Ryan J. Pinney was in Thailand serving with a team from the United States Marine Corps when he heard gunfire at close range. What happened next has inspired and influenced his life ever since, including his life as an insurance agent.
“We were there as advisors, to be observers and guides on a drug interdiction,” recalled Pinney. But suddenly “we were being shot at. The bullets made a visible red beam as they flew right past my head, and I felt rock fragments hitting me. Training took over, and I shot back.” Things went quickly after that, he said, and “no one on our side got hurt.” But he said those life-threatening moments changed his outlook and helped him find a purpose that sustains him even today in his roles as vice president of brokerage sales for Pinney Insurance Center Inc., Roseville, Calif., and Top of the Table (TOT) qualifier at Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT).
Pinney is one of several advisors who spoke with InsuranceNewsNet Magazine about inspiration. What got them going? What keeps them going? How does this impact their success in the business? Does inspiration even matter?
“This Is Not Fluff”
There are people in financial services who don’t think highly of talking about inspiration, acknowledges Joseph Jordan, a New York City behavioral finance expert well known to agents and advisors. “They talk statistics and about things that get done, and they do it without emotion. They say inspiration is fluff. But inspiration is not fluff.”
He said it is the direct opposite. “It’s what improves productivity, client retention and product persistency, and it strengthens customer relationships based on value, not price.”
Jordan travels the globe speaking to advisor groups and visiting offices about this subject. Nearly every place he visits focuses on commissions and assets under management, he said. “The managers don’t talk about the impact the work has on the clients. They never talk about the ‘why’ of the business. They talk only about how to make a sale or how much money they make.”
His message: “You have to do both.” If the leadership talks only about money, that’s how the reps will talk to other people, he said. “What’s needed is investment in inspiration. Focus on why they do what they do. The story needs to connect with something of value or it won’t communicate.”
Without that sense of purpose and inspiration, advisors are less effective with customers, he warned, and the managers don’t get the numbers they want.
Lisa Earle McLeod, founder of McLeod & More, a sales leadership consultancy near Atlanta, says it is common for companies to dangle money to motivate people to sell. “The problem is, that only gets short-term results,” she said.
Her firm’s research has found that an inner sense of purpose was common to all top performers, regardless of industry. Specifically, sales people in the top 10 percent of production are most motivated by making a difference for their customers, she said. “It’s the intangible things – the points of inspiration – that drive them.”
In her view, inspiration and a sense of purpose are linked. The inspired person benefits by having an improved life, said McLeod, who describes herself as the creator of the business concept of noble purpose. “That person wants everyone else to have an improved life, too, and that’s what I call a noble purpose.”
In insurance sales, the top performers tend to be “the producers who, upon learning of a prospect’s situation, respond with an ‘Oh, my gosh, if that family doesn’t have this insurance, they could be on the street some day,’” she said.
These are the producers who bring forward personal stories that pertain to the customer’s life and needs, she continued. “They go the extra mile, they are creative in problem-solving and they don’t quit. They have an inner reserve of intellect and energy that they draw upon to come up with ideas.”
The inspired top performers also stand out. In a study her firm did for a pharmaceutical company, for example, five sales reps quickly surfaced as likely top performers because of the reps’ strong sense of purpose and other-directedness. One of the reps appeared to be a sales rock star, she added. When the study was over, the company confirmed those findings. In fact, she said, “the rockstar was the company’s No. 1 sales rep for three years in a row.”
The analysis applies to companies, too. “For instance, a study by a former colleague found that companies with a sense of purpose outperformed the market by 400 percent,” she said. Meanwhile, companies that try to motivate by having “rah rah” sessions focused on sales goals “only get mediocrity, because no one gets inspiration for the long term from a number.”
Jordan has a story that shows the cost of a focus on money: “One insurance producer said he was making $2 million a year, but he was about to leave the business. He said he was doing it (sales) only for the money, but that it didn’t satisfy. He said he realized that if all his clients died, Philadelphia would get more money than the Super Bowl.”
What that producer needed, said Jordan, was balance. “He needed balance between emotion and the numbers.”
If inspiration and purpose are so important to individuals and companies, why do so many firms and advisors continue to go after numbers?
One reason is complacency. The insurance and financial services industry has become too analytical in its reliance on logic and numbers, said Jordan. This business model doesn’t accommodate emotion. That’s a problem, because emotion is what the behavioral/inspirational discussion is about – how people feel.
Jordan admitted that he was part of the money culture in his earlier years. “I focused on money,” he said. “But I was wrong.”
A series of events and a long period of introspection led him to see that the culture in financial services “is more inward, and the talk is about benefit to ‘it,’ not to the client.” He found that the business did not spend enough time “celebrating the impact it has on clients,” such as how it helps people maintain independence and dignity. As a result, agents and advisors often lack the inspiration that evolves from understanding their purpose, and they’re not passionate about their work or connecting with clients.
Out of his personal reawakening came Jordan’s own inspiration and drive. He said his purpose is to help others in the business connect with their emotions and to see the significant purpose of their profession.
Another impediment to getting the business to focus on inspiration and purpose is low self-esteem. A lot of reps fear rejection, Jordan said. To deal with that, the reps don’t make calls. But that doesn’t help sales, and in a numbers-oriented culture, things only get worse. “Agents and advisors need help dealing with this,” Jordan said. “They need help with focusing on the impact they have on other people and how they are doing something significant and worthy.”
A related issue is that executives at many companies don’t understand rejection, he said. So if they don’t understand it, they don’t deal with it.
Similarly, many leaders are uncomfortable with emotion, said McLeod “It’s easier to default to the numbers,” she said.
As for many reps, they “settle for the numbers and the salary because no one shows them the other,” she said.
For some firms, it’s a matter of time pressure. They may understand that inspiration helps increase productivity, but it takes words for companies to identify and communicate this, McLeod said. It also takes time to come up with what to say. The same can be said for reps; it takes time for them to uncover their own inspiration and purpose and to learn how to communicate that to clients.
”You need to plan to allow time for this,” she said. “You can’t do it on a spreadsheet.” That can be a problem at firms that believe the expenditure of time is too costly.
Realistically, though, “it doesn’t take huge amounts of time,” McLeod added. “And since you will make more money if you have something to care about other than the numbers, the time invested will pay off.”
In their meetings, firms should definitely measure the numbers, she said. “But they should also say, ‘Tell us a story of someone you sold and why this will make a difference. How will the lives of other people be improved?’”
How insurance professionals find their inspiration is as varied as human beings themselves. Some find it in the words of other people. Some find it when facing life-threatening events or illnesses. Some find it hard-wired into their psyches. But once found, it abides and sustains and helps support productive lives and businesses. It fuels success. Here are some examples.
Realized his mortality
Ryan Pinney, whom we met earlier, wasn’t always an inspired person. As he tells it, before the gunfire episode in the Marines, he wasn’t sure about what he wanted to be, where he wanted to go, or what he believed from a spiritual or personal perspective.
“How those bullets missed me, I have no clue,” Pinney said. “But with the exchange of gunfire, I realized my mortality. And with the deaths that occurred on the other side, I realized how fragile life is and how important your decisions are and the impact those have on people around you.”
This forced him to step back and define what he believes and what he cares about most, he said.
“That made life simpler. No longer did I make one-off decisions based on a situation. I started making decisions based on a belief system. I settled down, found a religious institution, got married and had a family. No matter what situation arises, I already know how I will react. I have a can-do attitude versus the attitude of people who let life beat them down because they don’t have a system that supports them. And I want to be an active participant, with my family, at church, at MDRT and in volunteer work. I don’t want to waste moments in life.”
The impact on Pinney’s business: “I decided to work with my father, mother and sister in the agency. That family connection and environment are very important. It’s a support network that I value. Also, when people make mistakes at work or bad things happen, I remember that you decide how to respond. I use my past experience to inspire me to understand and find a better solution, not to chastise. I know that when people are tested, they rise to the occasion or they are defeated by it. There is no middle ground. I choose to rise to the occasion. Finally, what I learned that day is not to be complacent. As the Marine Corp teaches, ‘complacency kills.’”
Independence, family and needs
There was no one event or person that inspired William A. Magnusson. Rather, said the associate at Berskhire Advisor Resource Inc., Greenwood Village, Colo., it was a combination of three themes. One is a “deepseated fear of running out of money” that he has had since he was a small child. The second is a strong drive to provide for his family in the present and the future. The third is the need he sees in other people for competent, professional help.
About his fear of running out of money, Magnusson said it was always there. For instance, he started saving for college in his piggy bank, at age 5. This goes with his self-described “independent streak” and his drive to be self-sufficient, not relying on anybody. “I’m a born planner, too. I want to be prepared for what is to come.”
Regarding providing for family, Magnusson said he has always held the conviction that “we all stand on shoulders of giants.” Knowing that drives him. “I’ve been fortunate,” he added. “My grandpa was a schoolteacher, engineer and professional. He was not rich, but he had enough. My father went a step higher, through hard work and sacrifice. And I’ve been able to build on that. Now, I want my children and grandchildren to have a strong fallback position. And I want to provide a legacy for future generations, too.”
That carries over to his concern for clients. He said he sees their needs for information and guidance, and this motivates him to be there for them.
The impact on Magnusson’s business: “I don’t try to influence people to adopt my views on money, independence or planning when they come to me for advice. Instead, I work with people who already find those ideas to be reasonable. When I help clients with family financials, I approach this in the context of the ongoing family. I believe that macroeconomic factors are such that life will be harder in the future than it is now and that the cost-of-living will be huge. It’s already hard for young people to get started on living independently. So, we plan around how the next generation and multiple generations to come will need wisdom, courage – and money. (In the case of my own family, I want to start a family bank, so each generation doesn’t start from scratch.) Finally, I focus on providing the competent, professional help that clients need. It’s not just about me and my family. It’s about providing service to others. It’s what I came to this planet to do.”
Stopped working for money
For James Durkin, the chance to work in a field where he would be responsible for his own compensation is what drew him into the business. “I wanted my compensation to reflect my work and effort,” recalled the financial planner with Lincoln Financial Advisors Corp., Vienna, Va. But he said he pretty much failed for the first 1.5 years, and although he did enjoy “a little bit of success” later on, something wasn’t right.
“I stopped caring whether people bought from me or not. I just gave my advice. I told them ‘This is what I think you should do,’ and then I’d let go.” It was when “the stench of commission breath left me” that Durkin said he began to make headway. “I wasn’t motivated by money anymore. The greatest payoff for me was when someone took my advice.” And people did take his advice, he said. He said this inspired him and kept him interested.
The impact on Durkin’s business: Durkin stayed in the business. He went on to qualify for MDRT in 1983. He attended seminars, such as one featuring the late Thomas J. Wolff, the famed creator of Capital and Financial Need Analysis, who urged agents to “fake it until you make it” and to radiate enthusiasm rather than pessimism. He became friends with a powerful networker at MDRT, started giving money to the MDRT Foundation and then got more involved, currently as Foundation secretary. He took it in stride when the beneficiary from his first death claim – for $100,000 – just said, “Gimme the check,” and slammed the door. And although a 2012 diagnosis of cancer, surgery and repeated hospitalizations “rocked my world,” he said, he looked forward to MDRT. In June 2014, he made the annual meeting in Toronto and found it to be particularly inspirational. “I was slowing down, but now I feel the need to work harder than before.” He said he needed “the inspiration, the motivation, the affirmation of the good that we do, and how insurance makes a difference in the lives of other people.”
His dying mother’s questions
For Bill Upson, a major inspirational turning point in his life started with two simple questions that his dying mother had asked in 1991.
The first was “What are you going to do about what that man said?” Upson had no recollection of the man or of what he said, so his mother prodded him. “What are you going to do to make the world better?”
Now president of Strategic Asset Management Group, Walnut Creek, Calif., and a TOT qualifier at MDRT for 18 years in a row, Upson said he did think about the questions for the next 100 days that his mother lived. However, nothing gelled until he received a $10,000 check from the estate six months after her death. At first, he considered using the money to help pay for the college educations of his children. But then he remembered his mother’s questions and also the man to whom she was referring.
Upson said he had encountered the man briefly at a ceremony in 1962 when Upson was awarded a $200 scholarship by his dad’s American Legion Post. “The man leaned over to me and said, ‘Go and do likewise’ and moved on,” said Upson. “I didn’t know what he meant, and eventually forgot about it.”
Three decades later, as Upson fingered the check in his hands, it all came together – the man, his words, his mother’s questions, and the money. He was being nudged to give back. And he did. He used the check to set up a scholarship fund for college-bound Eagle Scouts, a fund that has now given away over $100,000 and that is funded for the future with a life insurance policy written on Upson. Although he already was a proponent of charitable pursuits, this new initiative brought his $200 scholarship full circle.
The impact on Upson’s business: The Scouts’ scholarship program is not tied to Upson’s business, but it has brought him into touch with people whom he otherwise might never have met – including people who later became clients. For example, at a luncheon where Upson had given a talk about financial planning opportunities, a friend and business client of Upson’s was in the audience. The friend was the father of a young man who had received an Eagle scholarship two years before. As the event unfolded, the friend introduced Upson to another man in the audience who, as it turned out, shared Upson’s passion for charity. Two weeks later, Upson said, the new acquaintance and his wife were in Upson’s office, talking investments and charity. Today, Upson is chairman of the 2014-2015 Fund Development Committee for the MDRT Foundation. He attributes much of his personal and business success to the inspiration nurtured long ago by his mother and “that man” who urged him to “go and do likewise.”
An inspirational health scare
At age 29, Jason Smith thought he had it made. He had a new wife, a daughter, good health and a regular spot in a local basketball league. He made $500,000 a year in commissions, mostly from life insurance, annuities and long-term care, and he was moving into investment solutions, too. Then the cloud burst. He was diagnosed with an aneurysm and a leaky heart valve requiring open-heart surgery.
Now the CEO of The JL Smith Group Tax & Wealth Advisors of Avon, Ohio, Smith recalls that those medical events led him to a scary realization. If he were to die then, he said, “my income would die with me, and my wife and daughter would not be in the financial position I want them to be in.” Smith said he realized that he didn’t have a business or, if he did, the business was worth next to nothing. He said he had been a purely transactional salesman from whom no one would or could pick up if need be.
As dark as those thoughts sound, they ignited in Smith a strong desire to change. Upon recovery, he said he made it his mission to learn how to build his business so it would function successfully and profitably with or without him.
Impact on Smith’s business: Smith joined financial organizations; he picked the brains of leading advisors at industry events; and he collected ideas on management, marketing, fees and more. Then he forged a set of processes and systems for his practice that anyone can pick up any time, with or without him. Now the TOT qualifier for MDRT gives back to the industry by sharing some of his proprietary processes and systems with other financial professionals.
The brilliant scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, is credited with saying that people should “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”
That seems to be the mental and emotional place where inspiration has led the advisors cited in this article. Once inspired to serve and provide value to others, they say they have derived greater satisfaction and more success from their personal and professional lives.
That fits with Jordan’s view of what happens. Inspiration has two components, he said. One is a sense of purpose, and the other is commitment to that purpose. Financial advisors who believe their purpose is to live a significant life in the service of others know why they practice their profession, he said. “The why, in my judgment, needs to transcend your own personal needs.”
The more global this recognition of why is, the more it “leads to greater inspiration,” he said. And that “gives you the courage to practice the how of daily commitment.”