Your most valuable asset are your employees. Individually and as a group they have inherent strengths, their competence, knowledge base and training and weaknesses. If employees do not have the basic or advanced knowledge or training to perform the job, you can assist them by providing more. If they are incompetent, lacking the common sense to make the right decisions in the majority of instances, they should be replaced. But in the last decade, we in the insurance agency industry share in the results of a plague that has infested almost every industry in the U.S., the loss of credibility and trust between employees and employers. This disease eats away at our organizations like a cancer because it is masked as a variety of other problems that weaken the company. We have (deservedly) lost the trust of our employees that we will protect their (as well as our) best interests.
In other industries, this disease is represented by down-sizing, mass layoffs, mergers, closures, re-organizations and the like. In our industry, we experience mergers, acquisitions, sales, clusters and down-sizing disguised as efficiency measures. But, just as we have masterfully taught our clients to shop for insurance rather than trust the efforts of their agents, we have also taught our employees that their positions are secure only in the good times.
In one way, our agency owners treat this like a motivator. If the employees know that their jobs are in peril – that the agency may have to merge or change in some way that affects their positions – they may be motivated to perform better. But that motivation results from desperation rather than from initiative and optimistic opportunity. And experience tells us that you don’t think clearly when desperate. The results of desperate actions often bring disaster rather than salvation.
In order to remedy this attitude of distrust in the insurance agency business, we suggest that you go back to basic management philosophies that keep reappearing as “buzzwords”, but have been around for generations. If you have a trained, competent, knowledgeable group of employees, TRUST THEM!
The gurus refer to “Win/Win” situations, employee empowerment, Quality Management and shared planning — but the intent is the same. If your agency is having difficulty, share the problems with the employees. Tell them what’s happened and brainstorm the potential solutions. In the insurance agency business, our primary problem is one of lack of revenue growth. If everyone understands that revenue growth will permit the agency to continue, it becomes clear that ALL employees, not just owners or producers, must assist in the development of the growth in order to maintain the agency and all of its employees as a strong, on-going entity. Whether the problem is in growth, management of more work without more people, or cleaning up a book of business to maintain or save a company relationship, your employees can help you more than you expect.
When we suggest this to agents, they feel some discomfort. These are a few of the comments that come to us in response.
1. My employees will give up and leave for other jobs, if they can find them.
Most employees do not want to leave their jobs. They treat them as their careers and it gives them a sense of belonging. If you have employees whose loyalty runs only to the next paycheck, and who care about you less than you care about them, you are better off without them (in the long term). You see, their attitude about you doesn’t change in the good times, either. Difficult times are when “true colors fly”. Trust and loyalty must be a two way street.
2. This is my business, not theirs. I’ll protect them for as long as I can so they can do their jobs.
An agent assuming the “parent” role is always difficult. Most of the time this is an avoidance mechanism. Your employees are adults who have raised families, educated them, made major investments and have lives outside of your business. They deserve honesty and trust. They don’t necessarily seek your protection.
3. My failures are not their concern. They just work here.
This is the ego answer. Many agents either correctly or incorrectly blame themselves for their business dilemma. They are embarrassed over their problems and wait until the last minute to break the word to their employees. This is a character flaw that will make life miserable for both the business owner and the employees because there are several further common ramifications including irrational behavior and blaming others for the agency’s problems.
4. There’s nothing they can do to help anyway.
This is another ego answer. After all, if “I” can’t solve the problem, what chance would my employees have in helping me!! When will we learn that the wonder of business and management is in exercising the talents and skills found in people’s heads, not in their hands! Most employees don’t help because they have never been asked or because when they offered help, they were refuted in the past.
In order to re-establish a trust relationship with your employees, you must build that relationship from ground level.
A. Include your employees in on your plans, both long term and short term. They will always cooperate more if they know WHY you are pursuing a certain direction than simply being told to do it.
B. Don’t SELL your ideas, propose them and ask for advice and recommendations. We all believe that our ideas are wonderful and if only everyone would go along with them, we’d be all right. But realistically, ideas are not great simply because they are ours.
C. Define a Vision Statement for your company that clearly indicates your values and that all employees can use as a guide to their integrity and performance. WARNING: Define your Vision Statement in terms of what you are committed to, not in terms of your best case scenario or dreams in a perfect world. If you (personally) don’t perform consistently with your Vision Statement, it’s lost its meaning.