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OneAmerica Financial Partners sponsors the nation’s largest half marathon, which starts and finishes near our home office in Indianapolis. I’ve run in the past six of these events myself. The last three years, I ran to raise money for the ongoing earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, so I’ve chosen to start the race from the very back of the pack. (My sponsors pledge a donation for each of the 35,000 runners and walkers I can pass.) Because of this unique perspective, I’ve noticed an interesting thing that always seems to happen along the way — with thousands of people packed together, running together. While it may seem you never have the chance to break free and run your own pace, I have found that people end up offering support, working together and achieving personal goals together.

It also makes me think about our industry and why I think the career distribution model we support at OneAmerica is thriving. Staying in a career-building environment or becoming independent is a choice producers in our industry will face at some point — and perhaps several times — along their career journey. To me, it comes down to choosing the path of certainty and teamwork, which should be intuitive in an industry that exists to help people lessen various risks and be more financial secure. Because of the economic situation we’ve endured these past several years, it makes sense that the stability, education and teamwork environment of a career-building system would offer a strong value proposition for producers growing into a long-lasting profession.

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Career building enhances professionalism, and I don’t mean in the sense of how you dress, act or behave around people. Professionalism in this regard means building knowledge, competence and a thorough understanding of how our industry works from all three points of view: the consumer, producer and company. It means becoming highly skilled at using economic modeling systems to match consumer desires and earn the trust and cooperation of clients.

A career-building system invests in teaching agents to understand the nuances of how to provide a lifetime of value and security to a client. This is the type of professionalism today’s society, and our industry, need.

Product and price can be strikingly attractive. Distribution systems that rely solely on that premise may end up wounded by the sword they live by. We must be sure the consumer is not harmed by competition where product and price offer nothing more than confusion and the absence of coverage when clients need it most.

In the career system, the goal is to have planning, process and a fair price take the place of simply product and price alone — offering the consumer and producer long-lasting value. In a team- and systems-driven environment, a group of producers can benefit from idea sharing in a family-like atmosphere. The company and the network of peer agents around the nation are truly vested in the success of your practice and willing to support your efforts.

At OneAmerica, we’ve formalized this through our online, on-demand producer education program called the Center of Excellence. We also promote career-oriented programs like broad-based economic planning and our new second-line management program. We’ve found that, within our national network, producers can find support from people across the country, with different skill sets and personalities, who can share best practices or help with any challenges they may be facing.

Some independent-minded, highly driven professionals may not be able to picture themselves in such a scenario. I would ask them to consider again how they might grow to even greater heights in a career-building environment, where they can operate and build our industry for the next generation. To truly buy into the career system, you must want to be part of something bigger.

The top producing agent in the OneAmerica system in 2011 was Steve Vasgaard of Wealth & Retirement Strategies Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn. Steve is like many producers, myself included, whose journey has taken them from a career-building agency to being independent and back again. Steve has been with OneAmerica the last four years.

“The big advantage for me is I’m no longer a lone sheep trying to make it on my own,” Steve said. “Anytime I need help, encouragement or mentoring, I can call my general agent or other producers with the agency and company I have gotten to know. The bottom line is, when you’re in a career-building agency you’re part of a team. You’ve got somebody looking out for you. If I’m just a broker, I’m just a number.”

Back to the race, that 13.1-mile journey through Indianapolis. Because of the massive number of participants, by the time those of us in the back of the grid even made it to the starting line, a handful of elite, Olympic-quality athletes from all around the world were already sprinting toward the finish line. They’ve done well for themselves by breaking away and relying on their God-given talents and top-flight skills.

The analogy here is that some producers can and will do well in the independent channel. They may find that success can come quickly. But their level of success and the ability to sustain it may vary over time. They may find the support just isn’t there when it is needed most. Products and companies change or are removed from the marketplace. Interest rates and products fluctuate, causing producers to have difficult conversations with their clients. Companies with strong balance sheets and career-building systems can offer more resources to help producers and clients wade through these challenges.

The longer-term focus on offering appropriate product choices and developing skilled producers has allowed certain organizations with career-building systems, especially mutual organizations, to fare better in recent years. It is important that we grow strong, skilled producers because our industry is vital to the financial fabric of today’s individuals and families.