Mentorship is critical for all industries and any business owner or C-suite executive who thinks they're going to need a pipeline of talent as part of their equation for success.
The No. 1 challenge of 2022 was finding and screening job candidates with strong potential, according to the 2022 Agency Universe Study (AUS), where the issue was cited as the top concern by 41% of independent agencies, gaining slightly from 39% in 2020.
It is not surprising that getting talent through the door is a worry either. The average age of an independent insurance agency principal is 54 years old, according to the AUS, which also found that 17% of all independent agency principals are age 66 or over.
Even among Best Practices agencies, a joint initiative between the Big “I" and Reagan Consulting, the statistics do not paint a brighter picture of the talent pipeline. As agencies struggle to attract younger talent, they also risk losing the opportunity to train and prepare the next generation while their most experienced agents are still around. The weighted average producer age (WAPA) of all Big “I" Best Practices agencies is 48.6 years, according to the 2022 Best Practices Study. Meanwhile, the weighted average shareholder age (WASA) of Best Practices agencies is 53.2 years.
Coupled with the Great Resignation and the fact that the AUS found that 1 in 3 of agency principals anticipate an ownership change in the next five years, it is safe to assume that the insurance industry has an age problem.
The issue, however, is nothing new. Back in 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that the insurance industry was braced to lose 400,000 employees in the next few years. To some, this prophecy felt like an exaggeration and another doom-and-gloom outlook that researchers have thrust upon the independent agency channel the past few decades.
“But I do think it's happening—I'm watching it," says Myrna Estrada, senior vice president and field executive—central region at Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance. With 38 years of experience working with independent insurance agents, “the No. 1 ask that I get from agents over the past 10 years is always around talent," she explains, noting that “independent agents are really starting to feel it due to the number of people that are retiring."
“Independent agents have been dealing with attracting talent and agency perpetuation for quite some time … now it's at absolute crisis mode," Estrada points out.
The good news is that “independent agents tend to never really quite leave, which is great from a mentorship standpoint because they are there helping coach and prepare new talent," Estrada adds. “I'm watching that happen, too."
Plugging the Leak
Agency owners and producers that are at or above the average WASA or WAPA have a huge role to play in ensuring that their collective knowledge and experience is passed on to the next generation before they retire, explains Erin King, chief colleague officer at Baldwin Risk Partners in Tampa, Florida.
“We have to pass that knowledge from generation to generation for the next leader that's going to continue to carry on the agency," King says. “But making sure that knowledge transfer happens is a big lift and a big responsibility."
As a result, mentorship is critical for all industries and any business owner or C-suite executive who thinks they're going to need a pipeline of talent as part of their equation for success.
“Mentorship is one of the most foundational and effective ways that you can grow your talent," King continues. “It's about imparting wisdom and sharing the benefits of experience through traditional forms of teaching and coaching, but also just serving as a role model."
With agencies feeling the strain from an aging workforce, Baldwin Risk Partners took matters into its own hands earlier this year, donating $5.2 million to the University of South Florida's (USF) Muma College of Business.
The gift, which is the largest in USF's Sarasota-Manatee campus history, will support educational programs in the risk and insurance fields. The university also will rename the existing School of Risk Management and Insurance as the Baldwin Risk Partners School of Risk Management and Insurance.
“We need to be taking really progressive steps to accelerate two different things: entry into our field, meaning we need more people getting into insurance, and then training, growth and development," King says. “Educational institutions can play a really critical role in helping to build that foundational bench of talent that can help the insurance industry sustain itself and continue to carry on because it's a critical part of the fabric of our society."
However, “at a small agency, there could be a lack of people to offer that guidance to an aspiring owner or producer aiming to improve their skills, which means they must look externally," says Brock Elliott, producer and partner at Elliott Insurance Group in Louisburg, Kansas. External mentorship can benefit a younger employee “because sometimes they don't feel confident asking someone at their agency to take them under their wing or they don't feel comfortable asking questions from the person who signs their paycheck," he explains.
Elliott is a third-generation agency owner and is firmly on an ownership track within a family perpetuation plan, which is the most common perpetuation plan, according to AUS research. However, “I've had a lot of different mentors in my career," he says. “Obviously, there's my dad—he's been a huge help to me. But through the Big 'I' I met two other people: Kyle Becker and Ryan Murray. Those two guys were a sounding board for me. It was less about teaching and more about listening to one another."
“At the end of the day, not very many of our issues are unique and most agents have been through the same things," Elliott says.
Earlier this year, the Big “I" national Young Agents Committee (YAC), which Elliott chairs, began creating a mentorship program—which will pair mentors and mentees together—because “you've just got to find that person," Elliott says. “And I want to be able to do that for everybody else."
The YAC is also creating an accompanying mentorship guide based on feedback from young agents who were looking for a mentorship relationship. The initiative “is a bit like Tinder," Elliott jokes. “We have a bank of members who are interested in being mentored and YAC members have been tasked with finding someone who is willing to be a mentor. From there, we can facilitate individuals who can decide whether they want to pair up."
From The Outside In
In a job market where jobseekers can be choosier than ever, potential hires are viewing companies and their culture from the outside with a critical eye, attempting to determine whether a business is somewhere they want to invest their time and whether it offers a pathway to career growth.
“If you don't have that culture of inclusivity and promoting from within, young talent is flat out walking away—they're not even entertaining the interview," Estrada says. “They're doing the research, so if you're not creating a culture that is attractive to young talent, there is work to be done there."
Getting younger producers through the door will lower your agency's WAPA, but it is only the beginning to lowering your WASA—and ultimately increasing agency growth and profitability. However, there's a big difference between mentorship for a recent hire who is becoming a producer compared to mentorship for a producer who is on a pathway to part owner.
Teaching the intricacies of ownership “brings a huge challenge for the independent agency channel," Estrada says, noting that “continuing to work on diversity, equity & inclusion and culture will help attract talent and demonstrate the opportunities for ownership."
Kristin Garlow, owner of Mountain State Agency Alliance (MSAA) in Hurricane, West Virginia, is a successful insurance professional who has benefited from internal agency mentorship, a grassroots education program and a business culture that supports women.
Her non-family path to ownership started in high school as she worked for an agency where she learned the basics. Then, while attending college, Garlow worked as a producer and graduated debt free. She joined MSAA in 2005. She later became a partner and, when the other partners were ready to retire in 2020, bought them out and became the owner. Now she focuses on the agency development part of MSAA's business that helps other agents and agencies succeed within its model.
Garlow credits the lion's share of her success to Mary Kerns, former owner of MSAA, noting the importance of women supporting women and how female staff can benefit from being matched with a female mentor.
“She was pivotal in helping me build my knowledge of this industry and consistently encouraged me so that I was setting myself up for success," Garlow says. “She pushed me to set goals for myself, and that created a shift in my position being a job to it being my career. I am so grateful to have had that."
Since joining MSAA, Garlow has gone through different stages of life—getting married, having children, getting divorced and marrying again—and Kerns' advice helped her “navigate life while simultaneously teaching me how to succeed in the insurance industry," Garlow says. “If I didn't have her guidance, I would've had to make the decision between being a great mom or a great employee. Through her mentorship and her leadership, she helped me figure out a way to create a path so I could do both."
“There can be teachers in all facets of life," Garlow adds, who has had several male mentors, but “it's all about finding the ones that you can connect with in a way that you feel supported and encouraged to develop—whatever your goals are in life."
“Mentoring should be part of the philosophy of every company," explains Sharon Emek, CEO & president of Work At Home Vintage Experts (WAHVE), which trains retired or semi-retired independent agents to share their expertise with agents and agencies.
The urgency to address the “aging-out" of agency talent can force an owner's hand, tempting them to promote their best performing salesperson to manager and designating them a younger member of staff to mentor—but the reality isn't that simple.
“We know there aren't enough people in this industry and retention is a huge issue, but part of that problem is because they aren't mentored properly," Emek says. “People just assume everyone can be a mentor, but people go to school to learn how to teach, right? The same should apply to mentorship."
While WAHVE offers its services via a remote work arrangement, Emek warns that “working from home makes mentorship more difficult." While remote work has enabled employers to reach a larger pool of candidates and technology allows training to take place via instant messages and inviting mentees to join Zoom, it can be difficult to form a connection in the virtual environment, which results in unproductive meetings and ineffective training.
Yet, what is more significant is that industry veterans “love the industry," Emek says. “When you work in the insurance industry, you have a purpose to help others—and you want to address the talent gap."
Before you jump feet first into establishing a mentoring program at your agency or searching for a mentor, here are 20 tips to mentorship success.
Tips for Mentors
1) Make the appointment. For agency owners, it's easy to be distracted by whatever call or email comes in. But when you decide to take on a mentee, make regular appointments and do whatever you can to stick to them.
“People get so busy, and it's important to schedule out time for the things that are creating success, like mentorship," Garlow says. “It not only helps a person, but also supports your agency and your industry."
2) Encourage non-judgmental communication. Your mentee must feel like their questions or concerns are not going to be frowned upon when they come up, especially if you're their manager.
“If you are open and honest about whatever concerns come up and your mentee is comfortable discussing any issue, you will be the best type of mentor," Garlow says.
3) Support successes. You want your future leaders to feel like you support them and their career growth, “so highlight your mentee's wins on social media and in your newsletters—be authentically excited," Garlow says. “And if they have a cause that is close to their heart, such as a charity, it's important to support the things that are important to them, too."
4) Establish an authentic connection. The connection between a mentor and mentee can make or break the relationship. If an up-and-coming leader is placed with a mentor and, after getting to know each other, the pair does not click, “it's a waste of time and time to cut bait," Estrada says. “I tell anyone who is a mentor to take the time to get to know someone and make sure that there's a connection there."
5) Be comfortable making changes. And when things aren't working, both parties in the relationship “should be able to say, 'I'm really looking for something a little bit different,'" Estrada says, drawing from previous experience. “I've spent too many hours trying to force a situation when it is quite clearly not going to work," she adds.
6) Be a sponsor. Being a mentor and being a sponsor are two different things. A mentor is somebody who can show their mentee the ropes and teach them how to handle certain situations, whether that is being a better producer or becoming owner. However, being a sponsor is much more than that.
“Being a sponsor means that you are interested in someone's advancement," Estrada says. “You need to speak on their behalf when they're not in that room, make that phone call, send that email, write that letter, and do the things that are going to put them out there to say, 'I know this person, and I can speak for the quality of their work.'"
7) Give mentors a choice. One way of increasing the odds of a successful mentorship is by letting mentors have the final say on who they mentor.
“Good mentors are actually pretty choosy about who they select or who they want to be a partner with," King says. “But when mentors feel like they're getting the choice of their mentee, they tend to also be more invested and engaged."
8) Bring structure and flexibility. Mentors can demonstrate how invested they are by bringing something to the relationship. “I call it structure and flexibility," King explains. “You want a mentor who comes to the table with some of the groundwork laid out and is prepared to say, 'This is how things are going to go.' That doesn't mean a super rigid schedule, but it does mean having clarity on expectations."
“They take the lead on guiding the relationship, ensuring accountability on both sides to meet commitments and the end goals," King says.
9) Remember the end goal. Mentorship is ultimately about developing the mentee by doing what's best for their growth and their development, “which means you are paying attention to them and their needs, not just imparting all your knowledge and wisdom," King says. “A good mentor does just as much listening as they do talking."
10) Learn from the mentee. The benefits of mentorship are multidimensional—in particular, the opportunity for the mentor to learn from the mentee in a “reverse mentorship" scenario.
Typically, the older person has the institutional knowledge, and the younger person brings fresh ideas and is much more technologically savvy. “Let young people mentor you on how they approach work," Emek says. “Older mentors see the world one way, and younger generations see it differently. If you want to keep a young person at your agency, you've got to listen to them."
11) Have patience and personality. Mentoring isn't just a one and done thing. It takes place over the long haul—years, not months. “Effective mentors in your agency are going to be people who not only have the knowledge, but are the most outgoing," Emek says. “Then you need to have the patience to see it through and deal with the challenges along the way."
12) Don't keep secrets. At its core, much of mentorship is about openness about your work, Emek explains. Having someone shadow you and watch you work isn't enough.
“Mentees need to learn not only how you do things but your thought process behind it," Emek says. “You need to speak out loud as you do things, not just have them watch you moving things around on your computer."
13) Teach mentees how to think. If you're just showing a mentee how to input data and pull a quote, they're learning a process, not a thought process.
“You need to talk through how you quote a policy or, if you misjudge something, explain why you misjudged it and how you think through it to put it right," Emek says. “That can be time consuming because you can't just jump ahead and correct it, but you need to explain."
14) Look at a frontline team member. Managers and owners have a habit of overlooking their frontline team members, such as a receptionist, from being considered for growth opportunities.
“Oftentimes, someone that has a skill set to be able to do great in one part of your agency will have the skill set to develop into different parts of the agency," Garlow says. “Everyone starts somewhere. It's just about finding people with the right characteristics."
Tips for Mentees
15) Have long-term ambitions. If an owner, principal or producer is going to invest their time in mentoring someone, the mentee needs to be committed to both a career in insurance and becoming a better employee.
“I want them to have an enthusiastic outlook on learning, I want them to have a positive attitude to personal and professional growth, and I want them to be looking at this career and the stability that it offers for the long term," Garlow says.
16) The best producer may not be the best mentor. When Elliott first started looking for a mentor, he began by identifying the most-successful person he could find and trying to be just like them, “and that was a mistake," he says. “Try to find somebody that's similar to you or just somebody that you gravitate toward that you actually want to be like."
17) Respect the process. A good mentee is considerate and takes a professional approach to the process. In particular, mentees must be open to constructive feedback.
“This is a process about growing. It's not a process about getting recognition or being told you've got great potential," King says. “It's about learning, which means you're going to get some constructive criticism and feedback."
18) Be a driver. A mentorship program is not something that an employee does to check a box or to keep their manager off their back. “You have to want it, because you're only going get out as much as you put into it," King says. “You've got to be your own active driver and participant in the process and come in with your own stated goals and objectives."
19) Be mindful of a mentor's time. In many cases, a mentor is a high-level employee carving time out of their busy schedule to help, which means mentees must be respectful of their mentor's time. Specifically, “be on time with any deliverables or follow up items that have been talked about," King explains. “Maximizing the time they have with their mentor makes a good mentee."
20) Don't be afraid to use your mentor. If you don't understand something, don't be afraid to ask your mentor. “No question is wrong and nobody is stupid. Don't be afraid to ask," Emek says.
Asking for help may not be considered a strength in the workplace, but a mentorship arrangement is designed specifically for that purpose—for problems and questions big and small.
“Call on them as much as you need to," Elliott says. “If they're part of a mentorship program, they've signed up for it, they want to do it and they're there to help you, so make sure that you actually use that person."
Will Jones is IA editor-in-chief.