Chemistry Crucial When Mentoring an Agent

By | June 14, 2010

As John Lennon and Paul McCartney could tell you, sometimes you just need a little help from your friends. And in the insurance agency business — where building relationships are key to success — that friend often is more than just a trusted colleague, the person is also a more experienced advisor or mentor.

Some companies have formalized mentorship programs, especially to develop their producers’ skills and book of sales. But Roy Little, president and CEO of the Insurance Educational Association, said mentorships don’t always need to be formalized educational programs. He has witnessed mentorships take many forms: the natural or unconscious relationship; the deliberate relationship; and the formal program. In all instances, however, the key to finding or serving as a good mentor is to have a natural rapport with the other person, he said.

A Natural Chemistry

In the unconscious relationship, Little said early in his career a senior person in the company at which he was working took an interest in him, and encouraged him to keep striving. “Instead of following the sort of obvious, step-by-step program to establishing myself, becoming part of the team, and waiting until the next promotional opportunity might come along, this particular person said, ‘Why don’t you take on this particular project?’ He basically got a chance to see whether I was going to be a clear thinker and good communicator, and I got the chance to sort of say, ‘OK, I wonder where this thought is going to take me.'”

As the mentee, Little said this mentorship provided a significant growth and startup experience without being tied to a performance review. Moreover, the mentorship was particularly successful because Little said it formed as the outgrowth of a natural relationship, in which he and the mentor had a natural chemistry and genuine interest in seeing each other succeed.

“If the [mentorship] really works, the mentor is also listening to himself talk and saying, ‘Hmm, I could improve this myself,” so it should work on both sides,” Little said.

Deliberately Seek Feedback

In the deliberate mentorship, Little said he personally sought advice from someone mid-career, so the relationship was a little more structured than a natural relationship. When the company he was working at merged with another firm, Little said he felt like the influx of new personnel meant it might take him longer to realize his career ambitions. As a result, he asked the advice of a senior person outside of his department to provide a clear assessment of his performance and how he was viewed by others.

“I chose this person … thinking about who knows me in this company at the level that I’d like to get to, but is just outside my line of sight. … It was a situation where I classically said, ‘Got a minute?'” Little said. But in that short visit, Little said he learned what others in the company thought of his performance from somebody who didn’t have to sign off on his performance. Additionally, he learned that oftentimes, climbing the corporate ladder is about politics as much as skill.

Forming a Formal Program

In the formal mentorship program, Little said his former company’s human resources department designed a program to spot and develop future managers. As the mentor in this relationship, HR paired Little with someone aiming for a similar career path. He and the mentee had regularly scheduled meetings — and sometimes specific agendas for their meetings.

Little said unfortunately this relationship was not as beneficial, in part because the mentee did not have clear expectations of what he would gain from the relationship, and also because the relationship between the mentor and mentee felt forced.

“I really don’t know if there was any discussion about whether the mentor and mentee might be an appropriate match,” Little said. “What I took out of that experience was the encouragement of mentorship is something that I would espouse loudly, but in order to work, the relationship has to be completely voluntary on both sides. … Unless there’s a naturalness or chemistry, and the sort of genuine interest in each other as people as opposed to players within an organization, it kind of becomes an imposed requirement, as opposed to something that would be of value to both.”

For more on developing a successful mentorship program for producers, visit:
Producer Development: Combined Agents of America Keeps It In-House, or, listen to a conversation with CAA members at

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