In this episode of The Digital Broker, Steve and Ryan discuss the principles of leadership and how they figure into running an insurance agency. By listening to this episode, you will learn:
- What it means to lead as opposed to simply being in charge
- How to see the total picture and remove the blind spot that affects so many leaders in the insurance space
- How to minimize workplace arguments by understanding why they happen in the first place
- How to get the best results from your team by relating to them the right way
What’s a leader, anyway? Is it someone that you report to? No, that’s a boss.
Is it someone who oversees you? That sounds more like a supervisor.
This is a podcast about operational excellence, and you cannot have operational excellence without a direction—which you cannot have without a clear idea of what to do and how to get there.
Both of those are a leader’s responsibilities.
Leaders set goals, for the entire organization. They see the big picture and decide, this is where we’re going. Leaders must then articulate their vision in a language everybody understands. The account manager who’s working late hours needs to know why he’s doing it.
Setting goals are only half the work because a goal is useless without a way to get there. Leaders must provide pathways to goals, and paths are an operations job—which is where we run into trouble.
(3:06) Insurance is a very sales-centered world, and the employees who get the most attention—and the most promotions—tend to be the best salespeople. When they get to the top, however, salespeople find that running a business isn’t just about making sales. It involves understanding operations, something that doesn’t always come easily to those who’ve never quite had to deal with it.
But that doesn’t doom salespeople to be lousy leaders. Growing into the role is part of any leadership transition. Mentorship helps, but the best way to get better at operations is to start communicating with your team.
Operational excellence entails every member of the organization working harmoniously toward a common goal. Therefore, after setting goals, leaders set roles. (5:55) What happens in the absence of leadership? People break down and fight. If you’ve ever argued with anyone at work, you might remember the frustrating feeling of trying to do right by the company, only to be stonewalled by an uncooperative employee. Most of the time, however, both parties are trying to do right by the company, but the perception of each other’s motives is misconstrued because there hasn’t been a delineation of duties.
This is where a leader has to step in and say, you should do this and you should do that. Otherwise, you get operational friction. Leaders keep people together—not by being everybody’s friend, but by being real clear as to what each person can and can’t do.
Operational friction is a lot like weeds, though—likely to crop up even in the best-trimmed, most efficiently run organizations. (9:44) How can you, as a leader, become aware of what those frictions are so you can weed them out?
You should be checking in with your direct reports periodically, asking questions like, how are you doing? What’s standing in your way? What’s impeding your excellence? Is there anything I can do? Don’t wait around for your subordinates to do this on their own. Give your team the option and the opportunity to tell you how you can lead them better because you will be surprised at how often they will take you up.
(10:34) This will stimulate a culture of curiosity, which we’ve talked about in a previous episode. Your employees will pitch ideas about better ways to do things, which is great; the downside is that innovation has a way of being uncomfortable in the beginning. The best ideas are usually the most disruptive ones, and people don’t enjoy being told to stop or change what they’ve always done if they’ve attached emotional or psychological significance to their work. Furthermore, even a good thing can be taken too far: how will you have time to hear out every new idea, let alone test it?
It is tempting, in those cases, to flush out the idea altogether or postpone it indefinitely. Don’t do this. Leaders fan the flames of passion. It is not a pleasant feeling to rave about something you think is important, only to get a blank stare or a lecture about why it sucks. Good luck trying to solicit engagement from anybody you treat this way.
(17:46) What if you delegated the reception of ideas to a specialized operations enhancement team—better yet, a problem-solving department? This could literally be one person, or a group of people, whose sole job is to receive ideas, evaluate them, and decide whether to test or implement them. Everybody’s ideas would get a fair hearing, and you’d be filtering the ones that don’t or won’t work. Tweak this method if you want to, but it’s a lot more promising than the usual way of dealing with most problems, which is to hire more people. But an initiative like this has to be handed down from the top. Leaders solve problems, and in the face of dysfunction, they’re the ones who say, this how we’re going to handle it.
We’ve talked before how the insurance industry has a problem with speed. Many of us could be doing a faster job handling customer interaction, carrier interaction, internal operations, adoption of technologies, and adaptation to new practices. It is time to stop being satisfied with merely keeping up; we have to start winning. But it takes a leader to embody a thing like speed for the rest of the company—no one else can. And as soon as someone else does, that person becomes the leader.
So what is a leader, at the end of all this? Perhaps we were asking the wrong question because a leader isn’t. A leader does.
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