Five Guidelines to Achieving Success

Michael C. Davidson, CLU®

Michael C. Davidson, CLU® Chairman of the Board of Trustees at The American College, Michael is the Vice Chairman and Chief Agency and Marketing Officer at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company®.

In the summer of 1978, I began my career as an insurance agent in Richmond, Mo., population 6,000. That summer, the Bee Gees were Stayin’ Alive, gasoline cost 63 cents a gallon and Grease was No. 1 at the box office.

I shared a tiny office decorated with $200 worth of used furniture with one staff assistant. I made hundreds of sales calls, many times visiting customers and pulling up to their homes in my 1970 Ford Maverick.

Although it seems all that happened in another lifetime, I remember it like yesterday. Back then, leadership and success were just concepts. After all, I was just learning the ropes.

Today, I sit in a different, larger office. I’m proud and grateful to work with 19,000 agents and field leaders at State Farm Insurance. But, I’m still learning.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that being a successful leader is not only mastering the business, but it is developing habits essential to success, regardless of where you are in your life and career.

Whether you’re a veteran independent producer, a corporate employee or a new member of a small office team, you can increase your chances for success. Maybe you’re a visionary. Perhaps you’re the team pacesetter. Each of us has the potential to lead in our roles.

The key is to continuously take stock of where you are, assess your progress, learn from what you discover about yourself and always ask, “How well am I serving my customers?”

Thirty-three years in business have taught me a lot. Here are five guidelines to achieve success that serve me well.

Long-term goals are important, but it’s just as important to keep your head in today’s game. Discipline yourself to focus on the present. Take one step at a time, one action at a time. Focus on what you need to do today to be ready for the next customer, the next assignment or the next sale.

Find a way to distinguish yourself. The public is more discriminating than ever. People want to know, “Why should I do business with you?” Consumers are searching for experts to help them navigate the trials and tribulations of planning for the future.

Due to the recent economic crisis, people are keenly interested in talking about how they might manage their finances in thoughtful, long-term ways. This mindset has opened doors of opportunity that haven’t existed for 20 years. There’s new energy surrounding traditional products, such as whole life insurance. Make yourself relevant by helping people find a solid foundation to build their financial future.

There’s been a phenomenal change in how people obtain and use information and in how they interpret community. In the past, “community” usually meant the town where you lived. Today, it often means an online chat group with members from across the globe.

Technology and customer needs require us to constantly look at how we do business and evaluate what we should do differently. This practice can be intimidating—even threatening— to those who do not want to change with the times. It’s critical you’re familiar with and use today’s technology. The ability to provide just-in-time information to current and potential clients is amazing.

This issue of The Wealth Channel Magazine is packed with information about leveraging technology, from using the Social Security website to social networking tips to how to use webcams in the office.

You might expect me, as Chairman of the Board for The American College, to give a plug for continuous learning. But it’s more than just lip service. I’m a big believer in the power of education, and I still take American College courses. And customers today expect the professionals they do business with— particularly financial services agents and advisors—to be up to date on the latest information.

When it comes down to it, learning is about changing behavior. Changing behavior is paramount if you expect to keep up with emerging business practices. As a business person, you cannot afford to get left in the dust because you have not contemporized your skill set. Business people who challenge themselves to gain more knowledge make themselves more competitive. And it’s a great feeling to know your talents have been validated by a rigorous curriculum.

Today, people use Twitter, Facebook, texts and e-mail to stay in touch. That’s good, but it’s all about balance. If you choose to only communicate electronically with customers, employees or superiors, you’ll miss meaningful conversations. This is particularly true if you’re helping customers plan for the future. You can’t plan a retirement in a 140-character tweet.

Technology changes constantly, but people still want to know someone cares about them. Today’s successful leaders recognize that technology can help them keep in touch but face-to-face conversation remains essential.

About six months after I started as an agent, I talked with a couple about life insurance. The customers, John and Rita, and their three children, lived in a small home on a farm. I could’ve handled the sales call over the phone, but I knew sitting across a kitchen table would be more meaningful.

The couple purchased a $50,000 life policy for John and, after quite a bit of convincing, they also purchased a $10,000 policy for Rita. All they could afford was term insurance. I spent hours with the couple that cold winter evening—what some people might not have considered a productive use of time. Certainly my motivation was not the commission. Rather, it was an investment in a relationship.

A few years later, John called with the sad news that Rita had passed away. “I can’t thank you enough,” he said. “It’s been a rough year on the farm. Without that $10,000, we wouldn’t have had a decent funeral for the children’s mother.” John became a lifelong client.

That’s just one story; I’m sure you have many of your own. Through professional agents, advisors and producers across the country, our industry is positioned to deliver this kind of security in a way that few other industries can.

History will look back on the past few years, and the years ahead, as a watershed period for the financial services industry. Now, more than ever, is the time for companies and producers to come together to serve the public. We are truly surrounded by opportunity, and you play a key role in this pivotal period for our industry.

No matter what your role. It’s your time to lead.