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Leader's Edge Lead Dog

Your best producer may be a real dog when it comes to leading your firm into the future.

By  Julia Kramer

I had the pleasure of bumping into Joe Brown at the airport recently. Joe is the president and CEO of The Insurance Exchange (TIE) brokerage and recently attended a meeting led by Wharton’s Todd Henshaw, who is a facilitator at The Council’s Leadership in a Sales Organization conference.

Joe is ahead of the pack in terms of developing his next generation of leaders. He attends conferences, takes what he learns back to the office and holds his team accountable for execution. One idea that stuck with Joe from a recent conversation with Henshaw is a critical lesson for our industry and the business community at large. “In the military, we teach leadership first,” Henshaw says. “Only after that do we focus on developing an individual’s functional expertise.”

Not so in most firms, where the best and brightest producer—or maybe the top sales manager or the operational expert—is typically next in line for the throne. But in almost all cases, these folks rise to the top because they sold the most, had the strongest client relationships or knew how to keep the trains on the track. Then the reins of the organization are passed to them.

With decades of functional expertise and success behind them, and little to no leadership experience outside their area of expertise, they are singularly unequipped to lead the entire organization. The once expert producer becomes the novice, and many times unskilled, corporate leader.

A novice leader has a few surprises in store. Long-term collegial alliances are strained as former peers, now subordinates, uncomfortably adjust to the new reality. Past adversarial relationships tend only to be aggravated, and once-dormant conflicts bubble up to create new and sometimes powerful countercultures. Many a new leader finds that being the popular top producer doesn’t necessarily translate to being a respected and effective top executive.

Across our industry, successors are being identified, but few are being formally prepared for a leadership role. If you can identify your firm’s future leaders, take note: Succession planning is not just about identifying successors, it's about planning for the actual succession. And planning means ensuring that leadership development is front and center in any succession plan and at a minimum includes the following lessons.

TRAINING is a critical component, although I hear arguments that leadership is a natural quality, one that can’t be taught. While I agree that some people exhibit natural-born leadership qualities, I know that many of these “naturals” strike out if training in best practices-based leadership doesn’t augment their God-given talents. I have also observed many in senior roles stumble because they’ve never had high-level management training. Make sure you don't handicap your emerging leaders. Give them the resources to attend training workshops designed to develop their management and leadership skills, encourage them to stay current by reading articles written by noted authorities and thought leaders, help them set clear expectations—and then hold them accountable.

EXPERIENCE really is the best teacher, but make sure you’re teaching the right things. Make sure that staff management is part of the curriculum and make sure that results are measured. For example, have your emerging leaders identify departmental or regional office goals in support of organizational goals, develop quantitative and qualitative measurements, communicate these objectives, get agreement and commitment from staff, and monitor and measure results. In other words, give them the experience of running a micro-organization before you move them up to the macro level.

NETWORKING, both internally and externally, is an absolute necessity. No leader can flourish unless he or she has the support of peers and staff. This support is best and most easily developed on the way up, before hierarchical issues affect relationship building. Beware of those seeking, or in line for, a leadership role who do not have a strong support system. Lone rangers do not make the best leaders. Equally important is an external network. For the emerging leader, this network should consist of both new and highly experienced top managers.

Send your rising stars to conferences and industry events where they can learn firsthand about the challenges and successes of others.

MENTORING is an excellent vehicle for sharing leadership lessons learned, passing down organizational knowledge and creating a feedback loop to correct missteps before the heir apparent “goes live.” No need to wait until you have a formal mentoring program—it’s really a relatively simple coaching process. If you are the mentor, take the time to explain and demonstrate leadership competencies, let the mentee practice under controlled circumstances, provide feedback to improve performance, and raise the bar over time. As mentor, it’s also your role to identify when the person is not capable of becoming your firm’s next leader.

Succession is a hot topic in the insurance industry. Our workforce is aging and the majority of our existing staff, at all levels of the organization, will be retiring in the next 10 years. Ask yourself who will lead the firm through this generational shift and into the future and, as importantly, what you are doing now to ensure the success of your future leadership.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Leadership & Management Resources.

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