Characteristically Successful: Why New Producers Excel

by Leslie Krauz Stambaugh
for Recruit! Magazine: The Eyes and Ears of Today's Recruiters
(A version of this was published in their Jan/Feb, 1997 issue)

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Sometimes the decision to hire a new recruit is a cinch! As a manager, you can often quickly spot a prospective recruit who has what it takes to be a "winner" in the business. Just as clearly, you see others who just don't have a chance. You may not know exactly how you know, but experience has probably often proven you right. In all likelihood, however, most of the prospects you see could go either way; they could do well -- even outstanding -- but the odds of that are disturbingly low.

In the insurance industry, nearly 80% of new recruits don't make it in the business at all and many of those who do "make it" do so only marginally. Most of those who struggle and fail were difficult-to-judge from the beginning, but some -- probably the most painful for managers -- are the new agents who had generated the most initial optimism. The overall rate of attrition -- and especially the loss of real potential talent -- is extremely expensive both to the agency and the companies they represent. My clients wanted me to help them improve these odds.

One of the ways I could help was to look at recruiting from the point of view of the successful new producer. What attracts them to the business? Why do they choose one agency over another? What are their expectations? What critical characteristics do these "winners" have in common? What contributes most to their success? I set out to answer these questions so that managers could

I started my project, in about 1990, by asking a number of managers of large agencies to let me interview any of their new producers who had high potential and had already achieved excellent sales results early in their careers. Some of the managers had no candidates who met these criteria, but eight of them identified the 21 new agents who participated in this study. These agents represent companies like Northwestern, Mass Mutual, New England, and MetLife.

Sixteen of the agents in my sample were men and five were women. When they were first interviewed:

I conducted a 1( hour interview with each of them in 1990 and, after analyzing the results, reported back to my clients about the critical characteristics that appeared responsible for these promising careers. Six years went by and we noted that only some of these agents performed as predicted.

In addition, two of these agents had become very successful in the insurance industry, but were no longer involved in life production. I was encouraged to reopen this study and refine the results to take into account these longer-term outcomes.

What were the characteristics these 21 new agents -- dubbed as "winners" by their managers -- shared in 1990 and how are those that stayed and maintained at least MDRT-level performance (the "top producers") different from the others?

First, the easy things. Some of the results supported or confirmed what many general managers already believe. For example:

On the other hand, at least one common belief went unsupported. I have been told that successful agents are very competitive and love contests. Although the agents in this sample are very competitive, their love of contests was not confirmed in my interviews. Almost 2/3 of my sample said they did not like agency contests (but the remainder loved them!) Many of the "top producers" say their most effective competition is with their own past performance.

What else did I learn? Here are some of the other findings you may find helpful.

What Attracted The "Top Producers" To The Insurance Industry?

It seems no one (at least not in my sample) grows up longing to be an insurance producer! As a career, insurance is a taste acquired later -- in the light of the alternatives. More than anything, most of the best recruits want to be in business for themselves -- to be independent, to be their own boss. They see insurance production as one of the few ways now available to do this that provides a low initial investment, acceptable risk, and great opportunity. Over and over again, I heard, "I didn't know what I wanted to do, I just knew that I didn't want to work for anyone else." Those who became "top producers" were already clear that independence means more work, not less, and they looked forward to reaping the rewards that came from making that investment.

For two of the twelve ""top producers"" the most critical factor was a little different -- it was the industry's potential to help people. Others mentioned this as important, but only two said it was the most important factor for them. One of them, for example, was so moved by how his father was able to help so many people through his work in the industry that, above all, he wanted to be able to touch peoples' lives in the same positive way.

Most of the "top producers" hadn't thought about insurance until it was suggested to them, usually by another agent or an agency manager. In fact two of those who achieved MDRT-level productions in their first year first contacted the agency on the basis of vague-sounding newspaper ads! Even so, those who become "top producers" tend to have a strong sense of what they want in a career and what they are willing to invest to get it. They think through their decisions very logically in terms of their overall goals and weigh the costs and benefits carefully. They evaluated the insurance opportunity in the same way. Some also looked at stock brokerage firms, but preferred insurance because of the range of products they handle -- and the range of possibilities.

How Did They Decide To Select One Agency Over The Others?

Two related reasons came up again and again. First, these "top producers" were drawn to either the general manager (or, occasionally, one of the management team members). They liked and admired him and usually described him using adjectives like "ethical", "sincere", and "caring" -- and, in many cases, as someone who could serve as a role model. Next, they believed this manager would be closely involved with their own training and support -- that they could expect a lot of one-on-one attention from him. One person explained, "The decision came down to two agencies. But [the general agent of one of them] was cold and detached from the everyday workings of the agency and seemed to take no active interest in the agents. [The second GA] made me feel special and promised he would personally help me succeed. Naturally, I went with the second!"

It is important to note that three of the people in this sample (including one of the top agents) had left their first agencies after less than a year, because they lost faith in their agency's manager and felt that they received poor support from him. Similarly, four very strong producers left their agencies after their first five years, but remained in the industry. Again, the reason for their leaving was due, at least to some extent, because their managers wouldn't accommodate their needs as their careers matured. The realtionship with the manager is almost as important mid-career as it is in the beginning.

Note that not one of the "top performers" said they selected the agency because of the financing plan or the training they were offered, although these criteria were used by some of the poorer producers in the sample.

What Critical Characteristics Make The "Top Producers" So Successful?

How Can a General Manager Best Support a Potential Top Producer?

One of the best things a manager can do to help "grow" top performers is to make sure they have access to the most successful producers in the agency and encourage joint work between them. Formal training alone isn't enough and joint work solely among peers may only reinforce mediocrity. Those who become "top producers" use modeling as their number one mode for learning new behaviors and asking questions as their best way of learning new information. Less successful producers were more likely to learn well in classes, through books, or by trial and error.

Almost no one in this sample thought the agency training they received was particularly helpful (even though these agencies did offer some very good training programs and it is not clear that any of the agents could have done without them.) On the other hand, average producers and those who eventually left the business used poor training as an excuse for their inability to be more successful. "Top producers," on the other hand, did not expect much from the agency training (and were sometimes disappointed with the amount of one-on-one attention they actually got from their managers), but quickly identified successful agents and found a way to work with them and model them.

As a manager, the best way to tip the recruiting odds in your favor is to find a way to attract more of those "winners" who have the potential to be top producers. And you can do that if you target your efforts toward them and keep clearly in mind what kind of people they are and provide them what they need to flourish.

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