Agile Businesses: Mike Becker Of The National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA) On How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies

Hire the right people. Build a team of people who are open to challenges, evolving the business, and taking it to the next level. If you surround yourself with people who understand that change is necessary, it will make it easier to adapt operations as you move forward. But make sure your team members also feel valued and have a voice. Encourage them to speak up and share their thoughts. They will guide the business, keep it on track while also taking it to the next level.

As part of my series about “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Becker.

Mike is Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA), one of the largest national trade organizations serving independent agents. He is a forward-thinking leader who embraces smart use of technology to drive business growth and operations. He has more than 14 years of insurance industry experience and has been at the helm of PIA since 2013. He leads the organization’s strategic initiatives, advocacy efforts, and insurance carrier relations as well as oversees all growth initiatives and program launches expanding the business.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Like many people who end up in insurance, it wasn’t an area I had planned to go into originally. In fact, I knew very little about the industry at the beginning of my career. I got my degree in Government and International Politics from George Mason University thinking I would pursue a career in politics. I’m a native Washingtonian, so Capitol Hill seemed like a natural choice. I was a staffer for former congressman, Nick Lampson of Texas and then left to work for congressional relations for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

Then in 2007, I responded to a job ad from PIA seeking legislative help. I got the job and began representing the organization on Capitol Hill and led our legislative efforts. Then in 2013, I was promoted to executive vice president and CEO and have been in that role ever since. It was one of the best moves I’ve made.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

In business we often say it is better to be overdressed than underdressed. However, that’s not always the case.

When I first started with PIA, I had to learn about crop insurance. I was a city person and this was a major learning curve. I knew nothing about farming or crop growing and was headed to an educational meeting about an hour outside Wichita, Kansas. This was pure farm country and I was meeting a crop insurance agent who was going to show me the ropes. I was always taught to dress to impress. I showed up in dress shoes, slacks, a button down, and blazer.

I learned pretty quickly that’s not the best attire to wear as we spent the day climbing into a combine with a farmer who was harvesting crops.

What it taught me is to meet your customers where they’re comfortable and want to meet. This could mean having to change your own expectations of what to wear or what the interaction would entail. Also, it’s always ok to ask questions if you’re not sure what to expect at a meeting. If I had asked the crop insurance agent what we would be doing that day, my blue jeans would have prevailed.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have been very fortunate to receive guidance from a number of people along the way. I’ve worked with people both inside and outside the organization and industry who have helped me tremendously.

One name that springs to mind is Kellie Bray, my first supervisor at PIA. She helped guide me as I was first starting out in PIA and in insurance. During my first week in my new job in a new industry she came into my office and said the most important thing: when you have bad days, push your seat back from your desk, close your eyes and think of the people.

I keep that advice with me to this day. It’s the people who made me fall in love with insurance. The quality, the integrity, the compassion of our members and all those who make up our organization is at a level far superior to any other group of people I’ve ever interacted with.

This is true in most industries and jobs. It is the people — your customers, your colleagues — that make what you do meaningful. During those bad moments, thinking about them puts everything into perspective.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

I agree with this research 100% and PIA is living proof. In the last year, we just celebrated our 90th anniversary, and our values, mission, and vision today are as important as they were 90 years ago.

We have an enduring mission to advance the needs of our members and be a leading voice in the insurance industry. We achieve this success by focusing on our four pillars: Inform, Educate, Advocate, Protect.

At the core of our pillars, we provide important insurance information to agents and carriers, offer educational programs, advocate at both the state and national levels, and deliver products and services to help insurance professionals protect and grow their businesses.

Throughout the generations, we have never lost our commitment to our purpose, yet we’ve managed to evolve and adapt to keep up with the ever-changing business environment.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?

PIA is one of the nation’s largest trade associations for independent insurance agents dedicated to serving professional independent insurance agents. We use our vast knowledge, resources, and expertise to advance the business interests of all PIA members including aggressively promoting, protecting and defending the diverse interests of professional independent insurance agents in the legislative, regulatory and public arenas. We advance the independent agent model among carriers as the preferred distribution system for insurance products.

Independent agents are the best distribution channel for insurance and are the best way for consumers to ensure they are protected and sleep well at night. To ensure the success of independent agents, PIA is the trusted source for factual and relevant information for our members, is the unquestionable leader in insurance education, the strongest advocate with state and federal legislators and regulators, and the best provider of tools and resources specifically designed for independent agencies.

Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?

Insurance has constantly been the focus for disruption and transformation. It all stems from the changing expectations of consumers. Today’s customers expect a more digital experience. They expect to be serviced immediately with on-demand access and 24/7 support.

But some independent agents do not have the most tech-forward businesses. Some operations still use dated and antiquated technologies to conduct business.

For consumers, there can be a real conundrum. Insurance customers want to work with agents. Insurance is so complicated and complex — and agents provide guidance and advice. Customers don’t want to risk not being protected and they want the agents’ expertise. But they also want an Amazon-like, on-demand buying experience where they can purchase a policy with a few simple clicks.

Technology companies are seeing the need and trying to fill the gap. The industry thought the main disruption would come from insurtechs that want to remove agents from the equation and sell products directly to consumers. But we have seen that most consumers still want agents. Now these insurtechs are actually turning to agents to help distribute their products.

The main disruption today is from the onslaught of technologies that are trying to improve the independent agent channel. Agents now are overwhelmed with technology choices, the impact on workflows, and how to convince team members to get onboard with change.

What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?

One of our goals is to educate agents. This is an area where we have a significant impact and help agents adapt to change. One of the biggest challenges is simply understanding what solutions are out there and which ones are the right fit for particular agent operations.

We began creating programs which introduced agents to different tools and connected them with vendors for additional research. We also created agency experience videos, including interviews with individual agents to show real-life examples of how tech can work.

Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.

Change has been a long time coming for the insurance industry. Change is necessary to keep up with customer expectations — many in the industry are realizing this and beginning to make adjustments.

But what has really accelerated insurance’s digital transformation is COVID-19. When the pandemic began, all agents — whether they were embracing technology or not — were suddenly relying on a variety of digital solutions to work remotely and connect with customers virtually. If they weren’t using technology before COVID, there were no more choices post-pandemic.

At PIA, while our overall purpose didn’t change, our focus and the ways we delivered support shifted. We created a whole program centered around how agents can excel in a virtual work environment. We identified different types of solutions to help agents run successful virtual agencies and connected them to different technology solution providers.

So, how are things going with this new direction?

It’s exciting! The future opportunities are motivating us to continue to move forward. Consumer and business reliance on agents is getting stronger. Direct to consumer insurance companies aren’t overtaking the industry. Insurance isn’t something that can be bought off a shelf. Insurance is complex and buyers are at risk if they don’t get the right coverage. They want the guidance that agents provide. With new technology, agents are able to make the insurance purchasing transaction simpler and easier. That includes customer portals, instant quotes and e-signature. Using the technology, agents are still able to provide stellar one-on-one customer service addressing a customer’s unique needs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?

PIA had a “teacher becomes the student” moment as a result of the pandemic. We were able to embrace this and really take our service to the next level.

We introduce agents to many new technologies. But since we work with agents — and not directly with consumers — we don’t always use all the solutions we’re talking about.

But as a result of the pandemic and needing to work remotely, much has changed as we implemented collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft teams and began to use Zoom more regularly.

Through Zoom, we were able to add another dimension to the programs and materials we were offering our agent members. It became even easier to record interviews, podcasts, and webinars with agents from across the country. We created a network of agent technology ambassadors: agents who successfully utilize different solutions in their agencies, sharing their experience with the tools and providing advice for other agents. These examples illustrate success with these solutions is not theoretical and can be achieved.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?

Navigator, encourager, strategist: there are a lot of critical roles to successfully lead during change. But one of the most important ones is communicator. It’s imperative to communicate the strategy, answer questions, listen to feedback, and relay decisions. During periods of change there is uncertainty. And strong communication can help clear up any doubts, misconceptions or misgivings.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

A strong culture can get an organization through any storm. At PIA, we strive to have a team environment. We’re all part of the same mission. We all have each other’s backs. And, we try to have fun. I always say that if I go a day without hearing laughter in the office, then I get concerned.

Having this strong culture enables us to embrace change and accept failure. We don’t want to fail on any objective, but fear of failure is no excuse to sit on the sidelines. Learn from it. Work to make everyone comfortable so they embrace risk moving forward.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Every company is different so to come up with a single universal principle that can guide them through turbulent times is difficult. But there are several tactics that could be beneficial for a company to use including:

  • Celebrate the wins — big or small: We used to have a deli bell on our reception desk that any employee would ring to celebrate a victory of any size. Everyone popped their heads out of their offices to cheer on the success. In our virtual working world, it’s changed a little bit. We now send an email to share our good news.
  • Listen to your customers: Your customers are your North Star. When in doubt, let them lead the way. Use data to help understand them. Ensure your relevance by staying ahead of your customers’ challenges. Look outward.
  • Stay focused: Keep your eyes on the long-term goals.
  • Remember, everything passes: I used to have a career mentor that asked me, “Did anyone die?” That’s of course an extreme situation, but he was proving a point. It could be worse. Life will go on.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Burying your head in the sand: I have seen this so many times in the insurance industry. Businesses think that if they don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist. When I see organizations doing this, I often have the urge to share with them a quote from statistician, Dr. W. Edwards Deming. “Survival is optional. No one has to change.”

No one is going to force a business to change, but the business can’t expect to stay relevant. Not everyone likes change but it is the nature of life. Company leaders need to have an open mind and realize that there is no final or perfect version of how the business operates. It should always be evolving to keep up with customers.

Not listening to customers: We see this problem so often in business and I don’t understand it. To me, listening to your customers is like being given the answers to a test. They are telling you what they want to see from you to keep their business, so listen. No one knows the needs of customers better than customers themselves and most won’t stick with a company that tells them they are wrong.

Ignoring the competition: Thinking you operate in a protective bubble won’t protect a business from outside threats. You need to be aware of traditional competition and stay on top of nontraditional disrupters. Awareness is important, but there’s another way to look at it. Competitors don’t have to be threats. They can also be learning opportunities about how to improve.

We have seen this firsthand in insurance. Agents faced competition from companies selling insurance direct to consumers. The main competitive advantage over agents was a technology fueled transaction that led to a seamless buying experience. Instead of ignoring this competition, agencies began to upgrade their own technologies so they could provide a similar purchasing process.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.

1.) Stay on top of market research. There’s a reason there are so many reports. It can at times be a lot to digest, but information is important. Businesses can’t operate in a vacuum. Customer trends and industries are constantly changing and evolving. Research can give you an idea of what is coming down the road, so your business isn’t blindsided. Once you have the information, play offense not defense.

2.) Adopt a new motto, “Change is good.” A business that stands still will not last. Leaders should adopt the mentality that change is going to happen and they need to embrace it. Be open to new ideas from customers and employees. Be alert to new tools that might improve how your business operates day to day.

3.) Understand your “why.” Every change should have a reason. Unsure if a change is appropriate? Look back to your mission, vision, and purpose — you’ll find the answers there.

4.) Hire the right people. Build a team of people who are open to challenges, evolving the business, and taking it to the next level. If you surround yourself with people who understand that change is necessary, it will make it easier to adapt operations as you move forward. But make sure your team members also feel valued and have a voice. Encourage them to speak up and share their thoughts. They will guide the business, keep it on track while also taking it to the next level.

5.) Be properly insured. This is one thing every business leadership should be doing, but it doesn’t make it to the top of every list. Leadership should constantly be working to reduce risks in their organizations, and that includes making sure that they’re properly insured. Technology is changing the game — particularly in the area of cyber threats — and companies should be regularly talking to their agents about what’s best for them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Straight home.” This was something my late dad always said to my four sisters and me whenever we left the house. Of course, when we were in high school and college, it was literal. He was really telling us to head directly home. Don’t stop anywhere, don’t get into any trouble.

Today it means something so much more. It’s something we say regularly in our family, and it serves as a reminder of the importance of home, family, and a strong work/life balance. I love what I do for work, but the quickest way for me to get burned out is when my work/life balance gets out of sync.

How can our readers further follow your work?

At PIA we are continuing to do really exciting things which people can see on our website: I also share a lot of things on my LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Agile Businesses: Mike Becker Of The National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA) On was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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