Right after Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run of the season for the 1977 Los Angeles Dodgers, his rookie teammate, Glenn Burke, raised his hand high over his head. Baker—somewhat hesitantly, but joyfully—smacked back.
Legend has it, the high-five was born.
The Baseball Americana exhibit at the Library of Congress showcases baseball as an American sport with a long history of bringing people together in spirited camaraderie and mutual fandom, regardless of social class, race and age. And I believe a baseball team that gets the job done is also a good analogy for a successful insurance agency.
Plenty of articles and seminars tout team spirit as a necessary ingredient for growth and profitability. That first high five might have been a strong indication that the Dodgers had winning team chemistry, but in that year’s World Series, they lost to the New York Yankees, dubbed “the best team that money could buy.”
Could the Yankees have more to teach us than the Dodgers? Is it raw talent, no matter how well a team gets along, that really matters?
Insurance is indubitably a team sport. No policy can be sold, issued and delivered by only one person. No claim can be reported, adjusted, analyzed, paid and statistically coded at just one desk. Team chemistry and getting along does matter, but as former baseball player and manager Pete Rose once said, “Nine men who reach their individual goals make a nice team.” That means work ethic, skill, knowledge and smarts matter, too—and enthusiasm cannot compensate for their absence.
Let’s take some advice from America’s pastime and apply a few hallmarks of the sport to the insurance world:
1) Baseball and insurance are both businesses, and businesses run on rules. Rules that enable success are always logical, clearly stated and objectively enforced.
Documenting work on an account is a very logical insurance rule. Enforcing that rule for both account managers and producers is also logical and fair. Allowing producers to bypass that documentation rule is damaging to the team.
2) On a high-functioning team, no position is more important than the others. Ultimately, we’re here to get more runs or sales than the competition.
An outfielder who gets the third out by catching a high-fly ball is just as important as a batter who drives in a run. Similarly, in helping to prevent a potential errors & omissions claim, a quality control manager who uncovers a major missing coverage that has never been offered or explained to a client has done as strong a service to an agency as a producer who brings in a new account.
3) A pitcher with a tired arm and too few strikeouts should be relieved. A producer who is far off their sales goals is exhausting agency resources. Failing to address it creates a culture of acceptable mediocrity that permeates far wider than that one office.
4) Bad moods happen, but bad attitudes destroy morale. The chronic criticizer causes more havoc and harm than their results could ever balance. Sometimes, their results are pretty poor, too.
Whether the behavior is conscious or not, this type of person’s negativity is often an attempt to deflect attention from their own failures. Set them free so that they can find a team where they can be happy.
5) Hiring is an art, but it’s coaching and development that win titles. Hiring a motivated, smart and appropriately educated trainee or recruit is a great first step. But all the effort that goes into the hiring process can be wasted in the absence of a formally implemented insurance education plan that challenges, excites and develops new hires. And no, just having them sit with your people does not constitute a plan.
6) Coaches who have fallen out of love with the game need to leave. A dry, ascetic culture has never been the road to success. Fun should not only allowable in professional spaces—it should be encouraged for mental health, stress relief, positive energy and patience.
Prospects and clients want to work with professionals who enjoy what they do. That takes a bit more cleverness in insurance than in sports, but agencies are doing it all the time.
Tactics to improve office morale can include encouraging walks around the block after an encounter with an unhappy client, planning an agency “dress-up” day as the opposite of casual day, or surprising the staff with sundaes on a hot afternoon.
During this year’s World Series, look for other similarities between “your team” on the wide screen and “your team” back at the agency.
Virginia M. Bates is an approved auditor and seminar leader for the Swiss Re Corporate Solutions/Big “I” Professional Liability program, as well as an educator and consultant on many other insurance subjects for state associations, agencies, vendors, carriers and other organizations.
Author’s note: Lest anyone get the wild idea that I know much about professional sports, much of the baseball background above is gleaned from the article “Find the Formula for Team Chemistry,” written by Ben Rowen for the July-August Atlantic magazine. Grab a copy for pure enjoyment and come up with your own analogies.