Creating a culture of leadership
Is anyone following you?
By Roger Sitkins
When I look at the difference between growing and highly profitable agencies vs. "plateaued" and marginally profitable agencies, it seems it always comes down to one overriding issue—leadership or the lack thereof. In our programs, we always say that if you want to find out if you're a great leader, turn around and see if anyone is following you!
Real leaders take the initiative instead of sitting around waiting for something to happen. They don't wait for the roast duck to fly into their mouth because they know that's just not going to happen.
During my life, I've been around some great leaders, both in business and in sports. Often, I think about the definition or role of a great head coach: someone who makes you do what you don't necessarily want to do in order to achieve what you want to achieve.
But can they really make you?
In my old football days they certainly could—and they did! If you were a player back then, they made you go to practice and they made you run until you puked. You pushed yourself to the limit because someone was standing there with a whistle commanding you to Go! Go! Go!
So when you think of your role as an agency leader, do you think of yourself as a great head coach? Are you a winning coach or a losing coach? Do you inspire your team to be its best?
Left to our own accord, most of us will do the wrong things. That's why I believe leadership revolves around the agency culture that you establish as a leader. At Sitkins International, we define culture as the language and behaviors that are normal. Have you defined what is normal in your agency? Are you leading the culture within your agency?
Keys to culture
Here are some of the key elements of a successful agency's culture:
• Accountability. There must be a culture focused on personal accountability. Do people actually do what they say they are going to do? That's one of the characteristics that distinguishes a great agency from an average to poor agency. At great agencies, people realize that they actually must do what they said they were going to do. If your agency is one of those, does it have a Reverse Performance Management system (RPM) in place? Based on their job responsibilities, do employees report up to you or do you look up their reports and study their stats before reviewing them with them? Rather than worrying about putting together the numbers and monitoring what people are doing, you should have them reporting up to you. That way, you can focus on your role as a coach vs. a keeper of stats. Do your producers and staff report up?
• Results. Is yours a results-based culture or an activity-based culture? Is everything in the agency centered on getting results? Do you post results prominently so that everyone can see them or is your culture simply about being busy?
One way to tell if an agency has a results-based or activity-based culture is to ask the producers if they're busy. Chances are, they'll answer "yes," to which most leaders will respond, "Well that's good." But is it really? When you think about it, that type of Q&A is really a pretty useless exchange.
It would be more productive for the leader to say, "Well it's good that you're busy. What results are you getting?" or "What did you do this week to improve your sales/retention/number of referrals?" That's results-based language! Typically, we see an amazing transformation when leaders begin to focus on tangible outcomes and ask about results.
• Role Model. A big part of the culture is having a role model. As the agency leader, you are a role model whether you want to be or not. Are you doing what you tell others to do? Are you leading by example? By that I mean are you setting a good example? Often, leadership will proclaim that their agency is going to sell based on referrals only and yet the leader never asks for or earns referrals. That's not being a good role model.
Other times, I've seen agencies struggle after they implement their unique selling process because the leaders aren't following it. They couldn't even present an 8- to 12-minute Executive Briefing to tell their story. As role models, they're terrible! Basically, they're telling their producers that they don't have to ask for referrals or follow the selling system. If anything, they're the anti-role model! True leaders are going to demonstrate the behaviors they ask of others. What are you demonstrating?
• Client Experience. Purposely managing the client experience is another critical component of the agency culture. The client experience is how your clients feel or what they say after dealing with your agency. They're going to react one of two ways: "Wow—That was great!" or "Whoa—That wasn't so good!"
Think of your last experience in a top hotel or restaurant. Was it a positive encounter? Were you warmly greeted and did the staff seem eager to serve you? If there was a problem, did they apologize immediately and quickly correct it?
Now, try to remember when you had an equally bad experience at a hotel or restaurant. Did the staff make you feel more like a nuisance than a valued guest? Did your requests or complaints fall on deaf ears? Did you feel abandoned and/or neglected once you were checked into your room or seated at a table?
Not only will people pay more for a good experience, they'll also tell several of their friends about it. Conversely, if it's a bad experience, they'll tell three times as many people about how lousy it was. So which would you prefer: raving fans or disappointed clients?
• Communication. Is there a culture of real communication? Within the agency, are you holding weekly sales meetings and weekly High Performance Team meetings with producers and their service partners? Does the leadership team hold monthly strategic meetings to establish the strategies to be implemented and weekly tactical meetings to discuss exactly how they'll be implemented?
There's a big difference between strategic and tactical meetings, which is why they should be separate. Otherwise, if you mix the two, tactics always take over and make it easy to forget the strategies. I like to equate a strategic meeting with flying at 30,000 feet and looking down to see the big picture—the broad issues that need to be addressed. A tactical meeting is more about what's happening on the runway—the day-to-day steps.
Within an agency, a strategic meeting might be about establishing a selling system, while the tactical meeting would spell out exactly what needs to be done in order to implement it. For example, if the first step is to design a system, subsequent steps would focus on establishing a training program and deciding who will do it, when they'll do it, how they'll do it, etc.
Finally, are you holding monthly or quarterly State of the Agency meetings to discuss what's going on within the organization?
• Consistency. As with accountability, it's critical to do what you say you'll do. But all too often after new ideas are presented in an agency, employees adopt the attitude that "this too shall pass." They tend to have a "here we go again" mentality whenever new programs or long-term plans are announced. Employees don't buy into new ideas and plans because their leaders typically don't see them through.
Leaders who lead are passionate about new ideas and show their commitment to them well beyond the presentation. They agree to hold themselves and their employees accountable because they want to ensure that their new ideas and strategies are realized. They are consistent about implementation. Great leaders are not going to let their ideas pass!
The bottom line
Are you purposefully leading? You're leading, whether you know it or not, just as you're a role model, whether good or bad. Your leadership is either purposeful or random. What is the culture that you are consciously and purposefully leading within the agency?
I'll leave you with a favorite saying from our CEO at Sitkins International. Larry Linn says: "You're on the way to where you're going!" Right now, you're on the way to somewhere. Is it really where you want to be? It's your choice.
Roger Sitkins is founder and chairman of Sitkins International, a private client group and membership program for some of the top Independent Insurance agencies and brokerages in the United States, Canada, and Latin America.