One thing about the Million Dollar Round Table, which concluded its annual meeting in New Orleans on June 17, could not go unnoticed: its huge non-U.S. member contingent. The presence of thousands of international attendees — from Japan, China, Mexico, India, the U.K, South Africa and other countries — is testament, say observers, to the far-flung appeal of the four-day gathering. Earlier this week, LifeHealthPro Senior Editor Warren Hersch met with MDRT’s new president, Brian Heckert, to explore how the conference is evolving to meet the needs of its members and issues that are top of mind for producers globally. The following are excerpts.
Hersch: What are some of the top practice management issues that MDRT members are facing across countries this year?
Heckert (pictured at right): The members are at different stages in their careers, so their professional development needs differ. Many are successful but face challenges and questions about managing a growing practice.
When, for example, do you hire an administrative assistant? What’s the right balance between work and family time? How do hire and keep talented staff people? How do you put together a business plan?
Solutions to these issues are addressed in the annual meeting’s Main Platform and Focus Sessions. So, too, are issues encountered by advisors at other two career stages we’ve identified: those who reached a second plateau and have to decide how best to divide office responsibilities and functions among multiple staff members and, potentially, multiple offices; and those who have reached a third plateau — legacy development — and must determine how best to capitalize on the assets, knowledge, client-base and Rolodexes they’ve built up over the years.
So we have sessions covering mentoring, succession planning and creating a legacy through the MDRT Foundation. The Focus sessions, in sum, are tailored to assist advisors as they navigate the three stages of an agent’s or advisor’s career path. Whether you work in an agency or independent system, these three stages fit the content criteria that members are looking for.
Hersch: Are certain challenges unique or more pronounced among members in specific countries or geographic regions?
Heckert: Yes — and a major area of concern is compliance. Our members are dealing with different regulatory environments. The educational and compliance standards in Australia, South Africa and the U.K. are among the highest in the world. The solution in almost any heavily regulated environment is to recruit staffers who can deal with compliance requirements.
Hersch: Have members expressed concerns that the changes implemented in the U.K., most notably the phase-out of commissions in 2013, could happen in their countries? And are they prepared to migrate to a fee-only regime?
Heckert: Their views range from outright denial to saying they can adapt to voicing real concern. The annual meeting offers members in countries facing regulatory change a valuable opportunity to network with colleagues and share ideas.
Regulation will always be a concern. We here at the annual meeting have gone through regulatory changes and have survived.
To be sure, the workload for many members is greater. The paperwork involved in writing a financial plan today or selling an insurance product is many times what it was in years past.
It takes so much more time and due diligence to get everything right. And the process can be unforgiving. If you omit a signature from an application or contract, you may have to start over. It’s no exaggeration to say that finalizing a policy is like closing on a mortgage – only worse.
Hersch: Has technology eased the paperwork load?
Heckert: Some companies have implemented electronic application processing. But in part because insurers haven’t received the regulatory stamp of approval, many carriers have been slow in making the transition. The regulators’ position is, “Implement the new technologies and we’ll monitor you. But we won’t hold you harmless.”
My own broker-dealer has made great advances in moving to paperless systems. When you open a brokerage account, you can use their electronic application. But if you couple that with a variable annuity or life insurance application, you still have to use ink and paper to secure signatures for these contracts.
Hersch: Let’s turn to another subject that, I understand, ranks high among MDRT’s professional development initiatives: mentoring. How would you assess the quality new agent training generally in the industry?
Heckert: I’m not impressed with how some companies run their internship and training programs, which force on new agents from the get-go the hardest part of the job: prospecting and selling.
When I recruited my apprentice and now partner, Leo, I took more of a law firm approach. For about five years, he didn’t call on prospects or clients. As a paid staff person, he handled back-office functions until he arrived at a comfort level where he could take on client acquisition.
Many companies, unfortunately, have the process backward. The process needs to be reversed.
Hersch: Has MDRT’s own mentoring program helped aspiring members surmount challenges they face in the field?
Heckert: Yes, very much so. We have a long history of mentoring; I personally have mentored many agents in the past.
But it’s not always about pairing a veteran advisor with a new agent — an MDRT aspirant — to help the agent achieve our membership production requirement. The mentoring can also work the other way: I was helped by an advisor 20 years younger than me and based in the Middle East on questions concerning an international policy.
Hersch: Is the mentoring more common for agents who work at the major life insurance carriers?
Heckert: Yes, because it’s easier. There’s typically an agency structure within which a new agent can partner with a veteran producer. The mentoring program is especially popular among many of our international members.
Mexico has, I believe, some 600 mentor-aspirant teams. Indonesia has more than 1,000 mentoring teams. Malaysia, too, has quite a few. The partnering is all facilitated through the MDRT website.
A common belief about mentoring is that it takes a lot of the mentors’ time; it needn’t. I regularly mentor two MDRT aspirants, one in Brunei and another in Tennessee. The mentoring can be as simple as an email back and forth.
Hersch: Or, perhaps, as involved as joint work in the field?
Heckert: U.S. insurers do allow joint work, though a lot of companies based internationally don’t because of rules prohibiting such joint work. But for a lot of our teams, the value of the mentoring is not about joint work; it’s about building effective teams — member managers and non-member producers the managers oversee — in an agency structure.
Hersch: As MDRT’s incoming president, how do you envision your new role?
Heckert: The trend in recent years has been for the president — as I will — to work collaboratively with other MDRT Executive Committee members as a team. We don’t want to be whipsawing among priorities as we transition from one president to another.
These priorities are member-driven. And a key one is how to train members to be leaders not only in this organization, but also their own. So leadership development here is a big focus — we’re investing a lot in it.
MDRT going forward will be even more membership benefit-driven. To use a term we’ve coined: MDRT365. We’re focusing on how to provide and enhance member benefits throughout the year, including the other 361 days when we’re not holding an annual meeting.