The missing ingredient in new hire training

By | April 3, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a continuing series of articles offering “best practices” suggestions for the hiring process, including training in the independent agency. More information is available at under Agency Management.

Although it’s often true the more things change, the more they stay the same, there are some valuable insurance industry practices that have unfortunately faded over time. The move toward specialization and technological advancement with an eye toward speed and efficiency has left little room in busy schedules for a chance to pickup the more subtle art of the business. The art would not need to be lost if managers, supervisors and mentors were to take just a little time to help their employees, particularly the new ones, by sharing a critical training practice that has sadly become the missing ingredient for too many — context.

One definition of context, “the interrelated conditions in which something exists,” hits what’s missing dead center. The brightest of employees can learn what to do, what to say, or what to send to whom to a high level of perfection, but without context, their execution lacks an understanding of the bigger picture. It is context that helps employees think through complex problems in the absence of their seniors.

Context equips employees to distinguish between laws, rules, contractual obligations, traditional practices and whims. Context tells employees who the impact players in their part of the industry are, and why they should be respected and observed. It gives employees reasons to grow to love this business, not merely practice it. Context energizes service efforts and encourages growth. It is vital for continuity and long-term success.

Context is not a concept with sharply defined edges. It is fuzzy at best, and perhaps therein lies part of the problem. Maybe we can narrow the focus; get more practical. Consider as a substitute then the stories told by those with some gray on their heads. I have been lucky to have had a few gray-haired mentors in my professional life. They told rich stories during lunches, over coffee, or on long drives to see clients.

They had stories to tell about policies and coverage, agency practices, carrier practices, and paperwork and procedures that has become long since obsolete. Their stories were about people and the decisions they made in the past. They were about companies — who was who, who bought who, who went under. The tales were about decisions they and others made, both the stupid and the smart. They were about personalities and motivations for doing certain things. They were about whom to trust and respect. Sure, those kind of stories can go on forever and waste valuable time, but they don’t have to. They are a valuable part of the learning process. They give context.

Think of all the things a new employee in this business is challenged to learn. There are complex contracts of every variety, many dozens of pages long. There are underwriting rules, manual rules and rules about binding. There are rating plans with credits for this and debits for that. There are cancellation rules and financing issues, and ways to split commissions. There are requirements for endorsements and certificates of insurance for vendors, contractors and lien holders. It’s endless, and we haven’t even mentioned learning automation systems and customer service procedures.

Yet, for each and every aspect of the business there is a rationale behind it, a history, a story that explains why it needs to or must be done. The stories make all that we do make sense, puts it in perspective, gives it context. Without them, my advice for anyone trying to learn it all would be, “Run.”

So, how can you emphasize context in your training?

First, recognize its value and make time for it in your training plan. Not huge chunks, but small bites. Work face-to-face when you can. It could be over lunch or during a drive. It could be at the end of the day when those last 15 minutes are often wasted anyway.

Second, let others into your training plan. Some of the best stories that provide context come from those in your organization who may not have regular contact with your new hires. Schedule short question and answer sessions with the bosses, with those who have a little gray. Chances are they will enjoy the exercise as much as the employee will benefit.

Third, encourage an atmosphere where questions are welcome. Coach employees to make a “curiosity journal” where they write down all things they’ve noticed but don’t understand to use in their next meeting with their mentor.

Fourth, instead of looking for a specific result, look for well-rounded growth in the employee. The more they learn with context, the more their confidence will grow.

Fifth, quiz them on why things are done, and let them guess. Challenge them to think.

And finally, don’t stop. Everyone needs it, even years later.

Maybe we should remember that our goal is not to train robots, but instead to help the untrained grow into responsible, respected and accomplished professionals who make good decisions that help their clients, their companies and themselves to succeed.

Paul Martin is director of education for the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas. E-mail:

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.

From This Issue

Insurance Journal West April 3, 2006
April 3, 2006
Insurance Journal West Magazine