Seven steps to “mastering” mastery
Mastery is one of the best and most successful ways to
differentiate your agency. Yes, there is work
and discipline involved, but the rewards are many.
By Cheryl Koch, CPCU, ARM, AAI, ACSR, AFIS, and Mary Belka, CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC
Challenge and change are givens for any organization. They can strike fear in the hearts of the weak, bring chaos to the unstructured and poorly staffed, and paralyze those who lack the ability to lead clients—and employees—through the maze. Yet, those same components can create the greatest opportunity for those who are focused, prepared, and able to embrace the very things that others fear. Rising premiums, high interest rates, supply chain ramifications, hiring challenges, social inflation on claims, remote employees, and more—the strong say, “Bring it on!” What sets them apart? What gives them that confidence?
There are many spices in the proverbial secret sauce of success; the ingredient we bring into focus today is that of mastery. What does it really mean and why does it matter? Bottom line, it’s skill or knowledge that gives one command of a subject, the upper hand in a competition, superiority, and authority. Those who have developed true mastery—so-called subject matter experts—are truly assets to their clients and associates. How do agency leaders create an environment where mastery can happen and thrive?
Follow these seven steps:
- Build and reward it. Establish a culture that celebrates mastery. You get the behavior you reward. This is the time to ditch equal end-of-year bonuses just for showing up. Raise the bar by establishing baseline performance-based compensation metrics. We’ve covered the details before; suffice it to say it works, as long as all components are intimately related to the job at hand. Set the example! Leaders must demonstrate, celebrate, expect and then reward mastery.
- Define it. Really examine the skill sets that will lead your agency to new heights. What will differentiate you?
Old-school understanding of exposures, risk management, and how our industry works seem obvious to make the list, but how many people really get to the level that is needed for true mastery? There is no substitute for real knowledge and nothing so rewarding for leaders as witnessing their employees’ confidence build as they gain expertise and use it to help their clients. Identify your standards: what people are expected to know to achieve mastery and a path to get there.
Effortless digital skills to interact with all systems are priceless.
Communication skills, once taken for granted, are now lacking in many people for a variety of reasons (don’t get us started). There are tough messages to deliver in a hard market, and the majority of those messages should not be handled via email or text alone. The ability to have proactive, substantive, empathetic conversations, listen to insureds’ concerns, explain current market conditions and coverage changes, and help clients make sense of it all, are all invaluable. Mastery is essential.
Emotional intelligence. Enough said.
- Uncover hidden gems—inside and out. We believe there are people who crave mastery; they excel in all they do. Learn to recognize those hungry souls both inside and outside of your organization. There are ways to identify them—the “naturals” hiding in plain sight in sales- and service-related positions all around you. Look past that perfect sales or service experience you just had and take a close look at the person providing it. Could you merge their natural abilities with intense insurance knowledge to create a new master in your organization? Is there someone you’ve overlooked inside your agency, somebody just waiting for you to notice their tendency to excel? What are you waiting for?
- Establish clear roles and goals. This is where position descriptions, educational career paths, and procedures intersect with effective communication from leaders to set all employees on the road to top-notch performance. They are the critical building blocks for your internal structure that underpin mastery. It cannot be overstated how much younger employees need this structure to unleash their inner expert. They are simply not raised to “wing it.” They need that “GPS map” to mastery, and you must provide it.
- Digital considerations. Two generations of employees and clients have now grown up digital. The technological baseline they have become accustomed to throughout their lives needs to match what you are providing. If you haven’t created and implemented a comprehensive digital strategy as part of your overall agency plan, there is no time like the present to make it a priority. Now is the time to incorporate the necessary tools—and beyond—to attract and hold the interest of your up-and-coming masters. Your staff needs the best tools you can provide to perform at the highest level.
Are any employees struggling with the digital side of things? This can be related to age, but that is not always the case. Be sure to identify characteristics and gifts of your entire team and provide opportunities for co-workers to help each other excel. Teaching and team play are evident in the best agencies.
- Training and education. Relevant, structured, continuous training and education are absolutely necessary to achieve and maintain mastery. It goes way beyond CE classes. We are working with agencies where literally every person is taking formal, national-level classes, regardless of position, age, or experience. These are organizations that recognize the importance of ongoing education and set an example. They hold each other accountable and revel in each other’s success. Mastery cannot help but develop in this environment. No one is exempt—new and existing employees alike should always be learning and growing. Courses that make employees stretch a bit create a sense of accomplishment that boosts confidence in the end.
- Muscle memory—pulling it all together. Practice makes perfect. For instance, the same muscle memory that elite athletes and musicians must develop to achieve mastery in their respective professions applies to professionals in our industry as well. Whether one is preparing for a golf match, baseball game, piano concerto, or ice-skating competition—or helping clients with their risk management and insurance needs—the same tenets apply. Repeated, perfect practice is essential in preparing for performance. As Julie Andrews once said, “The amateur works until they get something right. The professional works until they can’t go wrong.”
Effective practice for developing mastery in our industry should include:
- Role-play. It cannot be overstated how important this is. Practicing using role-play with real-life scenarios, scripting, and relevant analogous examples is essential, for instance, in helping to move clients from a pre-loss to post-loss frame of mind when account rounding. Leaders should encourage staff to share examples where scripting or practice is needed. This is when the value of insurance mastery is at its highest—the ability to understand and uncover exposures, and to discuss risk management options with clients that actually resonate with them.
- As indicated above, this can increase the effectiveness of role-play. It’s not designed to be robotic or rote. Rather, it should be designed to be conversational and can be especially helpful to new employees trying to become comfortable with new vocabulary, phrases, or concepts as they gain confidence in speaking with clients and underwriters. Overcoming objections, for example, takes practice; having several responses ready can help employees to develop communications skills and experience essential to mastery. New employees need examples to fall back on until they’ve been in the business long enough to build their own story portfolio. Real examples are compelling and essential to building confidence.
- Account managers should be assigned issues, coverages, or concepts to review and to share with the group. Real data matters. They need to know where to look for answers, how to assimilate what they’ve learned, and how to put it to use. Mastery will eventually follow.
- Spirited discussions. Opportunities to discuss current issues, concepts, policy forms, claims, exposures, and more, help employees to apply the formal and practical knowledge they’ve acquired. Some agencies have weekly “lunch and learn” sessions where they actively discuss exposures, coverages, claims, and current issues. This path to mastery includes these exchanges.
- The best way to learn is to teach. Mastery includes sharing knowledge with others. There will never be a tougher audience than your peers. Everyone who attends or takes a class should be required to come back and teach their co-workers what they have learned. This leads to better note-taking and engagement in classes, when employees know they will need to explain the concepts they’ve learned to others. This creates higher levels of mastery, and provides practice for discussing the same concepts with clients.
- Lifelong learning is essential to mastery and forms the basis for ever-expanding expertise.
Go for it!
Mastery is one of the best and most successful ways to differentiate your agency. Yes, there is work and discipline involved, but the rewards are many. The best clients can actually sense and appreciate that your agency is in a class by itself; in fact, they are hungry for it. Carrier partners appreciate the difference as well. It is harder than just wishing it were so, but certainly within the reach of those who put in the time and effort—and it’s well worth the journey. n
Cheryl Koch is the owner of Agency Management Resource Group, a California firm providing training, education and consulting to producers, account managers and owners of independent agencies. She has a BA in Economics from UCLA and an MBA from Sacramento State University. She has also earned several insurance professional designations: CPCU, CIC, ARM, AAI, AAI-M, API, AIS, AAM, AIM, ARP, AINS, ACSR, AFIS, and MLIS.
Mary M. Belka is owner and CEO of Eisenhart Consulting Group, Inc., providing management and operations consulting to the insurance industry. She also is an endorsed agency E&O auditor for Swiss Re/Westport. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Mary holds the CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC, and CPIW designations.