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Wake up! Speak French! Originally published in Leaders Edge Magazine

firm operations growth Jun 01, 2019

My parents, sisters and I were on a month-long trip through Europe in 1987 in a bright orange Volkswagen van that Dad still claims he didn’t choose. It was a mechanism for international embarrassment—European Vacation, Teen Daughter edition.

We’d arrived at a toll booth and didn’t have correct change. The “middle sister” was proficient in rudimentary French, but she was asleep. Desperate times. We were blocking traffic, so we screamed at her to “wake up and speak French.” Dazed and confused, she conversed with the toll taker; it’s unclear whether it was her translation skills or his sympathy (or irritation) that allowed us free passage.

This family classic comes to mind as I contemplate the employee benefits industry and impediments to innovation. We are asking the same people who have been successful in this industry because they like process, certainty, contracts and an annual “cycle of things” to now be flexible, creative, innovative and open to failure. Typically, this “ask” is without additional resources or training to make such a pivot.

We might as well be running through our organizations (insurance carriers or brokerage firms) yelling, “Speak French!”

Like my sister, most industry veterans are up for a challenge and quite capable of getting the job done. But it’s difficult to capitalize on opportunities in the changing competitive, regulatory and payment landscape without the infrastructure, or least some scaffolding, for support. Mindset isn’t the miracle cure. We have to address some real obstacles in the behaviors we reward and irrational budgets. Now is the time to make that assessment if you want to be well positioned next year.

The Overview Effect

One year ago, I concluded my term as chair of CIAB’s Council of Employee Benefits Executives Advisory Committee (CEBE), and I know first-hand the passion and commitment of The Council’s member firms. We are creative, curious and competitive – traits that have served us well in this business, usually as seller-doers. Then, in a bit of a plot twist last year, I stepped away from my role as a seller-doer and founded GenuineShift to examine the employee benefits business through an entrepreneurial and objective lens.

Author Frank White uses the term “the overview effect” to describe observations astronauts have shared after their return from space. They launched predicting that their awe and excitement would come from seeing what they were headed toward. Yet it was the fresh perspective they gained in outer space that was so profound.

“When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon,” one astronaut recounted. “We weren’t thinking about looking back at the Earth. But now that we’ve done it, that may well have been the most important reason we went.”

“We look back at ourselves, and it seems to imply a new kind of self-awareness,” White writes. These quotes resonate with me as an experienced employee benefits executive who has had the benefit of observing the industry by stepping out of it. I’ve had time to synthesize and digest my observations and I've gained a broader perspective that would have benefitted me in the past.

A couple of themes are trending in my consulting work with benefit executives at firms of all sizes and ownership structures.

  • Leaders are stressed that they’re not spending the time and resources to develop their 2.0 client and talent acquisition strategy. They see cracks forming.
  • Redesigning their practice to drive strategic initiatives is daunting in conjunction with the other pressures I’ve mentioned. They’re stuck in reactive state/firefighting mode hoping the status quo is “good enough” to survive another year.

We’ve all routinely worn multiple hats and juggled priorities, but I have never seen a higher fatigue and frustration level than now. This is an understandable consequence of having player-coaches, stretched too thin, fighting fires daily. While smart and experienced, many are barely hanging on to keep operations profitable.

Just-in-time hiring budgets that prioritize (and reward) near-term valuations over long-term growth strategies can also be a constraint. This is universal and not just a public brokerage phenomenon. Teams must have the resources and bandwidth (during the day, not the night shift) to succeed. Is your budget aligned with your EB team’s forward thinking and growth strategy? What would be possible if changes were made to comprehensively support your vision?

Take the Time

This month, as industry leaders gather at The Council’s annual Employee Benefits Leadership Forum, meetings are held, and enthusiasm is high. You’re taking notes, and the “idea factory” starts firing up. Yet buzzing in the back of your head is that little voice asking, “Are you nuts? Your hair is already on fire! You’re not even executing on existing priorities!” No business benefits—pun intended—from another list of strategic ideas that well-intentioned people can’t execute.

Find an opportunity to suspend your day-to-day concerns and contemplate, objectively, how your organization fits into the benefits ecosystem. Ask trusted partners for their perspective, as well.

Two truths that I’ve learned in my work at GenuineShift are these: something has to change; nobody has the time. But sometimes you have to make the time. The Employee Benefits Leadership Forum presents an excellent opportunity for leaders to share ideas on how to effectively transport and disseminate optimism and tactical strategies back to their firms post-event. Creating and sustaining momentum is challenging, to be sure, but a huge opportunity for those who prioritize it.


While it’s true there are a multitude of interconnected threads knotting employee benefits advancements—healthcare costs, legacy systems that can’t handle radical transformation, talent deficits at all levels, a rapidly changing provider/insurer landscape—there is a steep opportunity cost of the default, stalled position. Use EBLF to shift your mindset and prioritize making the time to execute on your vision. Let’s get started now so we can make an impact for 2020.

Au revoir et bonne chance! (Translation: Goodbye and Good luck)

 

Originally published here: Leaders Edge Magazine - June 2019

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