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The Rough Notes Company Inc.



January 28
08:05 2020

Winning Strategies

By Brent Kelly


Make sure you’re doing what you want your team members to do

As Winston Churchill famously said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” I believe that applies to our industry.

Leading an insurance agency is a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous responsibility. Great agency leaders understand that both are equally important and deserving of their attention. However, the greatest of the greats tend to be laser-focused on three specific areas.


People do what people see. Therefore, if you’re an agency leader, what sort of behavior are you modeling?

According to John Maxwell—one of my favorite authors—leadership is influence. I agree! Being a leader is not always about your position or title (although that can have an impact). It’s about your actions. If you have influence in your agency, you must be able to model the behaviors, attitudes, and other characteristics that reflect your agency’s culture.

Whenever I give a presentation, I ask the audience, “What’s your agency’s greatest challenge?” The answers usually focus on pipelines, selling system, overcoming objections, identifying top clients, and so on. And those are all real and legitimate concerns. But the reality is that the greatest challenge we face in an agency is ourselves. We are our own biggest enemy and strongest ally.

As a motivator you are responsible to your team, not for your team.

It’s one thing to ask someone on your team to do something, such as improve their performance or assist with a project. However, team leaders should first look in the mirror and examine whether they’re doing what they want others to do. As a father of five, this is something I’m aware of on a daily basis! For example, if I were to scream at my kids to calm down, what sort of example would I be setting? Certainly I would not be modeling the right behavior.

Of course, words are just part of how we convey our message—a small part, at that. Chances are you’ve heard the phrase, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Countless studies support the idea that our tone and demeanor carry far greater weight than words alone.

For that reason, agency leaders must exemplify the behaviors and actions they expect from others. Would the people watching you be proud of what you’re doing? Are your day-to-day behaviors and attitude what you want your team members to emulate? How do you want them to act, and what would compel them to conform? Unless you’re modeling the behaviors you expect from your team, they won’t feel compelled to follow your lead.

If you’re going to model, you’re going to coach. Great coaches give credit and also take blame, even when blame is not deserved. For instance, during a post-game press conference, have you ever heard the losing team’s coach totally blame his players for a humiliating loss? “Our team of coaches was well prepared and did everything possible to ensure a win. We were amazing, but the players were out to lunch. It’s all their fault that we lost the game.” Obviously, no one ever said that.

As a coach and a leader, you must understand that you and your producers are all on the same team. More important, for better or for worse, you are responsible for your agency’s results. While people may admire your successes, they identify with your failures. After all, no one is perfect. True leaders embrace their humanity not only by owning up to their own mistakes and failures, but also by accepting their share of blame when their team underperforms.


You can’t motivate others if you’re not motivated yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to be a cheerleader. Motivation is about drawing out the best in people. It’s about helping people see more in themselves than they would on their own. While it’s important to say the right things, it’s just as important to be empathetic and to listen.

Another pivotal component of motivation is the mission. What is your agency’s purpose? What does your team rally around? These days, people seem more inclined to work for something rather than someone. To some extent the two overlap, since everyone wants to work for someone they respect. But they also want to work purposefully.

Leaders and teams at the top agencies share a vision of what they want to accomplish. In addition, they collaborate on a plan for reaching their goals and agree on the requisite behaviors to help them succeed. Instead of “my” mission, it becomes “our” mission. As a result, everyone is accountable for the team’s success or failure.

What truly motivates your team members not only to do their job but also to perform at their highest level? Outside of selling insurance, what is your agency’s greater purpose? Again, to quote John Maxwell, “People will work eight hours for a job, 10 hours for a good boss, but 24 hours for a good cause.”

Another motivating factor is the atmosphere in the agency. Are you creating an environment that encourages growth? For example, are team members challenged and is the atmosphere affirming? If so, complacency isn’t an option and is not tolerated. You simply don’t allow team members to settle for less because you continually motivate them to do their best. You use praise, not punishment, to encourage them. Should their performance falter, you remind them that you expect more from someone with their abilities, and as their results improve, you recognize and reward their success.

Rewards can be extremely motivating if they are given judiciously. Hard work and effort are only as good as the results they yield, so not everyone should get a trophy just for showing up! Instead, rewards should be based strictly on outcomes. Also, rewards should be given publicly. Although recognition of any sort is gratifying and empowering, there’s nothing more motivating than being recognized in front of an audience.

Conversely, criticism should always be kept private, behind closed doors. All too often, I’ve seen the reverse: We criticize people in public and commend them in private. I don’t know of anyone who responds positively to humiliation, so I strongly advise against using it to motivate.

Success doesn’t occur in a vacuum, which is why I think the most significant rewards should be for collective contributions vs. individual achievements. Top producers know they are going to be rewarded monetarily, which is sufficient motivation for most. But I think our industry needs to do a better job of involving the team—including service, claims and other staff—and celebrating their collaborative efforts.

Showing the team that you appreciate them is a good thing, but letting them know you believe in them is an even greater motivator. If they’re part of your team, they are there for a reason, and you should believe in them. Furthermore, you should tell them. A lot of highly accomplished people have gone farther than they ever thought they could because someone else thought they could. People who are in positions of influence (including the most successful agency leaders) know how to bring out the best in the people they believe in.

One last thought on motivation: As a motivator you are responsible to your team, not for your team. Your job is to provide the tools and resources they need to maximize their potential and be successful. Their job is to demonstrate the behaviors that get results. You can’t do it for them or want it more than they do. Great agency leaders understand that.


There is no doubt that perpetuation is one of the greatest challenges facing agencies today. Most agencies have no plan for succession, whether it’s internal or external. What’s worse, few owners know what will happen to their agency when they die or retire. That’s where mentors are invaluable.

By definition, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor,” typically one who counsels and trains new employees or students. In our business, mentors help producers enhance their skills and accelerate their professional success. However, mentors don’t just magically appear and turn random employees into top executives overnight. Mentoring in our profession requires an agency leader who’s willing to devote an enormous amount of time and energy to an individual who possesses significant leadership potential.

Not everyone is worthy of your mentorship. Because you’ll be making a significant investment in their future, as well as the future of your agency, it’s critical that you know your people well enough to identify your agency’s most promising leaders. Although it could be anyone in your organization, leaders tend to stand out and usually are among the top 20% of producers. That top 20% should get approximately 80% of your time and attention.

The reality is that most agency leaders spend most of their time trying to motivate the least productive team members whose potential is limited at best. However, if all of your time is spent addressing the problems of underperformers, there’s little time left for your top team members and producers—your future leaders. How do you expect them to stay motivated when you ignore them? Your best people need the best from you! That means giving them the time and attention they deserve. If not, there’s a good chance they’ll find it elsewhere and leave.

A final thought

Your agency can have the best process, the best strategy, and even some of the best people, but without some sense of accountability, it’s not going to flourish. Unfortunately, far too many agencies struggle to establish the very thing they need the most: a culture of accountability.

What exactly is a culture of accountability? First, I define “culture” as the normal language and behaviors of your agency. What are people talking about? What’s the atmosphere in the office? What’s the mission of the agency? The other part is “accountability.” Did you do what you said you were going to do? It’s really that simple!

A culture of accountability starts with the agency leader, who models the desired behaviors, skills, and attitude. Leaders motivate their team through encouragement and communication. Also, they mentor top performers to help them grow personally and professionally.

Are you the kind of agency leader that you would want to follow?

The author

Brent Kelly, vice president at The Sitkins Group, Inc., is a motivating influencer, coach, and speaker who has a passion for helping agencies maximize their performance. He spent 15 years as a successful commercial lines producer and was named one of the top 12 young agents in the country in 2012. To help your agency gain clarity, build confidence, and improve culture, please contact him at or visit

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