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Employee Engagement: For Agency Principals and Agency Managers

Author: Danielle McHeffey 
Why should insurance agency principals and agency managers concern themselves with the concept of employee engagement? There are many reasons why. The term employee engagement encompasses much more than what we may think it does. For all agencies, big and small, a continuous approach to increase employee engagement is key. An engaged employee “is intellectually and emotionally bound to the organization, feels passionately about its goals and is committed to live by its values.” (Gallup 2014)
What is Employee Engagement? Employment engagement is a term that was born out of the concept of job satisfaction in the 1980’s. In 1990, William Kahn introduced the concept of employee engagement. Employee engagement affects key performance indicators such as profitability, agency growth, customer satisfaction and efficient work processes. One definition from Towers Watson Global Workforce Study 2014 defines employee engagement very simply as “employees’ willingness and ability to help their company succeed.” Gallup (2014) defines it as employees’ involvement in and enthusiasm towards their work.
We have all heard the terms “he has a bad attitude” or “she has a great attitude.” This can easily translate into he is not engaged and she is very engaged. If you have one person with a bad attitude in your organization, you may not have an issue with poor employee engagement. However, if you look around at a bunch of glum faces day after day, you may have a serious issue. Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D and Development Dimensions International (2006) has come up with five critical factors to create a highly engaged and motivated workforce: 
  1. Align the efforts of your teams with your organizational strategy.
  2. Empower the team to carry out the objectives and goals.
  3. Promote and encourage teamwork and collaboration.
  4. Encourage and help your employees grow and develop.
  5. Listen and provide support, appreciation and recognition.
Another report (Towers Watson) adds three more top characteristics: 
  1. Senior management’s interest in employees’ well-being
  2. Challenging work
  3. Decision making authority
There are numerous other surveys that say excellent communication between staff and management is the absolute top priority. If staff feel they can share their ideas with their managers, and managers listen and care, this goes a long way to increase employee engagement.
It is very important to understand that creating a culture where employees can feel the synergies among their goals, the organizations, their managers and coworkers takes time and serious commitment. It cannot change overnight and cannot change with corny campaigns and silly short-term initiatives. It must start at the top with a clear vision and mission and all managers must be enthusiastic and engaged themselves. So the first step is to look in the mirror. Are the ideas suggested here part of your daily attitude and approach to work? After you’ve made the changes you need to make, next step is to find out how engaged your staff is. A baseline measurement is important but continuous measurement is required for serious results. Here is a survey* that you could ask your staff to complete, or just start by asking yourself how your staff might answer these questions:
  1. Is my agency successful and do I feel part of the success?
  2. Does my work and my team’s work produce high quality results?
  3. Is the work I do meaningful to me and the organization?
  4. Would I recommend my agency as a place to work?
  5. Do I enjoy working with my supervisor or manager?
  6. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  7. Does my job make good use of my skills and abilities?
  8. Do I have all the resources I need to do my job?
  9. Do I get occasional special projects or new challenging opportunities?
  10. Do I get adequate recognition and appreciation for a job well done?
  11. Do I get an opportunity to learn on the job by formal training sessions, classes or other educational opportunities?
  12. Am I always treated with respect?
  13. Do my opinions and ideas count; does my manager encourage me to share them?
  14. Do I work in an environment that encourages teamwork, collaboration and helpfulness? 
If most of these answers are yes, you are probably doing a great job and have a super group of engaged employees.  If the answer wasn’t yes as often as you would have liked, you may have some work to do. Remember, though, the work requires a commitment to changing the culture for the long term. There are no short cuts or simple changes.  
Often employee engagement is seen as a project or some new snazzy idea that wanes quickly. Employees see right through these tacky attempts and they usually make things worse. I have a personal story to share regarding one of these attempts that backfired. About 20 years ago I was working for a local community hospital that was going through some tough financial times. A consultant was brought in to improve the low morale. The idea the consultant had was to have the top hospital administrators dress up in cheerleading outfits; young girl cheerleading outfits on these usual blue-suited professional men. It was so embarrassing; they walked around the hospital doing cheers. They had to be so mortified. I still think of this and wonder why they agreed to do it? But the very highly paid consultant thought it was a great idea. It was awful, please don’t try this trick!
A commitment to employee engagement has to be a core value. It has to be part of the leadership conversation just as profit and growth are. If top leadership does not see this as important, there is no reason to try or attempt to make changes, it will not work. Once the top leadership makes the commitment, the department managers and supervisors must be on board as well.  
So now you have the top leadership commitment and a way to survey employees for a baseline, what’s next? (PS: if you ask people to answer the survey questions, it must be anonymous or you will not get truthful answers.)
The next step is to read the surveys. Every agency will have different issues and things to tackle. If there are more than two concerns you need to tackle, pick only one or two to work on at a time. You can pick the hardest and start there for radical change or you can pick the easiest and make small changes. Remember you are going to be doing this from now on.  Approach this as a lifelong commitment. Once you make some changes, big or small, ask some key people if they are seeing any changes. If you are paying attention, you should see the changes yourself. Look for the smiles, co-workers talking to each other, sharing pictures, coming to you with ideas (you must listen), work getting done on time, customer compliments, fewer clients leaving your agency (it’s a pleasure to work with your staff), referrals from current clients, underwriters that want to work with your agency and staff, and on and on and on. The results will be impressive.  After a year, take another survey.  Find any old issues that weren’t taken care of yet or new issues, and address them the same way. 
If your agency is suffering from low morale right now, it may take a year or two to turn things around but all the more reason to get started now. If you feel your agency is in good shape already, do the survey and make sure. You don’t want to be kidding yourself; a head in the sand management style will not work well in the long term. Warning: do not ask your staff to take the survey and then do nothing! You have to be committed to follow through from now on. Do not hire a consultant or an outside firm to manage the process; this is not a task you can delegate. The initiative and accountability must come back to top management. 
As we all start the 2016 planning process now is a good time to add the commitment to increasing employee engagement to the list. With the sales goals, the carrier goals and number crunching going on in the next few weeks there is no greater initiative that you can do right now that will make all the other goals easier to accomplish.
In addition to the links elsewhere in this article, for more information or to research further:
111aaad.jpgDanielle McHeffey, CPCU, AAI-M
Vice President, Cook Maran & Associates
Danielle McHeffey started in the insurance industry in 2001 as a customer service representative at Maran Associates.  Through mergers and promotions, Danielle is now a Vice President in the Commercial Insurance Department at Cook Maran & Associates. Danielle’s strong commitment to a highly motivated workforce is well known through her ongoing efforts in advancing education to the CMA staff with programs offered for advanced designations and other educational opportunities. 
Danielle is keenly aware of the importance of recognition, appreciation and an employees’ commitment to their organization as a key factor in the success of that organization. For more information on Danielle, click here.
Copyright 2015 by Danielle McHeffey. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Last Updated: November 2015
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Alexandria VA 22314
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