The next generation of leaders

As many industry leaders near retirement age, it’s crucial for insurance companies to attract fresh talent. But is the industry doing enough?

The next generation of leaders

Business Strategy


Attending insurance industry conferences is a great way to get out of the office and listen to the insights of industry leaders. As well as helping attendees get a better understanding of the people in positions of power and influence, it also highlights one hard-to-ignore fact: Most of the individuals in senior and executive positions are deep into their 50s and 60s. The leaders of tomorrow are more difficult to locate.

It’s no surprise that insurance has an aging workforce, but with many industry veterans due to retire in the next five to 10 years, the industry is under pressure to attract and develop fresh talent. “It is more important now than ever before for the industry to be proactive in recruiting and obtaining the next generation of leaders,” says Robert Sanders, president and managing member of Preferred Specialty. “This topic really is the talk of the insurance industry right now.”

Sanders studied insurance and risk management at the University of South Carolina before working as a reinsurance broker for a few years and then opening Preferred Specialty in 2003 at the age of 25. He maintains close ties with the university and is encouraged by the popularity of the program. Sanders often takes on interns from the same program he graduated from and recently asked one intern about what matters most to millennials when they apply for a job. Flexible work hours and competitive remuneration were at the top of list.

“In addition to that, she talked about a wanting a relaxed working environment with a more liberal dress code and people who are easy to work with,” Sanders says. “Being able to move up quickly within a company is also an important attribute.”

The upcoming void in talent and experience is a realistic hazard for many leading insurance companies and brokerages. The decades of experience leaving the industry will not be replaced easily, and it’s imperative that organizations of all size take a proactive approach to seeking out their next generation of business leaders and innovators.

It’s a situation that Sanders is well aware of within his own firm. “It is important to me, and should be for the industry, to transfer as much knowledge as possible by working closely with the new talent joining the workforce,” he says. “We need an overlap between the generations that are retiring and the new generation that is coming in. Over the next five years, the industry needs to work hard on bridging that gap.”

Building awareness
A recent survey discovered that only 5% of millennials are familiar with the insurance industry, and fewer than one in 10 expressed any interest in entering the business. Although the image of the industry has changed in recent years, there is obviously a need to do more to influence the perception of insurance among young people.

Insurance may well be a dynamic, challenging industry that embraces innovation, but if younger generations aren’t aware of that, they won’t be attracted to the business. “The industry needs to do more as a whole to market and target millennials – not only as a future employer, but also from a consumer standpoint,” Sanders says. “The next generation accesses products and services through their smartphones; this is not going to be a check-writing generation. I believe the insurance industry needs to continue to engage in social media and other non-traditional mediums to attract the attention of millennials.”

Participating in jobs fairs at colleges is a good way for insurance companies to get in front of younger millennials, but industry leaders may have to abandon their traditional approach to make these interactions worthwhile. An older insurance professional dressed in a suit is likely to be more intimidating than someone who is more casually dressed, and therefore more relatable and approachable to the younger generation.

“Millennials might relate better to a company rep with a faded screen-print T-shirt with a company logo on it,” Sanders says. “That might seem like a step too far, but we as an industry need to do all we can to relate and appeal to the next generation.” At 32 years old, Josh Ammons falls firmly on the older end of the millennial spectrum. Ammons is currently a senior vice president and property broker at AmWINS in Charlotte, North Carolina, but in the middle of the last decade, he was a student at Appalachian State University on an academic scholarship, with no real interest or knowledge of the insurance industry, particularly the commercial side. That all changed when Steve DeCarlo, the current CEO of AmWINS, served as a guest lecturer for Ammons’ one and only insurance course, an introduction to risk management and insurance. DeCarlo spoke passionately about the insurance business – particularly the commercial side, with specific focus on excess & surplus lines – and the opportunities being created by the industry’s growing talent gap.

Ammons was impressed by what he heard. “Ten minutes after he finished his speech, I sent Steve an email saying I loved his talk and that I thought I could be really successful in insurance,” Ammons says. “I was an arrogant 20-year-old, but he appreciated my email, and I ended up interviewing the next week and then interning with AmWINS that summer and winter. I’ve been with them ever since, coming up on 11 years.”

Ammons now plays an active role in preparing younger millennials to enter the insurance industry. As part of his role as an advisory board member for the Brantley Risk & Insurance Center at Appalachian State University, Ammons helps students become strong candidates for jobs in the real world of the insurance industry.

Along with a group of industry peers, Ammons also visits other universities across the country to enhance awareness about careers in insurance. He speaks with a wide range of college students, some of whom are not enrolled in an insurance or risk management program. When he tells a room full of 20-year-old college students that the industry is a people business and is all about relationships, they begin to get engaged.

“Once they hear about the travel, the client outings and that there is no ceiling on earnings if you are constantly bringing value to your clients, they are ready to learn much more about what we do,” Ammons says. “I’m also able to talk with them about the complexity of the deals we handle in the commercial and E&S spaces. I let them know it’s not just homeowner’s and auto insurance, like I thought when I was in their shoes more than 10 years ago.”

Investing in the industry’s future
In order to succeed in his role at AmWINS, where his pay is performance-based, Ammons has adopted a ‘something more can always be done’ mindset, which he also relates to the industry’s efforts to attract the next generation of leaders. Although he sees firsthand the work insurance companies are doing, Ammons believes the industry can do better.

“In reality, millennials don’t bring much immediate value – they are not able to go out and convince a client who is twice their age that they know what they’re talking about at the beginning of their career,” Ammons says.

“So we need to think of millennials as a long-term investment, as the future of the industry.”

As well as a desire to be well compensated, to be able to use up-to-date technology and to join a company with a great culture, Ammons has noticed a strong desire among younger millennials to find mentors. It’s a demographic that is eager to develop and wants to learn - traits that will become crucial as older generations retire and take their experience and industry knowledge with them. Ammons believes there’s no industry challenge more important and timely than that of attracting and retaining the next wave of talent.

“Perpetuation is a major focus of all successful firms, and we need to continue to highlight opportunities to these young people,” Ammons says. “We need to tell these millennials that if they stick around, work hard, be patient and ask the right questions, they are going to be leaned upon as a leader much earlier than the generations that came before them.”

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