Brokerage Ops the September 2020 issue

Anything Is Possible

We thought we’d find young talent being sidelined during the pandemic. We were wrong.
By Fiona Soltes Posted on September 1, 2020

That also means that anything is possible.

Across the industry, the past six months have shown that adaptability—with a touch of optimism—can rule the day.

One recruiting survey of more than 750 students found that 19% lost job opportunities already in place before COVID-19.

At The Council, the highly competitive Broker Smackdown became a virtual event for 2020.

Months back, it appeared COVID-19 might simply be a brief intrusion to everyday life rather than a cultural cataclysm of the highest order. There was anxious talk of when things might return to “normal,” of what might happen to, say, a young, high-potential worker who would lose out on an opportunity. There was concern about internships being lost and career trajectories forever changed. There was fear, too, about companies holding back from innovation as they tightened their belts or losing productivity as their office spaces were shuttered.

Instead, another unexpected shift has unfolded. Tony Steadman, senior partner in EY’s financial services market segment, senses it: “Wait a minute: We’re doing all of this other stuff that people said we couldn’t do. So what about this thing, too? There’s no hindrance in having people try. The bar has been lowered a bit in terms of the fear of failing, because you recoup in a fairly short cycle. If something goes wrong in a virtual meeting today, you know that there will be another one tomorrow.”

No doubt, things are still challenging—and by the time this issue prints, even more unimaginable trials may have occurred. In this moment, however, for seasoned professionals, high performers, high-potential work employees and others in the insurance industry, adaptability—with at least a touch of optimism—is ruling the day.

Back-to-Back Zoom Everything?

Gilberto Ramirez, entering his final year at Appalachian State University this fall, had his heart set on a summer in Charlotte. Raised in the small town of Morganton, North Carolina, Ramirez is a first-generation college student with the dream of starting his career with a large independent agency, working toward being a producer. People didn’t expect he’d land an internship his freshman year, but he did. And another one every year since.

For the summer of 2020, Ramirez received an internship with ECM Solutions. Things started well, but the work turned virtual, with only occasional trips to the office, a couple of hours from his home.

“I thought it was going to be boring, a bunch of busywork, and back-to-back Zoom everything,” he admits. “But the employees have really made it engaging, almost like we were there. It’s completely different than I had imagined, and I’m doing meaningful work. I’ll be able to take these experiences and make a more informed decision about where I want to go.”

Ramirez, a double major in risk management and insurance and finance and banking, was able to work on a sales case study, following it through to presentation. Even though he has missed the opportunity to experience big-city life on-site, he says ECM Solutions has created a solid internship experience virtually.

“It’s a matter of keeping your head up high,” Ramirez says. “In this world, you’ve got to take negative events and spin them.”

Ramirez knows of classmates who have not been so fortunate, who saw last-minute cancellations of their internships and opportunities. “But I’ve realized that there are companies out there who really do want to invest in the young talent they’re bringing in and in creating programs on the fly, ones that still make interns feel like part of the company,” he says.

It’s true that not every brokerage firm or insurance office had the ability to pivot into an online experience for its interns. Neither has every company been able to hire as many young workers as it might have hoped.

Back in April, insurance, risk management and actuarial science academic fraternity Gamma Iota Sigma released its annual recruiting survey. Of the more than 750 students responding, 19% said they had lost opportunities already in place before COVID-19.

“From a percentage basis, that was actually a lot better than we were seeing in terms of pausing or freezing experienced hires within the industry, those positions at the non-entry level,” says Noelle Codispoti, Gamma Iota Sigma CEO.

The organization quickly scheduled a series of monthly roundtables to touch base with recruiters. It also pulled together virtual internship guides for both employers and employees. There were so many unknowns, Codispoti says. How might students navigate a virtual position if they’ve never had any kind of job before? Would they show up in pajamas and baseball caps? “It’s fine for us now, all working from home,” she says, “but at the time, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Can you imagine?’”

I think this has humanized the process. It reminds us that we’re all going through similar things.
Josh Paskewicz, talent acquisition manager, Hylant

Codispoti noticed a couple of things from the start: the students tended to be understanding toward companies, even if they lost opportunities. And the number of internships lost in insurance didn’t tend to be as high as in some other industries, helping the students feel more valued overall.

She also saw the industry rally around her organization. A number of partner commitments, including one with The Council, have been renewed in the midst of COVID-19. The organization even picked up a couple of new sustaining partners. “They’ve realized that engaging with students, whether they’re hiring or not, is going to be important to the longevity of their brand and future hiring,” she says. “Across the board, I believe this has provided us, as an industry that’s typically slow in the uptick of what’s new and innovative and engaging with the younger generations, a way to quickly understand that this different way of working, the different way to approach products and customers, was going to be an important part of our business…. This generation coming in, we’ve touted them as the most educated, the most tech savvy. Their skills are really the ones we’ve needed to get through all of this. They’re used to participating in virtual whatever. It’s not new to them.”

A Virtual Smackdown

At The Council, meanwhile, the highly competitive Broker Smackdown—a two-and-a-half-day workshop that helps emerging leaders improve their decision-making skills and leadership competencies—has become a virtual event for 2020. An added twist? It reflects the current market, challenging teams of participants to run their simulated brokerage in the midst of a crisis. Lemonade out of lemons, indeed.

That’s not all. Elizabeth McDaid, The Council’s senior vice president of leadership and management resources, says the organization also has been able to quickly adapt its nascent insurance school for new industry professionals. The yearlong program is aimed at helping them significantly decrease their learning curve and accelerate their success.

“When the lockdown occurred, we put a stop on the whole project,” McDaid says. “Our fear was that, even after the crisis had passed, this no longer would be perceived a priority. We thought bringing in new talent might get sidelined. But after a couple of months, we started hearing from our members. Many of them were more excited about the school than ever. They all have intentions of hiring and bringing new talent on board, and our curriculum could really help them get up and running. It would allow them to hire folks from other industries, too.”

The hope is that the program will be launched by year’s end. It will be robust and structured, complete with mentoring components and an emphasis on how insurance fits into the whole ecosystem. And for at least the first year, it will be entirely virtual.

“The original plan had been both virtual and live, but we’re excited about this,” McDaid says. “We think it will allow folks to think about using it not only as a development tool for the business side of the house and the sales team but also for other client-focused folks. This is our new world, and virtual is here to stay. We will all see how productive and how cost-effective working in the virtual world can be.”

Responsibilities Expand, Culture Continues

Back in June, Marina Davis, director of the organization and talent development group at CBIZ, had conversations with an administrative assistant, a high-level senior leader and a supervisor at her company about how all that remote work was working out. “They were all very positive about it,” Davis recalls. “I asked if they felt they were able to continue to grow, to stay in touch with their teammates, to be productive. The senior leader actually said, in speaking with their team, that they had never felt so close. Technology had forced them to build these relationships. Since we’re a nationwide company, people might have only seen each other once every other year at a meeting. But with the ever-changing landscape, they’ve been needing to stay in touch even more.”

All good in the short term, sure. “But we’re also having conversations about the long term,” Davis says. “What are some of the intangibles we’re missing out on? It’s really too early for us to have a handle on it, and from what I’ve been reading, other companies are feeling the same way.” It’s one thing, after all, to choose a remote position. It’s another to be forced into it.

For high performers in particular, there’s another challenge: they’re not in a space conducive to “stopping by,” for taking part in informal conversations with leadership, or for potentially being drawn into projects or other efforts. “These are the things we’re trying to wrap our heads around, so we can have the best of both worlds,” she says. “We have to make sure high performers still have opportunities. They’re our future. We need them to know that we’re investing in them. We don’t want anyone falling through the cracks.”

Opportunities, then, may come in different ways. Some have been able to lead webinars, for example. Some have seen other responsibilities expand. Erik Hage, a CBIZ account executive, was managing one person in January; he now oversees five, in addition to sharing a home office with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 6.

“The surprise has been how quickly everyone has adapted,” says Hage. “We’re accustomed to having the majority of our clients on-site…. My generation and younger, we’re very adept at picking up technology quickly. But CBIZ specifically has put a big investment into ensuring we have the technology needed to do our jobs well and interface with our clients.”

I thought it was going to be boring, a bunch of busywork, and back-to-back Zoom everything. But the employees have really made it engaging, almost like we were there. It’s completely different than I had imagined, and I’m doing meaningful work.
Gilberto Ramirez, summer intern, ECM Solutions

Working virtually, he says, has pushed him to see “vast improvements” in time management and communications with his team. He envisions that the brief but regular macro conversations about goals, challenges and experiences of late will continue even after people return to working in the office. He’s felt more of an opportunity to be creative in his job, to be willing to share a bit more of his personal life—and to focus on what’s most important to clients. The idea of doing things the way they’ve always been done simply no longer applies.

Matthew Lee, at 29 years old a vice president of employee benefits and national director of sales for PEO consulting at CBIZ, says before COVID-19 he was typically in the office one a day a week, traveling the rest of the time for face-to-face meetings. These days Lee still goes into the office once a week, but the rest of his time is spent learning to make the most of social selling through platforms such as LinkedIn and email.

“I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I can get out and about and meet people in person,” says Lee. “This is just a different way.” He’s found that people have been every bit as accessible—if not more so. “People still seem ready to engage.” Video chat has worked so well for him, in fact, that he believes he will still be doing it long term.

Davis says CBIZ has long had a culture that is positive and strong, and foundations in place before the pandemic have continued to serve the company well. That includes a focus on leadership development, building relationships, providing a service, and building community. In recent years, CBIZ has made a concerted effort toward coaching and providing feedback, too, so lines of communication were already open prior to the virus-induced challenges. The company quickly pulled together a three-part webinar on leading and working remotely, and it has been well received.

“All I can say is, without this all happening, a number of people would ask, ‘Why fix something if it isn’t broke?’ Well, we’ve all been forced to work in different ways,” Davis says. “And we have been happy to discover some of the ways are actually better.”

Short Term vs. Long Term

AssuredPartners, with its decentralized model, typically has two or three interns in about 30 offices nationwide. Interns are expected to be in their local offices every weekday, but the internship program includes a virtual element, especially as a way of helping the spread-out interns feel like a cohort. Typically it also has a large in-person gathering for networking, learning and project sharing.

By May, however, universities began pushing for virtual-only internships. Mallory Deeter, program director for college engagement at AssuredPartners, found herself committed to working with company leadership to put together an extensive virtual program that would be engaging for supervisors and interns. “As leaders we were faced with a lot of hard decisions,” she says. Deeter held the line that summer internships should remain a priority.

“We’ve just seen so many individuals getting closer to that retirement age,” she says. “We’ve always had this desire to invest in the next generation of talent. Building out our bench is super important.”

Pausing the initiative might have seemed like an easy choice for the short term, she says. “But what is the long-term effect on the company? And what effect will it have on future students who might be interested in your company? So many of these students are clamoring for any kind of experience. There’s a huge opportunity here to make it work.”

Hylant, too, has made it work, taking advantage of the opportunity to grow from the experience. Josh Paskewicz, Hylant’s talent acquisition manager, says the company’s internship program gained additional focus and momentum last year. The company has 15 offices throughout the Midwest and Florida, and in 2019 it had nearly a dozen summer interns. More than half worked from company headquarters in Toledo. They could take part in group activities, interact with senior leadership and receive additional training from The Council. Their experience also included opportunities in the local market.

This year’s cohort was projected to include as many as 20 students. But when COVID-19 gained steam in March, the company switched to an entirely remote workforce within 48 hours. “We knew we had to figure out what we were doing,” Paskewicz says. “That was right in the heart of recruitment season. Late for some companies…. We thought, just maybe, we won’t have any interns this year. Lo and behold, we ended up with 10.”

It was important to do, he says, and important for the experience to still be robust. There has still been exposure to leadership, as well as networking opportunities and unique chances to experience Toledo, he says. There also have been additional professional trainings, such as résumé writing. It falls in line with an overall effort to identify and nurture early-career talent.

“This isn’t just a program that we’re providing for the individual,” he says. “It’s also an opportunity for us to build a future pipeline of candidates. And that may not come just from the interns. It may come from the experience the interns have…. If an intern has a great, positive experience with Hylant, even if it’s five, six, seven, eight, nine or 10 years down the road that they come back. Or if they may make a referral: ‘Hey, you should check out Hylant.’ There are so many different parts to that puzzle that can be positive.”

Overall, Paskewicz says, the virtual environment has given employees of all experience levels the opportunity to highlight what they can do and how well they can pivot. He says it has also offered more of a comfort level with things that might have been considered taboo before—the family cat walking in front of a computer screen during a Zoom call, perhaps, or Peppa Pig appearing on the TV screen in the background. Or even, in his own case, a cockatiel letting out an occasional chirp.

“I think this has humanized the process,” he says. “It reminds us that we’re all going through similar things.”

Maintaining Balance

EY’s Steadman admits he was impressed by how fast and how easily people migrated to being fully virtual—not just in his own workforce but also in the roughly 40 insurance companies and 100 or so executives EY has spoken to at roundtables and other conversations.

It’s not to say the process has been error-free, Steadman says, or that there haven’t been challenges. “But people have overestimated how important it was to have people co-located in a single space. They put a lot of weight on that but have found it was something they could do without.”

In some cases, Steadman says, teams may be even more connected than they were before. There are more touch points in tech teams and across functional areas. “They’ve been able to break down a lot of silos,” he says. “You had team members that were isolated before, because they were working virtually, but no one else was. We’ve also found that leadership teams have been connecting more often, having daily or weekly meetings with the CEO.”

And that, he says, has impacted the speed of decision making, allowing for better-quality decisions to be made much faster—in weeks, perhaps, instead of months. It’s related to another silver lining, he notes: those in compliance, legal and risk departments who might previously have been viewed as simply slowing things down with rules and requirements are now being sought out for solutions instead.

Steadman is quick to note, however, that even silver linings can tarnish without ongoing care and attention. Marginalization can still occur. Old habits can creep back in. And this virtual environment, as productive and efficient as it may be, is raising questions about if, when and how people turn off. That can be especially the case if workers are doing their best to navigate around still-challenging schedules, shared home offices and children’s schoolwork.

“People are working from sunup to sundown,” he says, “and that’s just not sustainable.”

For today, however, it is what it is. The landscape is being viewed with fresh eyes. As Bruce Denson Jr., president of Cobbs Allen and CAC Specialty, puts it, standout performers will still be standout performers, regardless of the challenges at hand.

Same, apparently, with standout interns, those who have been willing to jump on an adventurous ride with a still-uncertain destination.

Just ask Tamiya Vilma, who will graduate from the University of Georgia in December with a degree in risk management and insurance and a certificate in legal studies. She took part in a virtual program with Marsh & McClennan Companies this summer as well as personal development through an AT&T Summer Learning Academy Externship.

Though her year hasn’t looked at all like she had expected, she’s learning the importance of adaptability.

“This time of uncertainty was very scary for me,” she admits. “But I’ve been able to find out different ways to cope, different ways to promote my overall wellness and make sure I’m not getting too down, and that I’m maintaining balance in my life.”

And like workers of all ages, she says, she doesn’t have it all planned out.

“But these companies, these insurance industry professionals, as a whole, they’re all in the same boat as me. They’re all just trying to figure it out. They can’t tell me exactly what recruiting looks like, but they’ll let me know as soon as they have a plan. It isn’t the end of the world. Things are going to be OK.”

Fiona Soltes Contributing Writer Read More

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