in their professional development, says Daroff, the firm often teams them with others holding complementary expertise (such as life-licensed agents with securities-licensed investment advisors). The firm also has producers who are at similar stages of development participate in internal study groups, an initiative that Baystate extended this year to assistants of its top agents.

But while new recruits’ skills can be honed and developed, observers caution that the basic competencies needed to fulfill the expectations of the firm, including an ability to work collaboratively with others, and adapt and grow with the changing needs of the position, have to be present from the start.

“When I ask my workshop attendees whether they would rather hire someone they can easily work or the best darn worker who knows everything, they almost invariably say the first,” says Tamsen Wassell, a principal partner at RTs LLC, a Lake Oswego, Ore.-based firm specializing in psychometric assessments for selecting and developing company talent. “They say, ‘I can teach a collaborative person technical skills, but I can’t take a technically competent person who is unpleasant to work with.”

NPA’s Toth found this out the hard way. In several instances, he says, he hired smart and talented individuals who “burned bridges” with everyone else on staff but himself, creating a hostile office environment. Such abrasive behavior, he says, often can’t be gleaned during job interviews with candidates who are primed for questioning and on the charm offensive.

How, then, to weed out candidates who won’t perform up to standard? The answer, says Youngwirth, is to have a systemized and rigorous hiring process for defining personnel needs and assessing worthy candidates–starting with the job description. Too often, says Youngwirth, advisors fail to get suitable candidates for a position because their Help Wanted does not point up the required skills. To help guard against this, Commonwealth Financial avails its 1,000-plus advisors of sample job descriptions, as well as boiler-plate interview questions and rejection letters, on its corporate intranet, Community Link.

Candidates responding to job postings (the company advertises on Monster.com and Craig’s List, among other popular sites), are subjected to a software-based behavioral assessment tool that produces a “predictive index.” Those who pass the screening test are then interviewed for both technical competency and social skills–a task for which many advisors are ill-prepared.

“This is where we really see advisors not applying best practices,” says Youngwirth. “Many get suckered into hiring a candidate because they like the individual, instead of interviewing for behavioral capabilities and competence to do the job. Also, you always want to check references.”

By following such guidelines, sources say, advisors can not only have some confidence that the individual recruited will be well-suited to the position, but will also have the capacity to take on new tasks. And by delegating more responsibilities, advisors can devote more time to what only they can do: creating and developing relationships with clients and prospects.

Says Wassell: “If you get someone with the basic clay [to do the job], then you can build on his or her skills with a little management muscle. But if you have to take someone who is raw and unformed, then you had better being willing to commit a lot of time to managing.”

However much management time may be needed, advisors might do well to focus more on results than on process. Too often, Clatsoff says, advisors insist that delegated work be carried out according to preconceived notions. But junior staffers often know best how to achieve an objective.

To be sure, some things aren’t worth overseeing. Sources says that tasks requiring high-level expertise but are infrequently undertaken, such as the servicing of information technologies, are best left to a 3rd party vendor. National Pension Associates, for example, employs a consulting firm on retainer to keep its computers and software up-to-date and running smoothly. The firm additionally outsources pre- and post-interview vetting of candidates for office positions.

Also ripe for outsourcing are back-office functions that entail little or no client contact, such as payroll.

“If you’re have small office, then you always want to hand off activities that are routine and not a core competency,” says Wassell. “An outside vendor can probably do payroll cheaper and faster than an office assistant can. By outsourcing, advisors can redeploy office staff to focus on core results of the business.”