On this episode of The Digital Broker, Ryan Deeds reflects on leadership and the key responsibilities of a leader. By listening to this episode, you will learn:
- How employee engagement is a function of leadership
- How favoritism, absenteeism, and hypocrisy tarnish the credibility of a leader and destroy office morale and engagement
- Which responsibilities are exclusively a leader’s, and what to do to live up to them
Ryan’s job occasionally requires him to sit in on meetings between insurance agencies and tech vendors. Recently, he was inside the conference room of a large agency’s headquarters along with a dozen or so managers representing every unit of the agency. Seated next to Ryan was a man who didn’t talk much—he mostly listened. However, when this man spoke, the whole room paid attention. As the meeting went on, this man’s influence continued to show. If the mood in the room got tense, he’d be the one to crack a joke and loosen everybody up. After the meeting, one of the managers introduced Ryan to this mysteriously influential person. It turned out to be the agency’s CEO.
What? Ryan was amazed. It is rare to see a CEO at a product demo like this—but there he was, asking pointed questions, right alongside the rest of his team, and you could tell that the team was energized by this. They were inspired. They were engaged.
It got Ryan to reflect on leadership. Operational excellence means many things to different people, but there’s no question that employee engagement is a critical part of it. Employees have to be inspired by a realistic vision, and a leader’s job isn’t simply to articulate it, but to live it and exemplify it. When employees see their leader working hard and even struggling, they are much more likely to agree to do the same.
At the other end of the engagement spectrum are some horror stories about disengaged employees who merely punch the clock, refuse to do anything that goes beyond their precious pay grade, and sometimes go so far as to sabotage the company, directly or indirectly. Lots of things account for how employees feel and behave, but leadership has much to do with it. Good leadership brings out the best in people; bad leadership does the opposite. And although a leader isn’t responsible for everything that predicts an insurance agency’s success, there are things only a leader can do. In this episode, we study those exclusive responsibilities.
A consistent predictor of bad leadership is favoritism. Sadly, it is commonplace in the insurance industry. Producers tend to receive more attention and better treatment, and we’ve gone over the reasons why: many leaders were producers once, and they brought some bias with them on the way up. In fairness, everyone has a tendency to overfocus on producers, because producers are the easiest to associate with how much money the agency is bringing in. Some surplus of attention toward producers is therefore natural. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.
Nor is it a good business. Producers are undoubtedly important, but a considerable amount of agency revenue comes from renewals, and that’s the territory of a service team: account managers, account executives, etc. Leaders can’t afford to turn a blind eye to those employees. Leaders are supposed to see the whole picture. Operational efficiency requires people from different teams to work together in harmony, but invariably, there will be friction. Responsibilities will overlap. People will overstep their boundaries and clash with members of other teams, leading to disputes that only leaders can resolve by exercising their authority to hold people accountable for specific responsibilities. If an employee is unaccountable, a leader can deal with it by punishing, firing, or relocating that person. If a leader plays favorites in any situation—by repeatedly siding with one category of employees over others, or by going easier on some employees than others for the same offenses—it will devastate morale and engagement. People do their best when they know they can look forward to their work being recognized and rewarded in a fair environment. A climate of obvious unfairness prohibits this.
If you’re a manager, you are supposed to have favorites: the people you manage. Feel free to go to the ends of the Earth for them. Leaders to whom managers report, on the other hand, are forbidden to have favorites. They have to be available to all members of the team. They must also be present, in a literal sense. Why does the CEO at the beginning of this story impress us? Because we’re used to thinking of leaders as absent, away on some assignment more important than spending time with the team. But what could be more important than spending time with the team? Answer wisely. You can only be an absentee “leader” for so long before your team begins to wonder where you are, what the heck you’re doing, and whether you’re working as hard as you expect everyone else to. And if you’re not, why should they?
Every morning, at eight o’clock, one of the first CEO’s Ryan ever worked for would walk around the office and stop by every desk, giving every employee an opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns—and every afternoon, toward the end of the business day, he’d do it again. Obviously, as an organization grows, a leader can’t do this as often, but that doesn’t mean they should stop entirely. A leader who engages can expect engagement in return. A leader who stops by the desks, even once a week, is somebody whom employees are a lot more likely to respect, understand, and fight for.
Think about your leadership style. Are you fair? Do you play favorites? How often do you talk to your employees—all employees? If we interviewed your team, what do you think they’d say about your leadership? Even if you’re not in an official position of leadership, think about the leadership you see on a daily basis. Do you feel inspired? Do you feel engaged? What would you do differently—or the same—if you were promoted to a position of leadership one day?
The answers can be revealing. Please consider sharing them in the Digital Broker LinkedIn group, a forum we created to help insurance agents and brokers get better at leadership and other facets of operational excellence. Join us, interact with insurance professionals, and find out more about this episode and others like it.
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