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By Ross A. Morton

January 2002 — Zymurgy is the act of fermenting
with respect to the making of good wine or beer. Well for that matter zymurgy can also
produce bad wine and beer! I had to stretch to use the word but it is so apropos given
that the fermenting going on in the insurance business is far from spring waters (Evian
spelt backwards is na�ve!). We are part of the great cauldron of fermenting financial
services. We in Canada are not alone. We are mere followers of a global trend. We may even
at times, heaven forbid said the American, be leaders. In an industry shrinking in terms
of participants and at the same time short of leaders emerging in sufficient numbers, we
are fermenting into unknown ale unless the ingredients are modified to meet the needs of
future stakeholders

We are all too well aware of the mergers and acquisitions
that abound and have been slowly occurring for the past decade. They do mount up and on
reflection we have lost many but few of us would resurrect any of them. The leaders of
each disappeared into retirement, bigger insurers or became consultants given their
credentials. The consolidation of our industry which has escalated in pace is the
foundation of our brew.

Gone are the stand-alone life insurers of British Columbia
having succumbed to acquisition mania. Who remembers Seaboard, Glazier, British Pacific,
Fidelity or even the old quaint North West Life? Gone from Alberta are the flamboyant and
often controversial Life of Alberta, Sovereign cum Family Life, Rocky Mountain Life (does
anyone have in their garage a purple Cougar, the Cougar car that is?), Paramount Life and
the early Financial Life, or even the agent’s friend Substandard International (the
near insurer). Saskatchewan said goodbye to Pioneer Life but hangs on to Cooperators and
gained Crown. Gone from Manitoba are Monarch and the original Citadel. Solid and bland but
gone. Ontario has a list too long for the editor yet they include previously strong names
and even reinsurers. There were many and each had its quirks and unique attributes even in
their demise. Gone from Quebec are just as many one-time regional life giants like
L’Unique and Cooperants. My lack of fluency shortchanged my intimate knowledge of
their stories. I love the Maritimes but I am hard pressed to find something to follow
after “gone are. . . “

The visionaries after a good smoke had predicted that the
workers in our industry would run out of places to work by this new century we have
entered. Why is it then that I constantly hear the wailing of presidents and senior
executives as they face the truism “there are not enough good people to go around
these days”. I never heard that when I was a young man just yesterday. We don’t
say too loudly yet “I’m looking for a good man” since today the good man
could be and often is a woman. Thank the heavens for the passage of time and the death of
“only men will be tested for their potential leadership in our company.” The
later being a very true statement by an early “boss” (now there is an antiquated
word) who felt it was wrong to invest in females in the company since they would not be
around for the duration nor could they be company leaders. So today where are all the good people?

The Globe & Mail of 00-09-22 had two articles on
employees and it adds to the mixture of issues within our industry even though they were
general comments. Barrie McKenna’s article titled “Take this job and. . . “
talks of the least loyal employees. Nothing in the article will surprise any
reader and one wonders why it got so much space. Canada ranks in the middle of the 32
nations covered. Is anyone surprised company loyalty is greatest in Columbia? Hello, read
the front page for a while. That company loyalty is greater in the US than Canada was the
only surprise but maybe the insurance industry is just not your average industry. Hong
Kong and Singapore are at the least loyal category and that is as expected given their
zeal for capitalism and making money right now thanks. Buried in the article was the
comment I wrote about recently and that is ethics. The story states “nearly one-third
of Canadian workers have witnessed unethical behavior by their employer within the past
two years.” Hopefully not in the insurance business. The other relegated to page 12
story was by Madelaine Drohan and she asserts that research shows we (Canucks) are not as
insecure in our jobs as some pundits believe. I agree with her and that’s all I am going to say.

Murray Axsmith is considered a world leader in career
management services and in its role it provides the marketplace with its annual survey
(see highlights in Transitions Volume 12, No. 1) of what’s hot and what’s not in
the recruiting or dismissal business. I’ll be positive and stick to the summary of
hiring highlights while leaving the ten top dismissal issues to the David Letterman’s
top ten list someday. The survey, under the auspices of a John Hamilton who I am sure
would love to talk to you about the detail, compares trends from year to year and thus is
a great benchmark for employers as well as employees.

If you are one of those people who can’t lead a team
to the bathroom nor converse with aplomb and passion with your staff, you are in the
majority. After writing that masterful sentence I realize that in my experience those of
you who are in the aforementioned group most often do not realize you are in the
aforementioned group. Again, after writing that second masterful sentence I realize there
are many of the human species that don’t wish to lead people anywhere let alone
converse with the milieu. Everyone is different and our skill sets or innate desires vary
in humungous fashion. The survey is emphatic in stating that the most difficult skill sets
or competencies to be found are interpersonal skills and team leadership. Thus the reason
for the return of the one on one interviews with other than just the human resource staff.
Reference checks on these hard to quantify skills become very important. The study talks
of increased use of the interview, reference checks, testing while dropping the
inquisition panels that were once popular yet s warm as Inuvik in January.

So here we have it, a shrinking home for talent and an even
faster shrinking reservoir or cauldron of talented leaders and people endowed with
interpersonal skills. But is that being fair to the human race as we race through our
daily lives? Today the reward is for the here and now not the there and future. “Give
me the quarterly results and make sure this year is 15% top line growth coupled with 15%
bottom line growth,” said Ms. Y (name withheld for sake of sanity). In the age of
instant gratification and rewards that must be felt, smelt and tasted immediately there is
perhaps no room for saying lets wait 10 years and see if the product emerges as per the
assumptions so cleverly constructed to squeeze another penny from the price. How do you
inspire staff and leaders to leave a company in excellent shape, as judged 10 years from
now, when stock options, bonuses, compensation and gratitude stem from the latest quarter
or years results? Stand up the 3 of you who deep in your hearts have any real intention of
being in the same company (or the new owners company) five years from now. All right all
you 60 year olds we already discounted you in our severance calculations (early retirement
whether you want it or not).

Is the fermentation creating putrid vinegar just beyond our
sense of smell and vision of three-year plans and rewards or is this new twist of
ingredients (short rewards, ethics, loyalty, leadership and interpersonal skills) going to
produce a fine wine to be left for the connoisseur of our industry? I wish I knew. I do
know what I hear and that is a lack of faith in finding the leaders with the criteria to
make it work. The good news is the admonishments buried in the surveys will surely change
in subsequent surveys, as the leaders appear to fill the void.

We just have to adjust to the new millennium’s
prerequisites to success. That is, enjoy it while you can for a new longer-term reward
packages will emerge to prevent the emaciation of our industry. Will it stymie the
creative brilliance that has escalated the competitive bar? Not a chance and the
brilliantly creative may even learn to talk to their staff about it in sentences of more
than three words! The convergence of people skills and company needs has often been out of
synch (just look at the good old days of only actuaries running the industry) so by
happenchance we may have all our leaders emerge at once fitting the exact requirements of
the companies’ “qualities in staff we want to hire list”.

I know I am still waiting for my personal rhythm to fall in harmony with some company’s rhythm.