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Build an engaged firm

Jennifer A. Borislow, CLU; Mark S. Gauyna, GBA

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Successful agencies understand the importance of employee culture and engagement. Employees need to feel connected to a purpose that is meaningful and actionable. When your employees are engaged, their relationships with clients are stronger, their happiness levels rise and their power to achieve more is realized. It is the key to improved performance and agency growth. Top of the Table members Borislow and Gaunya share what they have done to implement culture strategies and effective engagement tools to grow their agency, which was recognized by the Boston Business Journal as one of the “Best Places to Work” in Massachusetts.

We are excited to share why we believe it is important to build an engaged organization—one that will allow you to focus on your unique ability and make a significant difference in the lives of the people you work with and the clients you serve.

Let us start with sharing a little bit about our background and how we built our business.

Gaunya: Jennifer founded the business in 1982. She answered an ad in the local newspaper, the Boston Globe, which was looking for a marketing management trainee. It turned out to be an advertisement for a life insurance salesperson. At that time, Jennifer met Gene Doran, the local general agent, who convinced her that a career in life insurance sales would be the right fit for her. The reason was unlimited income potential and flexibility based on your individual performance. The sky was the limit, and the harder you worked, the more likely you would achieve success. Very quickly, Jennifer realized that she would need help with the paperwork that had to be done when you sold a life insurance or a disability policy. She learned early on in her career to focus on her unique ability and delegate the rest. To accomplish this goal, Jennifer slowly started adding people to help support her practice.

Fast-forward to 23 years and only 12 years ago.

Borislow: I had reached what I call a “ceiling of complexity.” This is the point where I could only expand so much with the team I has assembled. We were, at that time, 13 women and me. We were known as the all-female agency and struggling with what was going to be our next step to grow to the next level. This is where I was very fortunate to meet Mark. After years of wearing him down and showing him “the light,” I finally convinced him to leave a very promising career to join me as my business partner. It was one of the biggest sales of my life. So we became 13 women and one lucky guy! That’s a Focus Session all in itself. It has been a tremendous partnership, and we have been business partners now for 12 years. Not only are we business partners, but we are best friends as well. We actually started as friends, and just like any married couple or partnership like ours, we grow stronger together every day. I will borrow Mark’s line when he describes us like this: “The love is always there—the like sometimes comes and goes!”

Since then, we have been very fortunate to build an organization today that has nearly 50 employees. We specialize in working in the employee benefits space. Some of the unique differentiators for us are that we’re really active in the industry, and we are both association leaders on the state, regional, and national level. We serve on many advisory boards to major insurance companies, and we are fortunate to be closely connected to governmental agencies on the state and federal level. My partner holds a highly visible and prestigious role, appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to the Board of the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority.

We are very fortunate to be here to share our story and what we believe makes us an engaged organization with a team of 47, who are really passionate behind our cause and our vision.

Gaunya: We started out with a vision of who we wanted to become. Jennifer talked about how we came together in 2005, and the reputation the firm had at that time. We now had an opportunity to craft a new vision for the organization because of a regulation that was coming down the pipe. So we shifted our model and ultimately decided that we wanted to become the premier employee benefits firm and strategic advisor firm in our region, recognized locally and nationally for creating a community of health and well-being. When we talk about well-being, we are more than just wellness. When we talk about well-being, we are referring to five elements: physical well-being, financial well-being, workplace well-being, community well-being, and mind and spirit well-being. Those five things really set the foundation for us to build this community of health and well-being with the clients whom we serve.

Gaunya/Borislow: In addition to a very clear vision of our work, we collectively established a set of core values that we update annually. These values are developed by our leadership team working collaboratively together and embraced by the entire organization. They are as follows:

  • Anticipate change—Focus on progress rather than perfection. We learn and adapt from our experiences.
  • Operate with honesty and an ownership mindset—Take pride in everything that is fair, honest, and knowledgeable, and build trust in every situation.
  • Be intentional—Create vision, inspire others, and advance priorities and the mission of the organization.
  • It’s all about the personal touch and wowing clients—Show respect and compassion for the people we interact with, and celebrate success.
  • Be hungry to learn and grow—Thirst for knowledge and self-improvement, and demonstrate the skills need to accomplish all tasks.
  • Practice continuous improvements.
  • Be respectful—Collaborate for the common good of the people we interact with and the organization mission.
  • Give back—Commit to supporting charitable causes that make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.
  • Be engaged—Work with passion and feel a profound connection to our organization. Stay aligned with the organization’s vision, goals, and strategy.

And the most important core value is this: Enjoy what you do and have fun.

Borislow/Gaunya: So now let’s take a look at our model. We have created a practice with eight subject matters that surround our clients. We have decentralized the role of an account manager and took each area and made it a separate discipline with subject matter experts. Today’s world is way too complex and moves way too fast. Building each area of discipline took time as we had to find the right people who had unique abilities in these areas. Our philosophy is to go deep and wide in their subject matter. So instead of an account manager having to know a little about a lot of things, we now have the account manager essentially being a scientific project manager, where he or she is able to deploy one of those practices to develop that customized solution that clients are looking for to help them achieve their goals and objectives and solve their unique challenges.

Our model really has been built to be flat and flexible and built on interdependency, so we really require our team members to work together collaboratively. If you’ve got eight people sitting around a table with a clear vision and a three-year road map (which we develop for each of our clients), then you have a powerful and dynamic team working together to design a custom solution for the client. A powerful combination of talented people drives great results.

Gaunya: Each year we outline our strategic imperatives. These are the things that help us stay focused on growing our business, not just from a top line perspective. Our strategic imperatives embrace revenue growth and enhance who we are as an organization, how we’re going to treat our clients, and how we’re going to treat the folks whom we work with.

The first strategic imperative is diversification of revenue growth. While we do primarily focus on employee benefits (or what you’d call group insurance), we also do a lot of work on the individual side. We marry both the employee benefits along with the individual side of insurance and financial services and diversify our revenue. We have six pockets of revenue that we look to to grow our firm in, and if one of those pockets is not performing up to par, we have five others that we are using to help us meet our growth goals and profit objectives for the organization.

Borislow: One of our other strategic imperatives is developing great people—finding great people, recruiting them to the team, and then having them grow and develop. We have a motto in our office—“Recruit 365”—said among Mark, me, and our two senior leaders. We spend about 50 percent of our time identifying great people to bring on the team. Really great people are not really out looking to change jobs; they have to be disrupted from their current environment to join our team, and a lot of times it’s a process. Some of our high-flying performers right now have taken us two to three years to cultivate in order to bring them into the agency.

Our third priority is creating an engaged culture. This to us is paramount—that everybody believes and supports the mission, understands our core values, and is passionate about the work that we’re doing. We believe that you need to have passion for what you do. Take our receptionist. She is not just a receptionist but the “director of first impressions,” and when you walk in the door, you’re going to know Briana and she is going to know everything about you. We are willing to take risks on people who may not typically have the right skill set but are passionate and willing to learn. Our receptionist has passion; she actually came right from school and wasn’t sure what she was going to do, and we took a shot in hiring her. She was recently promoted to a new role where she is thriving and growing with new responsibilities.

Gaunya: The fourth strategic imperative is what we call “account value market segmentation.” Several years ago, we took a look at our business and recognized that we were treating all clients the same way regardless of the amount of business they do with us. And if you think about it, it really doesn’t make sense to treat a $5,000-revenue-generating client like a $100,000-revenue-generating client, but that’s what we were doing. So we decided to create four levels: platinum, gold, silver, and bronze, and they’re not based on the size of the company, but on the amount of business the company does with us. So we now actually have conversations with our accounts that may be in that silver or bronze tier, and we say, “Well, if you’d like to do more with us, we can bring you up a level, and give you a higher level of consultation.” We’re upselling existing clients on a relationship that they already enjoy with us, and we’re having them pay more to us in order to get that individual one-on-one consultation they’re looking for from our subject matter practice experts, which we’re going to get into in a few moments.

Borislow: I think it’s also important to note that when we look at a client, we look at total revenue. So even though the bulk of our business is employee benefits, if a client is our single largest life client, that client is actually treated as a platinum client. We look at the entire agency revenue, not just individual practices.

Gaunya: I would agree with that, and I’d also say that if you take a look at strategic imperative number five with best practices and ask clients to pay us more from the experience that they have, we have to make sure that we create an unbelievable experience, one that they want to go through with us and would enjoy and appreciate. What we’ve done is streamlined our process. We have learned that the way we grow exponentially is by understanding what our unique abilities are and focusing our attention on developing unique processes. Creating that unique process, like the employee blueprint process, allows us to walk clients through a process of how we can solve their benefit needs with them, to give them their unique strategy and develop a unique solution.

The sixth strategic imperative is something we’re both really excited about. This is a program called Captivated Health. For those who may or may not be familiar with employee benefits or how business is done in the United States, employers offer their employees group health insurance. Typically, it is purchased on a company-by-company basis. What we have done through our unique model is to create a captive insurance program where a group of homogeneous companies purchase health care coverage together. It is an elegant form of self-funding and allows us to create and design tools to enable employees to become better consumers of health care. Traditionally, those employers have not been able to self-insure together because it’s too risky or they can’t afford the reinsurance that they have to buy to mitigate the risk. What Captivated Health allows them to do is be self-insured (changing the way they finance their benefits), but then ultimately having them make it about the members so that the member has a very unique experience, and bringing them into the world of self-insured, which allows them to share risk. We could easily talk for hours on this exciting program as we are both very excited about its potential growth as we roll it out on a national basis.

Borislow: I think what you’ll see, as we talk about our strategic imperatives, is that Mark and I have different roles as owners of our agency. Mark is the visionary and innovative partner, and I’m all about the experience and how it impacts our clients and team. When you bring the two of us together, which we feel is a unique partnership, it creates that ideal opportunity for the client. Clients are looking for innovation. They’re not looking for the same thing—we ask them what makes them different and unique and how they feel about working with our team. We believe that we bring that unique blend to our clients.

The last strategic imperative is our community involvement. Our community involvement is actually a cornerstone of what we do, and social responsibility is a big part of it. When you walk into our office, you are warmly greeted, and if you look immediately to the left, you will see our philanthropy Mission Statement on the wall. It reads, “Borislow Insurance is committed to supporting charitable causes and organizations in our community dedicated to making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.”

We encourage our team to be really active. We have a committee that meets every month, and we have a philanthropic project every month, whether it’s packing backpacks, or it’s turkeys, or it’s out doing roadwork. We’re really involved with events every month in our organization. In addition, we invite our employees to participate in a community service day. Every other year, we do a massive community service day, where all employees are out for the day, and then, for the off year, everybody gets a day off during the year to do a community service project, whether it’s volunteering for a golf event or being at their kid’s school. We provide them with that time off, and then they come back and talk about it at our agency meeting.

We are also active on several local nonprofit boards. We’re particularly passionate about kids. We worked diligently with the local community to bring a YMCA chapter to our town in Methuen. As you can see, we’re pretty passionate about supporting kids. One of the things that I think sets us apart is that we let our clients and prospects know what our culture is, because we believe that since they’re going to work with us, they need to understand who we are.

Gaunya:Jennifer and I have written three books. Our first book was Bend the Healthcare Trend, which really is all of our intellectual knowledge on HSAs and how to use the creative solution to meet a client’s health care needs. And the second two books are called Inspire to Act and Inspire to Act for Kids; this is our random act of kindness program and developing an attitude of gratitude.

We give these books to our clients, and they can see that we’re passionate from a health care solution perspectives and who we are as people.

Borislow: Our business model takes people and resources to execute. So where do we find all the talented people who help us move our vision forward? Let’s start with where we are today.

Seventy-five percent of our employees have been with us less than 10 years, and actually 50 percent of our employees have been with us five years or less. This summer we celebrated all employees who have 10 years of service or longer with us. We also have a great cross section of demographics: millennials, 20 percent; baby boomers, 25 percent; generation Xers, 55 percent. The dynamics between the different personalities can be humorous and frustrating at times. An example: Our millennials tend to be free spirits. Sometimes they show up late or sometimes they forget—they’re playing golf—and they should be calling the office. So we’ve had all of those challenges adopting our styles with millennials and generation X. But we are very focused on a balanced life, and we allow a lot of flexibility in our office. As long as the work is getting done, that is the most important thing.

Gaunya: Our employees are very passionate about what they do, and we find them working at night or on the weekend to respond to a text or an email for a client. We want them to be available, but also to willingly take upon themselves to figure out what their own schedule is. We have actually used some technology in our office that has allowed us some flexibility.

Almost 50 percent of our employees travel more than an hour every day to commute to work. Traffic and highway congestion is tougher every day. In an effort to be flexible, we allow work from home and have also purchased two robots. It all started a couple of years ago. We were at a conference, and Mark really wanted to win a robot!

Gaunya: She thought I was crazy for wanting this robot, truth be told.

Borislow: Yes, that’s true. They are actually called Beams.

Gaunya: It looks like a vacuum cleaner, and on top is a screen, which essentially allows me (through my computer) to dial in. You see my face, like on Skype, but I can control it on my laptop. So I can literally dial into my office from wherever I am in the world and roll the robot around. I can talk to people, pull them into meetings, have them pull out a chair, and the robot rolls right up. It gives me a 360-degree view, plus it has a screen down below with track lines on it so I don’t hit things. And at the end of the day, if I can’t physically be present, I can remotely be present, but you can see my face on the screen, so it’s highly productive, especially when you’re taking a vacation—you can wear a work shirt but have your swim trunks on and no one knows the difference.

Borislow: OK, so when those robots came into our office, the word creepy came up a lot.

Gaunya: It’s very quiet.

Borislow: It’s very quiet. I’m in my office, and Mark might roll in, which will totally startle me.

Gaunya: My assistant said to me, “You have to give me warnings!”

Borislow: We make these robots available to our teams. A lot of our employees travel quite a distance, and the commute in our area is getting more difficult as the day goes on, with a lot of construction projects, so we encourage them to work from home. We really appreciate the collaboration and want them in the office as often as possible, but there are all sorts of times when somebody has a doctor’s appointment, has to take care of a child, or has a problem with infant day care, and they need that flexibility. So we are very much promoting that flexibility, that work-life balance, as much as possible.

Gaunya: Obviously, Jennifer already mentioned that we place a high premium on innovation—that’s the role I play; she says she’s more focused on the experience. You could almost say I’m paranoid about the competition catching up with us. I don’t sleep at night if I don’t think we’re three, four, five years ahead of our competition. That’s a very big part of who we are.

We believe in the ownership mind-set: Even though it’s only the two of us who are the owners of the company, we have hired people and brought people on the team who have that ownership mind-set about the job that they do. They’ve bought into the mission of helping us build and foster a community of health and well-being, and they understand their unique role on the team so that they can provide value to our client relationships and help our organization grow.

Borislow: If we go back to that last thought, lots of flexibility is important, but we also think that creating that sum of just the “wow” things that happen in the office is important too—the little things make a big difference. So when we say “little things,” we have actually invested in a fitness area that is right in our space. We are on the second floor of a 22,000-square-foot building and live in 16,000 square feet that’s our space. We have carved out 1,000 square feet and built a fitness area and hired a full-time trainer who works with our team any time of the day. We really walk the talk; we’re trying to encourage our clients to take steps to create health care confidence and more opportunities to educate their employees. We start everything with our own employees first, and that culture starts with the investment in the gym and the investment in the trainer.

When we ask our employees, “What kinds of things are important to you?” we look for what makes a difference in their lives. Sometimes it’s as simple as a potluck lunch or an ice cream break. The fitness area and our commitment to their well-being is critically important. We’re in the benefits business. So the one thing that you can be assured of when you come to work for our team is that you will have the best benefits around, because we test everything.

Gaunya: As an organization, we have been awarded the recognition of Best Places to Work. We have also been honored (six years in a row) as one of Boston’s healthiest employers to work for. Not only are we out there working with our clients to help them build and foster health and well-being, but we’re living by example. When we bring our clients in—and we love to give the tour—we walk them around and show them that fitness center. They’re just amazed and ask, “You built a fitness center for your staff? You have a personal trainer? And then you tell them to take an hour out of their workday and work out?” Yes, we do! Our only requirement is that if a client needs you on the phone and you have to come out in your workout gear, then that’s the way it is. And they’re OK with that!

The fitness center has been a great benefit. The stress level has reduced. We have a lot of working moms. The advent of the ACA, Obamacare, and all the stress with regard to helping our clients, is the reason we actually created the gym—for our folks. What we’ve actually seen, as a result of that, is that we get more work from our folks, even though they’re taking an hour out of their day. The reality is that most of our team members check back in at night. They put their kids to bed, and they’re back online.

Borislow: One of the things we’ve also seen is that the gym creates a dynamic where different people who would not typically be socializing together get together for workouts. Because the fitness center is only 1,000 square feet, we only allow three people to work out at the same time. We want our trainer to have an eye on each person. Lots of friendships have grown from working out together—it really has been a remarkable side effect for us.

Gaunya: Another big thing we’re serious about in our culture is developing our people professionally. There are three things we look for before we hire someone. We want to know if he or she is a lifelong learner—we believe that you can’t teach somebody to be naturally curious; you either have that or you don’t. Second, we hire people with a strong work ethic—you can’t teach it. You know what a good day’s work is, or you don’t. Third, you have to have a passion about what you do. If you have those three things, we will find a place for you on our team. We will take the time to understand what your unique abilities are and deploy you appropriately on the team. From a professional development perspective, we know that those three attributes you can’t teach. We can teach you insurance and we can teach you complicated structures, but we can’t teach you the three things just mentioned.

Borislow: One of our greatest challenges (and we’ll tell you, we’re full of weaknesses as well as strengths!)—in any relationship as in any business—is communication. So we’re constantly looking for new ways to improve our communication within the organization. Communication is critical. Every month, we hold an all-company agency meeting, and at that meeting, we always start with a positive focus. Believe it or not, all 50 employees go around the room and say the one thing they’re excited or happy about that’s happened to them in the last 30 days. It really is a wonderful way to start a meeting, and you learn so much! A few examples: “My son won an all-star award!” “I’m going on vacation!” “I just had a vacation!” Whatever it is, it’s a quick share, and you learn a little more about each person. Even if we’re not there, somebody runs the meetings for us every month.

On the professional development platform, we have moved to quarterly coaching. In the past, we have been very systematic about an annual review process, which is really laborious for us, and we dread it.

Borislow: Yes, so we’ve actually gone to quarterly coaching. And that means that we’re meeting with our team members more often to provide them with personal feedback and work on their professional development plans. We don’t want to wait till the end of the year to tell them about an area where they may need improvement or not. We break it down into two parts: directional and functional goals.

Gaunya: There’s more real-time feedback and we look for coachable moments when they happen, as opposed to waiting 12 months and then doing it in April, which is what we used to do each year. This is a lot more valuable for folks; they consider it an opportunity to get feedback from us.

Borislow: We’re in the camp of “You have to be constantly learning,” so we want to make sure that they’re developing their unique ability, or their skill set, so we actually provide those resources for them, whatever they may be.

Gaunya: And speaking of engaging our folks, one of the things we’re doing with our staff—what we struggled with—is, how can we gather feedback from them that’s candid, real, and genuine? You can ask a question as an owner, and people will tell you what you want to hear. That doesn’t help us improve our organization. We have embraced a tool called the Engagement Multiplier. It is an electronic tool that we use to measure the level of engagement of our staff every quarter, and it is a survey that takes five to seven minutes to complete. Each member of our team gets an email that comes out from the Engagement Multiplier program. It specifically focuses on two questions: “What are two things you can do to improve your level of engagement?” and “What is one thing leadership can do to improve its level of engagement?”

Initially, when we started this, we saw very guarded feedback because people were very unsure who was going to see it and where it came from, but then we assured them that it was confidential. The feedback has been really candid and direct, which actually is very helpful for us. We have expanded the process to include a team of seven in our office, who now review and compile the survey data back and then prepare a recommendation of the two to four items that we, as the four owners and leaders, need to do to focus on improving the level of engagement in the company.

Borislow: This has become a really important process for us, because not only does it provide valuable feedback, but we can talk about having an engaged culture, because part of being an engaged culture is understanding what your team members like and what they don’t like and if we are off track. If we’re off track, we can correct course very quickly to get back on track. The process is automated; it’s a digital survey with collective results.

Gaunya: We’ve talked a lot about this already, but it really can’t be understated: We take our time hiring people until we find great people. And we didn’t always do that. When you hire and make a bad hire, it’s so painful to get that bad hire straightened out. We’ll actually leave a job position open if we cannot find a great person, rather than settle and not have a great person in the seat. It’s something that we’ve had to be very disciplined about. If you’re a lifelong learner, have a strong work ethic, and are very passionate about what you do, then we know culturally that you’ll fit—and that’s important. Then, secondarily, what’s important are your unique skills and abilities that you bring to the table, which will allow us to deploy you on a team. Because we know culturally that you’ll fit in our company, but now we have to figure out where you can excel. We’re not big believers in people working on their weaknesses, because they just become stronger weaknesses. Take their strengths, deploy those strengths, and ultimately, if you can get 80 percent of what they’re doing every day focused on that strength and 20 percent not, then chances are they’re going to be very high-performing individuals.

Borislow: So we’re often asked, “Where do you find these great people?” We recruit 365. Both Mark and I are always evaluating people we meet and ask for introductions to those we don’t know. For us, many of the team members are recruited from personal observation. Typically, we are targeting a specific need and are laser focused on a candidate. We have incentive programs in our organization to bring people on whom an employee knows and to introduce us to them, because sometimes we have employees who are connected to a past person who might be ideal for our team. We have an internal incentive program for a referral.

We’re constantly linking in. Because Mark and I are so active in the community, we know a lot of people. We constantly ask, “Do you know of somebody who might be perfect for this type of role or situation?” And we are not shy to say that we’re growing—we are all in. A lot of people who do what we do in our area have folded up. We have now become the largest privately held employee benefits firm in Massachusetts. We love that honor, but we feel that a lot of people took the easy road out—and they’ve sold out. So that gives us the unique position, and it is an attractive thing for new people to want to work for us, because we’re innovative. You don’t have to go through layers. You see, Mark and I are actually hands-on working on the business and in the business every day.

Gaunya: We talked about retirement today and what that means, and to me the term retirement means to be put out of use. Who wants to be put out of use? No, thank you. We can’t do that.

This is a picture of our team. [visual] Not every one of our 47 people is there, but you can see that this is the representation of an amazing team that we’ve assembled—very talented and committed people to the mission that we’ve undertaken.

Jennifer A. Borislow, CLU, of Methuen, Massachusetts, is a Past President of MDRT and the founding principal of Borislow Insurance (BI). A 29-year MDRT member with one Court of the Table and 19 Top of the Table honors, she is a nationally recognized expert, author, speaker and thought leader on employee benefits, insurance and related business strategies.

Mark S. Gaunya, GBA, is an 11-year MDRT member with one Court of the Table and 10 Top of the Table qualifications from Methuen, Massachusetts. He is a co-owner and the chief innovation officer of Borislow Insurance (BI).


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