DIVERSITY MATTERS—CAST A BROADER NET
Blow up the existing model
and try something different
Account management is a noble calling, and it’s not for everyone.
But it’s also not just something that women can do.
By Mary Belka, CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC, and Cheryl Koch, CPCU, ARM, AAI, ACSR, AFIS
In its 2020 Agency Universe Study, the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA) indicated that 87% of agencies surveyed had account managers who were women, while only 28% had men in that position. That is a huge disparity, and it begs the questions, “How did it get to be that way?” and “What can we do about it?”
Perhaps the first question is best answered by acknowledging that there is bias in our industry. In that, we’re not alone; many other industries have a similar legacy. A recent post on social media talked about a frequent flyer who was amazed that the captain on his flight was an African American woman—and that he was embarrassed that he had noticed. As frequent flyers ourselves, we know that in the past, pilots were male and flight attendants were female. We can trace the origins of that to a time when pilots were recruited out of the military and flight attendants had to be nurses—additional industries that exhibited bias.
But surely there was nothing inherent in the insurance agency business that would have created this imbalance, aside perhaps from the fact that many women could type faster and more accurately than most men on the ancient manual typewriters that populated our offices. Keyboarding skills today seem to be fairly evenly distributed, yet the bias continues.
Did we think that men were incapable of providing great service to our agency’s customers? Was service somehow the sole domain of females? Again, other industries seem to have dispelled these myths. Men are great teachers and nurses and caregivers. Women are successful entrepreneurs, physicians and engineers. Opportunities have allowed this to happen, but not so much in the independent insurance agency, although our work with account managers gives us hope that this is happening in many places.
It’s interesting to note that in the same study, amongst agency producers the split between men and women is literally 50-50. That would not have been true a decade or so ago, so we seem to have made progress on that front, acknowledging that women can be every bit as effective at sales as men. But when we look at the account management position, similar strides did not occur. Because the numbers are so skewed, this clearly is not something that is going to rectify itself any time soon. We are going to have to be more intentional and diligent if we want to have outstanding account managers who are truly diverse, in every sense of the word.
Our focus needs to be on the traits, skills, knowledge, talents and abilities of those who serve as account managers, not the package in which they exist. Personality assessments are one way to determine if prospective employees have the “right stuff” to do the job. We have found, over many years of working with extraordinary account managers, that the following attributes are most important.
- Sense of urgency—the ability to recognize, manage and adhere to deadlines
- True love of people—a nurturing and caring spirit, a servant’s heart
- Emotional intelligence—perhaps even more important than IQ when it comes to service
- Curiosity—information and knowledge are the true currency of account management
- Critical thinking—working with complex systems and processes
- Attention to detail—being accurate and precise
- Managing multiple priorities—this is the heart of great account management
There is nothing on our list that would indicate that you will find these traits more prevalent in one gender. So, when recruiting and hiring account managers, perhaps the answer to the second question we asked—what can we do about it?—is to blow up the existing model and try something different. For example:
Get them while they’re young. High schools are filled with bright, talented, motivated individuals of all kinds who don’t really know what they will do in the future, but who likely aren’t dreaming about a career in insurance. Let’s face it—unless we come from an insurance family, few of us were anticipating a fulfilling career in insurance. Before some of the stereotypes set in, let everyone see how their natural aptitude is suited to a career in account management. Sign up to participate in a career fair at your local high school or community college and show the students the possibilities in our industry.
Internships provide a great opportunity to expose young, potentially permanent employees to your organization—and show the agency what different types of individuals have to offer.
Use your imagination. Some examples we have seen in just the past few weeks include the hiring of terrific candidates who otherwise would not have considered a career in insurance. Agency owners are always recruiting the best clients—and no less than extraordinary employees to serve them. This intense commitment to their clients’ experience drives them to open their eyes and imagine the best people they meet as part of their team, regardless of “packaging.” Therefore, recruiting the best people—and supporting, mentoring, and training them to become the best account managers— is a no-brainer.
These new employees were hiding in plain sight—at a neighborhood tavern, a country club, another insurance agency, and a family-owned retail business. They include a world-class, college-educated athlete and a bi-lingual sous chef who craves more traditional hours and client interaction. Another is a first-generation Asian American, also bi-lingual, with extraordinary technology skills, two master’s degrees, and a caring heart. Another candidate was stuck in an “assistant” position, despite his risk management degree. He didn’t fit the traditional mold, so he was overlooked in the agency where he was working.
None fit any traditional account manager template, including gender, and all have stellar personality testing results. All are excited to be part of a challenging and rewarding industry where they can leverage their particular talents.
Invest in the best and expect results. Did we mention that the salary expectations of account managers are upping the ante for agencies as regards to paying account managers? Do all you can to ensure success by starting with the “right stuff” we described. Re-evaluate current employees for areas to improve and provide an appropriate and relatively short on-ramp for new hires to gain the traction they need to succeed. Don’t leave anything to chance.
Anecdotally, it is interesting and perhaps not surprising that agencies implementing an effective growth strategy have the least problems recruiting talent. Today’s account manager candidates are looking for career growth opportunities and recognize that well-run organizations provide the best future for them.
Are you able to articulate specifically what the future holds for candidates— and your expectations of them? Employer- employee relationships today, and into the future, must be mutually beneficial in order to last.
Be prepared—create a structured environment. When training great employees from scratch, things don’t “just happen.” It is critical, as we have outlined in previous columns, to have the details in place. You cannot have too much clarity or too detailed a plan for each individual’s career path within your agency. Today’s younger employees, in particular expect no less. Nothing works without the following:
- Strategic plan
- Viable business model, including specific position descriptions and reporting relationships
- Immersive and specific employee educational career paths
- Clear, challenging, yet realistic performance metrics
- Consistent procedures
- Technology tech stack that makes sense. Please, no pens, paper, or delivery of paper policies!
Teach them and train them. There’s a great television commercial that says talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. Once you’ve identified the individuals with the right combination of traits and abilities, you have to give them the opportunity to excel. That starts with how we onboard them and continues as we allow them to develop professionally in both insurance knowledge and customer service skills.
We’ve all gotten by for a long time by sitting new people in the “osmosis chair” and expecting them to absorb wisdom and knowledge from the bottom up, rather than pouring it in through the top.
Protect your investment. Mentoring may be old-school—but it works, and this is one investment that will pay big dividends. The retooling that will be necessary to bring account management back to the most professional levels will include the participation of effective mentors invested in the success of your employees.
It is increasingly the “secret sauce” that separates the most successful account managers from those who “don’t seem to work out.” It involves commitment on both sides, keeping a specific schedule that helps employees to make sense of all that they are learning. Becoming accountable to one another benefits both the mentor and the employee.
You’ll know it when you see it. And you’ll see it everywhere. The next time you receive great customer service from anyone, talk to them about their long-range plans. Discover their goals, dreams and passions, and see if they intersect with the attributes we discussed earlier and a career in your agency.
We don’t subscribe to the notion that “you just can’t find good people.” They are literally all around you. Be open to finding them in non-traditional places—where you get your hair cut, where you golf, where you shop or eat, at your kid’s daycare, or even on an airplane.
What we do matters. Account management is a noble calling, and it’s not for everyone. But it’s also not just something that women can do. The only way we balance the percentages is to acknowledge that we have a problem and then make a strategic plan to solve it.
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.
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, MLIS.