Tag Archives: brian cohen

5 Personal Traits of Great Leaders

Many C-suite insurance executives complain about how difficult it is to find leaders in their organization. Many people believe leadership can’t be taught. “You know it when you see it” is a common observation. Finding a consistent definition for leadership is difficult.

How do you develop/teach/articulate a core set of traits of great leaders if it is so difficult to even define leadership? After leading various organizations ranging in size from several people to several thousand, I realize that there are fundamental core requirements needed to be an effective leader. Whether you are an entry-level employee or the chief executive of a large organization, you need these characteristics to lead.

Leadership doesn’t come from your title. It comes from how you act. People follow leaders; they don’t follow titles. As technology allows companies to be leaner, and as Millennials become a bigger part of the work force, we live in a less hierarchical and more collaborative work environment. Leadership no longer comes with a title. Today, companies need leaders at every level.

You don’t need to be outgoing or have the loudest voice in the room. People with low-key personalities can also be outstanding leaders. Personal leadership is not about self-promotion; leadership is the ability to get others to follow what you are advocating. To trust you. To respect you. To feel that your direction and requests are in everyone’s best interests, not just your own.

So what are the traits of great leaders? Here are five core personal leadership competencies that anyone must practice to be an effective leader.

1.         Integrity: Make sure you do the right thing for all the right reasons. In any leadership role, you will be called on to make difficult decisions. If you act with integrity, you will be respected. People might disagree with your decision, but they will accept your direction. One of my mentors told me, “People can spot someone who takes moral shortcuts.” Never forget: A reputation lost is a career destroyed.

2.         Courage: All leaders have courage. The courage to ask why. To challenge the status quo. To go out on a limb. To do what others are afraid to say and do. Many years ago, when  eight bottles of Tylenol were found to have been tampered with, leading to seven deaths from cyanide poisoning in the Chicago area, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, which produced Tylenol, immediately directed that all bottles of the pain reliever be removed from every shelf in every store. He vowed that Tylenol wouldn’t be back on store shelves until the company knew that every bottle was safe. It was a bold move with a large negative impact on the company’s short-term sales. But when Tylenol did return to the counters and shelves, so did their customers.

3.         Lead by example: Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. If you are asking others to stay late, you had better, too. When I ran a new business unit, our initial office space couldn’t accommodate an office for everyone. So I sat down with my senior team, and we defined objective criteria for an office. I didn’t qualify, and, much to everyone’s surprise, I sat in a cubicle alongside the other employees. It made a statement — I play by the same rules as everyone else. Likewise, any rule or policy we adopt, I make sure I also abide by. You can’t act one way and expect others to act differently. You have to be a role model.

4.         Be a great listener: You can’t understand what’s going on around you unless you listen to others. Listening is how you learn. Listening is how you gain perspective. Listening is how you understand what’s important and what’s not. Listening is how you discover opportunities. A good listener sends a strong message to others: “I respect and care about what you say. I’m not a tyrant.” Throughout my career, the best ideas always came from people closest to the core operations I was looking to improve. You can’t find those answers unless you ask a lot of questions and listen carefully to the answers.

5.         Be a great communicator: Leaders learn to master the form and substance of communication.

Let’s start with the form of communication: the way you communicate. You can’t lead unless people understand you. Language, tone, facial and other physical expressions all send messages that affect what you are saying. (This also applies to listening. If you look away while people are talking they know you are not listening.) Here are a few tips to master good communication form:

  • Keep your message clear and concise. We live in a world of short attention spans. People get drawn away quickly. Spend time thinking about what you want to say and how best to communicate it quickly. I like to pretend I only have 30 to 60 seconds to talk. That forces me to get right to the point.
  • Use examples. They reinforce your points by tying them to real life instead of dry theories.
  • Think like a teacher. Great communicators understand that, when they are speaking to someone or to a group, they are in effect teaching others what they want them to understand.

Mastering the substance of communication means the ability to move people to react to what you are saying in the way you want. In other words, you want your words to motivate, educate and inspire.  By motivate, I mean the ability to get people to want to do something as a result of what you say. Your words ignite your listener to want to react in the way you desire. Educate means you explain why you are asking them to do something. People will follow direction — but only grudgingly if they don’t understand why they are being asked to do something. Good leaders know how to get people to understand why they should take a specific action. Inspire means the ability to touch someone with your words. Engender a positive emotion that enables them to do something they otherwise might not have done.   Inspirational leaders provide the fuel to allow others to find success.

Today’s ever-changing work environment is creating opportunities for people at all levels of an organization to lead. Those who master the personal leadership competencies that I’ve described will enrich their work experience and create wonderful opportunities for themselves and others. Enjoy the journey.

Agencies: Grow Sales AND Develop Staff

You’ve done the hard part building a successful insurance agency. But production has plateaued. So you focus on growth and spend less time in the office. This prevents you from overseeing your staff, and you begin to worry about what’s happening back at the office.

It’s the biggest challenge owners of agencies face. How do I drive growth and lead my organization?

Solve it by implementing these three steps:

  1.  Focus on what you do well. You can’t do everything, so don’t!  Focus on tasks that add the most value. Most people, when they first assume a management role, want to make all the decisions. It’s a management style called “command and control.” In today’s flat organizations, it doesn’t work. The business world moves too quickly for employees to wait to be told what to do. Successful organizations hire the right people and divide up roles and responsibilities to maximize each individual employee’s contribution. It applies to the agency owner, as well. You need to identify what you do best and focus on that task.
  2. Empower your employees to act. It’s your job as the organization’s leader to create an atmosphere that fosters initiative over order taking. Make sure your employees understand that you will stand by their decisions. Don’t be quick to correct the way they are doing something if the method they use solves the problem. The more you micro-manage, the more you send the message to an employee that you don’t expect her to make a decision. Move responsibility down to the lowest level in your organization. Your front-line employees know what’s going on. Give them the power to solve the problems facing your organization and get out of the way.
  3. Be patient. It’s natural to try to solve a problem or issue you see at the office. Hold back. Wait. Allow your staff to figure out the solution. It’s not easy….especially when you watch someone make a mistake. But over time what you will discover is that an employee will own a specific task she feels responsible for.

Well-run companies don’t depend on one individual. They institutionalize employee development enabling knowledge transfer among the existing work force. At many organizations, managers are required to develop their replacement and can’t get promoted until their designated successor is deemed ready. In other words, part of their job is to make themselves redundant.

Analyze what you do daily. Ask yourself what part of your daily tasks you could transfer to someone else in the agency. Then spend the time training your staff to assume your additional tasks.

This will free you to focus on the most important business issues affecting the agency. Inspire your people to be great!

Agent: What’s Your Plan This Year?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I used to get that question all the time. I would say I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, a successful businessman. I always had an answer, but I never had a plan. I would have benefited a lot from having the person follow up and ask me, “How are you going to get there?”

“How did you get into the insurance industry?” If you ask 10 insurance agents that question, nine times you get the same answer, “I just fell into it. I had no plan to be in the insurance business.”

I’ve spent most of my insurance career working and dealing with agents, and, while they have action items to grow their businesses, almost all of them don’t have a formal planning process. Instead, they react to issues the day they are confronted by them.

It’s natural to wait and react. But the best organizations in any industry always have a plan. They don’t react; they act with discipline and focus.

This article can provide you with a road map for designing your current-year business plan and your long-term plan.

A plan has to be something basic that you can live by during the year — not a 25-page document that gets put in a desk drawer and forgotten. Instead, it’s a short document that sets forth the path you want to take for your agency in a given year. Plans change. They always do, based on what actually happens. But having a plan allows you to be in control of your business.

Is it too late to have a plan this year? No. There is still plenty of time. Here’s a model I’ve used to develop several successful business plans.

1.         Start with an assessment of your business year-to-date. How’s your year going compared with last year? Is production up? How about profitability? Spend time analyzing your book of business and understand the difference between your results for the year-to-date period this year vs. last year. This shouldn’t take too much time.

2.         Identify your gaps. Profitability might be up but new business production down. Why is new production down? Is it taking more leads to generate a sale? Is a new competitor pulling business away from your agency? Understand your situation. Focus on the big issues.  Nothing is ever going to be perfect, including your business.

3.         Develop solutions. This is the toughest part of any planning exercise. It’s usually easy to identify a problem. It takes a lot more thought to come up with a solution, especially one that requires you to change the way you conduct your business. Try to identify little changes you can make. Pick a new lead source and experiment with it first. If it works, then incorporate it into your day-to-day operations. Implement several small changes at once. I call them “initiatives.” They are more like experiments. If they don’t work perfectly, that’s okay, because can always learn something new about your business that you can apply to your next initiative.

Let’s say new business production has fallen. It is taking your agency more leads to close a sale. One way to increase production is to increase the number of leads. That will probably increase costs because you have to purchase more leads or need additional staff to generate new leads. That will hurt your agency’s profitability.

Yet, that’s what most people do. I call it the “Do What You’re Doing, Just Do It Better” strategy. It typically fails.

Instead, focus on new tactics. Change the way you are conducting your business. Experiment, experiment, experiment! Try different initiatives. You will typically know if they are working fairly quickly. Don’t be afraid to stop doing something if it is not working. Move to the next idea and continue to iterate.

In our example, a new initiative might be to target a specific group of potential customers based on criteria you develop that makes them attractive customers. Another initiative might be to develop an affinity group that you can then target for new business. If the initiative works, you can incorporate it into your business. If it doesn’t — and you will typically know within 30 to 60 days — move on.

4.         Create check points. You can’t expect what you don’t inspect. Track your agency’s results on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Meet with your staff consistently. You want to create a culture of accountability.

5.         Be transparent. You need to share your plan with everyone at your agency. Make sure your team is incorporating the overall plan into their day-to-day duties. Have you properly communicated and delegated specific initiatives to your staff? Is your customer service rep up-selling? Is your receptionist setting appointments when the office is quiet? If people don’t know what you are trying to do, they will just do what they think you want them to do.

6.         Stay focused. Plans fail when people lose focus. Your job as the leader of the organization is to keep the organization on the right path. A well-defined plan provides the framework to make sure you are staying the course. It enables you to make sure everyone is doing what needs to be done.

Nothing lasts forever. Yet it is surprising how few agency owners have a long-term plan for their business. Most agencies die a slow death, keeping the agency owner a prisoner of her own business as the staff leaves and she tries to hold on to renewal commissions as long as possible.

I attribute this common situation to the fact that most agency owners don’t have a long-term plan for their agency and for their personal life. In the early years of an agency, everything is focused on producing new business. As the agency matures, the service requirements of operating a P&C agency create daily challenges that keep the agency owner’s attention occupied. It’s easy to procrastinate until it’s too late.

Stop reading this article. Grab a pen and paper and answer the following question: How do you want to leave your business? As a thriving organization that survives you? A business you can pass on to your children? To your junior partners? A business that you can sell? What’s your vision for the future of your agency?

Spend some time today and put together your plan for the long-term future of your agency. Knowing where you want to be tomorrow, today, will make it more likely you will end up where you want to be.

How to Unleash Employee Talent

Your company’s financial performance is below plan. You need to act! The most common response is to cut costs to improve the bottom line or fire or reassign a senior executive to create a sense of urgency. But these actions create disruption and distraction at a time when the organization needs to be aligned and focused.

There’s another approach: Empower your employees to find the solution. Step back and let them take the lead. Invest them with the power to effect change. There are three basic approaches:

  1. Create a cross-functional team to focus on the problem. Early in my career, I was summoned to the office of the CEO of a major carrier along with two other people from different departments. The CEO told us that one of our smaller divisions was not doing well. He said everyone in the group was working hard, but no one had any solutions. He asked us to come up with a plan within a week to improve the division’s performance. He said there were “no sacred cows.”  We should not concern ourselves with whether our solutions were politically correct. We came up with a plan that adopted an open-architecture product approach, where the company’s product was just one of many that our insurance salespeople could offer. Broadening customer selection highlighted the benefits of our product offering, and sales increased markedly.
  2. Empower your front-line employees to find the solution. Zappos, the online shoe website, empowers its customer service representatives (CSRs)to control the customer experience. Most call centers evaluate performance based on the length of a call. Calls that last beyond a certain time hurt the CSR’s performance reviews. Early on at Zappos, the CSRs reported that callers had a lot of questions and that the calls could last 10, 15 even 30-plus minutes. They suggested that Zappos not evaluate their performance based on the time a call lasted. Zappos adopted this policy and allows its CSRs to stay on the line as long as needed with a customer. This has translated into pricing power for the company. Zappos’ customer loyalty is so high, it enables the company to charge full retail for its shoes.
  3. Show your employees they come before you. In the March 22, 2014, Corner Office column in the New York Times, Don Knauss, the CEO of Clorox, recounted one of his first leadership lessons while in the Marines. After a hard day of drills in the field, the commanding officer had arranged for a special meal for the soldiers. Hungry, Knauss, a lieutenant, walked to the front of the line to get dinner. A gunnery sergeant tapped him on the shoulder and said, “In the field, the men always eat first. You can have some if there is any left.” As Knauss recounted, “It’s all about your people; it’s not about you. And if you’re going to lead these people, you’d better demonstrate that you care more about them than you care about yourself.”

Companies with CEOs who empower their employees perform better. In a study led by University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Steven N. Kaplan, titled, “Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter?” to be published in the Journal of Finance, performance characteristics of approximately 400 CEOs were evaluated. There was a direct correlation between company performance and whether the CEO was “open to criticism” — another way of describing CEOs willing to empower others.

Technology and the Great Recession have reduced the number of management layers between the CEO and front-line employees. This creates an opportunity for more engagement and collaboration. CEOs must spend more time focusing on how they create a culture of engagement — in other words, a two-way conversation.

Stop Tolerating Old Tech From Carriers

Waiting on hold. Faxing underwriting forms. Apologizing to customers for insurance-company errors. Sound familiar?

Up until now, you and your staff accepted this conduct as the status quo. Your customers did, too.

They won’t now! Today’s consumer expects a different experience. She expects to control her interaction with your agency on her terms, 24/7. This change in behavior occurred because of advancements in technology. Propelled by the Web and the computing power of the smartphone, consumers today expect to be able to digitally purchase a policy, make a change to the policy or file a claim.

Several forward-thinking carriers anticipated this trend at the turn of the century and started to upgrade their technology platforms. The goal: Speed transaction processing and reduce cost. Many executives complained, however, that the benefits of their technology improvements couldn’t be fully realized because agents refused to improve their technology.

Fast forward to today. Because of the advent of cloud computing, agile software development and more powerful processors, agencies can transform their customer experience quickly, at low cost. Leading management systems enable an agency to reconfigure its operations to provide a robust, up-to-date, real-time customer experience. This is one of the greatest advances for the independent agency system in many years. With agile technology and an online presence, successful independents are slowly but surely recapturing market share from less agile captive-agency behemoths.

Unfortunately, many agencies encounter a roadblock — their carriers’ outdated, inflexible systems. This creates a competitive disadvantage for the agency because it detracts from the customer experience.

In today’s market, it’s too easy for a customer to switch. Agency owners can no longer put up with a carrier’s antiquated business processes.

Remember that point the next time you are looking at two competitively priced quotes from two different insurers. Ask yourself, which one has the best technology interface that leverages your modern agency management system? It’s as important a question today as the commission rate.

What You Should Expect From a Carrier’s Technology Platform

Customer access: Does your system allow my customers to access your policy processing system from our agency website?

  1. Claims filing: Does your first-notice-of-loss system alert my agency by email or text when a customer files a claim? Does your claims system allow my customers to access your first-notice-of-loss process from our agency website?
  2. Data analytics: Do you have data analytics tools to allow me to determine the risks to target in my local community?
  3. Agency management system integration: Do you interface with my agency management system?
  4. Straight-through processing: How much do I have to interface with carrier personnel to issue a policy, make policy changes and adjust a claim?