Zymurgy is the act of fermenting with respect to the making of good wine or beer. Well for that matter zymurgy can also produce bad wine and beer! I had to stretch to use the word but it is so apropos given that the fermenting going on in the insurance business is far from spring waters (Evian spelt backwards is naïve!). We are part of the great cauldron of fermenting financial services. We in Canada are not alone. We are mere followers of a global trend. We may even at times, heaven forbid said the American, be leaders. In an industry shrinking in terms of participants and at the same time short of leaders emerging in sufficient numbers, we are fermenting into unknown ale unless the ingredients are modified to meet the needs of future stakeholders
We are all too well aware of the mergers and acquisitions that abound and have been slowly occurring for the past decade. They do mount up and on reflection we have lost many but few of us would resurrect any of them. The leaders of each disappeared into retirement, bigger insurers or became consultants given their credentials. The consolidation of our industry which has escalated in pace is the foundation of our brew.
Gone are the stand-alone life insurers of British Columbia having succumbed to acquisition mania. Who remembers Seaboard, Glazier, British Pacific, Fidelity or even the old quaint North West Life? Gone from Alberta are the flamboyant and often controversial Life of Alberta, Sovereign cum Family Life, Rocky Mountain Life (does anyone have in their garage a purple Cougar, the Cougar car that is?), Paramount Life and the early Financial Life, or even the agent’s friend Substandard International (the near insurer). Saskatchewan said goodbye to Pioneer Life but hangs on to Cooperators and gained Crown. Gone from Manitoba are Monarch and the original Citadel. Solid and bland but gone. Ontario has a list too long for the editor yet they include previously strong names and even reinsurers. There were many and each had its quirks and unique attributes even in their demise. Gone from Quebec are just as many one-time regional life giants like L’Unique and Cooperants. My lack of fluency shortchanged my intimate knowledge of their stories. I love the Maritimes but I am hard pressed to find something to follow after “gone are ….”
The visionaries after a good smoke had predicted that the workers in our industry would run out of places to work by this new century we have entered. Why is it then that I constantly hear the wailing of presidents and senior executives as they face the truism “there are not enough good people to go around these days”. I never heard that when I was a young man just yesterday. We don’t say too loudly yet “I’m looking for a good man” since today the good man could be and often is a woman. Thank the heavens for the passage of time and the death of “only men will be tested for their potential leadership in our company.” The later being a very true statement by an early “boss” (now there is an antiquated word) who felt it was wrong to invest in females in the company since they would not be around for the duration nor could they be company leaders. So today where are all the good people?
The Globe & Mail of 00-09-22 had two articles on employees and it adds to the mixture of issues within our industry even though they were general comments. Barrie McKenna’s article titled “Take this job and …” talks of the least loyal employees. Nothing in the article will surprise any reader and one wonders why it got so much space. Canada ranks in the middle of the 32 nations covered. Is anyone surprised company loyalty is greatest in Columbia? Hello, read the front page for a while. That company loyalty is greater in the US than Canada was the only surprise but maybe the insurance industry is just not your average industry. Hong Kong and Singapore are at the least loyal category and that is as expected given their zeal for capitalism and making money right now thanks. Buried in the article was the comment I wrote about recently and that is ethics. The story states “nearly one-third of Canadian workers have witnessed unethical behavior by their employer within the past two years.” Hopefully not in the insurance business. The other relegated to page 12 story was by Madelaine Drohan and she asserts that research shows we (Canucks) are not as insecure in our jobs as some pundits believe. I agree with her and that’s all I am going to say.
Murray Axsmith is considered a world leader in career management services and in its role it provides the marketplace with its annual survey (see highlights in Transitions Volume 12, No. 1) of what’s hot and what’s not in the recruiting or dismissal business. I’ll be positive and stick to the summary of hiring highlights while leaving the ten top dismissal issues to the David Letterman’s top ten list someday. The survey, under the auspices of a John Hamilton who I am sure would love to talk to you about the detail, compares trends from year to year and thus is a great benchmark for employers as well as employees.
If you are one of those people who can’t lead a team to the bathroom nor converse with aplomb and passion with your staff, you are in the majority. After writing that masterful sentence I realize that in my experience those of you who are in the aforementioned group most often do not realize you are in the aforementioned group. Again, after writing that second masterful sentence I realize there are many of the human species that don’t wish to lead people anywhere let alone converse with the milieu. Everyone is different and our skill sets or innate desires vary in humungous fashion. The survey is emphatic in stating that the most difficult skill sets or competencies to be found are interpersonal skills and team leadership. Thus the reason for the return of the one on one interviews with other than just the human resource staff. Reference checks on these hard to quantify skills become very important. The study talks of increased use of the interview, reference checks, testing while dropping the inquisition panels that were once popular yet s warm as Inuvik in January.
So here we have it, a shrinking home for talent and an even faster shrinking reservoir or cauldron of talented leaders and people endowed with interpersonal skills. But is that being fair to the human race as we race through our daily lives? Today the reward is for the here and now not the there and future. “Give me the quarterly results and make sure this year is 15% top line growth coupled with 15% bottom line growth,” said Ms. Y (name withheld for sake of sanity). In the age of instant gratification and rewards that must be felt, smelt and tasted immediately there is perhaps no room for saying lets wait 10 years and see if the product emerges as per the assumptions so cleverly constructed to squeeze another penny from the price. How do you inspire staff and leaders to leave a company in excellent shape, as judged 10 years from now, when stock options, bonuses, compensation and gratitude stem from the latest quarter or years results? Stand up the 3 of you who deep in your hearts have any real intention of being in the same company (or the new owners company) five years from now. All right all you 60 year olds we already discounted you in our severance calculations (early retirement whether you want it or not).
Is the fermentation creating putrid vinegar just beyond our sense of smell and vision of three-year plans and rewards or is this new twist of ingredients (short rewards, ethics, loyalty, leadership and interpersonal skills) going to produce a fine wine to be left for the connoisseur of our industry? I wish I knew. I do know what I hear and that is a lack of faith in finding the leaders with the criteria to make it work. The good news is the admonishments buried in the surveys will surely change in subsequent surveys, as the leaders appear to fill the void.
We just have to adjust to the new millennium’s prerequisites to success. That is, enjoy it while you can for a new longer-term reward packages will emerge to prevent the emaciation of our industry. Will it stymie the creative brilliance that has escalated the competitive bar? Not a chance and the brilliantly creative may even learn to talk to their staff about it in sentences of more than three words! The convergence of people skills and company needs has often been out of synch (just look at the good old days of only actuaries running the industry) so by happenchance we may have all our leaders emerge at once fitting the exact requirements of the companies’ “qualities in staff we want to hire list”.
I know I am still waiting for my personal rhythm to fall in harmony with some company’s rhythm.