ACG - Agency Consulting Group

The PIPELINE

A national monthly newsletter for agency principals dedicated to agency management topic

The "Keep-In-Touch" Program

In 1989 Stephen R. Covey authored his best seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, followed in 1990 with Principle Centered Leadership and in 1995 with First Things First. These works should be a part of every manager's library. The Seven Habits are not new or revolutionary. Rather, they are clarifications and reiterations of rock solid principles in a format that is easily understandable (if still hard to accomplish). But if the seven habits described are followed, long term personal and business success are assured.

That is a pretty strong statement, isn't it? But if we put up a sign that read "Gold Here! Dig approximately 250 feet to reach it! Free shovels," most people would not take us up on the offer. Why? Because they are not certain that they will achieve the goal if they perform the task. The task involves hard work that has no short cut. And they lack FAITH!

Like the example, the "Seven Habits" are not easy to accomplish and they also requires a high level of faith because, while they can be accepted as the right things to do, they are also very foreign to contrary habits that many of us have built through all of our adult lifetimes. Even if our existing habits are counterproductive, they are comfortable because we saw our predecessors and mentors manage their personal and business lives through them. We know that losing weight, getting regular exercise and stopping smoking will extend our lives. Why don't we all simply change our habits? Obviously, it's not as easy as that. There have to be pay-backs that we truly believe will occur if we change. That's where faith comes in. No, we can't guarantee that cessation of smoking, controlling diet and exercise will keep you from getting hit by a truck and dying prematurely. Nor can we guarantee that applying the "Seven Habits" to your life will make you instantly or consistently successful in everything that you try. But each one of us has a conscience - a mental controller - that tells us when we are doing something right and when we are doing something wrong. That's the good feeling that you get when you know that what you did was right, regardless of the outcome. That's also the guilt pang that you feel when you do something that you know isn't right. That conscience is rarely wrong. And application of the "Seven Habits" will always feel 'right'. That tells us that, win or lose, short term or long, Covey's synopsis of the principles that should rule your work and personal lives are the right things to do.

PERSONAL PRINCIPLES

Covey first suggests that we must address ourselves from the inside-out before dealing with others. These internal principles strengthen us as individuals as well as agency owners and managers.

BE PROACTIVE

How often have we heard agents bemoaning their situations by pointing out the faults in everyone and everything (except in themselves). It's the companies - It's the economy - It's the regulators - It's the disloyal customers - It's the weather conditions - It's the direct writers - It's the banks - It's the unmotivated employees that are the causes of all of my problems. I just react to those influences trying to stay in business.

But if these reasons are real and not excuses, why are there successful insurance agents and agencies out there growing and profiting even in these times?

The answer is that some agents are reactive while others choose to respond to the same stimuli in proactive ways. If you find yourself reacting to reduced revenues caused by soft markets and reduced commissions by cutting back on marketing and sales costs and reducing staff, how can you expect to ever grow again? We have never seen a company shrink to greatness - have you?

However, some agents create Strategic Plans to attack the problem in different ways. Competitive pricing that causes reduction in earned commissions means that new sales initiatives need to be created to replace lost income. Does this imply some risk? Certainly! But there is absolutely no risk involved in shrinking to adjust for decreasing income - it's simply a slower way to oblivion because most agencies no longer have a buffer of earnings that can keep them afloat for years awaiting that hoped for hard market.

BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND

Napoleon Hill was not the first person who said, "Whatever man can perceive and believe, he can achieve." The bible also states, "If you will it, it is no dream." Covey restates this principle by speaking of two creations, the first mental, followed by the physical. In the business world, what you want to accomplish defines the leadership necessary to create the mental goals. How you accomplish those goals is the management function of the physical efforts needed to achieve your desired end points. Pointing again to the Strategic Planning model, the agency's Mission and Vision are the 'mental' goals that define what needs to be done to achieve business success. The Strategies and Annual Objectives are your second creations, the physical activities necessary to accomplish the larger goals.

Many agents forego the planning process in favor of directed activities that, they hope, will result in profit and growth. However, they have not determined their own definition of success. Nor have they created a yardstick against which they can measure their results. These agents define being busy with being productive. These agents have set out to travel without a specific goal or a road map. Their definition of success is measured by their odometer. "Are we moving forward," they ask? But they don't know what direction they are going and don't even take the time to put gas in the car. Eventually, they will run out of fuel and have to determine whether where they ended up was a satisfactory end point. Normally, it isn't.

Covey's principle of beginning with the end in mind reflects the need for both a personal and business Mission Statement to solidify one's definition of success in the long term.

PUTTING FIRST THINGS FIRST

Covey's third habit can be reduced to the principle of doing the most important things first. Much of our time as agents is spent taking care of either routine matters or of crises. In the long run, neither is productive. Yes, routine matters must be done. And we can't avoid some crises. But, Covey points out that the most productive use of our time is to accomplish those tasks that are not urgent, but important. Planning, not reacting, is important. Prevention, not repair, is important. Building relationships, not counseling to determine why they aren't working is important.

Of course, some important things are urgent as well. However, many of our customers and employees try to manipulate us with the "squeaky wheel" syndrome. If they squeak often enough and loud enough, they figure that we'll have to take care of them. For some people, this is the only way they feel they can get anything done. But many of those crises, while urgent, are not as important as some other issues - like marketing our largest account to avoid undue competition, or evaluating and thanking our strong performers for their continued support. In reality, however, many of these important tasks in our business (and in our personal) lives languish while we spend our day fighting fires that are caused by others to get us to react to them.

This principle tells us to evaluate our choices and do what's important, not necessarily what's easiest or most urgent .

PUBLIC PRINCIPLES

Only after we conquer ourselves can we be expected to maximize our interaction with others. Following the implementation of the first three Habits, Covey discloses the three Habits that will make your interactions with others much more valuable and effective for you and for those with whom you have business or personal contact.

WIN/WIN

You can not be trusted by others until you can prove yourself trustworthy. Your integrity (the value you place on yourself) is the building block of your character. An abundance mentality is the feeling that there is enough for everyone - that life is not a win/lose proposition. Balancing your own feelings and convictions with courage and consideration of the feelings of others is the key to maturity. And these three characteristics, Integrity, Abundance Mentality and Maturity permits you to consider all relationships in a Win/Win scenario. If anyone loses, the solution is not acceptable. Once your employees, clients, companies, family and friends understand that you can be trusted to seek Win/Win solutions, they will be much more likely to cooperate with you. The key to this principle is to follow the guideline that a Win/Win scenario is the only acceptable one. Win/Win or Don't Play are acceptable alternatives.

SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND BEFORE BEING UNDERSTOOD

This is the habit of communications. Too many of us spend all of our time explaining ourselves to others so that they can understand US! We rarely take the time to listen with the purpose of understanding the other guy's point of view before setting him straight and telling him how it REALLY IS! In fact, the other guy is trying just as hard to get his point across and he's not listening to you, either. Do you know what you have when two such communicators get together? A war!

Covey extols us to listen empathetically, not selectively. Your goal is not just to hear the other point of view. Your goal is to understand that point of view well enough to radiate it back to the speaker. When he acknowledges that you understand him (and not before), you can state your point of view, seeking his empathetic attention so that he can understand you, as well.

If we learn this habit, alone, we could double our effectiveness as business-people. What would happen if you really understood your clients' (and prospects) points of view before trying to sell them on yours? Do you think that you might be able to better respond to their needs?

SYNERGIZE

In compromise each side gives up a little in order to solve a problem. This, by definition, is a Lose/Lose scenario since each participant is being asked to give something up. In a compromise, 1 + 1 = 1 1/2. Synergy takes the Win/Win and Communication principles and applies them to business and personal life so that 1 + 1 = a minimum of 3. Since neither side is expected to give up anything and since we are really understanding each others points of view, a synergistic answer will always challenge the participants to creatively solve a problem in ways heretofore not explored. Brainstorming a solution to a difficult coverage question or challenging ourselves to grow in new ways are synergistic exercises that take the place of dictatorial styles of management in which the "boss" evaluates his choices and makes a decision, up to which everyone is expected to live..

SHARPENING THE SAW

Covey's final principle is a constant commitment to balance our lives. We've all seen people burn out on work. Many of us have heard of well-to-do people who commit suicide because they indulged in too much of a good thing and lost the meaning of their lives. Our industry is rife with workaholics who work 24 hours a day, then play at golf as if it, too, was work. Covey asks us to stop and investigate our lives on a weekly basis to determine if we are preserving and enhancing our greatest asset, ourselves. He suggests that we challenge ourselves to balance our spiritual, physical, mental and social/emotional selves each week. This exercise permits us to continue to pursue the other six habits to becoming the most effective people possible.

We strongly recommend that you purchase Covey's books, beginning with the "7 Habits╝" If you pursue this set of principles, your lives will never be the same again.