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How one life insurer expects to succeed in 2015

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 NU Senior Editor Warren S. Hersch recently interviewed Caroline Feeney, president of Prudential’s national sales organization, comprised of 3,000 financial professionals. The interview explored, among other questions, the performance of Prudential’s career distribution system in 2014, the role the unit plays as part of Prudential’s strategic vision, and lessons she’s learned that might benefit other senior executives occupying similar industry positions. The following are excerpts.

Hersch: How did Prudential’s career distribution system fare during the past year. Has the unit met recruitment goals?

Feeney: I was very pleased with our 2014 performance. We had a strong year across all of our goals. From a growth perspective, we were able to increase — for our 6th consecutive year — the number of quality financial professionals within Prudential. Our growth story is consistent and one that I am proud of.

While recruiting results are strong and are part of our growth story, just as important is retention.  Our four-year retention rate exceeds the industry average.  While I continue to look for ways to improve retention even further, it’s a testament to all that Prudential has to offer our financial professionals in terms of support and choice, so they can best support their clients.

Our efforts are paying off in more ways than just great retention. Aside from seeing an upgrade in the talent and leadership capabilities of our field management team, we’re seeing better representation of the diverse markets we serve. We take a ‘total market’ approach: working hard to make sure that all diverse market segments are represented in our sales force; and endeavoring to understand and exceed the expectations of our clients in these markets.

Hersch: What accounts for the company’s career distribution system’s growth?

Feeney: There are two factors to consider. One is controlled growth: the careful, thoughtful selection of financial professionals; and secondly, good development of recruits with a clear eye on retention goals.

We’re taking a well balanced approach to both. And we do so with growth as the secondary goal to hiring quality, knowledgeable financial professionals who provide expert advice and put their clients’ needs first.

Hersch: Are Prudential’s hiring and retention practices consistent with industry norms or distinguished in some way?

Feeney: On the industry continuum, we’re highly selective. We put financial professional candidates through an extremely rigorous process to ensure that we’re hiring quality individuals whom we believe are going to be a fit for our business and will be successful.

In terms of development, our educational programs and resources are providing new financial professionals with the tools necessary to launch and grow a successful career.

We recognize the need to offer alternatives in the way we train the next generation of professionals. To that end, we have a broad range of resources that include face-to-face and web-based options.  One area we’ve successfully expanded into is video training.  That can take the form of a 5-minute clip from a top financial professional or seeing an established financial professional in action.  We find that these quick hits deliver more education and insight in a simple and easy-to-digest way.

Our financial professionals last year began conducting all of their business on a virtual desktop through the Internet. This move has made submitting business electronically much more convenient, thus enabling the client to conduct business more easily and helping to limit our dependence on paper. This is an example of the culture shift we see as we become, what I refer to, as a “high-touch, high-tech” industry and organization.

Hersch: What objectives for Prudential’s career distribution system do you hope to advance in 2015?

Feeney: As I earlier indicated, we’ve grown our career distribution system for 6 consecutive years and are very pleased with that consistency. Continuing growth and retention of quality financial professionals at Prudential remains a leading priority.

Another focus area will be continuing to find ways in which to deepen our existing client relationships. This includes using technology to interact with clients in new ways, and continuing to educate financial professionals on solutions that help clients meet their unique goals.   

In 2012 we introduced a LinkedIn pilot that has proven to be successful from both a prospecting and recruiting perspective.  Currently, over 400 of our financial professionals are active on LinkedIn.

Technology will play a significant role in building relationships as the way people prefer to communicate continues to evolve.  There’s tremendous potential here. I don’t see technology replacing conversations, but rather complementing them.

We find that those who embrace both the challenges and opportunities that come with technological innovation are better positioned for success. Financial professionals not only need to be knowledgeable about their products and the market in general.

They also need to be conscientious about connecting with customers by their preferred channel, whether that be via phone, online applications, social media, or client-financial professional videoconferencing — while at the same time not overwhelming or intruding on them.

I’m very pleased with our solutions-oriented advisor model, versus one that’s transaction-focused. And we see this in terms of the diverse product mix offered to our advisors.

Continuing this work will be very important to us, as will be maintaining education and communication with our advisors to ensure they always have the most up-to-date information and can provide clients with the most appropriate advice. We’ll also continue to (1) build on the joint work initiatives going on currently with our existing advisors; and (2) expand on our practice-building programs.

These programs enable financial professionals to expand their practice by bringing on one or more marketing assistants or junior producers, partnering with professionals in other industries, and/or aligning themselves with a mentor. There are many different — and increasingly complex — products on the market, so it does help when financial professionals are working with one another.

Also, in September of last year, we introduced a new financial advisor title that can be used by our financial professionals if certain licensing and training requirements are met. This is part of a possible career path that one can embark on, depending on how they want to build their practice and where they want to focus. 

Someone new to this business can choose one of several career paths, depending on the market they serve or decide to look at a career in management. This also allows us to accommodate experienced financial advisors who join our organization.

We will do additional work in 2015 to continue to refine and support all of our available career paths for financial professionals and ensure that all of the requisite training programs remain relevant and up-to-date.

We want to be the employer of choice for financial professionals. To that end, we’ve clearly defined in our recruiting process the career paths that are available to financial professionals; and the tools and programs available to help them succeed.

Hersch: What additional support are you offering Prudential’s financial professionals that you didn’t in prior years?

Feeney: We’re putting together additional educational programs for individuals earlier on in their career. We’re also offering additional mentoring programs for existing financial professionals. And we are looking into ways to recognize individuals who are succeeding in their careers and are truly realizing the depth of client relationships that we want to see more of.

Mentoring relationships are proving to be a win-win situation for everyone.  While we have a formal mentoring program in place, we’re seeing just as much success when our more seasoned financial professionals take it upon themselves to informally mentor their colleagues.

These mentoring relationships are helping to guide financial professionals just starting out in what can be a tricky job and bring them up to speed more quickly. The mentors themselves gain a team member who can handle their jobs more effectively and bring on more clients.

Some of the best examples of mentoring among our financial professionals come from the military veterans we have brought on board. Since we began an effort several years ago to recruit and hire those who have served in the military, we have brought on board about 168 veterans.

Fifteen of those military veterans have entered the business in management positions. Despite the employment challenges that military veterans sometime face, we have found that these individuals are typically a great fit as financial professionals. They are often highly self-motivated and self-disciplined. And they’re well-prepared to handle our highly structured training program.

Hersch: Are the programs you describe purely internal initiatives or are they offered in concert with third-party organizations?

Feeney: These programs are all offered internally. That being said, we’re very proactive as it relates to education for securing industry designations. This has been a major focus for us. I sit on the board of trustees for The American College; such outside educational institutions are very near and dear to my heart. 

I can tell you that The American College works hard to ensure that their educational and designation programs meet and exceed industry standards and that their training is meaningful and relevant.  They are also open to feedback and continuously look for ways to upgrade course information and materials whenever necessary.   

I’m very much an advocate for individuals pursuing professional designations in this industry. In fact, we encourage external education and industry designations not only for our financial professionals, but also for our home office associates who support those in the field.

Hersch: What challenges and opportunities will Prudential’s career distribution system face in the next year? Are there issues, for example, in respect to producer compensation, disclosure/compliance requirements, technology adoption, or potential conflicts with other sales channels that might need to be addressed?

Feeney: In 2015, we’ll continue to look to increase the diversity of our field force to more closely reflect the communities we serve.  Recognizing the changing demographics in our country is important.  And we’ll do this through both the prospecting and recruiting goals we’ve set. 

Technology, as we’ve discussed, continues to be an important area of focus.  In fact, this is a major focus for Prudential overall and we are working to ensure we are facing off with prospects and clients in ways in which they want to be communicated with — that is, more customer-centric and outwardly facing.  We will also continue to build out our social media capabilities. 

Hersch: What role does your career distribution system play as part of Prudential’s larger corporate and strategic objectives?

Feeney: We’re always looking at opportunities to leverage the strength and capabilities of all our businesses. In terms of how we fit into the larger Prudential enterprise, I would describe us as the face of the company to Main Street.

Our financial professionals carry the Prudential card and are at end of the day an avenue by which we help people plan for their future financially. So we are very much part of the company’s vision and strategy dedicated to helping individuals and institutions solve their financial challenges.

As an example, we’re working with Prudential’s Group Insurance business very proactively on a program called Prudential Pathways. This initiative offers an opportunity for a select group of certified financial professionals to work with specific Group Insurance plan sponsors who are interested in providing financial education delivered in a seminar series to their employees.

The initiative allows Prudential to offer a valuable service to Group clients that promote financial wellness among their employees.  They’re able to provide someone who is well trained and has the knowledge to provide financial education.  At the same time, the program gets advisors in front of additional individuals, many of whom are raising their hand and saying they need more help with their finances.  

Hersch: What personal experiences or on-the-job lessons can you offer that might benefit other senior executives — female or otherwise — occupying a similar position?

Feeney: I do feel fortunate in this role and can appreciate that Prudential has an eye on talent and developing next-generation leaders.  I felt very prepared coming in when I took over this role in 2012, after leading our largest territory for six years. Having an opportunity to create a culture that supports education and seeing people flourish gives me a great deal of gratification. 

With respect to my leadership style, I’m a big believer in being approachable and accessible. There are reasons for this. Keeping a pulse on the business allows me to address issues before they become larger problems and better take advantage of opportunities early on.

Part of staying close to day-to-day activities means establishing and maintaining strong working relationships across all levels. This can be challenging in a fast-paced business that’s focused on results.

Working in a sales environment like ours comes with a spirit of competition. But what I believe has been very important over the past couple of years has been our steadfast focus on identifying and developing talented people; and on solid working relationships.

Embedded in our culture is the partnership between our field and home office. Our home office associates work closely with our financial professionals on the programs and initiatives that ultimately service the end customer. They may not be interacting directly with the client, but they take that responsibility and what they’re hearing from the field seriously. This ties directly into the culture of accessibility I mentioned earlier. 

Finally, there are many moving parts to a career distribution system. In a leadership role, one thing I always do is focus on those priorities that will be most impactful to the business. So whatever my leadership can do to simplify and create a more clear focus for our field leadership and financial professionals is very important.

Hersch: Caroline, what are your views on the future of the career distribution system industry-wide?

Feeney: Career distribution is an important part of Prudential’s strategy. Viewed in an industry-wide context, there will always be a role for an advisor, especially for one trained by, and with the support of, a career system.

I believe this for a number of reasons. Career distribution entails a high level of infrastructure, support, discipline and training. All of these elements are very important to grounding people in a career. The control functions that come with a career system are relevant and important and ensure we’re doing business in the right way. 

In terms of the broader distribution landscape, some financial products can now be purchased online; and there’s a vast amount of information that can become overwhelming. At the end of the day, the more information that becomes available to consumers, the more they’ll need someone to help them sort through it all, make sense of it and ultimately choose what solutions work best to meet their goals.

It’s not about selling products; those days are over. It’s about providing guidance, advice and solutions when and where necessary. And well trained, well educated financial professionals with the specialized support of a career system will always play a very important role.


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