Illustration by Yuta Onoda
In the early stages of an insurance producer’s career, there’s a seemingly endless expanse of time before making the big decisions that affect the agency’s success both now and in the years to come. On this particular morning in Nashville, there’s an hour and 39 minutes.
At The Great Broker Smackdown, more than just bragging rights are at stake.
The competition tests insurance executives on business acumen, leadership practices and personal effectiveness.
An added challenge: Each team defines its own metrics for success.
It’s the inaugural The Great Broker Smackdown—a soon-to-be-expanding event—and more than 20 up-and-comers from across the country, handpicked by their companies, have huddled in teams around the Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel meeting room. They’re tasked with running a fictitious agency over the course of two and a half days, faced with a myriad of decisions that not only will determine their company’s success or failure over the next few “years”—but also their standing among competitors. What’s at stake? Bragging rights, naturally, in addition to a trophy. But there’s more than just the hands-on four rounds of simulation from PriSim Business War Games; the program is evenly divided between business acumen, leadership practices and personal effectiveness.
“This is truly experiential learning,” says Elizabeth McDaid, The Council’s senior vice president of leadership and management resources, who first envisioned the event. “If there’s one thing we know, it’s that adults learn by doing. They learn when they believe that learning something new will help them, when they feel driven. We’re going to put these new leaders in a situation where they’re under some stress, where they will need to understand the impact of the decisions they are making. When they feel the pain of ‘not knowing,’ they will really start working on skills we are trying to build.”
Before arriving in Nashville for the March competition, each of the 21 participants—mostly producers, with a handful of young VPs and others thrown in for good measure—went through a thorough assessment back home.
“They come with a 360 feedback report, and they’ve already spent at least a half an hour on the phone with a coach,” McDaid says. “Having that inventory shows them what their strongest leadership practice is and what they need to work harder on. Sharing this with their team and getting feedback throughout the program allows them to do this.”
The good behaviors they’re working toward are the qualities defined by The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership by Barry Z. Posner and James M. Kouzes. They include modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act and encouraging the heart.
At the beginning, team members are asked to share only positive feedback regarding these qualities since they don’t really know or trust each other yet. “But when they go into round two, it gets a little dicier,” McDaid says. “Now they take the gloves off.” Since the team knows what area each person is working on, they are able to see whether there’s improvement or simply a default to past behaviors.
There’s plenty of stress to bring either about. Participants describe the event’s simulation as “intense,” “thought-provoking” and just plain “hard.”
Rich Harkwell, however, president and CEO of AHM Insurance Group in St. Louis, Missouri, says the experience also has been “very positive.”
“This helps sharpen your focus from a strategic standpoint,” he says. “We can get so bogged down in the tactical that we lose sight of the long-range strategic moves that are critical to remaining competitive.”
In terms of strategies, there are many to consider. McDaid worked with PriSim to create the simulation while in her previous job as agency education manager at Chubb.
“Together, we did the research and then created this simulated brokerage firm,” she says. “So all of the decisions they make here, through a variety of screens, are the type of decisions an agency principal or brokerage principal would make. It mirrors their day-to-day. They’re making decisions about finance, marketing, which carrier they want to use, determining if they want to hire more staff, how much they want to train, which markets they want to go after, whether they’ll specialize in any particular industry, how they determine customer value and customer satisfaction ratings. And each of these different decisions has a different metric.”
If there’s one thing we know, it’s that adults learn by doing.Tweet
For the Smackdown, McDaid then added the leadership elements, understanding that key training at this point in a career could eventually affect the industry as a whole.
“This program is aimed at the emerging leaders, the high potentials,” she says. “These are the people who would make the brokerage principal cry if they left. They’re the future of their organizations, and we’re giving them the opportunity to run one in a very safe environment.”
Jeff Lefebvre, Ph.D., PriSim founder and partner, says a key element of the simulation is that, even though it’s detailed, it doesn’t offer teams many guidelines for how to go about reaching the goals they set for themselves. That allows for creativity and working to each other’s strengths. As a result, discussions around the room are engaging, balanced, lively and completely unique to each team.
In one corner, for example, one team’s members are individually poring over their own paperwork, iPads and calculations, only occasionally asking questions and sharing findings. At another table, the group is laser-focused on the numbers presented on the shared computer screen, actively exploring how the results change when, for example, a new hire is made or money is spent on advertising. In still another area, a team member is relating a real-world example to what could happen if the group chooses a particular path.
J. Bransford “Jake” Wallace, chairman emeritus of Willis retail insurance brokerage (then Willis Corroon) and former chairman of The Council, dropped in for the final day of the competition and was “very impressed” with what he saw and with the discussions taking place.
As a 60-year veteran of the industry, he says, he was surprised by the level of understanding of the business in the room. He considers the Smackdown a great training tool for those involved to further their careers.
“Obviously, it has its limitations because you’re dealing in a kind of a vacuum as far as the outside market is concerned,” he says. “But it’s helpful because everyone is in the same environment. In the real world, none of the environments are the same. This is extremely valuable for someone who wants to be a leader. You can work with numbers, but it’s going to be people that make the difference. It can help anybody better understand what it will take to sustain good people in the business. And that’s very important.”
As the days progress, the competition continues to heat up. Lefebvre, walking about the room, answering questions and keeping the schedule moving from one segment to another with humor and insight, gives periodic updates on which teams are leading in which area. But as for the overall winner, there’s an added challenge: Each team has to define its own metrics for success. If, for example, a brokerage is leading in customer satisfaction, profit margin or revenue, those results wouldn’t matter in the end if the brokerage hadn’t chosen those metrics.
To win, Lefebvre says—in both the simulation and real-life—“you’ve got to run a good company, as well as pick the right measures of success.”
Adds McDaid: “If you choose your own metrics, you’re executing to your own strategy. If we name the metrics, then you’re executing according to ours.”
Overall, Lefebvre says, the goal is to engender discussion and debate, both within the teams and from one team to another.
“The people here are all experienced,” he says. “But they have different experience. One person may know more about a subject than another, and this helps them learn to draw that out.”
We can get so bogged down in the tactical that we lose sight of the long-range strategic moves that are critical to remaining competitive.Tweet
The plan is to take the program regional in 2016, with winning teams competing in a special national Smackdown at next year’s Insurance Leadership Forum.
But right here, right now, there’s only the current round.
“The beauty of this,” McDaid says, “is that someone could go through this simulation five times and have a different experience each time, based on their team, the competition in the room and what they want to focus on.”
Lefebvre, whose Chicago-based company has created business simulations in industries such as mortgage banking, aerospace/defense and dealership, included segments on SWOT Analysis, which uncovers the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats involved in any project; the MOST Analysis, a framework for identifying mission, objective, strategy and tactics; and the basics of financial reporting. Several participants said they especially appreciated the session on finances in particular, a veritable crash course on profit and loss statements, balance sheets and cash flow.
But teams also worked together to prepare reports on industry disruptors, ranging from the impact of the millennial generation to the growing environment of mergers and acquisitions.
“The professionalism and talent in this room has blown me away,” admits JPaul Dixon, vice president at Hylant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I knew it was going to be a good program. But I also knew that if it was just lectures, we wouldn’t reach such a high level of understanding. This has been pretty comprehensive.”
This is extremely valuable for someone who wants to be a leader. You can work with numbers, but it’s going to be people that make the difference.Tweet
Though most of the teams were made up of members from more than one company, Dixon’s are all from Hylant. He sees that as a benefit moving forward.
“The most surprising thing for me was learning about my colleagues,” he says. “We’ll know better what resources we have, and we’ll be able to do more things together.”
So who’s the winner? Technically, Team 3, also known as “The Sweat Shoppe.” Team member David Drake attributes part of that success to the team’s determining how to achieve the highest return on equity by specializing in three niche markets and by choosing to be graded on those and other metrics. But he also credits the way the group worked together.
“We did really well in challenging each other,” says Drake, producer for BancorpSouth Insurance Services, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “We were always open to each other’s suggestions, and none of us were afraid to say, ‘We can go this route’ to meet our common goals.” Other team members included William McKnight, who is a producer at BancorpSouth Insurance Services, and Matthew Stadler and Ryan Bowles, both Dallas/Fort Worth-based principals at MHBT.
In reality, however, everyone wins.
“Would I recommend this experience? That would be an absolute yes,” says Susan Eidenier, a Toledo, Ohio-based client executive at Hylant. “It gives you a sense that your firm has some confidence in you but also that you need some help in developing your skills. And when you’re in the simulation, you can see the agency owner perspective. That will help us understand why they make the decisions they do—and to help encourage them.”