ACG - Agency Consulting Group

The PIPELINE

A national monthly newsletter for agency principals dedicated to agency management topic

Catch-22

"I know this has to get done. It's critical to the future of the agency. But I don't have the time!"

What comes first, the chicken or the elephant? We ask this question because we have found that the sequence of events that lead to this dilemma are not similar (like the chicken and egg scenario). Instead, they are as different as the chicken and the elephant.

Most readers of this publication consider themselves small businessmen. As such, their two most critical assets are their staff and their own time. How each of these resources are used, more than any other determinant, establish their levels of success in business. The misuse of these resources cause a Catch-22 type situation in which we can not get results because we don't have the time, we can not gain more time because our personnel are not adequate, and we can't upgrade our personnel because our results don't permit it.

OWNER'S TIME MANAGEMENT

We are considered rather competent time managers. Yet, we often find ourselves performing activities that should be done by someone else (if they should be done at all). How much more prevalent is this misuse of time among agency owners who don't spend a great deal of time teaching and implementing efficiency efforts?

Each one of us has the same 24 hours that are granted to everyone. How we use that time determines our individual productivity. Many tasks are done repetitively, without much thought that would be more efficiently done by someone else? How many of those tasks are done because we want to stay busy and these tasks aren't as challenging as others that require our time? Whenever we hear anyone say, "I simply don't have the time", it means, "I (consciously or subconsciously) prefer to do the many things that occupy my day instead of the projected task that, while important, may not be as interesting, or may be more challenging than I would like."

As long as we understand that time use is a matter of priorities and personal choice, we lose the excuse of "lack" of time. The other excuse that we often hear is that the owner must use his/her time because their employees aren't capable of taking over the tasks from the owners. This deserves further consideration because, if true, the agency has the wrong employees. More likely, this remark is an excuse for lack of management delegation.

PERSONNEL

In many insurance agencies we continue to struggle with the TRUST factor. How far can we trust our employees? Can we share our results with them? Will they care? Will they leave and tell the competition of our strengths and weaknesses? Should we include them in our planning efforts? Should we train them? Are they capable? If we train them, will they just leave for more money?

Here are a few observations learned from visiting over one thousand agencies so far during our consultancy. These observations appear to be constant regardless of size of agency, type, location, number of employees or other circumstances of agency operations or ownership.

The more participative the management, the more caring the employees. But participative management must come gradually. A sudden "conversion" to participative management (as the result of an article or seminar) will just be another 'flash in the pan' idea and can cause more damage than help the agency.

What is participative management? It starts with a general feeling of trust and respect by the owners and managers to the employees of the agency. That trust and respect is reflected by delegating authority along with the responsibilities of the job. It is also reflected by the sharing of information, results and plans with the agency staff. Yes, the agency is owned by one or a few individuals. But all of the employees count on this business to sponsor their careers, don't they? If the agency fails, the owners will be looking for jobs, as will the other employees. Don't you think that the agency results are important to the employees as well as to the owners? While that trust is not earned solely by virtue of employment, its beginnings are.

If you "trust" an employee enough to entrust your customers or administration to the employee, begin the information sharing immediately (until and unless the employee gives you cause to question that level of trust). If the employee does not respond positively to the trust that you offer, you may have the wrong

employee. Don't wait months or years to figure out what to do! Tell the employee of your concern, offer the employee another chance to perform to your expectations and make sure that the problem is not that you haven't provided enough guidance or training. If the results of the second chance period don't conform with your expectations, replace the employee. One cancerous danger to insurance agencies is the reluctance of owners to terminate employees who are not motivated or capable enough to perform the job tasks. Those employees will do much more damage to the agency while still employed than the owner could ever imagine.

However, most employees are both capable and trustworthy. The reason that they don't take more responsibility is ignorance and lack of authority and trust. An employee will only try to help you once if that help is declined or unappreciated. They do not want to appear "pushy" and they do need the job. So if that offer is not appreciated or desired, they will perform to their reflection of your expectations of them. In other words, they will live up to your image of them as employees. If you expect your employees to blindly follow orders and be clerks, that's what they will become. They may be comfortable in that position (even though it's far below their capabilities) or they may be frustrated. If they are frustrated, they will eventually leave you (without ever telling you the real reason).

The most successful agencies include most (if not all) employees in the formulation and implementation of the agency's Strategic Plan. If the goals of the agency are explained and make sense to the employees, they will be more motivated to help achieve them. If they share in the creation of objectives and action plans, they assume ownership and responsibility for their implementation. They can't accuse management of forcing an objective upon them. And they will be more likely to 'reality test' those goals to assure that they can be achieved.

Well, then, WHAT COMES FIRST, THE REVENUE GROWTH OR THE PEOPLE TO SPONSOR THAT GROWTH? This question is, in reality, the real 'Chicken and Elephant Question' stated early in this article.

For most of us, the growth potential of the agency is limited by our ability to "create" time to sponsor revenue generating activities. We don't have the time because we are busy with so many other "things". The reason we are so busy is that our staff can't (or won't) help us with our responsibilities. And we can't add staff because we don't have the additional revenue to support them.

Once you understand that you ARE in control of your time and priorities, you will off-load those tasks that can be done by others. Many agents will have to change their attitudes toward their employees to permit this change. But most employees would welcome more active participation in the activities of the agency (otherwise their work is deathly boring). Many employees will "find" time for tasks that will provide greater exposure and responsibility. If, on the other hand, employees can not take over tasks -- if they are stretched to their tolerance by the job, then you must decide whether an additional employee would release sufficient time to generate substantially more revenue than the cost of the employee. If so, you should expend the money, add the employee and shift responsibilities in order to accomplish that money-making effort. The only caution is to manage your time to accomplish the new effort and keep track of the results to assure you that you haven't spent money getting an employee to simply make your life easier. You must create the revenue for which you shifted your tasks and hired the new employee. If the revenue doesn't come true, you must re-think the need for the employee.

So the direct response to the question, "What comes first, the chicken or the elephant?" is that if you want to be treated like an elephant as a businessman, don't be mistaken for a chicken. Once you've determined what needs to be done to generate growth and revenue for your business, take the steps to release any time you need to accomplish those goals. Either delegate your other, less productive, tasks to existing employees or consider hiring additional employees to relieve you to manage the new, revenue generating activities.