While reading Mary Dean’s excellent article in the April 28 issue of National Underwriter I could not help reflecting upon my own transition into the life insurance business. Dean’s article, titled “Top ways to recruit and train women agents,” was, as you would expect, about bringing women into our business and leading them to success. However, I found many of the points she raised equally applicable to men making their way into life insurance.

There were 4 points in particular that she raised that I related to in my own journey into the world of life insurance.

First point of relevance to my own quest that she made: “The majority of women who joined the company (66%) were not looking to become agents when a recruiter contacted them.” How well I remember my own attitude!

In 1955 I was comfortably ensconced in a sales job and with a promise to some day be able to buy the company. Suddenly the boss’s son-in-law came to work for the company and I decided not to wait around to see how that would play out. For the first and only time in my life I answered a blind help-wanted ad in our local newspaper. A few days later a response arrived, but it turned out to be a life insurance company looking for agents. I threw the response in the wastepaper basket–not for me, I thought.

Luckily, a couple with whom we played cards on a weekly basis came to our home that evening. My friend (also a salesman) asked me if I had gotten a response from the aforementioned ad. I told him what it was and what I had done with it. He said, “Why don’t you go and talk to them, you might learn something.” I respected his opinion so I fished the response out of the wastepaper basket and thus began the journey.

The journey started badly. I had a terrible time finding a parking place and when I finally got to the building where my interview was to take place, there was a power failure and I had to walk up 7 floors to the insurance company office. I thought to myself, “Is this an omen of bad things?” The general agent was, I believe, a bit surprised I showed up after all the difficulty, but observed, “If you can walk up 7 floors, at least you can pass the company physical.”

To my great surprise I did “learn something” and found myself quite interested in insurance as a new career. However, I am not one to make rash decisions and my wife and I, being children of the Great Depression, did not relish the idea of giving up a good job for the unknown, which brings me to another point Dean made in her article. “Next is the role of the recruiter. He or she needs to be honest and realistic when describing the job as a life insurance agent.”

Over the period of the next several weeks the GA romanced my wife and me, offering all kinds of encouragement and assuring me of great success. But somehow it just didn’t ring true and I became wary. The agency was small, only a few agents, and they were all over age 65. I could not relate to that kind of environment.

In the meantime I informed my boss that I was looking and he revised my plan to make my situation even better. But the seed had been planted and over the next several months my interest in insurance continued to grow.

Through a series of events I was interviewed by Ed McGwire, then manager of New York Life. Ed was a very realistic guy and the very first thing he said to me was, “What makes you think you can sell life insurance?” I thought, “Wow, I have gone from being coddled to being challenged, what a contrast to the approach by the GA.” McGwire laid it on the line–it is a tough business but to those who succeed the rewards are great. I accepted the challenge.

And that leads me to the third point in Dean’s article that related to my own transition experience. “The message prospective agents receive before signing their contract needs to match the reality they experience once they join the company.” McGwire was right–it was a tough business in which to gain a foothold and for the first 6 months I was hanging by my fingernails. But I had been warned as to what to expect so I was not discouraged and I persevered. I have often wondered what my experience would have been with the other company. After all the reassurances I had been given by the GA, I suspect that I would have been totally unprepared when the reality set in. I will never know, but my guess is, it might have been a disaster.

Dean’s other point that resonated with me was, “A major insight revealed by the survey was that despite our high-tech world, recruiting remains a low-tech, high-touch process.” How true! The environment of the office I chose was exciting with lots of agents about my age and mentors from whom I learned much. I had confidence in my manager and followed his lead by becoming active in the life underwriters association. What I have learned from textbooks over the years has been valuable–but nowhere near the value I have received from rubbing elbows with fellow agents.

I will always be grateful to the GA who ran the blind ad that changed me from a skeptic to a believer. But my greater gratitude goes to the recruiter that challenged me to the realism that one faces as a life insurance agent.

Mary Dean, you are right on target.