Agency Financial Management
Grow your agency with great people
People should be your first focus during an acquisition, or at any stage of development
By Rick Dennen
I firmly believe you can combine a mediocre idea with great people and achieve success. Conversely, I also believe success is highly unlikely with a great idea and mediocre people. Great people are the most important factor in the achievements of any organization. They help to increase sales, improve retention, communicate a quality brand, and enable smooth successions or acquisitions.
Regardless of the stage of your insurance agency/brokerage business, you can't afford to underestimate the power of your people. Whether you're maintaining, trying to grow, preparing for a sale, or eyeing another business to acquire, you need great people.
Those in the midst of the M&A process should be especially focused on evaluating the intangible value of people. Not doing so can be a costly mistake.
What's more, the aging producer workforce necessitates ushering in a whole group of newcomers. Forget about statistics; just view the salt-and-pepper hair at industry conferences and you'll quickly understand the urgent need to recruit the right people and to ensure that existing people are the right fit.
I have been very fortunate to work with great people. First and foremost, I credit our company's staff with the tremendous success we've had, especially over the past year. Finding the right human capital is challenging, and ensuring a continual fit never ends. There are ways you can identify the right people:
Everyone will put forth his or her best foot to make a good impression. People's reputations, however, provide a good indication of who they really are. You have to balance what a person says about himself or herself and what others say about them. Are they perceived as honest, hard working and knowledgeable? Do they burn bridges?
Although the industry is large, with thousands of agents and brokers, accessing information about individuals is easier than one might assume. As visible as networks are these days, it's not difficult to find people who might help you discover more about a person's character and track record. On LinkedIn, for example, you're likely to discover that you're only a few degrees separated from a potential employee, allowing you to discreetly inquire about that person's reputation. You can also conduct simple online searches. With today's technology, there is a wealth of information available on the Internet. You can perform keyword searches on candidates and their former employers. Social media sites where people reveal more of their personal side are also telling.
Intertwined with reputation and vital to success is a strong worth ethic. The best people are those who want to contribute. No matter the personality type, skills and talent, people who strive to make a difference usually have a strong work ethic. This is a trait that can be nurtured and developed in children, but rarely in adults. People typically work hard and are committed to their work based on intrinsic—rather than external—factors. The bottom line is you cannot make people care about doing a good, quality job. They either have the desire or have little interest. You can offer incentives to influence behavior, but people who are motivated only by carrots aren't the kind of people who make great organizations.
How much a person's role or position has evolved since he or she started in a job is often a good indication of that person's work ethic. A role that has changed over time with growth of responsibilities, broadening of scope, or increase in complexity or importance may show that the person is engaged, eager to solve problems and tackle projects outside the norm. They are contributors who are willing to make a difference, even when there may not be any foreseeable opportunities to advance in the company. In addition, another way to gauge one's work ethic along with other characteristics is to use tests.
Talent and skill
Often organizations make the mistake of trying to perfectly match a person's experience with a position's essential responsibilities. This tendency has become so strong that most recruiting software includes the ability to filter résumés based on keywords. Only those that include a certain number of relevant terms selected by recruiters make it to an actual review. Weighing job experience too heavily is a huge mistake. Talent and skill are more telling of an individual's propensity to succeed (talent is natural ability and skill is developed ability). Once you identify a person's strengths, you can maximize them in the right role and teach anything else that's needed, especially in a nimble environment. Talent and skill are transferable from one industry and job to another and should be the focus when identifying great people.
It takes all kinds of people to operate a business. I like to think that the workplace should be reminiscent of high school—filled with a mixture of nerds, artists, athletes and social butterflies. All are necessary and important to the organization because they all have a unique role requiring a unique profile. In any organization, someone has to have a penchant for the detailed development of code. Someone has to be bold enough to make cold calls. Someone has to have interpersonal skills and patience to handle customer issues. Someone has to think logically in order to streamline processes. As the organization changes, the balance must change with it. One of the worst mistakes leaders can make is seeing value only in people whose character, style, talents and skills closely mirror theirs. Successful organizations need the diversity that comes with having visionaries, doers, number crunchers and other types found in great people.
The last lesson I've learned about people is the importance of timing. Although someone may be the right person in the right position, the timing of needs may render that person a square peg in a round hole. Talent, skills and other qualities of little significance in one phase of an organization or department may be in great demand in another. The energetic producer, for example, who is easily bored but excellent at winning new business, may be exactly what you need when an agency is in its early years. Later on, however, when your geographic area is saturated—with no new prospects—you may need someone who is better at maintaining relationships to uncover opportunities with existing customers. Similarly, while an innovative visionary may have been needed to establish a new product line, a straightforward person who will hold the line and operate according to procedures may be the answer years after the foundation has been laid. Because of change, you have to periodically evaluate people and how they align with goals. In addition, flexibility is needed to maximize as many employee strengths as possible. This could mean moving people around, altering job responsibilities and even making complete personnel changes.
That said, I would caution against being too quick to let people go because they no longer fit. I have seen many success stories in which a producer near retirement is moved from sales to training and mentoring, or a CSR who has a hard time working at a computer all day transitions to a better-fitting sales position. Decisions have to be made person by person.
In environments that play to strengths while recognizing contributions and rewarding achievements, great people can be empowered to propel organizations to great success.
Rick Dennen is president and CEO of Oak Street Funding, which provides commission-based lending for insurance agents that need capital to buy, build or sell their agency. Dennen is a licensed agent in the State of Indiana for life, accident & health products and a licensed certified public accountant in the State of Indiana. In addition, he is an instructor of venture capital and entrepreneurial finance at the Indiana University Kelly School of Business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.