On the surface, the backstory of insurance legend Joe Jordan sounds typical, even fairly bland: college graduate who’s not sure what to do, career-wise, starts selling insurance. Works his way up the ladder on Wall Street. Eventually becomes a successful executive at a major insurance company. The end.
But Jordan’s story is much more than it’s cracked up to be — something Jordan himself didn’t realize until the late ’90s. While pondering the effect of emotion on insurance sales as MetLife’s senior vice president of Behavioral Finance Strategies, Jordan started sorting through his own feelings and life experiences.
What he discovered in the process left him with lessons — about self-esteem, financial products, insurance sales and career choices — not only for himself, but also for the entire insurance industry.
See also: Motivating Words from Joe Jordan
I sat down with Joe Jordan at the GAMA LAMP conference in Orlando — where he delivered a rousing general session speech to thousands of managers, despite having just gotten off a plane from London — to talk about his experience; the book that came out of it, “Living a Life of Significance”; and his message for insurance professionals today.
In 1952, just days after cashing in his $100,000 life policy, Jordan’s father, a successful attorney, was killed in a car accident. Jordan was only 9 months old and the youngest of four children his housewife mother now had to support.
The family adapted to its new reality. Jordan’s mom went to work full time as a secretary, and the Jordan kids got used to living without the luxury of new clothes or a family car. They took the train or bus to visit their wealthier relatives, who refused to visit the Jordans at their Bronx apartment. And his sisters held off on going to college, so the boys could go first.
Jordan and his siblings took the changes in stride at the time. It wasn’t until later in life, around the age of 54, that he realized the impact of his dad’s life insurance cash-in. “Do you know how much $100,000 was back in 1952? It was a lot of money,” Jordan says. “Our lives would have been different.”
Instead, at 13, Jordan got his first job working at his neighborhood dry cleaner. His paychecks went straight to his mother, who used them to pay Jordan’s high school tuition. He eventually worked his way through college at Fordham University, where he played football and rugby. During his summer breaks, he landed a $7-an-hour job with the New York Iron Workers, building skyscrapers in Manhattan. Despite an intense fear of heights, Jordan spent every day working 700 feet above the ground and helped build 1095 Avenue of the Americas — the MetLife headquarters — where, today, he has an office on the 40th floor.
In college, Jordan also volunteered with Catholic Big Brothers of America. While wrapping up his schooling in 1974, a New York Giant turned Home Life rep who served on the Big Brothers board suggested Jordan look into a career in insurance. “If a New York Giant says you should do something, you do it,” Jordan says.
So Jordan joined Home Life and, despite being named the company’s “Rookie of the Year” and making the MDRT by 1975, experienced the humiliation that often comes with a career in insurance sales. On his first sales call — to a family member, no less — Jordan was ridiculed, called a garbage peddler and had his documents thrown in his face. “I had plowed through linemen and defied gravity on a sliver of steel, but I did not expect the body blow my own family members delivered that day,” Jordan writes in his book.
Despite his bruised self-esteem, Jordan stuck with insurance — mostly out of fear of failure. “It was the same thing that had me walking on those steel beams when I was terrified,” he says.
A changing business
Jordan eventually took his insurance knowledge with him to Wall Street, where he worked as the resident insurance expert at a boutique investment firm — mostly because it was the ’80s, and that was the thing to do. “I wanted to be on Wall Street — the pinstripe suit, the ‘yeah, look at me,’” he says. “I wanted to be a cool dude.”
In 1981, he took a risk and interviewed for the position of national sales manager for insurance products at Paine Webber. He got the job, and at the age of 30, found himself newly in charge of 4,300 brokers.
Jordan now had a front-row seat from which to witness the pitfalls of the ’80s investment culture. Banking and insurance companies were merging, and life insurance morphed from a protection product into a fancy tax shelter. Insurance agents started calling themselves “financial advisors” and “investment representatives.”
“People began to aggressively sell insurance as an investment product, and they really pushed the envelope,” Jordan says. “The Wall Street folks understood investments, not liabilities, and a lot of these companies went bust.”
In 1984, when insurance commissioners froze the assets of Baldwin United, a piano company/insurance conglomerate that had sold annuities at too-good-to-be-true rates, Jordan had to deal with the fallout — and realized he was getting sick of all the Wall Street chaos. “That was my first disenfranchisement with being cool,” he says. “We really weren’t selling insurance anymore.”
So, in 1988, Jordan joined MetLife to help the company set up its annuity business. Jordan’s main challenge was in getting insurance agents to start focusing on their clients’ wider financial plans. Agents accustomed to collecting income — in the form of premium — from their clients now had to become comfortable with the asset gathering required when selling annuities and a broader spectrum of products. When the new model went into action, things went well. But Jordan felt like they could be doing even better — how, though, he wasn’t yet sure.
Around 1998, Jordan began asking himself two questions. First, if clients had all the information they needed about creating a solid financial plan, why were they slow to implement one? And second, why weren’t agents doing all they could to help them? Jordan had a feeling both problems had to do with behavior.
Jordan started researching sales methods and the buying process. With the advent of the Information Age, agents had started bringing spreadsheets to their presentations, making their sales case with loads of cold hard facts. The emotional side of things, Jordan found, had fallen by the wayside.
“It was all by formula, all these spreadsheets,” Jordan says. “And that’s just not the way people behave. But no one was talking about it.”
Jordan started collecting and videotaping stories from agents and clients about the difference insurance can make. He started showing them at sales presentations and when speaking at agent gatherings — and people raved about them. “I said, ‘This makes an impact! Let me do some more of this,’” Jordan says.
Because behavior seemed to be the key to answering the client problem, Jordan started looking at agent behavior, too. His personal experiences — the rejections he faced when working for Home Life early in his career, the agents masquerading as “investment representatives” in the ’80s — told him there was likely a self-esteem issue among agents. Agent identity was “a recipe for schizophrenia,” Jordan says.
This was when Jordan began delving into his own personal story and emotions — something he’d been reluctant to do in the past. “I didn’t want to talk about my mother or my family,” he says. “I didn’t think it was relevant; I thought it was hokey.”
He grew angry with his dad and that cashed-in life insurance policy. He got frustrated with agents who weren’t doing their best to protect families like his. And everything boiled over at the 2004 MDRT show, while he was giving his main platform address.
With balled-up fists, Jordan recounted his family’s story.
“I want to know, where was the person of significance, the advocate, who could have taken my father, even pushed him up against a wall and said, ‘Don’t you understand you have to have life insurance?’ Jordan told the audience. “You have to understand what your sacred trust is. You have to overcome your reluctance to make the call. It has to come from the heart to go out and find people like the elderly woman or my mother because you have to protect them … If someone is disrespectful of you or treats you like a used car salesman … do you know what you tell them? What I do for a living is I protect the innocent when someone dies prematurely. I provide a worry-free retirement that people can’t outlive. I protect their assets when they get sick. I provide a legacy when they die. Because I live a life of significance.”
The audience couldn’t get enough. “I was going nuts up there, going nuts over my father,” Jordan says. “Screaming and yelling. And people loved it.”
A life of significance
Jordan started giving a version of that presentation everywhere he spoke and eventually wrote it all down for his book, “Living a Life of Significance.” His mission since then has been to take that core message — that agents do something extraordinarily important — to insurance professionals around the world.
“I think a lot of my message is that people need to realize that they do something significant, because that’s what gives them the courage to persevere,” he says. “For a long time, we’ve been living in this paradigm of selection and timing. ‘If you do business with me, I’ll select the right investments and get you out at the right time.’ That’s wrong. It takes credit for bull markets and mistakes volatility for risk, which it’s not. It’s time to bring agents back to the idea of the fundamentals and the basics.”
It’s a new mindset that could revitalize the industry and bring new talent into a graying field, Jordan says. “In recruiting materials, we put more emphasis on how lucrative the profession can be,” Jordan says. “Not that that isn’t necessary — because you run a business — but it’s gone too far. We need new people coming in who care, who like teamwork and feeling good about what you do.
“I think we need to emphasize more the positive impact our profession has on our clients. This customer-centric culture is best summarized by the Jesuits who say ‘Men and Women for Others,’” Jordan says.
And if agents feel like advocates, empowered to connect with and help their clients, they could close the growing life insurance coverage gap in America as well as ensure that retirees, living longer and increasingly without pensions, don’t run out of money.
“It’s a big opportunity, but we have a big execution risk,” Jordan says. “Reps have to visualize, every day, the difference they can make. The bottom line is, if your heart’s not in the right place in this business, you have to be an extraordinary human being to make it.”
Jordan’s message seems to have had an impact on agents across the globe. His book has sold more than 25,000 copies to date and is soon to be translated into four languages. (To order a copy, go to www.theamericancollege.edu/significance. All proceeds go to The American College.) He’s also in high demand as a speaker at events as far away as Australia. At the GAMA LAMP conference, we had to move our interview location after agents kept stopping by to thank Jordan and shake his hand.
“It really seems to have resonated,” he says. “When you boil it down, all people are the same. Everybody just wants to do the right thing.”
Despite his hectic travel schedule, at 60 years old, Jordan doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon. “I’ve got a retirement date — it’s two weeks before dialysis,” he likes to joke in his presentations.
Jordan plans to continue his work in Behavioral Finance at MetLife and as an industry speaker, from which he donates all his fees — more than $600,000 so far — to charity. But he’s also open to whatever the future holds.
“If I was strictly motivated, I’d tell you what my plan is,” he says. “But I’m strictly inspired now. A minor point now turns into the major point 15 months later. So, who knows?”
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