Topping The New York Times and Amazon.com bestseller lists for several weeks running is “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” authored by Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook’s chief operating officer calls on women to “lean in, to be ambitious in any pursuit.”

The book is in good measure a manifesto for women aspiring to leadership positions within their organizations. But it also is resonating with women life insurance and financial professionals desiring to make it to the top of their field by, as Sandberg writes, pursuing goals “vigorously.”

The time has never been more auspicious for doing just that. Experts say that women are entering the profession in growing numbers, drawn in part by the work-life flexibility and the unlimited income potential the career affords. Also appealing is the opportunity to serve an expanding demographic cohort: Women who out-earn their spouses, participate equally in financial decision-making and who take the lead in seeking the help of a financial professional.

Becoming planning aware

The number of women who say they want to learn more about financial planning, retirement planning and investing has nearly doubled over the last seven years, according to research released in April from Minneapolis-based Allianz Life. The report, “2013 Women, Money & Power Study,” reveals that 90 percent of women believe they need to be significantly more involved in financial planning than in the past.

They also report that they are equally responsible for major investment decisions and retirement planning in their household (57 percent). Also promising is this fact: 75 percent of respondents “recommend having a financial professional to other women.”

All of which points to greater opportunities for women to pursue careers as advisors. Yet, the industry faces continuing challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining women. Observers say that is in part because the profession is (factoring in turnover) more heavily weighted to men than women; and therefore, remains anchored in a corporate culture that appeals more to men than to women.

Consider, for example, the recruitment strategies still prevalent among providers. Many continue to view as “ideal candidates” those with attributes they deem most likely succeed in a life insurance career: university graduates who received a degree in finance, economics or accounting, are highly competitive and work well in teams (e.g., college football players). Often overlooked are women who, though hailing from different backgrounds, possess the business acumen, social skills and perseverance to succeed in the field.

The male-oriented culture infuses the rewards and recognition used by companies. Sherri Du Mond, a senior vice president and head of distribution training at Allianz Life says her previous employer often handed out footballs and baseball bats to employees for a job well done. After a female colleague objected to the prizes, Du Mond sent her a bouquet of flowers.

“She was floored that someone would think to do something different,” says Du Mond. “What women value is often different from what men value. Companies need to be cognizant of these differences.”

Yet, they also must recognize that much of what attracts men to the field — the income potential, job flexibility, helping others attain their financial goals — also appeals to women, a point echoed in a report published this year by LIMRA.

Polly Painter-Eggers, a project director and senior analyst at the Windsor, Conn.-based market research firm, observes this confluence of interests is mirrored in comparable recruitment rates for men and women in the LIMRA survey. However, the producer turnover or “churn” rate is significantly higher for woman than men. LIMRA declines to disclose figures, but Painter-Eggers says the difference between the sexes has varied between 5 and 10 points over the last 20 years.

To close the gap, the study concludes, companies across life distribution channels—carriers, wholesalers, broker-dealers and planning firms—must commit to five key areas: (1) making greater retention of women a priority through executive leadership; (2) revamping the corporate culture to be more attuned to the interests and needs of women; (3) boosting training and support initiatives; (4) enhancing networking opportunities for women; and (5) as noted above, revising rewards and recognitions programs.

In respect to networking, for example, Painter-Eggers says that companies need to “think outside the box” when deciding on venues appropriate for making career connections. Not all producers (men among them) want tickets to a ball game.

She adds that women who are considering pursuing management or back-office positions also should be availed of opportunities to leverage their skills and secure the training needed to work in other capacities. These may range from remote desk sales support and product specialist to process management, wholesaler sales support or technology specialist.

Women desiring to work in an advisory capacity may also need mentoring in practice management techniques from an industry veteran. Is it best to pair women with other women in such mentor-mentee relationships? Painter-Eggers thinks not, observing that many men and women work well together. And, depending on the company, the way in which mentors and mentees connect varies widely by firm.

“While I was expecting all-female mentor-mentee pairs, I found that many successful mentoring relationships included both men and women,” Painter-Eggers says. “It doesn’t seem to matter. What works, and what doesn’t, ultimately hinges on a duo’s personal chemistry.”

Securing America’s future

The industry’s need to attract, recruit, retain and reward women interested in careers as advisors, support professionals and leaders is not just about gender parity. A 2010 report of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee found that Fortune 500 companies which promote women to senior roles consistently outperform their competitors; and that boosting the ranks of women in leadership positions is crucial to America’s continuing economic growth.

Considering also that colleges now enroll more women than men (women outpace men in college enrollment by a ratio of 1.4 to 1) and graduate more women than men (colleges in 2010 graduated 36 percent of women versus only 27 percent of men) and it becomes evident the financial services industry has to bring more women into its ranks to secure the talent needed.

“It’s in the best interests of any organization in our industry to really take this issue seriously,” says Painter-Eggers. “The trends in terms of education and the workforce point strongly to the need for more women in the profession.”

Forward-looking companies are heeding the call, in part by hosting educational gatherings targeted to women that aim to further their professional development. Case in point: Allianz Life, which hosted its fifth annual WOMENETWORK symposium April 24-26 in Minneapolis.

Attended by 50 top-producing female financial service professionals affiliated with Allianz Life, the gathering featured a best practices panel discussion of top producers, marketing and networking sessions, plus presentations to help women build their practices, including workshops focusing on retirement planning strategies and improving bottom-line performance. This year’s symposium, says Du Mond, also included a private session for women whose annual sales production exceeds $2.5 million.

 “The symposium was designed to facilitate the sharing of best practices, networking and mentoring, says Du Mond. “Participants learned how other women in the field achieved success; and they learned they have a permission slip to do things differently than their male counterparts.”

Whereas Allianz Life’s program is for veteran and independent women producers, New York-based MetLife has implemented initiatives that aim, in part, to ease new female recruits’ transition to commission-based sales. Example: The Teaming Advisor Program, which avails women recruited into the company’s career agency system of a six-month salary while they train to become licensed and learn the business. Being part of a team, the new agents gain access to sales leads and to fellow producers who can offer helpful advice and encouragement.

Begun in 2011, the program has yielded measurable results. Michelle Pedigo, a regional vice president at MetLife, says the company retains year-over-year 99 percent of the agents brought onto the teams — a striking figure given that one in two recruits industry-wide leave the business within the first two years; and that only one in three advisors make it past the four-year mark. Contributing to the high retention rate, Pedigo says, is the teams’ sales productivity, which has been growing at a “double-digit clip” per year since the program’s launch.

Tailored more specifically to women is MetLife’s Women’s Sales Forum, which offers qualifying MetLife agents the opportunity to network and learn new sales and practice management techniques. Producers who don’t satisfy the production levels required to gain admission to the forum can avail themselves of “Edith McGregor Days,” named in honor of MetLife’s first female agent, who took over her husband’s practice in 1883. The events, held at MetLife branch offices nationwide, offer education in support of the agents’ professional development.

All well and good. But Pedigo acknowledges that MetLife still recruits and retains more men than women into its career agency system. She attributes the imbalance, in part, to the greater appeal that a career in life insurance sales still holds for men; and to the steeper challenge that many women, particularly those starting families, face in achieving an optimal work-life balance. But Pedigo insists the gender gap is narrowing.

Making it to the top

“I do anticipate a greater gender balance as more women graduate from college,” says Pedigo. “Also, we’re recruiting more female managing directors to oversee major markets like Seattle and Chicago. Having more women in leadership positions will make a big difference in the long run.”

That belief is echoed by Allianz’ Life’s Du Mond, who participates in leadership forums — including LIMRA’s Distribution Leaders Round Table and meetings of GAMA International — and who has observed a greater representation of women at these gatherings. As women boost their ranks in insurers’ executive suites and revise corporate policies to enhance the appeal of a career in life insurance, more women will be attracted to the profession.

But achieving the first goal could be slower-going than expected. Bonnie Marcus, a founder and principal of Women’s Success Coaching who spoke at a workshop on women in leadership at an annual meeting in April of the National Association of Professional Women, says many women don’t achieve leadership positions because they shy from engaging in corporate politics.

The reason: Many believe (naively) that they’ll be promoted to managerial positions solely on the merits of their skills and achievements. If women are to secure greater gains at the executive level then, says Marcus, more of them need to network strategically, build alliances and find sponsors who will champion their leadership aspirations. 

See also: Words of advice from a real pro

Patricia O’Gorman, a consultant and author of, “The Resilient Woman: Mastering the 7 Steps to Personal Power,” adds that career women endeavoring to advance themselves professionally also need to become conscious of their strengths and how to leverage them. When relying on their strengths “unconsciously,” women tend to be less strategic in pursuing goals.

“When selling themselves, many women lack the vocabulary to do so because they haven’t been developing it,” says O’Gorman. “They need to be able to articulate and to own their strengths by using them in a conscious manner. They need to have the language, not just skills and the accomplishments, to achieve their goals.”

Whether seeking to scale the corporate ladder or become successful producers, she adds, women in the industry also need to dispense with certain “girlie thoughts” or self-criticisms that can be counterproductive.

Among them: Believing that others will think badly of you because of your personal appearance. O’Gorman cites a client, a female life insurance professional, who excelled when communicating with prospects on the phone. But her self-confidence abandoned her during follow-up, in-person meetings because she believed they would fault her for being overweight.

Through counseling, the agent learned to become comfortable with her body and to focus during client meetings on her assets: her competency, ease in communicating with others and quick, analytical thinking. “By focusing on her strengths, she was able to meet people comfortably,” says O’Gorman. “And when you meet people comfortably, they become comfortable with you.”

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