The term “leadership” shows up every day in business, sports and our personal lives. It’s often discussed, but rarely understood.
Like many industries, insurance has been influenced by both positive and negative leadership over the years. And with today’s changing technology and younger workforce, strong leadership is more important now more than ever before.
But what is true leadership?
For much of my life, I thought leadership was about power, experience or position. But in my 17 years in the insurance industry, I’ve discovered four key principles of authentic and effective insurance leadership.
By understanding and implementing these leadership principles into your life and business, you will become a stronger leader, gain influence with those around you, and grow your agency.
1) You are only as effective as your ability to lead.
When I first heard author and mentor John C. Maxwell’s saying, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” I thought it was cute and catchy. But I didn’t grasp the full meaning until I really started to examine my own leadership experiences.
There is no part of your organization that leadership does not impact. Your ability to lead determines your effectiveness. Period.
I often work with insurance agency or company leaders who feel stuck. They’re looking for the next new idea or process to implement, but what they most desperately need is improved leadership ability.
Whether you’re leading your agency team, your clients or your community, leadership is the ceiling on your potential.
So why do so many organizations fail to develop leadership ability? Why is the insurance industry lacking in positive leaders? There are countless reasons, but the bottom line is that great leadership takes daily hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Growing agencies and companies usually share one common theme: They work every day to become better leaders. There is no magic leadership pill or potion. You must be intentional about developing your leadership ability.
Whether you feel your current leadership effectiveness is a 2 out of 10 or a 6 out of 10, your effectiveness as a leader will never rise beyond that number until you are willing to invest in your own leadership development.
2) Leadership is not a title.
After a recent meeting with an insurance agency leadership team, I had a private conversation with one of the team members. She told me, “I don’t have the highest title or ownership, or even the most experience at this agency. But if I left the agency, I know most of the agency staff would want to follow me because I have the most influence.”
This leader exemplified what true leadership is all about: It’s influence—nothing more, nothing less.
It’s not your title that gives you true influence. Sometimes the words “leadership” and “management” are lumped together as if they’re the same thing. But while both leadership and management are important for all organizations, they’re very different skills: Management is focused on maintaining systems and processes, whereas leadership is about influencing people.
For most of my business career, I was an insurance producer. Although the title of “producer” or “agent” doesn’t sound like a leadership position, nothing could be further from the truth.
Why do you think most insurance agencies ask producers to sign a non-compete agreement? Yes, there are financial considerations, but think a bit deeper. Who has the greatest influence on the most important relationships—the clients—in every organization?
In my 15 years of insurance production, I don’t know of one client who did business with me because of my title. As Stanley Huffty said, “It’s not the position that makes the leaders; it’s the leader that makes the position.”
So how do you know if you have influence? The best indication is your followers. Who is following you? Are they going where you want them to go, or are they wandering off in their own direction?
3) Your greatest leadership challenge is you.
Regardless of your current title, position or experience, how can you gain more influence as a leader?
Before you can lead anyone else, you must first be able to lead yourself. That’s why I believe the highest calling of leadership is self-leadership.
When I conduct a live training on self-leadership, I often demonstrate the power of self-leadership with a couple of drinking glasses. In the first example, I try to pour an empty glass into another empty glass. Too often, leaders try to serve others without filling their own cup. It simply doesn’t work.
In the second example, I pour water into the first drinking glass. The water represents self-leadership through personal and professional growth. When you begin to grow yourself, you can more effectively grow those around you.
The great thing about self-leadership is that it’s a never-ending process. You can always reach for more water to fill your cup—but you have to be thirsty.
One of the main characteristics I see among top leaders is that they are lifelong learners. No matter what they know and what they have learned, the most successful leaders are always hungry to learn and grow more.
Influential leaders understand that leadership is a process, not an event. They don’t attend one workshop or take one class and suddenly think they have arrived at the final destination. In fact, the more top leaders learn, the more they realize how much more there is to learn. Just like interest in your bank account, leadership skill compounds.
How are you growing and developing yourself every day? Are you in the constant process of growth, or have you become stagnant? Self-leadership isn’t easy, but it is extremely rewarding.
4) Leadership is about adding value to others.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” It usually applies when you get so caught up in the details of a situation that you miss the point of the situation. This is often true in leadership.
Leaders commonly get so caught up in micromanaging details that they forget the most important purpose of leadership: to add value to those they serve.
How do you know if you’re adding value? Ask yourself one simple question: Are you making things better for the people who follow you?
Not too long ago, my mentor shared the most important aspect of adding value to others. He said, “To add value to people, you first must value people.”
Isn’t that so true? The insurance industry commonly uses the term “value-added” when it comes to products, services or experiences, but if the person or business you are trying to add value to doesn’t first feel valued, there is little you can add that will make an impact.
I recently worked with an insurance leader who truly desired to add value to his team, but said he realized he doesn’t always show it. He said that some days, his high workload made him feel like he didn’t have time to say hello or acknowledge his team.
Effective leadership is work. Leadership is, first and foremost, about people, and adding value is about listening. It’s almost impossible to lead anyone or anything when you haven’t listened enough to know how to best serve them. The best leaders I know listen, learn and then lead.
What will consistently adding value to others do for your leadership? You will earn loyalty. You will accomplish more. You will grow your book of business. And you will know that each day, you are making positive influence on those you serve.
Bottom line? If you want to grow your agency, become a leader others will follow.
Brent Kelly, vice president of insurance agency consulting firm The Sitkins Group, Inc., is a motivating influencer, coach and speaker who spent 15 years in the insurance industry as a successful commercial lines producer.
Your Own Worst Enemy
In 2003, I hit the lowest point of my personal and professional life. I was deeply in debt, unmotivated, and unsure of where to turn.
That year, I was introduced to my first personal growth mentor, Jim Rohn. I listened to an audio recording of his and realized that all my problems were caused by one person: me.
I started to make small changes in my attitude and habits and thus began the process of my own personal and professional growth. Many years later, I am still working on growing and developing every day as a leader.
Jim Rohn said something that I have never forgotten: “Work hard on your job, make a living; work hard on yourself, make a fortune.” I was 25 years old when I first heard that quote, and at the time, I wasn’t completely sure what he meant.
Looking back and reflecting on those words, I now realize they were some of the wisest advice I have ever received. —B.K.