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The importance of networking and building a solid support system is regularly touted as being important, but often not enough effort is put into developing, enriching and augmenting this key skill. In a people industry like insurance, that may put players at a disadvantage.

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By: Peter Morris, Vice President, Strategic Resource Consultants
2013-01-01

Everyone is familiar with the expression: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” When it comes to insurance, however, perhaps a more accurate expression would be: “It’s not only what you know, it’s also who you get to know.”

Over the past decades, the insurance industry has become more dependent on technology. While this trend will almost certainly continue, bringing with it an increase in communication through email and through social media, being able to establish connections in face-to-face situations will remain important. The insurance industry is very much a business that rewards those who are able to network effectively.

To be clear, the “what you know” part of the equation is important. A formal education lays the foundation for establishing a career in insurance. When an employer is looking to bring new talent on board or to promote from within, education level is certainly a consideration, if not a requirement.

That requirement is sometimes expressed in terms of a college diploma or university degree; at other times, it relates to completion, or at least progress towards completion, of a designation through Canada’s Insurance Institute, namely either a CIP or FCIP. For more senior level positions, there may be a stated preference for candidates with both a college/university education as well as institute training.

Landing that first job in insurance is only the beginning; what comes after that is determined by many factors. Too often, the assumption is that the brightest individual will naturally be the one to get ahead, but the reality is there are many skills needed to advance up the corporate ladder — and to stay there.

Among these skills is the ability to develop a network of professional contacts: people who will mentor you; people who will inform you of opportunities as they arise; and people who will put in a good word for you when needed. Good networking skills can help a person develop a wide group of such contacts.

The flip side is that poor networking skills can result in a perilously thin group of these valuable contacts or — for those who really lack skill — a network of people who hinder, not help, by erecting obstacles in their career paths. It is difficult enough to advance your career in a competitive employment market without having to clear unnecessary hurdles.

GIFT OF THE GAB

Susan RoAne, in her book Face to Face, describes a study by Thomas Harrell, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Stanford University in California. Looking at a group of MBAs a decade after their graduations, Dr. Harrell sought to identify the traits of those who were most successful. Grade-point average turned out to have no bearing on success.

One common trait that did emerge among the most successful was verbal fluency: the ability to speak easily and well in virtually any situation. Recognizing its value, each of these top business people had the ability to start with small talk before segueing into medium talk and, last, moving on to big talk about business, interests, technology and trends. Clearly, for anyone who is interested in succeeding, verbal fluency is ignored at great peril.

Although it may sound like a crude oversimplification, a key message emerges from RoAne’s study: “You schmooze or you lose.”

The importance of networking is often overlooked. Even when networking is seen as one of the building blocks in establishing a career, its importance can be undervalued. A job description may reference attending industry events. However, success in expanding a professional network is not something typically discussed during performance reviews; nor is it a skill that company training programs focus on developing or enhancing.

In her book, Confessions of an Introvert, Meghan Wier describes a professional network as a support system. Wier advises that a person’s network “will guide you, teach you, push you, and ask for the same in return. As you learn about how your network of friends and business associates interweaves with your life and success, you will be taken to a higher level of understanding of yourself, your career, how others see you, and your role in the business world. I cannot stress more the importance of knowing your network.”

GETTING STARTED

So how do you go about establishing this network? First and foremost, the insurance industry is a people industry, meaning advancement will hinge on being someone who genuinely likes people. It then becomes a question of making the most of available opportunities to build a network of good contacts.

Company or industry events are excellent opportunities to meet people and expand networks. Although these events can certainly be fun, they still demand a person’s attention.

Early in my career, I attended a company cocktail party at the head office in New York where one of the first people I spoke to was the brother-in-law of my boss’s boss’s boss. I introduced myself and as we chatted, I noticed he was wearing a very distinctive tie clip. After going our separate ways, I introduced myself to someone else at the party about 10 or 15 minutes later and while talking, noticed he was wearing the same tie clip. I mentioned the coincidence and my new contact’s response was, “Yes, that was me.”

Needless to say, paying more attention to the tie clip than to the person wearing it did little to help build a supportive network.

How then should a person properly work the room? To start the networking process, someone needs to make the first move. Most people are, by nature, reticent about approaching someone they do not know and starting a conversation. Except for natural extroverts, it is far more comfortable to speak only with people you already know or to stand by the buffet table, waiting for someone else to introduce themselves.

In her book, How to Work a Room, RoAne identifies the following five cautions that contribute to stopping us from mingling and getting to know new people:

• don’t talk to strangers;

• wait to be properly introduced;

• don’t be pushy — good things come to those who wait;

• better safe than sorry; and

• a warm, open, friendly introduction may be misconstrued as an invitation to something more. 

GOOD RISK

To make the most of social situations, it is necessary to take some risk — even if that means the risk of being brushed aside. Although it happens rarely, an introduction can be met with chilly silence. The rebuff may be hurtful, but is not fatal. The best thing to do is be polite and just move on.

Of course, industry events are not the only way to build a network. Online social media such as Facebook, Twitter, HootSuite and LinkedIn offer forums through which to create a professional image and network. While social media can provide a convenient way to establish and maintain connections, they should not completely replace opportunities to establish rapport through face-to-face conversation.

When it comes to networking, one side of the coin is expanding your own list of connections; the other side is having people want to connect with you. Is it often said that nothing succeeds like success. Indeed, it is easier to expand your network of contacts if you are perceived as someone who is successful.

The ability to build and maintain a network is among the many skills that contribute to a successful career, but remains one whose value is often underestimated. It demands effort and care to be fully realized.

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Peter Morris, Vice President, Strategic Resource Consultants
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