When Kim Harding started in the life insurance business 18 years ago, she was one of 10 women in an office of 250 agents. She said she would never have survived her early years without the mentorship of two of the more experienced women agents. That mentorship led to her passion for mentoring others. Today, Harding is cofounder of Harding Financial and Insurance, Woburn, Mass., and is chairman of the board of Life Happens.
“The women who mentored me taught me that this is definitely a hard industry to break into, but with hard work and perseverance and continuous education, the sky's the limit,” she said. “Each of them had unique practices that are different from mine today. But they gave me the inspiration that I could achieve anything. They really focused on how important is to always be focused on your clients, that doing the best thing for them every single time will always lead to success.”
Mentorship holds a unique role in the life insurance and financial services industry. Whether it’s agents who moderate continuing education classes, or formal mentoring programs within the corporate setting, so much of the advisor’s education comes from peer-to-peer learning. And those who are mentor said they have many reasons to be inspired to help their peers.
Harding became a mentor 13 years ago, sharing her experiences with other agents in the hope that they will benefit from what she went through on her journey in the industry.
“My first meeting with my mentees is all about establishing rapport and trust and sharing my career path,” she said. “How I started in the industry, from my initial struggles to the success I have today. And then we turn the tables and learn more about where each of the mentees are on their journey, what their focus is, what are their roadblocks and what they want to gain most out of the experience. And the responses they give me set the stage for a year of meeting and discussion.”
Harding said her mentorship discussions include best practices for data gathering and how to ask clients the right questions. She also helps mentees create presentations that are easy for clients to understand.
“Generally, new advisors over-complicate things,” she said. “And it leads to confusion and lack of execution.”
Harding also focuses on practice management, sharing how she works with her team to achieve the best results for their clients. She said her mentees also are interested in how to transition from being an insurance agent to becoming a financial advisor who offers comprehensive planning.
“My mentees need a sounding board,” she said. “They need to see that I was once in their shoes and, with perseverance and continuous education and by working smart, they can achieve success in our field. And then from meeting like-minded advisors, they can learn from and advocate for our industry and their clients.”
Harding said she believes the inspiration she receives through her mentoring “is unbelievable.”
“First, it’s because we have a financial crisis in our country, and Americans need our help more than ever before. And our industry is aging at this exact moment when our clients will need us most. So it's essential for the mature advisors to help our younger colleagues remain in this career and help them build their practice and their knowledge. And then the second thing is, we need to pay it forward and give back. I am where I am today because of a long list of people who saw potential in me and were willing to share their time and talents. So I believe it's my duty and my honor to do the same and pay it forward.
Robert Gonzalez and Paula Gonzalez Kurday
At Appreciation Financial in Houston, mentorship is woven into the company’s fabric.
“Right out of the gate, it's each one teach one,” said. Robert Gonzalez, agency vice president. “You learn it, you see it, you do it, you turn around and you teach the next individual. We have tons of cliche sayings in our company and one of them is, ‘Don't be a secret agent.’ The reason you got to where you are is because somebody else was able to share this opportunity with you.
And you would be selfish to keep it to yourself. So how we are raised in this company is, we're going teach this to you. And the expectation is you're going to turn around and teach it to somebody else. And that creates a community of individuals who are selfless. It’s all about how can I support you? How can I get you to where you need to go?”
Appreciation Financial has about 250 advisors in five states. The firm specializes in providing retirement advice to public school teachers.
Mentorship solves what Gonzalez described as “the three biggest headaches in our industry.”
“No. 1 is ‘How the heck do I learn this?’ So we have an entire curriculum that's a step-by-step handbook on how to learn the business, how to learn products, how to acquire clients. The second-biggest headache is ‘How do we acquire clients?’ And the third headache is compensation.
“We're constantly teaching people how to build a team, how to sustain a team, how to manage a team, how to manage your time, things like that.”
In addition to mentorship on how to learn the business and acquire clients, Gonzalez does what he calls “personal development mentoring.”
“It’s ‘where are you struggling today?’ And it might be, ‘I’m unmotivated,’ ‘I got heartbroken,’ ‘I’ve got family stuff,’ ‘I’ve got money stuff.’ It’s working with the individuals themselves to see where they need help in how to deal with clients, the right words to use in their presentation, whatever they need to build their confidence.”
Mentorship is a win-win for the firm, said Paula Gonzalez Kurday, Robert’s sister who also is an agency vice president at Appreciation. “They get to win because they learn something new and they build their business. I get to win because I see them succeed. And I'm also building my business at the same time. So it's a structure where we're creating partnerships with the people that we mentor so that they can have an opportunity.”
Dan Young became a college professor after 20 years as a financial advisor with Ameriprise. He is founding director and assistant professor in the Doctor of Business Administration program at Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, Del. During his years as an advisor, he also was a college professor, so mentorship is in his blood. And he is determined that his students will have an easier time getting their feet wet in the business than he had.
“So much of the financial advisor’s work, when I started in the late 1990s, was very much ‘smile and dial,’ and just kind of figure it out on your own,” he said. “As I started teaching classes, I realized there was so much more besides basic salesmanship that we could teach students in terms of strategy, time management, decision-making, how human resources works, marketing and entrepreneurship.”
Young eventually began holding office hours specifically for students who were interested in a financial services career. He knew that students who interned with a financial advisor were more likely to be successful in the future careers, so he arranged for students to come into his Ameriprise office to see just what they could expect.
“I’d have them come in at 6 p.m. on a Friday, and sit them next to me and I’d have my phone there and a list of numbers to call and I’d have a headset and they’d have a headset and I said for the next two hours we’re going to call these numbers,” he said. “And my students told me the most important lessons they learned is to focus on the task in front of them.”
Now that Young is focusing more of his time on teaching, he is still mentoring future financial services professionals. He and another financial advisor picked up the cost for one student to take her life, accident and health insurance exam and have helped her to understand the business, including how to market to clients.
In the mentoring relationship, the student is like the client, he said, in that “they’re the only person who matters.”
Right now, all of the students he mentors are women. As a Black man in the financial services world as well as the academic world, Young said he believes it’s important that students see someone who looks like him. “I think the best way to combat racism and prejudice is where you see someone like me and I’m a teacher,” he said. “And so it’s not strange to you to receive information from me and give respect to me.”
More than 20 years ago, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors launched its own mentoring program, the Leadership in Life Institute. LILI’s purpose is threefold: to advance the advisor’s personal growth, to advance the advisor’s professional success and to train future leaders for the association.
Brad Tapscott is the national LILI chair and is a financial advisor with Ameriprise in Daniel Island, S.C. He was a volunteer moderator for the South Carolina LILI program for eight years. Moderators not only mentor the class members; they train the volunteers who will take over as future moderators. After an advisor completes the LILI course, they pledge to serve in a volunteer leadership capacity for the association.
Taking the LILI class and then eventually moderating the course was a leap of faith, he said. “As the only person who’s generating income in my practice, I was wondering how I was going to manage this. But it taught me to be as focused as I possibly could. LILI was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. It made me a more efficient business owner and it made me able to handle things at a much higher level.”
Much of the LILI curriculum is based on the writings of Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People) and Jim Collins (Good To Great). The moderator guides the class members through discussions on how the lessons can be applied to the members’ practices and their personal experiences.
Every LILI participant comes away with a different take on what they learned through the program, Tapscott said. “Some people take it more on the business side, some people look at their local association, some people look at their family, and I’ve also seen people leave the business after taking the LILI course because they realized they aren’t cut out for the business.”
The LILI course takes six months to complete and Tapscott said when the six months is over, the class members “become brothers and sisters in arms.”
“I think that by being able to help them identify the situations that come up in their practices or in their life where they've handled it a certain way. And they've never understood why they handled it that way. And then they see it from that person’s shoes and learn to deal with the problem solving and the interpersonal communications - it opens their eyes to a calming effect.”
As a moderator, Tapscott said, “you have to make sure that each person in the class is heard and understood, because they're in a safe space when they're in there with you.”
“If you do the work, it shows you what your practice could be,” he said. “And being in these classes with people who have had years in the business – it’s magic.”
Dien Yuen is assistant professor of philanthropy at The American College of Financial Services and is an instructor for the college’s Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy program. As part of her passion toward teaching advisors about philanthropy, she is working on an initiative called Advisors of Color, with the goal of building study groups of Black advisors who have their CAP designations. So far, more than 100 Advisors of Color have been enrolled in the program, four months ahead of goal, with the last group scheduled to complete the CAP program by the end of April 2022.
The college is partnering with 19 community foundations throughout the U.S. to support the CAP study groups.
“We would like to diversify the sector but we also believe there’s a market that is untapped and we want to reflect community needs,” Yuen said. “There are statistics out there that say 30% or 40% of advisors are going to retire in the next 10 years. So we need to start figuring out how we are going to build that pipeline to replace them.”
The CAP program takes nine months to complete and many of the CAP designees refer business to each other, Yuen said. “We were able to document that through CAP, $1.4 billion in giving will go into the economy through philanthropy.”
In addition to going through the curriculum, those who are in the Advisors of Color program also experience mentorship through the program moderators as well as through their fellow participants. But Yuen said the program goes beyond mentorship to incorporate sponsorship.
“Mentorship is, if you need help with something I can help you,” she said. “But sponsorship is when you use your social capital. It’s when you stick your neck out and are willing to use your name to make sure someone else is recommended or on the list for promotion or introduced.”
Northwestern Mutual has a mentoring program in its home office in which senior team leaders are matched with up-and-coming executives for mentoring. Tim Gerend, chief distribution officer, said his experience in receiving mentorship early in his career inspired him to mentor others in his office.
“I’m meeting monthly with a group of 10 African American men who are in our home office and working directly with our field force. We talk about their experience at Northwestern Mutual, their career aspirations and their career paths. It’s very open ended; we cover lots of different things.”
He said the mentoring program “is to provide opportunity for open dialogue and transparency around the employee experience and career development, to talk about the issues of the day or current events, and things that are happening in the company. We also want to provide more visibility and connection between our senior leaders and our employees.”
The men he mentors are seeking information on the skills or characteristics that would help them advance their careers. “What are the mindsets or behaviors that Northwestern Mutual is looking for as we think about who will be the next generation of leaders at the company? And how do those relate to their current jobs and how can they put them into practice?”
In addition, Gerend is mentoring three women in the home office who were identified as having potential to be promoted to the executive level. He said this group of mentees has its own set of needs.
“They are looking for help with executive presentation and communication skills. How to engage in a way to influence and engage senior leaders. Another recurring theme is around career advancement. So we do a little bit of counseling and coaching or mentoring about how to apply for a higher level job.”
As a mentor, Gerend said, “It’s OK if you don’t know everything. We all have places where we need to develop and grow.”
Gerend said he “was the beneficiary of really great mentors early in my career” and he sees the need for it in the industry.
“The opportunity to have people who are at different stages of their careers, maybe different stages of life, and sharing your experience is really valuable for me and I really enjoy it. I’ve benefited from it in so many ways and it’s really rewarding to be able to pay it forward.”
Randy Cox’s first experience with mentoring came when he ran track as a University of Pennsylvania student. Today, he is a national sales manager for AIG Financial Distributors in Houston, with more than 30 years of insurance industry experience. He continues to be mentored even while he serves as a mentor to others.
Cox said a coach called him out for his poor technique in going over the hurdles and offered to work out with him. Despite Cox’s initial shortcomings in track, the coach didn’t give up on him.
“He specifically told me, ‘You don't really know what you're doing. But what I see in you is a lot of ability. And I see the character traits that are required for success. So if you allow me to help you, I think you'll be really good.’ And nobody had ever said that to me. He became my first mentor and my athletic career developed into a very successful one, largely because of his coaching and mentorship.”
Later, when he was a few years into his career as a captive agent for a life insurance company, Cox had the opportunity to pay it forward for a new agent who was having difficulties.
“I was helping a brand-new agent who was having a struggle. We set out together to see a prospect and I helped him make a substantial sale. In the car on the way back, he started getting emotional about the fact that it was a big sale, and he hadn’t been making any money up to that point,” Cox recalled. “He offered to split the commission with me and I told him, ‘You keep the money. You really need it.’ And a few seconds went by and he started to cry because he needed the money and he was overwhelmed by the fact that I didn’t want to take it.”
Cox said that incident inspired him to become a coach to other agents.
“I told myself, if I ever got in a position where I could help other people, then I would always look to provide them with any help or guidance that I had received in my career to help them become successful,” he said.
At AIG, Cox is mentored by someone else in the company even as he serves as a mentor to one of the company’s external wholesalers. “So I benefit from both sides of this,” he said.
“My mentor and I get to sit down with each other, we both have experiences the other can relate to. I talk honestly about my career and things that are happening with me. And she has navigated her own journey in the industry, so she relates to some of the things I’m going through.”
Cox said the key to a good mentoring relationship is “the ability to feel they are in a trusted space where they can be authentic.”
“The person I’m mentoring knows I truly have his best interests at heart, that I’m not judgmental and that I’m here to offer any advice or counsel that I can. And that allows him to be his truly authentic self.”
Between mentoring someone else while being mentored himself, Cox said, “Everything has come full circle. It has made me a more service-oriented leader and able to better connect with my customers.”
Fradel Barber started her career in the design industry. Today, she is CEO of World Financial Group, leading a team of 500 financial professionals in 15 offices. She credits her success to the mentoring she received when she was, as she described it, “young and broke, and trying to break in to an industry I knew very little about.”
“I was very shy and I learned quickly that I had to get out of my shell and talk to people,” she said. “My mentors also helped me with goal setting, helping to break it down. For example, if I wanted to have a six-figure income, what kind of activity level would I need in order to make that happen.”
Barber said her mentors also helped her with what she called “the doing part of the business.”
“It was the hands-on training, being able to go out in the field and really see the business live. How does it work? What kind of presentations do you need to make? What kind of questions do your clients ask? How do they feel about these types of products? Getting that experience was really tremendous for me.”
Now that she is CEO of her company, Barber makes sure all her advisors have access to mentoring and training as she had. But one major change is that technology has entered into the mix.
“Eighteen years ago, when I started, we didn’t have the technology that’s available to us today,” she said. “So now we have on-demand training in addition to one-on-one mentoring. We can use Zoom to facilitate mentoring groups and get more people involved in mentoring. Mentoring has evolved because the industry has evolved.”
The most important part of mentorship, Barber said, “is mindset.”
“That’s because when you're coming into a business like ours, you're dealing with people. And you deal with rejection. And you need to know that you’re not the one being rejected; maybe it’s the product or maybe the timing isn’t right. So a lot of that mentorship is working on an advisor’s mindset and helping them understand how they should think about this business, and then that bleeds into their personal development. It’s not just about the business, it’s about growing as a person.”
Barber said she believes “mentorship must be sought.”
“A lot of times people think, ‘Oh, when I find a mentor, that's when my success will start.’ But it’s really the opposite. You need to do something. Maybe it’s not perfect and maybe you might even fail. But the activity alone will help you be able to attract and seek out someone who wants to mentor you. Mentors want to mentor people who are action-based, not just people who want to learn.”
Pamela Sams is president of Jackson Sams Wealth Strategies in Herndon, Va. Her broker-dealer, Securities America, is part of Advisor Group, which started a mentoring program called Mentor Connect last year. Sams is mentoring three advisors through this program.
“They connect advisors with mentees and mentors,” Sams said of the program. “So you can request either to be a mentor or to be a mentee. The mentorship can be anything from a 30-minute phone call for someone who has an idea they want to run past someone else to a full engagement.”
Sams started working with her mentees in February, scheduling time with them every other week. “We just spent an hour picking apart what types of things they want to do in their practice and the challenges they are facing. Then we go over some ideas and strategies that I facilitate. Next month, I’ll go through a more in-depth program with all of them - mainly marketing, because most of them are younger in their practices and they need the consistency of getting in front of people, closing and then bringing in new clients.”
Marketing is the main issue her mentees need help with, she said. But they also are seeking help with bringing in leads consistently and converting those leads into clients. One of her mentees is looking for advice on developing a subscription-based practice, something Sams has done in her own practice.
Sams said she was called to be a mentor “because I love giving back – especially to women in this industry.”
Susan Rupe is managing editor for InsuranceNewsNet. She formerly served as communications director for an insurance agents' association and was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @INNsusan.