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Customer Service Focus

The effects of leadership

Encouragement trumps intimidation

By Julie Douglas

Collaborating with controllers, CEOs, CFOs and risk managers of various corporations gives me an opportunity to analyze their organizations from the inside out. These conversations give me the understanding I need to manage their business with respect to how they can insure or self insure their exposure or avoid a particular risk.

In this economy, employment practices liability and directors and officers liability are hot topics, and high-rising loss categories. We have all heard the stories about people slandering their bosses, colleagues, or clients on Facebook or the supervisor who constantly harassed and put down her assistant, telling her she would never amount to anything. All of these scenarios can be avoided with the proper leadership and teamwork in an organization.

Effective leadership is a trait that can affect several aspects of an organization's environment and is something that has continually evolved throughout the years. Accomplished leaders build unity in a time of change, encourage client retention, and increase employee engagement. They do this by establishing trust, communication, and team accountability.

Leadership traits

Trust, communication, and teamwork are the core culture at Durham & Bates Agencies. Our vision is to be the West Coast's premier insurance brokerage. In order to achieve this, we center our foundation around our mission statement, which calls on us to create exceptional value for every client and business partner. Executing our mission means: insisting on high standards and accountability; seeking clients for whom we can provide the greatest value; embracing technology as a tool and using it to create solutions for our clients; creating a participatory and engaging leadership culture; and communicating effectively with each other, our clients, and our business partners.

     Leadership styles need to be scrutinized and revamped frequently by the individual, team members and collaborating leaders. We face so much uncertainty in our day-to-day business that working as a team with a strong leader is more crucial than it has ever been. This is always "easier said than done." We are all feeling the pressure and trying our best to get the job done, and done right. Going the extra mile in today's organizations often does not seem like enough; leaders need to go the extra three to five miles to get things done and to set a good example.

The critical steps to effective leadership and team building are establishing trust and communication. If you do not have these two crucial building blocks from the start, you will not be able to move forward successfully as a team. If you have ever been on a team that doesn't have this foundation, you would recognize the organization's shaky framework and, once lost, this foundation is tough to get back. It can be done, but it takes hard work, commitment, and involvement from all of the team members. It's easier to maintain the framework instead of having to rebuild the foundation of trust and communication with the team.

Leadership theories

Today's team relationships are very similar to those in a marriage and family where teamwork takes hard work and respect. Some of the "old school" leadership techniques of intimidating or coercing followers into getting things done do not necessarily work anymore. Douglas McGregor explores Theory X and Theory Y in his 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise(

Theory X is an authoritative management style where managers believe:

The average person dislikes work and will avoid it if he or she can.

Therefore, most people must be forced, with the threat of punishment, to work towards organization objectives.

The average person prefers to be directed, avoids responsibility, is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else.

Theory Y is a participative management style, which produces better performance and results, and also allows people to grow and develop. Under Theory Y, managers believe:

Employees'/team members' effort in work is as natural as work and play.

People will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organization objectives, without the need for external control or the threat of punishment.

Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.

People usually accept and often seek responsibility.

The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in solving organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the organization.

As a team member, I would much rather be led by a Theory Y leader. A Theory Y leader believes that all employees want to contribute and are committed to a common goal, whether that goal is making our sales goals as a team, keeping our current clients happy and committed to the agency, or building relationships with carriers. Having great leadership and teamwork can make all of this attainable.

Benefits of leadership

As we all know, acquiring new clients can cost more than retaining current clients. In fact, some research shows that the cost can be as much as five times more. Our agency's client retention rate is 95%.

As a customer service representative, one of my daily goals is to keep my clients happy. We also know if the employees/team members who deal with clients every day are not happy, or if they do not have the proper leadership, client retention problems can result. We have to raise the bar on client retention, customer service, and leadership if we want to keep our clients satisfied and team members motivated.

Research shows that employee engagement as a core culture can define the organization. Everyone will want the organization to succeed because they feel connected emotionally and socially to its mission, vision, and purpose. Just as engaged clients are on the most-wanted and profitable business list, engaged employees are an organization's most productive and efficient assets. The work environment can either discourage and hinder employees, or invigorate them and strengthen their abilities. Discouraged employees will leave or, even worse, hang around and do the bare minimum needed. Engaged employees will go far beyond the expectations and thrive in the work environment.

John H. Fleming and Jim Asplund in their book Human Sigma: Managing the Employee-Customer Encounter list four dimensions of employee engagement:

1) Having opportunities to learn and grow in the workplace

 2)   Co-workers committed to quality (Do my opinions count? Do I belong?)

3)  A supervisor or someone at work who cares (What do I give? Have I received recognition in the last seven days?)

4) Materials and equipment (Do I know what is expected of me at work? What do I get?).

They maintain that a leader who is able to meet these emotional requirements in the workplace is more likely to see highly productive, engaged employees.

It is so much easier to do our jobs when we believe that we are working together as part of an "in it to win it" team environment. The bottom line is we need to do what is right for our team members and treat each other with respect and the way we want to be treated, just as we were taught in elementary school. Sometimes we forget how to treat each other and with all of the stress and pressures we face at work and in our personal lives today, it's easy to focus on ourselves. Leadership, unity, trust, communication, and accountability will get us employee engagement; and in the end will help us with client retention. At the end of the day, all of this will also help us sleep a little better at night! 

The author

Julie Douglas is a customer service representative in commercial insurance/risk management, specializing in nonprofit and environmental risks. Julie has been in the industry for 10 years, planting her feet the last seven years at Durham & Bates Agencies, Inc., in Portland, Oregon. Julie is Oregon's 2011 CSR of the Year. For information on the Certified Insurance Service Representative (CISR) program, go to


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