Next Generation: 3 things not to do in an insurance mentorship

A veteran insurance mentor discusses where many companies go wrong in their mentorship efforts, and how to get it right.

Insurance News


When the Kaufman Financial Group introduced its emerging leaders program (styled KELP) in 2008, Marla Donovan knew she had to sign up as a mentor. Now advisor to the chairman at Burns and Wilcox, Donovan started in the industry as an intern and now has a strong passion for education and mentorship—two things key to retaining today’s crop of young recruits.

In her time as a mentor, she has discovered what does and doesn’t work and shared with Insurance Business America common areas she feels some companies in the industry may get tripped up.

1. Only paying “lip service” to the mentorship concept
Insurance companies are busy places, and many don’t feel they have the time or resources to devote to extensive training. When a company does introduce a mentorship program, however loose, mentor volunteers must be prepare d to commit.

That means being open to mentee questions and concerns both inside and outside of work, and willingness to let them assist on meaningful projects.

“There has to be transparency and trust there,” Donovan said. “It can’t be lip service. If I say I am your personal mentor, you can call me. You have to be available. You have to treat it as something very important.

“If you’re not prepared to make the commitment, then don’t do it.”

This kind of commitment is also imperative in senior management. One of the reasons KELP has been so successful, said Donovan, is the commitment of CEO Alan Kaufman, who visits with and engages KELP trainees.

2. Creating a rigid, “report-to-me” structure
Mentors shouldn’t necessarily be direct supervisors. The boss-employee dynamic can sabotage honest dialogue and quickly make things uncomfortable.

“I have certainly witnessed incidents where a mentee or intern does a lot of work and solves a problem, and the immediate supervisor takes credit,” she said. “That is absolutely deadening.”

Likewise, mentor relationships should be less rigid and more of an “informal, dotted-line” agreement. Feel out a good relationship dynamic and open yourself up as a general resource—particularly if you work for a small company and have less free time.

“One size does not fit all,” Donovan stressed.

That said, it’s important to reach out to mentees periodically. Going to lunch or dinner once a quarter is good practice.

3. Carrying generational stereotypes into the workplace
Perhaps one of the biggest roadblocks in creating a successful mentorship program within an insurance office is generational gaps. This is particularly true in independent agencies where the average age of employees hovers around the mid-40s.

The old notion that you have to “earn your stripes” is still important, but mentors still need to be willing to give new employees a chance to show their worth.

And those stereotypes that 20-somethings have no work ethic? Not true, said Donovan.

“Millennials have work habits—they are just different and in some ways may be far better,” she said. “They have mastered technology and don’t sit there with barriers on what is work and what is life. They could be quoting business to a client under the table.

“Work is almost becoming 18 hours a day, with life mixed in there. Millennials may in fact be the hardest-working generation ever.”

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