The Attachment Point: Slackchat #3

Tony Canas: Ok, welcome everybody to our third weekly Slackchat. This week the topic is “How could the insurance industry improve training of new insurance pros?”


Carly Burnham: Hi all! Thanks for setting this up, Tony!


Tony Canas: I joined the industry in 2009, during the recession, and speaking to people who started in the early 2000s it seems that back in their day, companies REALLY trained, and that had largely died by the time I came around… I’m wondering what your experience with training was in your first couple of insurance roles


Carly Burnham: I was lucky enough to get my start in a small agency in my hometown of Duluth, MN that was run by a woman who truly cared about what her customers. She thought it was extremely important to understand coverages and frontline underwrite. She was passionate about giving me the education I needed to do well.


I moved to a carrier to take a direct sales role after 6 years at that agency. I expected training to be similar, and while I thought it was good for how much we needed to know to get on the phones, the carrier was hamstrung by challenging systems and the need to turn us into contributors vs expenses very quickly because of high turnover in the call center environment.


Steven Griswold: I joined the family agency right out of college. I shadowed my dad for a long time – mostly being introduced to clients. My formal training was by MetLife as part of their registered rep program. This induced a lifelong distrust of captive life insurance agents, because so much emphasis was put on the sale, growth/production, and ways to manipulate the client’s need to fit exactly what the company offered. Pushing variable/indexed life was a big priority, which I never jibed with, because it was largely against my principles of selling to the need and doing what’s ultimately right for the client. When I expanded into P&C, I figured out the only person who could teach me how to do things the right way was myself. So I hit the books and have been constantly learning new things on the P&C side ever since.


My approach to training my staff and producers is targeted. There’s simply too much information to provide to put into a regimented training plan. I like to train using real-world examples – case studies and current client profiles – to put the coverage in perspective.  I ensure that the basics underlying principles are well understood before moving on to more complex ideas.


The key is to really understand WHO you’re trying to teach. Every person has their own way of absorbing and retaining information. By understanding the individual needs and mental mechanics of each of my staff I’m able to tailor my presentation to understand to the fullest.  I also have my way of weeding out who just can’t get to the level of critical thinking required of a good account manager and send them on their way.


Tony Canas: Fantastic points, Steven Griswold!


My experience was that my first carrier did an amazing job in training me. I was only a FNOL (first notice of loss) call center rep, and they did an amazing job in orientation, helped me fall in love with the industry. Then I went to a bigger carrier (same as Carly) and there training was really bad, basically just how to use their crappy system. Now, we had access to lots of other training, but only those of us who were salaried or had great managers, Carly wasn’t so lucky… So while lots of training was going on next door, she had no access to it.


Brett Eater: I started in the business in 1998 with a carrier (Selective) that had a full blown one year school for college grads.  My dad was an agency owner and he suggested I go that route. There were 30+ of us that started (we were from all areas of the company) and had a three week generic orientation, and then back to the branch for a few weeks for some OTJ.  Then back to home office for 8 weeks, I took the underwriting track and it was incredible. It was basically RE-learning certain things, but it exposed us to all areas of the company. The attrition rate after a few years was poor for our class.


I have moved on since those early days and most of my training since then has really been self directed.  Once I moved onto the management side, I strived to provide the underwriters (and me) with training options, but I would say most smaller carriers do a poor job on the Training and Development side.


In my new role with Cameron, I am developing an onboarding and training process for new hires.  It’s an uphill battle with 125 years of ingrained culture, but exciting too. Too many companies default to the Institute tests and other training, but fail miserably when it comes to practical application…book smart…


Tony Canas: That sounds amazing! And that’s exactly the kind of investment that had pretty much disappeared by 2009


Brett Eater: Steven Griswold has a good point too.  Training is too generic and failure to recognize individual needs is a problem.  People here were taking tests just to take them with no discussions with managers about their ultimate goal.  Custom tailored plans and goals are key!


It was amazing, Tony.  And being on an expense account as an extension of college, while getting paid, was a hell of a lot of fun too.  


Tony Canas: I missed out! Although I had a similar experience for a few months when I went through an elite leadership training program, but that was kind of mid career


So how could we individualize the training while still training everyone? Would it be cost effective? Or should we only train those in line to grow, so to speak?  


Brett Eater: Individualized goals/planning is a good start.  Does everyone, at every level, understand the yearly goals for the company on down.  From there, do employees have a clear understanding of how they fit into those goals and their plan for continuing education?


And frankly, we have to see beyond a requirement to take a course and learn…I have fallen into that trap!  


Shana Hahn: I started out in a policy processing role with my first carrier; my training was with an actual dedicated trainer who sat with me in the mornings to go through a “training” manual, then in the afternoons I would do hands-on work alone and she would check it.  She retired about 3 weeks after I started and the company did not re-hire a trainer. I was left to read and understand the training manual on my own and ask my team lead if I had questions. The first 3 weeks were great with the trainer and “formal” program, but had to learn to become a self-started and self-learner after that.  When I started with my current carrier, my training consisted of receiving yet another large training manual and my manager sitting with my watching me enter coverages. It was very much process driven, and when I asked why we did something a certain way, I was told “because we’ve always done it that way”. It was not conducive to growth opportunity, so I had to seek that out within my team.  Once I finally moved into an underwriter position, there was a training template I was given and a list of co-workers who would be sitting with me for an hour at a time to train me on each line of business. It was not a good training program and for those that are not “go-getters”, it was very difficult to get the proper training. I was fortunate enough to seek out a mentor who proved to be invaluable in the beginning of my underwriting career.  The “training” she provided was hands on, informative, she would ask questions to get me started with an underwriting thought process, etc. I had to make my own training plan and seek out mentors and coaches to get the training I needed.


Tony Canas: Were you verbatim told “we’ve always done it that way” or are you paraphrasing?


Shana Hahn: That was verbatim.


Tony Canas: hahahaha


Shana Hahn: Right?  That’s my favorite line…


Tony Canas: I’ve had some GREAT training, but it’s always been in a small program not accessible to most new hires in the industry, or when I’ve gone out of my way to sign up for it, but again, only accessible because I was in a high enough role within the company to be able to take the time to do it, or to be able to get the company to pay for me to travel to where the training was…


Carly Burnham: As an industry, we should view education and development as an investment instead of just as a cost. Employees should be allotted a certain amount of time per week to develop knowledge and grow their skills. We are all knowledge workers in this industry, and the lack of slack in production roles means that we are stagnant and cannot keep up with the changing world around us. We ought to build this time and financial investment for each employee in to our annual planning.


Tony Canas: All employees? What about call center employees? And entry level claims? Surely, we just need those people nose to the grindstone, we can’t afford to have them taking time to “develop”!


Shana Hahn: Exactly — those employees are expected to develop on their own personal time, off the clock.


Tony Canas: But how would they? They didn’t grow up wanting to work in insurance or come from insurance families… How would they even know how to develop? And why would they? Why would they invest in trying to grow themselves if we haven’t yet gotten them to buy in to insurance as a great career!


Carly Burnham: I think you are always going to need those who want to develop purely technical skills for whatever role they are in within the company. It’s not invaluable to give them the tools they need to do that job well, be it service, processing, or receptionist in an agency. Even if someone doesn’t want to grow in to different roles, we are still all knowledge workers, and companies and agencies should support their employees in the manner that fits their plan.


A couple great books that I’ve shared before: The Alliance and Delivering Happiness. Both LinkedIn and Zappos have strategies to do this for their employees. SAS is another company we studied in my MBA program that did this very well.


Tony Canas: Why do you guys think this isn’t happening in insurance right now? (for the most part) Or am I way off and carriers are really good at training and I’ve just had bad luck, and chatted with a lot of people who have had bad luck?


Carly Burnham: I think there’s a combination of reasons: expenses have been under scrutiny for ages in our industry, most people who are in the industry learned while on the job and through experience and may not value formal training or new methods of educating, and the move to more specialized roles makes it challenging to learn on the job like those who’ve been in the industry for ages have done.


Brett Eater: One issue…other than the first carrier I worked for there has not been an individual/department responsible for training and dev.  It falls to HR and individual managers. Both of those roles have other responsibilities to “keep the lights on.”


The expense thing is a big issue too…there is a catch 22 in that we want people trained but we don’t want to spend the money.  Oddly, here they have spent thousands on courses and designations…to the point that people are taking designations that don’t even pertain to their job…lol.  I keep going back to individualized training plans….


Side note-How about training beyond carrier specific?  Seminars, etc. attendance seems to be up at conferences…or maybe that is just all the vendors, lol


I am rambling…

Tony Canas: But does the designations pertain to the job they want in the future, or are the truly taking designations for sport (and bonus money)?  


I do agree that a huge issue is leaving training up to managers whose main concern is stuff getting done today, not your long-term growth.


Carly Burnham: There is also the perception, which is now generally accepted as untrue (I’ll share a link to support this later), of Millennials as job hoppers, so why would management invest in training them?  


Tony Canas: It might be untrue in the overall economy, but it appears to me that it’s true in our industry


Carly Burnham: I think it is likely something that is more prevalent on our industry, and also more of a challenge because there is so much institutional knowledge needed to be successful in an insurance company. It is also more of a handicap to jump between companies in our industry because so much of what we do is relationship driven.


Tony Canas: How can we get all this institutional and just technical knowledge successfully transferred to the next generation? It appears to me nobody is doing a good job at that


Brett Eater: The designations I referenced are people that had no interest in changing positions but former managers allowed folks to take exams for the bonuses.  For example, a personal lines underwriter taking a farm designation. There were no goals set for individuals. People just took exams for the sake of taking them.  I didn’t do a good job of explaining that.


Tony Canas: I do agree that bonus money offered for education is a double edged sword, it can lead people to take useless tests as a side business. (Says the guy with 10 designations including at least 2-3 which I’ve never used)

Brett Eater: I am still trying to figure out the job hopping thing.  I technically am one lol. I do remember when I was interviewing here, I heard of some concern expressed when looking at my resume.  Wow, he switched jobs every couple years… once it was pointed out that it was with the same company things smoothed over. The baby boomers definitely have that perception of GenX and millennials…


Tony Canas: Job hopping is all about the incentives. It’s not that Millennials are more likely to job hop, it’s that the incentives they are facing are different from what the Boomers faced. I wrote a pretty deep dive into that a couple of weeks ago.


Brett Eater: There is a certain book I need to finish ? And thanks for the article, will definitely need to read it!


Shana Hahn: What’s funny is we have a formal training program here, yet I’ve never been trained by any of them.  They have designated an entire department for learning, yet they are not involved in any on-the-job training processes.  I agree with what’s been said above regarding expense concern — it is expensive to train people, but isn’t it more expensive in the long run to NOT properly train your employees?  I also agree with the designation discussion; for some, it’s all about getting another bonus, or checking a box on a requirement for a performance review. I’ve always had to set my own path with little guidance in terms of training, education and designations — it would have been so much easier to have been paired up with a training consultant from the training team — sort of like an academic adviser from college — to help chart out my path based on my current position and where I want to go.


Tony Canas: I LOVE the idea of an academic adviser type, a training adviser to help you chart out a path!


I wonder if anyone in the industry does that. Did you just come up with that or did you see it somewhere?


Shana Hahn: I’ve never heard of it or seen it anywhere yet.  


Carly Burnham: We had one for the first few years that I was at Erie Insurance. But, he retired, and the position has, to my knowledge, remained vacant. But I found my discussions with him very helpful! And, someone in a position like that would have a broader view and would be neutral as to trying to keep you in your current role or helping you develop whereas a manager may have incentive to keep you (or get you out, depending).


Brett Eater: The first company I worked for assigned everyone a mentor that had access to your training plan and could help with guiding you.  Not so much responsible for your training plan, but someone to bounce ideas off.


Tony Canas: That’d be a good start. In most roles I had all I had was a computer system and mandatory assigned online classes…


Thank you everybody for participating. With this we’re closing this slackchat!



About Carly Burnham

Carly Burnham began her insurance career in 2004 as an office assistant at an agency in her hometown of Duluth, MN. She got licensed as a producer while working at that agency and progressed to serve as an office manager. Working in the agency is how she fell in love with the industry. She saw firsthand the good that insurance consumers experienced by having the proper protection. When Carly moved to Des Moines in 2010, she decided to commit to the industry, and she completed her CPCU in one year finishing it in 2012 and attending commencement in New Orleans. She completed her MBA at Iowa State University in 2014. During this time, she and Tony founded a Gen Y Associate Resource Group at Nationwide in Des Moines. After they had both left Nationwide, Tony recruited Carly to co-author and manage She has the difficult task of keeping his constant flow of crazy ideas focused and helping to flesh them out into useful articles. Carly enjoys sharing knowledge and ideas about the future of the industry and finds the website a good outlet for this passion. Carly is involved in the the CPCU Society Underwriting Interest Group. She also writes "Next Wave" a monthly column in the "Perspectives" section of Best's Review.

3 thoughts on “The Attachment Point: Slackchat #3”

  1. Tony Canas: I joined the industry in 2009, during the recession, and speaking to people who started in the early 2000s it seems that back in their day, companies REALLY trained, and that had largely died by the time I came around… I’m wondering what your experience with training was in your first couple of insurance roles

    Tony, you should have seen what training was like in the 70s and 80s when most carriers understood that education was an investment. New underwriters had extensive coverage and underwriting training and mentoring. It was not uncommon for someone to be in that position for a year before they were weened.

    Agents could go to first rate company schools for weeks at a time. Agent licensing and CE education today is often a shell of what it used to be. There are states where you can take a licensing exam without any formal training, yet to be a hair stylist or manicurist, you might have to take several hundred hours of prelicensing study and supervised training.

    It’s much easier to qualify to do Elon Musk’s hair and nails than quote the insurance for Space X.

  2. My training was at a direct writer as a commercial underwriter. What I learned may not have been as important as how they taught me to teach myself. We had continuing education starting with a year with a mentor and weekly classes in addition to weeks of training in a home office setting. Ultimately the most important thing I took away was – when you do not know something LOOK up the regulation. READ the policy. Do not rely on other people’s opinions, find out their resources before you accept the answer, and ultimately you develop an approach to getting the right way. When I joined a different company where underwriters had come from other carriers. I found that many had far less training than I had received and sometimes struggled in the approach. BUT they learned over time through experience. Organized planed training would have given them a better start and a good foundation from which to build. Formalized training can be expensive and take a great deal of time. But what if there is no training. What is the cost of that? The E&O exposure or claim that gets paid that should not have, takes the savings from not training away. Read the policy and read the regulations. Know what resources are available. Of course, there are also courses in certifications like CIC CPCU etc. which are excellent broader-based training. Any new career in insurance is best supported by a planned start-up training program to understand the insurance basics and be taught how to teach oneself as well as where the resources are found.


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