Building a Diverse Agency Culture

William Stevens

By William Stevens | April 26, 2017

Penn Mutual was recently one of six financial services firms that participated in a groundbreaking, industry-wide survey of agency culture. I and others have written before on how important diversity — of age, gender, ethnic background, and thought — is to the future of Penn Mutual. The research conducted by FlexPaths presented a unique opportunity for us to explore what was happening at the agency level. By and large, the research confirmed that Penn Mutual is making significant progress, but it also identified some “blind spots” that needed to be addressed.

Over several months in 2016, FlexPaths engaged with nearly 300 agency leaders and close to 1,400 advisers across the industry. FlexPaths also conducted a series of interviews with tenured and newer male and female agency leaders, offering a broad spectrum of viewpoints. The objective was to gather data and points of view on the agency environment and, ultimately, get an understanding from those working in the field on their experiences with the workplace culture.

Penn Mutual made a commitment to be 30 percent diverse in regards to gender, age and ethnicity by 2020, and we’ve very quickly moved the needle in a number of areas. We greatly improved on our diversity of age within our adviser population, now having a greater spectrum of advisers of all ages. Many of our firms have much greater ethnic diversity now as well. However, we continue to struggle in attracting and retaining more female advisers. In fact, in recent years the percentage of female advisers has only improved by a few percentage points. This leaves us far from where we need to be considering the population is more than 50 percent female. Add to the fact that Penn Mutual is a company that embraces the value of having women in their workforce and has a board of directors and senior leadership that is comprised of more than 40 percent women, we know that we need to find ways to improve in this area. So we saw the FlexPaths study as a great opportunity to gain insight on how to become more effective in this area.

The Importance of an Inclusive Culture

Creating an inclusive work environment involves how you communicate, how you onboard employees, how you give them ongoing support, and how flexible you are in your work environment. It literally is the “little things” that make a difference. The next generation of advisers, and in particular female advisers, embrace flexibility in their work schedule. Many, that either have families or other obligations outside of work, tell us that they like the idea of having flexibility in their work schedule. A few years ago, an agency might hold a mandatory training meeting from 7 to 8:30 in the morning every Monday and Friday, with no thought as to the impact this would have on people who have to get kids to school.

At the same time, the FlexPaths research showed that agency leaders felt that creating an inclusive environment was less of a challenge than the day-to-day necessities of building up a book of business. My personal perspective is that such leaders have this backward. This is a relationship business, and, as a company, our experience with women advisers is that one of their strengths is building trusted relationships with clients and prospects when they feel included, something that becomes a challenge when the environment doesn’t support that. The failure to build up a book of business may therefore be a result of not having an inclusive environment, not the other way around.

In other instances some people weren’t feeling comfortable in the organization; they weren’t feeling they were given an opportunity to succeed. For example, the study uncovered that many women felt their onboarding into the organization wasn’t standardized, even to the point of being completely different than what their male counterparts were experiencing. Very few new advisers were teamed up with a mentor, something that is unfortunately true for both men and women, but 22 percent of men were teamed with a mentor while even less of the women were. Most of the men also had a meet-and-greet with their agency leader, while less than half of the women felt like that was part of their onboarding process.

I haven’t had a chance to drill into whether these were actual or perceived differences in onboarding, but, in every important way, that doesn’t really matter. Twice the number of men as women felt the organization was really focused on them and their success, and that is a problem. Little things like that can go a long way in making a work culture feel more inclusive. If we can personalize the onboarding process to be more effective for our next generation of advisers, and in particular female advisers, that’s something we need to embrace.

As with our onboarding process, our exit interviews also need attention. The study highlighted that very few of our agencies were conducting exit interviews. This is a lost opportunity, as an exit interview is a chance to understand why a person is leaving the organization and a first step in addressing a retention problem. No matter how good you are, people are going to come and go. If a person left for the right reasons, that’s actually a good thing and something to be encouraged. However, if someone is leaving for what might be considered the wrong reasons or because there was a breakdown in the culture, it’s important to find that out. This is something that is very fixable, and it’s an excellent example of how valuable this survey is to us.

Next Steps

Our next steps are to continue to share some of these findings with our field leaders and engage in a conversation with them on ways they believe that they can improve in some of these areas. Those field leaders I have spoken with are eager to understand the issues and embrace the changes needed to improve. The survey can help us spot areas that need attention, and it’s our job to share those lessons learned with our field leaders so that they can make meaningful change at the agency level.

Another important part of the puzzle is teaming. Our agencies’ use of teaming has grown tremendously, and it has become an area where we are setting the pace for the industry. One of the major reasons why teaming is such a focal point for us is that it helps new advisers get started faster and stay with us longer. Our retention rate, both on experienced and inexperienced advisers on teams, is double that of those that are not. Teaming is also something that resonates with both women and millennials. It not only attracts them, it allows them to thrive within Penn Mutual.

We’re also looking to empower the nearly 20 percent of our agency advisers that are women to help create a more inclusive culture. Last fall I attended a woman’s leadership summit in one of our agencies and it was a great success. Penn Mutual is also extremely involved in Women in Insurance and Financial Services (WIFS), and we look to leverage the mentorship program WIFS already has in place. Expanding the use of programs like these and others will create an environment of inclusion and growth throughout our entire career system.

The world is growing more diverse, our adviser network needs to reflect that diversity, and creating an inclusive agency culture will provide an environment that supports the success of both our current and next generation advisers.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply