Keeping employees in sync when opening a small branch

Kolbe analysis helps CFR of Tulsa, Oklahoma, set up an office in Kansas City

By Bob Bloss

“Your Small Business Is A Big Deal To Us.”

That’s a prominent communication company’s current advertising headline. It is also a slogan that could very well apply to the Kolbe Corporation, a Phoenix-based employee testing organization that has attracted hundreds of insurance industry firms—both large and small—to its client list over the past two decades. One of them is CFR, a regional insurance and risk management firm headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a branch in Oklahoma City, and a recently-opened small branch office in Kansas City.

CFR, founded in 1935, hired the Kolbe Corp. several years ago to measure the problem-solving instincts of its then 70-person employee force. Companies in the insurance business and other industries utilize Kolbe test results to avoid stress on the job, to maximize the effectiveness of workplace interactions and point employees toward fulfilling careers. Examples of the testing’s effectiveness, in behalf of employee job-role gratification and CFR’s improved bottom line, appeared in the September 2001 issue of Rough Notes (“The Employee Puzzle: Positioning the right people in the jobs that are right for them”).

That article reviewed the Kolbe-CFR relationship as it applied to a 70-person payroll. Now, six years later, with 100 employees, CFR engaged Kolbe to study what seemed a far-different situation: a four-person regional office.

CFR Chairman Jack Allen Jr., explains: “Robert Gardner, CFR’s chief executive officer, recommended opening a regional branch office in the Kansas City area. Trey Biggs, who was named CFR president in 2006, was in full agreement and was also familiar with the Kansas City market and knew of an opportunity to bring on some former national broker veterans who had extremely good contacts there. Four of them now form CFR-Kansas City.

“One of our first orders of business there was finding out how this quartet of insurance professionals would mix together. Would each of their insurance industry disciplines blend toward the creation of the desired productivity we had in mind? Based on our experience over the years, our next step was easy. Send the Kolbe Corporation into Kansas City with its proven testing programs. We always use Kolbe in our hiring process.”

David Kolbe, president of the company which was founded by his mother, Kathy Kolbe, more than three decades ago, has worked with CFR for many years. Dealing with a small testing group—four persons in Kansas City vs. the 100-some CFR employees in Tulsa and Oklahoma City—was not an especially new challenge for Kolbe.

“In many ways,” David Kolbe explains, “whether a small enterprise or a large one, the issues are pretty much the same. Because, even with large company assignments, we generally break down the personnel into small groups for testing purposes. Admittedly, though, starting up a new office can sometimes present unique issues—mostly from the standpoint that we must learn quickly how a particular small group can work together and determine how they can best utilize their individual talents to help avoid mistakes and to get their office up and running. Maybe they don’t know each other well or, if they do, perhaps they haven’t worked closely before. Now, however, they must become a cohesive, productive unit rapidly, because—in the case of CFR-Kansas City—there are only four people. In effect, a very small company.”

Michelle Rakes, one of two veteran CFR executives to oversee Kolbe testing in-house at CFR, describes how the talents and instincts of the four-person Kansas City office mesh into an effective operation.

“Our Kolbe profile revealed that one of the group is a ‘quick start’, a go-to guy who doesn’t know the meaning of ‘it can’t be done.’ A high-energy type, he gets a good idea and immediately starts to run with it. A second person in the Kansas City office is an extremely analytical individual, a fact-finder by nature. The two other teammates there exhibit high capabilities for follow-through and for complementing the fact-finder’s discoveries.”

Rakes continues, “As an example of a group project, the fact-finder selects a particular market to be explored—say, health care targets. The energetic leader agrees and immediately wants to make sales calls and issue letters. But the analysts and the follow-through experts recommend caution. Not in an attempt to red flag the leader’s excellent marketing goals—but, instead, to ascertain that suitable information is presented in a comfortable, workable time frame.” The Kolbe analysis guided CFR in placing the four Kansas City employees in posts that balance out one another’s capabilities.

To quote Kolbe’s mission statement: “We provide innovative products, training and services that enable individuals and groups to achieve desired results with the highest return on effort, with great personal freedom of operation, and with strong organizational viability.”

The insurance industry became aware of the Kolbe system when founder Kathy Kolbe addressed a Million Dollar Roundtable national meeting in 1987. Her presentation prompted Jack Allen, then the CEO at CFR, to examine how Kolbe’s testing procedures could determine how and where new hires best fit into his company’s operation and where to best place current employees if test results suggest re-positioning. Allen, himself, had long been keenly interested in the subject of employee motivation. He has published a book and written a Rough Notes magazine article on the subject of achieving a comfortable fit between employees and their work assign-ments. He also has established an organization called Whatever You Do, Inc. (, to provide information on management methodology, corporate culture and corporate vision.

“We’ve tried to create a corporate culture that inspires employees to achieve maximum potential, both professionally and personally,” says Allen. “We ask our people to spend 40 hours or more each week away from their families and other interests. It seems logical, then, to enhance their workplace experience with a corporate culture that gives people a good feeling about belonging.”

Clearly, that philosophy is effective. CFR has grown from a 12-employee, $6 million premium firm in 1986 to a $170 million premium operation in 2007.

Of course, CFR’s impressive growth cannot be attributed solely to its association with Kolbe. But by showing CFR how employees’ aptitudes, interests, talents and expertise are best utilized for the mutual benefit of CFR and its employees, Kolbe’s findings validated Chairman Jack Allen’s philosophy that a creative working environment—including CFR’s on-site fitness facility, weekly massages, monthly bonuses based on revenue growth, every other summer Friday afternoon off—can attract and retain “great employees.”

Before kindling strong interest from the business community, founder Kathy Kolbe focused her analytical testing on nonprofit educational and health care operations. She is acknowledged to have been the pioneer in creating tools to measure talents and then applying organizational development in order to understand a subject’s instinctive behavior—his or her conative talents. “Conation’’—in other words, instinct. A drive. Measuring it, as the Kolbe Index “A” test does, determines the way that an individual might feel most comfortable and perform best when undertaking any action.

After establishing her company’s prominence in the educational field, Kolbe determined the firm’s next logical step to be an expansion toward measuring adults’ instinctive actions—conation—and their problem-solving styles. A plethora of inquiries poured in from business enterprises, including dozens from the insurance industry soon after the Million Dollar Roundtable attendees had become acquainted with Kolbe.

With the assistance of the Kolbe Index, those “great” CFR employees are placed precisely where they’re most effective … and most comfortable, whether it’s among their large number of teammates in the Tulsa headquarters, or within the productive foursome at the successful new Kansas City branch.

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