Canadian Underwriter

Knowledge Transfer

November 17, 2011   by Stephanie Orford

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A career in the insurance industry is not usually the first consideration for recent graduates, but it holds a great deal of untapped potential for the right candidate. With the increasing number of retiring baby boomers, the industry is faced with shortages, leaving ample opportunity for young professionals to fill the gaps and enter the insurance profession.

But with a lack of information and education on the industry, where can young insurance professionals turn for career advice and the skills for success? This is where mentors come into play. Business mentors have never been more critical to the insurance industry as they are today and young or new insurance professionals can take steps to attract and manage a mentorship relationship to their benefit.

According to a study from the Independent Agents & Brokers of America (2008), the average age of an insurance industry professional is 54, and 60% of insurance industry professionals are older than 45. With the first of the baby boomer generation turning 65 this year, retirement for this demographic has officially begun and young workers are critical to filling gaps.

“There has never been a better time to succeed in the insurance industry,” comments Tom Rivers, an insurance recruitment specialist and industry veteran from Summit Search Group in British Columbia. “The shortage of talented people in insurance is very evident, so individuals with a professional attitude who are committed to their education can move up quickly.”

For young workers, looking for a quick growth opportunity as a result of the aging workforce, mentorships can serve as the key to learning the ropes, receiving career guidance and navigating issues that come up. Mentorships can be invaluable for learning nuances such as the best style of communication for the industry, the use of software and application of technology in the industry, dealing with conflict and tips for building a professional network.

For insurance brokers, mentorship may be a part of an internal succession planning model and directed by a firm, or could be a resource sought out and set up on an individual and more casual basis. A mentorship can be structured as a formal and set out learning plan or an informal play-it-by ear relationship where the mentor answers questions that come up for the mentee and takes advantage of “teachable moments.” Mentor – mentee communications can take place in person, over the phone or via email and the length of a mentorship can be set by a firm or directed by the individual. Most mentorship arrangements span at least six months and include regular monthly meetings sprinkled with phone calls or emails as the mentee requires. Clarifying the length, time required and terms of a mentorship ahead of time helps both parties remain comfortable and creates manageable expectations.

Defining the Relationship

James Clay, president of JT Insurance Services, said some of the best career advice he ever got was from Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Inc., whose speech Clay attended at a conference early in his career. The advice was simple, but powerful: “Get mentors – not just one either.”

“The insurance industry would reap tremendous benefits from establishing a culture of mentorship,” said Rivers. “It’s a win-win-win situation for the mentee, the mentor and the company involved.”

The key is to make sure the mentorship is a two-way relationship, said Rivers. The mentor needs to listen to and learn from the mentee in addition to doling out advice – that’s when all parties benefit most. That way, there is a true exchange of knowledge and skills, rather than a one-way flow. It is also the key differentiator between a mentorship versus a business coaching relationship. Business coaching offers advice and structured, formal check-ins and accountability, but little two-way conversation.

Tony Davis with Axis Insurance explains the trend within the fast-paced business environment of insurance brokerages whereby brokers tend be completely engaged in their work and some members of the team, particularly new brokers, often get left alone. “We noted that new brokers were learning for the most part through osmosis. When we chose to match them up with star brokers as an alternative, the learning process and integration automatically improved. Things sped up and good things came of it.” Davis’s firm is now in the process of formally setting up an in-house mentorship program which will see mentorship for new brokers on an ongoing basis.

“At the root of it, mentorships demonstrate how important it is for the people in a company to always be listening, learning and sharing their skills, no matter what their position. It’s a key component of being a team player,” said Rivers.

To establish a culture of mentorship, a company needs to make several commitments:

  • Incorporate the mentee and the mentorship goals into the broader team and company objectives
  • Define the purpose of the mentorship and what you want to see come out of it
  • Ensure the mentee is incorporated into the team and kept in the loop
  • Reflect upon and evaluate the mentorship at the mentor-mentee level and at the group level regularly.

However, less formal mentorships can be fruitful too. Casual mentorships can facilitate useful information exchange between anyone in the industry.

Mentors are not just for young people, said Clay. “I can honestly say that I would not have achieved the success in both my business and personal life without mentors,” he said.  “To this day I still seek out mentors in areas that are not my expertise – this global economic crisis over the past few years is something that anyone who went through the 1980s is familiar with … you never stop learning.”

Clay has seen the positive results of mentorships in his own office. “It has been great to watch individuals who were hired to be our receptionist attain senior levels in our commercial department in just a few years,” he said.

Davis echoes the sentiment towards positive results and notes that his firm is now actively structuring a regular mentorship program as a result of the improvements to the pace and tone of their business achieved through informal mentorships between senior and junior staff.

Whatever the mentorship arrangement, it’s an invaluable partnership for everyone involved. Mentorships help develop employees, build positive relationship and foster innovation — and they strengthen companies as a result. “[Mentoring] has been extremely rewarding for me,” said Clay. “I have probably learned as much from them as they have learned from me.”

Stephanie Orford is a freelance journalist and public relations specialist.


Tips for mentees on how to find a mentorship that works from Tom Rivers of Summit Search Group 

  1. Mentorship gives you a voice – Look for a mentor who is a listener as well as a teacher, and who encourages you to voice concerns or questions.
  2. Mentorship is about sharing – Look for a mentor that will be open and honest and allow you to do the same.
  3. Clarity is key – Before approaching or establishing a mentorship it is the responsibility of the employee or mentee to outline what they want out of the relationship and a general structure for meetings, conversations and take-away tasks. The mentee must lead the course and ensure the relationship stays on track.
  4. Mentorships can build job security – Mentors can help candidates to understand ways to keep their job secure and move up the company ranks, so look for one inside your business, if possible.
  5. It’s about working smarter, not harder – Use your time wisely and focus on tips and tricks for becoming more efficient, flexible and resourceful at work.
  6. The buck stops at the employee – It is key that employees understand they have a responsibility for their own career success. A mentorship can be a significant step towards this.
  7. Be open – Mentees have a lot more than just career advice to gain in a mentorship relationship. Also look to speak about education, motivation and work-life balance.


Copyright 2011 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the September 2011 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.