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GAMA Executives See Shrinking Training Departments, Changing Trainees

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LAS VEGAS — The leaders of GAMA International hope they can help fill what they see as a void in efforts to develop the next generation of financial services industry leaders.

National Underwriter Life & Health Senior Editor Warren S. Hersch sat down here with the leaders of GAMA, Falls Church, Va., at the 2010 Leadership & Management Program.

Those leaders – Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Hughes, President Linda Witham, President-elect John Baier and Vice President Kenneth Gallacher – talked about the need to do more with less, and to help other industry groups meet their objectives.

Here are excerpts from the conversation:

HERSCH: How would you assess attendance at this year’s LAMP conference?

HUGHES: This year, we had nearly 2,600 attendees. And a record 31 companies held managerial meetings in conjunction with LAMP. This is recognition of [the important work we do] to support field leaders.

Through our main platform session and workshops focused around sourcing, recruiting, training, development and accountability, we’re providing proven results from practitioners to help people improve the quality of their organizations. Many of our sessions now have a more strategic and leadership focus, like how to build a diverse business organization and be more effective at coaching.

WITHAM: This year, some 600 people were here as part of a team. Among them were recruiters who were in their first year of management. These folks compose part of LOTT–Leaders of Today and Tomorrow–individuals who are under 40 or have less than 5 years of management. They make up about one-third of our domestic membership.

HUGHES: We’re helping to develop the next generation of field leaders with the introduction of our new GAMA Foundation research program, Elements of Leadership: Achieving Excellence in Frontline Management, which aims to help to help agents become competent sales manager and front-line leaders. We have aspirations and capabilities to help the industry reinvent itself with a new generation of field leaders.

HERSCH: What challenges do companies face in transitioning young advisors to field leaders?

WITHAM: Gen X and Gen Y people will often tell us during exit interviews that they found the work too hard. When we ask what challenges they faced in life, many say, ‘nothing.’ They’ve never had anything to overcome.

GALLACHER: I’ve found, too, that they’re resistant to accountability.

WITHAM: At my company, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, we’ve changed the interview selection process to identify people who have had enough life experience, people who will persevere and overcome life’s challenges.

HUGHES: It is more difficult to find qualified candidates among the younger generation. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be sensitive to what motivates them to do the work. But, to Linda’s point, people who have faced and overcome adversity are better suited for this business than those who have never had to surmount obstacles.

HERSCH: What distinguishes the new Elements of Leadership program from other initiatives funded by the GAMA Foundation?

HUGHES: Elements of Leadership teaches the fundamental skills of recruiting, selection, training and development, accountability, plus support and culture. Two sections also focus on what it means to be a manager and a leader. The program thus addresses both the skills and behaviors needed to be effective as a leader.

Our Systems for Success suite of products, which the Foundation has developed over the last 6 years, allows leaders to explore more deeply these core skills. Our Essentials of Leadership & Management program helps them to refine those skills and to develop and carry out a vision for their organizations. And we’re delivering all of these solutions for pennies on the dollar as compared to what any one company would have to invest to replicate these processes and best practices.

WITHAM: The programs are all activity- or experienced-based. The real learning takes place by going out and doing.

GALLACHER: Training departments have shrunk drastically since the 1980s, when I came into the business. The Elements of Leadership program fills an urgent need because the companies no longer have the manpower to do the [leadership development work] all on their own.

HERSCH: What other initiatives is GAMA pursuing?

It was four years ago that we unveiled our 5 strategic initiatives–LOTT, Leadership Teams, GAMA Online, GAMA professional development products and programs; and the re-branding of GAMA. This July we’ll be initiating another strategic planning summit to not only evaluate [these initiatives], but also to explore what they need to consider to remain fresh and contemporary for our industry.

HERSCH: How many of this year’s attendees are based outside the U.S.? To what extent is GAMA looking to grow internationally?

HUGHES: Of the conference’s 2,600 attendees, approximately 675 are international. Mexico provided 200 attendees of the 13 countries represented.

WITHAM: Growing our international membership will very likely get a lot of focus at our July strategic planning meeting.

BAIER: We’re also pursuing other market opportunities, like multi-line agents. But U.S.-based managers and leaders in the life insurance space is still our core audience.

HUGHES: Our international focus has been largely welcoming and passive; we need to be welcoming and more active in strategic ways. We currently have 6,600 members, of which 3,800 are domestic and 2,800 international.

HERSCH: How would you assess GAMA’s finances and strength as an organization?

HUGHES: Our membership revenue–$200,000 more than what we budgeted for–exceeded expectations. We recruit from 400 to 600 new members each year. And our member retention is annualized at about 82%. These are strong business results. So we’re in very good shape.

WITHAM: The other side of the balance sheet is expense management. We’ve paired expenses down as much as possible, while maintaining our priorities on important strategic initiatives.

HUGHES: Expense management has been strategic with a particular focus on not degrading member benefits. We continue to do more with less–and to do so creatively. Because we’re clear about our mission and our strategic initiatives, it’s easier to make better [financial] decisions because we know what’s important.

HERSCH: What initiatives is GAMA advancing in partnership with sister organizations serving the industry?

HUGHES: This afternoon, we hosted a round table of a joint executives committee to update one another about what’s happening within our respective organizations and to see how we can collaborate in advancing industry objectives. In recent years, it’s become apparent that because GAMA’s membership constitutes field leaders, sister organizations–MDRT, AALU, ACLI, NAIFA, and The American College–are looking more to us to help support and promote the value they offer to agents and advisors.

NAIFA, for example, approached us last year–and again this year–about hosting a leadership track. Strategically, the partnership is brilliant, because if our members are more informed and engaged about what’s happening at NAIFA, then the likelihood of NAIFA asking us to get their agents and advisors more involved [in GAMA] is that much easier.

As you know, critical mass is everything on Capitol Hill. Our commitment to NAIFA and to AALU is to promote the value of what they do on our behalf to our members: to be effective leaders and communicators; and to encourage their advisors to get active at a time in our history when activism is very critical.

HERSCH: How does GAMA’s membership break down by sector?

HUGHES: There is an occasional ebb-and-flow. But the diversity of sectors that we serve is universal, with the exception of the banking industry. We welcome any of our banking partners to the world of financial services leadership whenever they’re ready to come.

How has GAMA reacted to House passage of the health care bill? Does the organization have an official position on this legislation?

BAIER: We have no official position. But during a meeting yesterday, one gentleman asked, “How many people here like the health care bill?” With the exception of a lone individual in the back, I didn’t see any hands go up.

HUGHES: GAMA is ramping up member education and awareness-building around regulatory and legislative issues that are occurring at the federal and state levels. It’s not traditionally been our role. In the past, we relied passively on AALU, ACLI and NAIFA to do our bidding.

But these are very challenging times. There are significant risks to our industry over the next few years, including the potential taxation of the inside build-up of life insurance. We’re working with our Capitol Hill and state capitol advocacy organizations to ensure our members are aware of legislative issues so they can make informed leadership decisions.


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