What's your destination?
"Having no destination, I am never lost." --Ikkyu
"If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." --Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a/k/a Car Talk.
Ikkyu was a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who lived in the 1400's. Tom and Ray Magliozzi hosted Car Talk on Saturdays on National Public Radio for several decades. They were from the Boston area and were brilliant men who made me laugh every time I listened to their show.
The quotes listed above illustrate two apparently diametrically opposite philosophies. One suggests, as many have adopted since the pandemic, that not having a destination is a great way to live life. The other seems to suggest that without a destination, it is easy to go astray.
This is not the medium in which to wax philosophically about how the two points are not actually opposites, so let's stay on the simple, surface level, polar opposite perspective as it applies to running an insurance company or an insurance agency. I have worked with hundreds of insurance agencies and brokerages on three continents and in multiple countries. I have also worked with several dozen insurance companies. Quite a few of both live by Ikkyu's philosophy. They have no destination. Therefore, their owners/executives can definitively exclaim, "We're on the right path!" The destination of the path is missing because having a destination would create accountability. Consequently, no one can ever accuse them of being lost.
Not having a destination, meaning not stating a specific goal because a goal is a destination, offers management tremendous protection if they fail to achieve business success. It offers protection from the need to maintain an industry average growth rate or even a minimally acceptable profit margin.
For example, approximately 20%-30% of P&C insurance companies, even in good years, "achieve" negative growth. About 5% lose premium for three consecutive years in any given period. They shrink and they get smaller. Despite that fact, the executives are usually not fired. They did not fail to achieve their goal because they did not have a tangible, stated destination to reach. No accountability exists because there is no way to measure success or failure.
The Gallup Organization has great information on employee management, employee engagement, and so forth. What is their #1 point for improving employee engagement? Measure. One can measure someone’s height even though no controllable destination exists because height might be the epitome of predestination. However, in the business world, there is no point in measuring anything without a destination. Let me rephrase that last thought. In the business and government worlds, considerable value exists in the measurement of metrics without a set destination because those measurements provide camouflage for a company being busy but getting nowhere. Exclude those environments and a destination is required which then results in measures where accountability is unavoidable.
There are times when not knowing where you are going is different from not having a destination. One can purposely not know where they are going because they have no destination. On the other hand, one might not know where they are going by accident. Sometimes happy accidents happen in business. I like stories about products like sticky notes that were accidental successes. Nonetheless, counting on business success by being accidentally lucky is not usually a successful business plan.
I find there are many insurance companies that have no destination. They do not know where they are going and the road they have taken is dictated by their existing momentum which has the advantage of requiring the least leadership, the least emotional energy, and the least effort. The existing momentum also requires the least obvious risk. A leader choosing a new road becomes an obvious target if they do not achieve their destination. It is much safer to keep doing what has always been done. Insurance companies take a long time to waste away, more than enough time for the executives to safely retire first. One might interpret this scenario as the leader knowing and choosing the road, but it is a road for their own personal benefit more than the company's benefit.
Most agency owners have chosen a specific road. They do not have a destination, but they have a road. Choosing a road is a tactical decision whereas choosing a destination is more strategic and includes accountability.
Accountability is a key point because virtually all the "Strategic" seminars, coaches, consultants, and so forth who make a lot of money selling their strategic services never, and I mean never, insert accountability for the leaders into their programs. Without accountability, strategy is a moot point. Or to Tom and Ray's point, "Never let the facts stand in the way of a good answer."
Most agency owners choose the road that allows them to move forward by making one sale at a time and wherever that road takes them, it takes them. The road of one sale at a time has a destination, wherever it may be, and if one makes enough sales the agency will be just fine. It is quite similar to the road many insurance company executives choose and is a tactic that will likely work well and historically has worked well for agency owners.
Both scenarios beg the question, "Is your desired destination solely for you or is it for your company, its employees, and its customers?" This question is critical for insurance companies because more is at stake and ownership is not limited to a small group of people, or even a single person. The more stakeholders that exist, the more important the chosen destination will be and the more the resulting accountability will benefit the company. Ikkyu's quote is strictly personal and the personal should never trump a company’s needs. If it does, a fiduciary responsibility has been violated.
Most executives believe they are working to benefit their company, but without strict measures of accountability, including loss of pay and even dismissal, leadership does not exist. What is your company's/agency's destination? Do you categorically know the road the company/agency must take to reach that destination? What measures of accountability exist to evaluate whether you are leading your company/agency along the right road and at the right pace to achieve that destination on time? What is the exact price you will personally pay for failure? Is that price meaningful or is it, as is common in Fortune 500 companies, a situation in which the executive only makes $25 million rather than $30 million?
Again, most carriers and agencies/brokers do not really have tangible destinations and are therefore never lost. Any road they take will get them to where they are going. There are a few competitors that have a specific destination in their strategic plans and are clearly and publicly achieving their goals and slowly putting others out of business. If you are a true competitor, which option will you choose? We know what road the winners have chosen.
NOTE: The information provided herein is intended for educational and informational purposes only and it represents only the views of the authors. It is not a recommendation that a particular course of action be followed. Burand & Associates, LLC and Chris Burand assume, and will have, no responsibility for liability or damage which may result from the use of any of this information.
None of the materials in this article should be construed as offering legal advice, and the specific advice of legal counsel is recommended before acting on any matter discussed in this article. Regulated individuals/entities should also ensure that they comply with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.