Underwriters, Networking and our Shared Future

Hank George, FALU
Underwriting Professional and Activist

“You can’t have enough friends”

- Bernie Birnbaum
Miller’s Crossing

This bit of wisdom from con artist Bernie Birnbaum (John Turturro) in the Coen Brothers’ film classic Miller’s Crossing speaks volumes to 21st century underwriters!

We create new friendships and build new relationships outside our companies by networking.

Networking by underwriters is more important now than ever before, given these troubled times with so many of our brothers and sisters either out of work or at risk for losing their jobs due to the contrived “economic downturn.”

Think about it.

Almost overnight, we went from a “seller’s market” to a “buyer’s market” for underwriting talent.

When things…if things…will reverse themselves is anybody’s guess. For now, it doesn’t take much insight or intuition to see that the short term prognosis is at best problematic.

We saw networking modeled on a grand scale by the presidential campaigns of President Barack Obama and Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Hence it is no wonder that Networking has become the self-preservation/self-enhancement practice de jour across all occupations

There has been a proliferation of Internet entities facilitating networking and millions are taking advantage of them.  I get an average of 2-3 invitations per week to be “linked in,” often from people I don’t even know. I never refuse a legitimate invitation and thus my inventory of link-ups has grown exponentially in the last year…

…and none were initiated by me!

Nevertheless, despite their advantages, these Internet opportunities are simply no match for face-to-face networking. Personal encounters leave a stronger and more lasting impression than these other modes of connecting.

The AHOU in America and CIU in Canada recognize this and create some opportunities for connecting, mainly at their conferences. So does the Australian Life Underwriting and Claims Association (ALUCA), which in our view sets the standard for facilitating underwriter networking at the national association level.

When the first LUCID educational event was convened in London, it brought together underwriters, medical officers and others. In addition to offering a fine program, it created an ideal opportunity for UK underwriters to get to know one another in an ambient setting at the national level (which was essential because the UK for whatever reason is bereft of a national underwriting association).

The new European Life and Health Underwriting Association (ELHUA) – championed by John Turner (Swiss Re), Ana Villaneuva, MD and an eight-person transnational Board – held its first gathering last autumn in Belgium. This is a landmark achievement, bringing together our peers from Moscow, Dublin and all points in between, in a setting ripe for networking. It stands tall as yet another example of the growing interest in association building, and consequently networking, within our profession.

My company created life and health underwriting study groups for the express purpose of enhancing networking opportunities. We currently operate two life study groups on a non-profit basis. They have led to the forging of many new friendships among members and were worth the effort on this basis alone.

New business department budget cuts forced us to trim back to just two life groups in 2009. However, the good news is that both are overflowing with members and prospects for starting a third are now looming.

This speaks volumes about the appreciation chief underwriters have of the value of networking, both for business and personal reasons.

These successes aside, the reality is that most underwriters do not get the opportunity to participate at the national level, whether at association conferences, seminars or in a study group mode.

In the USA, where we have several regional conferences each year, even these are for practical purposes off limits to all but a couple of people – typically at the top of the pecking order – from each company. 

Bottom line: there is only one way the networking needs of the vast majority of underwriters can be met and that is via local associations.

We have two urgent priorities in this regard:

  • Sustaining and enhancing existing local and state/provincial associations
  • Organizing new associations, if feasible, where none currently exist, based on the size of the underwriting community 

We have travelled a rocky road where local associations are concerned.

One reason is the impact that mergers, acquisitions and other events have had in profoundly shifting the demographics of underwriting. The number of underwriters in cities like New York, Denver, Kansas City and Los Angeles was once far greater than it is today; on the other hand, other places such as Charlotte and Tampa have seen substantial growth in their underwriting communities.

The fact that some local/state associations have flourished while others have either disappeared or gone on life support derives mainly from one overarching consideration: the presence vs. absence of true believers committed to selflessly infusing their infectious energy and willingness to roll up their sleeves to save, sustain or enhance their existing association; or, to create one from scratch.

Show me an association with lackluster, indifferent “leaders” (many of whom have to be dragooned into serving as officers) and I will show you an association on its way to Boot Hill.

It all starts with real leaders.

If you don’t have a local association, start one. We can help. We’ve done it before. It’s easier than you think and you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” to get it accomplished!

If your local association has some of the pathologic signs of decay, recognize them and exert your will and energy to make things change for the better:

What are the signs of decay?

  • #1 is the need to pressure people into accepting positions of leadership and accountability on the executive committee; one association asks companies to provide someone to take a position – an approach usually doomed from outset.
  • #2 is having members of the executive who are, for want of a more defining term, deadbeats in terms of living up to their commitment.
  • Dwindling membership, with little or no meaningful effort to turn the tide.
  • Declining attendance at events…because underwriters are either professionally unconscious or too cheap to ante up for a meal if their company refuses to pay their way.
  • Lack of support from local insurers in the absence of making every effort to get that support by trumpeting the advantages of the association…and asking why the actuaries can get support for theirs and we cannot!
  • Cutting back the number of events per year.
  • Mediocre programs…because little effort goes into looking for quality speakers and making sure non-industry speakers appreciate what aspects of their expertise we care to hear about.
  • Having no Website -- or – having one that virtually lies fallow for lack of maintenance and new content.
  • Not having (worse, discontinuing) an annual association seminar.

Along with rebuilding and expanding our association infrastructure, we need to recognize that we are all in this together.

Explaining why he had bailed a friend out of the Philadelphia “drunk tank,” Rocky Balboa (Rocky III) said in his forthright manner: “friends do for friends.”

We must all unreservedly endorse the Italian Stallion’s sentiment. 

Coming from working class roots, I’ve kicked back more than once with a pint of Guinness and wistfully imagined what the implications might have been if, instead of investing so much time and energy in On the Risk or the (now-defunct) International Underwriting Congress, I had instead formed a national underwriters’ union.

Of course, had I done so with any degree of success I would have eventually had to enter a witness relocation program!

Individually, we are impotent to change the course of events.

Collectively, we can further our shared interests.

Step one is for all underwriters to attend as many local/state underwriting association meetings as possible.

Come early for an ice cold one or whatever wets your whistle, mingle alertly, take what you can from the presentation/program and stay for dinner, making a point to sit at a table with at least 50% new faces! 

We hear a lot of whining about the fact that “my company won’t pay for this.”

This is a wretched excuse for not participating!

The same person will spend twice as much doing something one-tenth as worthwhile in terms of his/her own long-term self-interest and excuse their poor judgment on the grounds that their employer is “inherently obliged” to fund their networking because they do so for actuaries!

We do not (yet) share the status of actuaries. Not because our contributions are one bit less important to our companies. Rather, because they have done a vastly better job of serving their collective interests than we have.

Budgets are tight and association meeting costs are “low-hanging fruit” for reputation-making CFOs!

Then, too, maybe some employers don’t see all this networking by underwriters as in their best interests…who can say?

Despite these pseudo-restraints, it remains crystal clear that where the underwriter’s economic survival is concerned, networking isn’t just a shrewd undertaking. It can in fact be a lifesaver when that dreaded pink slip lands on the underwriter’s desk!

A forty-something single lady in a small city out West which is bereft of insurers was working as a contract underwriter for an insurer back East. The word came down that the need for her services would soon be ending and she faced the dark night of impending unemployment in her chosen profession.

Fortuitously, she had done some networking with me in the context of a project.
I just happened to be well connected with a company looking for a remote underwriter.

You can guess the rest of this story.

A middle-aged health underwriter saw the handwriting on the wall where his position was concerned. We knew one another reasonably well as fellow Cheeseheads (Green Bay Packer football team fanatics) and he made his situation know to me.

He didn’t think his remote experience, several decades ago, as a life underwriter would compensate for having been mired in health risk appraisal so many years since.

It did.

Once again because I just happened to have another friend whose shop needed someone with excellent medical underwriting aptitude and now this fellow, once teetering on the brink of unemployment, telecommutes to his new life underwriting position.

I could go on with more real world examples.

Bottom line: you cannot be too well known within our professional community and you certainly cannot have too many friends to testify to your capabilities!

What does it cost to self-fund participation in your local/state association and attend as many meetings as possible?

A lot less than two decent seats at a major league sporting event!

How much time does it really take away from your personal life to attend a handful of meetings each year and, if so disposed, participate in the annual golf outing?

Tell me this is too much of a commitment in consideration of the payoffs from the networking opportunities!

I won’t mince words.

I am disappointed by the level of “top down” support for our local and state/provincial associations.

I am flummoxed that there are places in the insurance world where no underwriting professional association even exist.

It is clear now that the only way we are going to be able to forge and sustain the caliber of professional infrastructure we need to maximize opportunities for ALL underwriters is from the “bottom up.”

American underwriters need to consider this:

If the present plan for health insurance – such as it is – goes into effect as scheduled, carriers will no longer be able to assess preexisting conditions after December 31, 2013. Therefore, we should anticipate a sizeable influx of medically proficient health underwriters into the already opportunity-starved ranks of life, DI, LTC and CI risk appraisers, between now and January, 2014.

Any substantial increase in the number of skilled job seekers could have significant negative implications for those currently in the hunt for new opportunities.

To the networked will go the opportunities, because it is every bit as much WHO YOU KNOW as WHAT YOU KNOW that leads to success in a tight job market!

If just 50% of all underwriters – in home offices, in brokerage agencies, in outsourced provider firms; working  remotely as employees or on contract – would take an active part in their association…even if they have to ante up a few out-of-pocket dollars to do so…the impact on our infrastructure would be huge.

And every one of us would benefit.

If your association is thriving, join and get active in its work so you thrive with it.

If your association is teetering, jump in and do what you can to revitalize it…because it is in your best interests and those of all of us collectively that the situation be turned around.

If your association has died, either resurrect it or create something new in its place…just as devoted professionals did in Charlotte and Houston/Galveston over the last twelve months.

If you don’t have an association – whether you are in Boston, Tampa, Oslo, Bucharest, Bangkok, Taipei, Tegucigalpa or any other city with an adequate underwriting community – start one now.

You have allies waiting to assist you. Strategically networked allies who understand that the most worthwhile thing they can possible do for others – next to connecting them individually with job opportunities – is to help them network, organize and thereby create their own opportunities.

The mythic “obstacles” to organizing and networking – which only you can choose to empower with tunnel vision – are illusions. 

When the many see this situation for what it is and take charge of their shared destiny through creating, sustaining and enhancing underwriting professional associations…

When every professionally conscious underwriter invests in expanding his or her face-to-face networking among peers…

When our association meetings are “standing room only”…

…then, on that day, we will all – individually and collectively – be where we need to be to survive and flourish, and above all to protect the future interests of one of the most important professions serving the life and health insurance industry!

 

Comments

Underwriters Networking

Hank, I could not agree more with your thoughts and insights! As an officer with a local club in Denver, as well as a manager of underwriters, I find that networking amongst peers is generally low on the totem pole for many uw professionals. What is even more striking is that after the economic rollercoaster we've all ridden the past several years, and the underwriters that have faced job loss, the value of connections is still highly under valued and under utilized by many.

Our profession depends upon these connections and fellowship and underwriting careers also depend upon it. I do believe that more of the "leaders" in our underwriting ranks need to raise the bar of expectations of their up and coming underwriters and require networking as a key professional development area especially in an environment that is largely remote and "disconnected" from mentors and peers.

Underwriters, Networking and our Shared Future

I must endorse the comments in the article and stress the great value that networking can bring to the individual, the corporation and the profession.

A networking guru once said that to be a successful networker an individual must be willing to respond to requests for assistance without any requirement of a return. If this can be done the facts of the matter are that future returns will actually be great.

I have recently been able to assist colleagues in the UK looking for contacts in Australia and New Zealand, colleagues in Asia looking for skilled staff as well as gaining assistance from others in identifying quality software providers for a particular project on which I have been working.

I have been fortunate enough to work on business from over 50 countries and throughout my career have made many friends across the world from Europe, N. America, Australasia, the Middle East and Africa.

The industry associations, both local and national, in every country play a massive part in ensuring that our profession survives and develops in the way it should. Attendance at meetings and support in the organisation of associations provides great networking opportunities. These opportunities are there to develop ourselves and our skills as well as to assist others.

We should all raise our hats to those who work tirelessly to ensure that our professional associations continue to develop and prosper for the benefit of us all. And more than that, we should be willing to particpate in these activities and ensure that these essential infrastructures continue and develop for the benefit of our profession our companies and our colleagues.

Tony O'Leary, Australia

Underwriters, Networking and our Shared Future

Well-said. This is about really taking charge of your own career. To do that effectively and well, you have to understand the world beyond your own desk (and your own company, for that matter). The only way to do that well is to go out and interact with it.

Three new meetings (the Carolina Underwriters Forum, the Texas Gulf Coast Underwriting Association and the Texas-Wide Underwriting Conference) started just within the past year alone. All of these groups built from the ground up, and all of them are off to a great start.

Just as there is in every other walk of life, there is a small element of so-called 'leaders' in our profession who are unfit to serve in the positions that they fill for various reasons. But as I gaze across the country, the vast majority of people who have stepped into the breach have been dedicated, talented and capable. The challenge today is that more good people need to step up. This is beginning to happen in parts of the country. Let us hope that this spreads.

Networking

Let's hope that others join us in helping it spread!

Hank

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