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Practice Management > Building Your Business

A gathering of top producers gets a new look: MDRT’s Caroline Banks tells all

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New Orleans has long been famous for its cuisine, music annual celebrations and festivals. Starting Sunday, June 14, thousands of members of the Million Dollar Round Table — an association comprising the world’s top-producing life insurance and financial service professionals — will converge on “The Big Easy’s” convention center and be treated to MDRT’s own signature offerings. Chief among them: professional development content, from sessions on building a practice to exit planning, to cater to a wide range of advisors’ interests.

For the 2015 annual meeting, MDRT has “repackaged” its Main Platform talks to further enhance the value and appeal of the general sessions. In advance of the meeting, LifeHealthPro Senior Editor Warren Hersch interviewed Caroline Banks — the association’s fourth woman and second non-North American member to serve as MDRT president — to learn about the conference revamp, as well as opportunities and challenges facing its global community of agents and advisors. The following are excerpts.

Hersch: Tell me about this year’s annual meeting. How will it differ in format, content or scope from prior years?

Banks (pictured at right): We’ll have the traditional conference line-up: Main Platform sessions, Focus Sessions, Special Sessions, Idea Exchanges and the Connexion Zone: the exhibitor space where members can find more than 100 speakers, plus opportunities to meet new people, ideas and technology. To these offerings we’ve added several new events.

The changes will be evident at Monday’s general session in the Main Platform room, where speakers — many of them longtime MDRT members — will deliver innovative and creative business concepts in a variety of formats. Attendees will leave these fast-paced sessions with ideas to improve their productivity and business practices.

Also new are Cornerstone Presentations, where attendees can customize Wednesday morning content to meet their needs. They can choose from several concurrent Main Platform-quality presentations on sales strategies, practice management, technology and health and wellness. Each presentation will be followed by a Focus Session offering the opportunity to further explore related topics.

A third addition are language-specific Echo Sessions featuring MDRT native language speakers. Trained in the “echoing process,” they’ll share their understanding of the key messages from the various Annual Meeting presentations given on Monday and Tuesday. They will also discuss how key takeaways can be adapted in attendees’ local markets. The MDRT Echo Sessions take place concurrently with the Cornerstone Presentations and will be presented in various languages.

With these additions, the 2015 Annual Meeting will avail members of more time to share together in a general session. Although the schedule and delivery times may be new, attendees will enjoy the same amount and type of content during the main platform as in past years; the content will just be packaged differently.

We’ve put a lot of thought into the new conference format; and we’re really excited about it. Everyone wants great content, not least the thousands of members who will traveling to the annual meeting from more than 60 countries. We think they’ll find what they came for.

Hersch: How did you go about shaping the conference agenda? Was there member input?

Banks: We always do a survey of members after the annual meeting. But arriving at the right mix of content is a challenge. People want to be inspired to do better; the motivational talks delivered during the Main Platform sessions fulfill this role.

They also want practice management content — information about product trends, techniques and best practices — that help pay for the trip. Hence the afternoon Focus Sessions. The difference this year is that we’re providing more opportunities for members to personalize what they’re looking for.

Hersch: How many people will be coming to this year’s annual meeting? How many members do you have worldwide?

Banks: It will be a large and diverse community: Some 10,000 people — nearly a quarter of our 43,000 members globally — are coming to New Orleans. We also must serve throughout the year our 33,000 other members. Compared to last year, membership is up by fewer than 1,000 people. But we’re not seeking many new members — only the top producers.

Hersch: What are the top practice management issues that MDRT members are facing in common across countries this year? And how do these issues vary from last year?

Banks: There is a great fear, though not always country-specific, of new government regulations. In the U.K., we experienced significant change in 2013 as a result of the Financial Conduct Authority’s Retail Distribution Review, which prohibited commissions on product sales. Japan and South Korea, too, are facing an evolving compliance environment, so regulation is a worldwide issue. Change is not necessarily good or bad, but it does bring uncertainty.

Hersch: Are international regulators spearheading initiatives similar to that of U.S. Department of Labor’s fiduciary proposal, which would elevate the standard of care for brokers offering investment advice on retirement plans? And are we talking about, as in the U.K., the possible phasing out of commissions in favor of fee-only services?

Banks: Across the world, there are mixed views among producers and insurers as to whether similar regulatory changes will happen in their countries. Australian and the U.K. members who have, like myself, successfully navigated the transition to fee-only are, by and large, stronger and better business people as a result. But the casualties of new rules governing producers have been the average person on the street: people who can’t afford to pay the advisory fees.

Also, the regulatory changes prompted many U.K. advisors who didn’t secure the requisite qualifications to leave the business. So there are fewer of us serving the middle market. But other nations are years away from the stricter regulatory regime of the U.K.

Hersch: What other practice management issues will feature prominently this year at the annual meeting?

Banks: Succession planning varies significantly from one country to another. MDRT has gone a long way to addressing this issue with its mentoring program, which has been surprisingly successful. When you connect a young advisor with an older and more experienced mentor, you’re not only helping the young advisor gain a footing in the business; you’re also helping to pave the way for the mentor’s smooth exit from the practice.

So pairing these two — mentoring and exit planning — is a natural. That said, in some markets, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, succession planning is not anywhere near as great a concern because of these countries’ young sales forces.

Hersch: Speaking of young people, many boomer-age agents and advisors have trouble connecting with millennials because of a generational divide. Will this also be a focus of the conference?

Banks: Yes— it’s a common issue for older MDRT members. Many of those in their mid- to late-50s are not as tech-savvy as young people; and it’s through technology like social media that young people increasingly communicate and conduct business. The generational divide is less pronounced in Asian countries because, again, of these nations’ younger agents and advisors.

Hersch: What other practice management challenges are common across countries or geographic regions?

Banks: Regulation is forcing better education and standards of advisors globally. Contributing to the trend is the Internet, as consumers can find out so much themselves just from a website. Increasingly, it’s no longer enough to know only product; agents and brokers also must have at least a generic knowledge of financial planning, even if they’re not preparing to become a financial planner.

Hersch: I understand that MDRT earlier added to commissions and premiums a third criteria to qualify for membership: fee-based income. Why was this change necessary?

Banks: We had no choice. Advisors in the U.K., among others, couldn’t have qualified without this third category. Its implementation hasn’t been popular with everyone. We have, however, restricted its use: First-time members from countries that allow commissions cannot use the income method during their first year. Otherwise, the category is available to all who need it.

Hersch: To what extent is MDRT drawing new members from emerging markets, most notably China and India? Have you observed practice management issues unique to those countries?

Banks: We’re seeing rapid member growth in both nations. India has a huge number of members working for government-owned companies. Regulatory changes are quite frequent in the country, which can affect membership considerably from year to year. Especially noteworthy about India is the very high percentage of agents who are women.

Hersch: In respect to emerging markets, there are two nations apart from China and India that make up the BRIC countries — Brazil and Russia. Are you seeing greater representation by these countries within MDRT? And, the U.K. aside, what’s happening with representation from Europe?

Banks: Regarding the BRICs, we’re not seeing greater representation from Russia, which has hit the floor economically; its contingent is small. Europe has never been a major membership area for MDRT, in part because the Continent has so many languages — 24 official languages in the European Union —occupying a small area geographically.

We have seen an increase in Polish membership, but not the vast numbers we see in countries like Brazil, China and India, not to mention Mexico. That said, we work with a network of members around the world to promote and support membership, not just specifically in China, Brazil and India.

Hersch: What steps are MDRT members undertaking to surmount the issues and challenges you’ve identified. Do you see a trend in respect to certain best practices adopted by top-selling producers?

Banks: MDRT was originally an American association that was broadened to include international members. When we became an international association, we delivered worldwide educational content and services first provided to U.S. members.

What we’re doing now is tailoring offerings to what our big member sections by country need. That includes not only educational content, but also tools and services. Among these are study groups, which figure prominently in America, but less so in Asia.

We’re creating, in sum, professional development programs customized for particular markets. We’ve been doing a huge amount of work on this over the last two to three years and will continue to do so.

Hersch: Has this tailoring of content entailed trade-offs? Have you had to dilute programs that might have been better suited in past years to the largely U.S. membership?

Banks: MDRT is known for delivering cutting-edge content —main platform and focus sessions that are highly valued by members, both in the U.S. and internationally. Whatever they need professionally, members will find at the annual meeting content that dovetails with their interests.

And speaking of the main platform, one of the pleasures I’ll have on stage is introducing and interviewing retired American congresswoman Gabbie Giffords and her husband, the former astronaut and Space Shuttle commander Mark Kelly. Their life stories will be hugely inspiring for members — most especially Gabbie’s. Whatever physical or other challenges people face in life, they can take inspiration in learning how Gabbie surmounted her disability after her shooting.

Hersch: I’ve noted the list of other high-profile speakers at this year’s conference, including The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Has securing such high caliber speakers been difficult because of potentially high speaking fees or other reasons?

Banks: MDRT always strives to attract thought leaders who will be a big draw — speakers whom members are prepared to travel long distances to see. But we do have to work within our budget.

We also have to be mindful that the message is as important as the speaker. We can attract the biggest names in the world, including ex-prime ministers and presidents. But if their talk doesn’t resonate with members, it will be a disappointment. There have to be valuable take-aways. That’s what we look for in speakers — the best messages.

Hersch: In respect to the regulatory and compliance issues you had spoken of earlier, has there been a commensurate rise in the use of technologies to address them, and to be more productive generally?

Banks: Yes. A core mission of MDRT is the sharing of ideas, three pillars of which are education, ethics and professionalism. Professionalism means working at the highest level you’re capable of. New technologies that both deliver efficiencies and aid in compliance therefore have a role to play.

In our UK practice, we now work individually with fewer clients; it’s not about numbers, but about the service level we provide clients. And that service level is defined in part by the regulations we now have to abide by.

Hersch: What initiatives are underway at MDRT to help members address the issues you’ve referenced?

Banks: We’re continuing to build out one of the big member benefits, our online Resource Zone. We have a wonderful amount of material there, including articles from our magazine, Round the Table, plus print, audio and video content covering a full range of topics: business continuation, marketing, practice management, protection and more. The online initiative is a huge part of our content strategy.

Hersch: On a personal level, has fulling your role as president been problematic in light of the fact that you’re based in the U.K. and serving an association that historically has been U.S.-centric?

Banks: No, not at all. The opportunity to serve as president has been a wonderful honor. The Executive Committee members, of which I’m one, work effectively together. As I transition to immediate past president at the close the annual meeting, the work the committee is doing won’t stop; it carries on. And we’ll be supported by a brilliant team — the full MDRT staff.