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Winning Strategies

Obtaining and retaining the best talent

Today’s economy need not hinder the search

By Larry Linne

Agency owners, both large and small, continue to list the obtaining and retaining of top talent as one of the biggest problems and highest priorities in their business.

Getting people interested in an insurance career is a tough sell! Better yet, ask a group of kindergartners what they want to be when they grow up. They’ll probably say a firefighter, a teacher or a doctor, but never “insurance agent.” This is a shame. We have an incredible industry that provides wonderful opportunities for income, personal challenge and development. It’s one of the best career paths available, especially in our current economy.

Most agency owners will tell you that their success comes from having great people. At least, that’s what they purport in public. But privately, they’ll share with us a deep and painful truth: They’re frustrated because they really don’t have the talent they need to get the results they desire, and they certainly don’t have the people to perpetuate the business.

The independent agency business has had a talent problem for many years. We struggle to produce and to service our clients because we can’t find the right people to do the job. We struggle to perpetuate because we don’t have the talent in the wings.

We have been able to get by because our industry has provided a profit that allowed us to be lazy. Now that the economy is shrinking our revenues and increasing our expenses, our vulnerability is becoming more obvious.

But the troubled economy could actually be a blessing if we take on this “people challenge” in a purposeful and proactive manner.

We see two different ways to look at today’s economy in terms of its effect on hiring and retaining people in the independent agency sector. On the plus side, there is tremendous opportunity, thanks to the huge (and growing) pool of top talent looking for work. That should translate into an oversupply of experienced workers in our industry and beyond (banking, for instance) who would be an asset to any agency. This poor economy could also allow us to create an attractive workplace for the best people in the market.

The flip side is that you may not want to recruit someone who’s unemployed. Businesses are taught to clean house when they have a good excuse like a poor economy. You may end up with someone else’s problem. I was taught that employable people are usually employed.

The opportunity we have in this economy is to create a work environment that is conducive to obtaining and retaining the best (employable) talent in the market.

We have worked with many agencies over the years to help them overcome this challenge. Here is some advice that may help an agency principal solve the “people challenge” problem.

Strategies for obtaining and retaining top talent

Obviously, the best way to capitalize on the current economy is to obtain the best people and retain the ones you already have. Here are some strategies for finding and keeping the best people in the business.


Get referrals. Most of the best employees come from referrals. In fact, when we recently asked a group of our clients some questions about their employees, we discovered something interesting. We found that 85% of the people who had been employed longer than three years were referred by another employee vs. response to an ad, an Internet search or a job placement agency. People who stay in companies typically come through referrals. We recommend that you and your employees find the next hire.

Recruit like you prospect. At Sitkins International, we teach salespeople to engage in constant prospecting activity to keep their pipelines filled. It’s no different with employers. We teach CEOs and executive teams to compile a list of people in their marketplace who might be worth pursuing. Then executives should cultivate that list by making calls to get to know those prospective employees and further those relationships. This allows them to be ready to hire the right person at the right time.

When I was in the agency business, every manager was required to have a list of potential employees whom he or she was cultivating on an ongoing basis. That way, when we had an opportunity to hire, we could pull the trigger relatively quickly. In order to hire the top talent, you must be on the lookout for it at all times. More important, you must cultivate it by keeping your talent pipeline filled.

Look for the employed. Focus on prospects who have jobs. Ads in the classifieds and trade publications often attract people who are less than desirable (i.e., agency ex-employees). Besides, managers don’t fire their best talent or furlough the ones they can’t live without. Are those the ones you want?

Look in similar industries where the people are worried about the future. Banking, investment firms and other professional financial service firms are a great target for our industry. No matter where you look, remember that, in this economy, employed people are employed for a reason. Go get those people and you will benefit from those reasons.

Look for something different. In the independent agency business, we find that many owners aren’t especially thrilled with their employees. Frequently they fail to hire producers who produce and aren’t really satisfied with their service personnel. And yet for some reason, they continue to hire the same types of employees over and over again when they should be looking for something different.

Most producers are hired because they are enjoyable to be around and have great personalities. We have to realize that the desirable attributes of an effective producer go way beyond having a great personality. We must evaluate call reluctance, presentation skills, sales skills, goals, historical sales activity, intelligence, problem-solving skills, flexibility, desire to get a deal done, business acumen and much more.

When hiring service staffers, choose people who are intelligent, experienced, and have a combination of relationship and technical skills. Test them to make sure and don’t just hire based on an interview and what they “say” they can do. If you have a history of bad hiring, maybe you should look for different traits and skills.

Take your time. One of the problems with non-HR manager hirings is haste. Most of us jump fairly quickly when we hire a person. We meet them, we like them, we make them an offer and we hire them. That’s a common mistake. People are much more complex than one test or interview can evaluate.

We should be looking at every potential hire with much greater care, scrutinizing and evaluating exactly what he or she has to offer. Frequently, appropriate professional testing can help determine whether a candidate’s skills are compatible with the agency’s requirements and culture. No one can afford to spend money on a bad hire right now.

Because of the lopsided supply and demand in today’s market, we can afford to take the time to hire the right people. So don’t rush! That’s dangerous. Instead, be thorough. Do whatever it takes to ensure that a prospect has what you want in terms of intelligence, experience/employment history, work ethic, on-the-job relationships and more.

Finally, don’t hire a person just because you like him or her or you feel a sense of urgency. Likeability doesn’t mean a candidate is going to be a good salesperson. If you act on impulse, you won’t find out until it’s too late.


Take care of your best talent. If you want to keep your best people, you must “Feed the Tigers,” as I discussed in this column in the March 2009 issue of Rough Notes (“Quick-hit strategies for a tough economy”). According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of revenue comes from 20% of clients and 80% of productivity comes from 20% of employees. I guarantee you that this 20% of people in your organization are those you cannot afford to lose. Those are your tigers. How are you feeding them?

Regrettably, most organizations tend to starve their tigers and spend an inordinate amount of time, money and attention on their most troubled employees. What a wasteful expense! Conversely, a great organization will invest the vast majority of its resources in the 20% of employees who account for 80% of the productivity and results. That’s how the most successful agencies operate. They value and support their most productive 20% by making every effort to ensure they have no reason to go anywhere else.

How do you treat your best talent? What are you doing to keep them?

Treat your people like your best client. Think of how you treat your best client. If you saw that person in the hallway, I doubt you’d walk past him or her in silence. I know I’d greet that person with enthusiasm and sincerity. Further, I’d inquire about the person’s family and be interested to hear what was happening in his or her life. Is this how you treat your employees?

A best client is someone with whom you should want to have frequent contact. You would also want to understand the client’s needs and respond to them promptly. Certainly, you would never ignore the client. In short, you would do everything possible to establish and maintain a successful, long-lasting relationship. Now just imagine if you did the same for the people you see on the job every day. It’s really just a matter of identifying, understanding and meeting needs.

Make it fun. We like to see agencies recognize people for providing a desired client experience. We also believe you can make it fun for your employees to create a great client experience. Creating incentives in the workplace doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It could be something as simple as a lunch or an in-house recognition event, movie passes or time off. Create a culture of catching people in the act of doing things well and publicly recognizing them for it. After all, when it comes to on-the-job performance, unexpected praise is a lot more motivating than criticism.

Find ways to make your business a place where employees smile a lot. The happier they are, the more likely they are to enjoy being there and the more likely they are to stay. My experience shows that the number one reason employees leave a company is a poor relationship with their supervisor. Supervisors have a responsibility to make it fun for employees to come to work.

Give them feedback. When I was a performance management consultant, we used to do all sorts of employee surveys. I know I’ve personally conducted thousands of employee interviews about the workplace, and whenever I’ve asked employees what they want from their job, the most common response is they want to know how they’re doing. Further, they’d like to be recognized for what they’re doing well. And finally, employees want to know what’s happening in the company in terms of how it affects them. Sadly, few employees get the feedback they desire.

What’s surprising is that most employees ranked those three things—feedback, information and recognition—above money and benefits. Interestingly, all three items revolve around security. The worse the economy, the greater the demand for feedback. Employees want (and deserve) to know where they stand, and they want that information from their direct supervisor.

Information empowers employees and may enhance their feelings of confidence. Consequently, they usually outperform those who are left in the dark, fearing for their jobs.

Give them time and attention. These days, it’s easy to be so preoccu­pied doing what we think needs to be done that we ignore the needs of our employees. That’s probably the worst thing we can do! People want to feel valued. If we ignore them and overlook their needs, it’s likely that someone else will give them the time and attention they crave.

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely not ready to have someone scoop up my top talent just because I wasn’t paying attention! That’s not something I want to face in this economy.

Right now, employees are questioning their companies because they’re worried about their future. They’ve lost their confidence and may not have a lot of positives around them. Seize the opportunity!

Despite the difficulties facing our economy today, our industry will make it, provided we are purposeful about hiring and retaining the best employees. If we assume they’ll always be there, we’ll fall short and lose out to the competition. But if we are vigilant and proactive, we’ll come out on top.

The author
Larry Linne is president of Sitkins International, Inc., which offers the Vertical Growth Experience™ programs exclusively to a private client group known as The Sitkins 100™. Larry’s background includes agency operations and sales management, CEO coaching, sales process consulting, performance management and leadership training.


Because of the lopsided supply and demand in today’s market, we can afford to take the time to hire the right people.














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