Remote Teams: Managing Attitudes, Not Activity

By Drew Gurley

Managing remote teams is tricky. If attitude is the icing, function is the cake. In this article, Drew Gurley discusses why we should manage attitudes within remote teams and not their activities.

 

remote-teams-featured-537x350In its most simple form, managing a team has two components: functional and attitudinal.

Managing the functional components of a team is simple: It is smart people following good process to meet clear goals. There are work plans, status meetings, face time with team members, ongoing critiques and so on. I’m not saying this is easy, but results are pretty predictable if you follow this approach.

Managing the attitudes of team members is an entirely different challenge. It’s the difference between share of mind and share of heart. You have their bodies but have you captured their commitment? Are they enthusiastic? Does their enthusiasm rub off on others? I believe that attitudes are the classic 80-20… attitudes influence 20 percent of the effort and 80 percent of the outcome.

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Not all teams are created equal. Teams in the same location have a great advantage; the team leader can both see and feel how the team is performing and often take action on issues much faster. But, what if team members are in different locations? What if the entire team is remote and all members are in different locations? And, what if those team members don’t even work for you?

That’s the situation for my company. I am co-founder of an independent life, health and retirement agency in the United States. We have more than 600 agents in 25 states and the vast majority are independent business owners who represent insurance products from many companies including some from my company, Redbird Advisors. It is my job to make sure they sell something represented by Redbird.

Managing the attitudes of team members is an entirely different challenge. It’s the difference between share of mind and share of heart.

Here’s the kicker (and the crux of this story): With minor exception, I’ve only met a few of our agents face to face. That’s our business model. We recruit independent agents who already have a vision of what they want and are looking for partners like Redbird to help facilitate their dreams, not the other way around.

One of our best agents run a two-person agency in Virginia. I typically speak with him daily, sometimes multiple times a day. Recently I was distracted by another project and had not spoken with him. Toward the end of the day he called and asked if everything was all right. He wanted to know if something was wrong because I had not called him. It doesn’t get any better than that.

To the vast majority of our agents I’m a voice and an email address, imploring them to sell my products. They likely have a half dozen or more people like me pounding on them as well. I’m faced with the difficult task of trying to influence individuals who don’t really know me and don’t have to listen to me. But, they are our version of a team and they need to be remotely managed.

We believe the functional things are table stakes … like clean floors in a grocery store. If you can’t do these then the greatest attitudes in the world won’t matter. We spend most of our time focused on the attitudinal aspect by trying to be top of mind and encouraging agents to see us as a valued partner… we want to be the first place they turn like our agent in Virginia. Following are a few ways how we do that.

 

Be a Picky Eater

We have become very selective as we’ve grown older. In the early days of our company we were susceptible to being “sold” by agents. They would regale us with their sales conquests and intense desire to work with us. I’ve got some swamp land in Florida…

For an agent to become a part of Redbird today they must prove a track record of sales, must already be independent and, possibly most important, they must demonstrate strong writing and communications skills.

It’s amazing how many prospects fall to the wayside when you require them to prove their sales record. To further make that point, we see a direct correlation between those not willing to give us proof and those most irritated by the request.

For us, communications skills are what really separate winners from losers. In the same day I can have a great conversation with a prospective agent and then two hours later they are totally unresponsive to email or phone calls. In the past I would have chased them for several days. No more. And, for the agents that do respond, typically by email, we have no patience for sloppiness. Fat fingers on a small keyboard are no excuse.

If they can’t communicate then they aren’t for us.

 

Establish Expectations

We live by the motto: If it isn’t written down it doesn’t exist. Agreeing on expectations up front heads off many downstream problems. We can’t obligate an independent agent to do anything they don’t want, but we can create an air of professionalism that the right agents will appreciate.

We live by the motto: If it isn’t written down it doesn’t exist. Agreeing on expectations up front heads off many downstream problems.

Our company has developed several proprietary programs in which we hold agents accountable for performance just like in a captive environment. Our typical agreement for independent agents contains performance goals, roles and responsibilities (including Redbird’s) and a non-disclosure clause which helps protect our intellectual capital.

Some agents will have nothing to do with agreements by rationalising that’s why they became independent in the first place. They see them as negative. We think of it just the opposite: the agreement commits both sides to putting out their best effort. While an agent can simply walk away from our agreement with no risk, most don’t.

 

Over Communicate

So much of what we see and read on the Internet today fills space, not minds. Those least qualified to create content are often shoved into that role, being asked to not only think broadly, but also do it quickly. It’s like asking a 16-year-old who just got their driver’s license to compete in a Formula One race.

Over communicating is a two-edged sword. Over communicating badly is like an obnoxious television ad that runs too often. No one really complains about seeing the good ads
over and over.

Our communications focus on two priorities: message and delivery method. If the message is weak, nobody will consume it, no matter how it is delivered. A strong message coupled with alternative ways to consume it is a home run. Maybe an email works best for one message and video for another. Or, we can drive agents to our agent portal. We are strong believers in the “When in Rome” approach to communications as we try to make it as easy as possible for agents to consume what we produce.

Our agents are starved for valuable information and we spend an inordinate amount of time developing what we believe to be thoughtful, insightful content.

 

Follow Through on Promises

Like many sales-driven businesses, independent insurance is littered with promises not kept. Many independent agencies spend most of their time recruiting new agents, often with promises of the best support with the highest commissions. If it sounds too good to be true…

While many agencies emphasise products, pricing and commissions, we put all of our eggs into one basket: agent support. And, we do that by finding agents who want and value having a trusted resource. We emphasise training and communications and use those as the foundation for recruiting the kind of agents who will best fit our culture. Then, we shower them with tools to help them grow their business, which in turn grows ours.

There are few things better than having an agent thank us for doing what we said we would do. And, maybe even more satisfying is when an agent we spoke with years ago calls out of the blue to see what’s going on at Redbird.

 

Create a Home

A house is a place you live. A home is a place you belong. Being on their own doesn’t mean our agents aren’t looking for a place they can go to re-charge, re-start or just simply hang out. Sometimes that’s just having someone on the other end of the phone to brainstorm a problem.

We encourage agents to turn to us first with an issue or an idea. Most of the time the discussions are about products or a specific client issue. But, once in a while we get an agent who has veered off course and is looking for serious help. That’s when we know we’ve been successful in developing a safe landing zone.

Creating an atmosphere of “home” is something you do, not something you promise.

Adding value for agents is helping them be better stewards for their clients. Happy clients make your job easier and your teams happier. It’s all about attitude.

This all comes down to one of the most overused phrases in business: adding value. Activity doesn’t equal value. Cutting your own margins to give an unproven agent a higher commission is not adding value. Selling products where you make the most commission is not adding value. I can count on one hand the number of producing agents with us today who negotiated us up on their commissions when they joined. Blue moons happen more often than this.

Adding value for agents is helping them be better stewards for their clients. Happy clients make your job easier and your teams happier. It’s all about attitude.

Managing remote teams is tricky. If attitude is the icing, function is the cake. Do you have air-tight functional processes in place? Does everyone understand the goals? Have you had a chance to talk with all team members to head off issues before you get started? Spend the proper time up front in preparation to save time and reduce risk on the back side. If you do these you will be in a better position to drive higher quality performance in your team.

 

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DrewDrew Gurley is an established executive in the financial services arena and co-founder of Redbird Advisors. Drew has developed hundreds of successful financial services agencies from the ground up and he has worked one-on-one with nearly 1,000 financial professionals across the US. Drew’s work with Redbird has helped thousands of agents and advisors build a stable foundation for their personal businesses. His focus on customer experience marketing has been the cutting edge to help drive growth within Redbird’s wholesale division. You can find more information about Drew and his business at: www.redbirdadvisors.com.

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