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Reaching for the Top

If you are looking to take your professional and personal life to the next level, then working with a coach or mentor should be the next item on your to-do list.

By Maggie Leyes

You had them throughout your childhood and young adult life: your sixth-grade English teacher who pushed to get your short story published, your high-school basketball coach who helped you perfect your free-throw stance so you could finally nail your shot, the college guidance counselor who steered you toward finance and business classes. These wise adults could see past your self-doubt, uncertainty or inexperience to the talents and abilities that lay hidden.

But, you are the adult now, the professional; you should know what you’re doing, right? How many times, though, have you wished for that guidance again? An encouraging word, an admonition that deep down you know is right on target, an outsider’s neutral view of a problem you cannot see your way out of, a well-timed phrase that motivates you to look at your life a bit differently. If you have never felt that need, you can stop reading now. For the rest, take heart. Help exists—in the form of coaches and mentors.

“Each person has a need to find out what is preventing them from doing what they need to do—get to the underlying root cause.”
—Bob Arzt, CLU, ChFC, LLIF, Polaris One

Reaching your potential
For Dick Gilmore, reaching the top ranks of management meant that he had no one to talk to about his concerns and management conundrums. Gilmore, who is with the Washington Group, a large general agency of Mass Mutual in Bethesda, Md., has been in the industry for 20 years. Having filled a variety of management roles, from general agent to owning his own agency, he now heads up strategic alliances for the 80-plus agent firm.

While successful by anyone’s standards, Gilmore felt on a deeper level that somehow he was not reaching his true potential. Something was out of balance. “I felt I had too many things going on in my life and not enough focus—as if I was not being effective in the working time that I had. I had more things to do than I was able to accomplish,” he says.

While the idea of hiring a personal coach had been rattling around in the back of his mind for some time, it just didn’t feel right. Then Bob Arzt, CLU, ChFC, LLIF, of Rockville, Md.-based Polaris One, reentered his life. They had met years back when they were both working at Principal Financial. Then, their paths crossed again a year ago, and their acquaintance was revitalized during the Suburban Maryland AIFA meetings they both attend. Arzt spoke to Gilmore about his coaching practice, and Gilmore signed on. It felt right. “I respected his experience and background. I had other people to go to, but I really wanted someone who knew the industry,” says Gilmore.

And Arzt does know the industry. He became an agent with Northwestern Mutual in 1976 and made the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) his first year. But training and coaching was in his blood, so over the next two decades he crisscrossed the country working in numerous large insurance companies as the head of agent and management training and development. He opened his coaching practice two years ago.

Personal best
Arzt has found a lot of advisors in Gilmore’s situation—wrestling with a vague, undefined feeling of not being at their best. There is no global cause, no professional midlife crisis that his clients suffer. Instead, “each person has a need to find out what is preventing them from doing what they need to do—get to the underlying root cause,” Arzt says. “Sometimes they know what it is; sometimes they don’t.”

For some it is accountability; they need someone to take them to task for not living up to their potential. For others it has to do with dismantling what Arzt calls belief boundaries—all those experiences you have throughout your life, many rooted in childhood, that create a boundary and hold you back from properly using your talents and being your best. That’s where an impartial coach comes in with help. “The coach doesn’t have an agenda; the only agenda he has is your well-being. But, you have to want to know the truth. A good coach is not someone who tells you what you want to hear; a good coach will tell it to you like it is,” says Gilmore.

For Gilmore, it came down to accountability. Arzt helped break down what Gilmore saw as an overwhelming number of tasks into categories, with time frames for accomplishing them. While the structure has helped Gilmore get his professional life back on track, he admits “this doesn’t mean I’m adhering 100 percent to the things we are talking about. That’s why we meet and reevaluate every two weeks. It’s like anything—you have to form right habits. So we are in the forming-of-right-habits stage.”

The effects of his coaching sessions, as often is the case, have translated into his personal life as well. “I’m not carrying [work] things with me because I have what I need to accomplish structured on paper, so they’re not just floating around in my head. It’s allowed me to be more relaxed when I am away from my profession,” says Gilmore.

Getting things out in the open is a large part of the coaching process. The coach becomes the catalyst to help you explore root causes of your current problems, or the means to achieving more in your professional and personal life. The coach also acts as a support system, something you may not have in other areas of your life.

Are you ready for a coach?

According to Bob Arzt, coach and founder of Polaris One, people hire a coach because:

  • They demand more from life on a personal and professional level.
  • They want to ensure a brighter future by expanding and improving their abilities.
  • They are looking for more balanced and fulfilling lives.
  • They want someone who will act as an impartial “sounding board.”

Getting the process started
So how do you go about finding a coach? The Internet is a great place to get started. There are some general coaching websites with information on the coaching experience, which also offer a coach-referral system. Edwin Morrow, CLU, ChFC, CFP, RFC, has published a guide, Personal Coaching for Financial Advisors, that profiles some 80 coaching organizations. It covers a range of coaches who can help you improve all areas of your life—from public speaking to increasing sales to bringing balance into your life. It also gives a list of coaching organizations and resources.

Gilmore’s advice is to get recommendations from others who have used a coach. His own experience also tells a tale: He waited until he felt the time and the coach were right. While he had been thinking about coaching for a while, it was Arzt’s arrival on the scene that got Gilmore to act.

You can also ask the coach for a free session; some coaches use a free consultation as a way of paving the path for the prospective client. Arzt, for example, always begins with a free 25-minute “collaborative interview.” This gives the client the opportunity to explore if coaching is right for him, and gives Arzt an opportunity to see if he can help the client.

Prices for coaching vary, depending on what services the coach offers and what you need—from a few hundred dollars a month to $15,000—or more—a year. To give you a point of reference: Arzt’s individual coaching sessions are priced at $300 a month; this includes two scheduled 45-minute sessions either by phone or in person, and unlimited support—by telephone or email—between sessions.

MDRT/GAMA International Joint Mentoring Program
Having been in the insurance and financial advising field for almost two decades, Brian D. Heckert, CLU, ChFC, has experienced the revolving door of young agents moving through the business. Mentoring, he felt, was a good way to train and keep talented people in this hard business. Reality doesn’t always comply.

Heckert first mentored his brother when he joined as a new agent. “He didn’t last in the business, though.” Heckert recalls. “He got into it for the wrong reason; he thought it was easy money and not a lot of work.” From that experience, Heckert learned that there is a certain personality that will make it in this business, which can then be shaped to succeed: “It takes someone who is willing and able to accept input. When I first started, my mentor told me what to do, and I did it.”

The mentor and the MDRT aspirant talk about their goals to clearly establish and understand what each wants out of the relationship.

Heckert found that same willingness in a fellow Eastside AIFA (St. Louis) member, agent Mike Young, CSA, who has been working with him at Financial Security Corp. in Nashville, Ill., for the last two years, and who has been in the industry for five. Heckert, a 15-year MDRT member—with one Top of the Table and four Court of the Table qualifications—signed up with Young for the MDRT/GAMA International Joint Mentoring Program to bring him up to speed quickly and into the MDRT fold.

The mentoring program, launched in 1995, was started to “improve individual and industry productivity.” It works like this: After paying an enrollment fee of $150, the mentor team receives a packet of information to help them get started. The pair goes through a checklist of topics that help them define and structure the relationship. The mentor and the MDRT aspirant talk about their goals to clearly establish and understand what each wants out of the relationship. They discuss when they will meet, the terms of the relationship, as well as more business-oriented details such as if there will be some joint work.

There are a number of formal agreement forms the team must then fill out, including an action plan they will follow. In addition, each month they fill out a “monthly mentoring monitor,” which keeps the participants on track by holding them accountable for their progress—or lack of it.

This accountability is critical to the success of the mentoring process, says Heckert, as the reporting keeps the team on track. Young agrees, “There are production requirements for us to turn in. That forces our hand to sit down and look at what we’re doing, and it gives us a track to work on.”

Busy, busy, busy
Unlike a coaching relationship, both members of the mentoring team are busy insurance and financial advisors, so time constraints can weigh heavily on the process. Young explains that when you choose a mentor—a successful, respected member of the industry—he most likely has a full schedule. So, he cautions, “You have to be very conscious of his time. If you are going to sit down with him, you need to be organized, have an agenda of what you are going to follow, have questions that will give you feedback. You also have to be thick-skinned, because you’re going to hear, ‘You’re going down the wrong path,’ and you have to be able to take that criticism.”

This critiquing is an integral part of both the coaching and mentoring processes. “My position was to keep him on track with what [he was doing], become a sounding board for his ideas, share ideas, help him on cases,” says Heckert. “It’s the exact same thing every agent goes through. You go through peaks and valleys with this, and I wanted to make sure his valleys weren’t too deep and his peaks weren’t too high.”

Young admits that the most important lesson he has learned from his work with Heckert is setting goals. With the mentoring program, the goal is clear: Make MDRT. Young reached that goal and will be attending this year’s MDRT annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., in June. And as goal setting goes, he already has his next one in place: to make his MDRT goal for 2004 before the Anaheim meeting.

Coaching and Mentoring Resources
Books to give you a head start:

Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of America’s #1 Career Coach by Laura Berman Fortgang

The Portable Coach: 28 Sure Fire Strategies For Business And Personal Success by Thomas J. Leonard

Adversity Quotient: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities by Paul Gordon Stoltz and David Pulatie

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

Developing The Leader Within You by John C. Maxwell

Personal Coaching for Financial Advisors by Edwin Morrow

Leadership in Life Institute
NAIFA started the Leadership in Life Institute to cultivate and nurture association leadership for the future, but in the process it has created so much more. That’s the feeling of LILI graduate and current LILI moderator Lisa Laliberte.

“I went into it thinking they were going to teach me to be a state president or maybe a national committeeperson, but that wasn’t it at all,” says Laliberte, CLU, ChFC, a State Farm agent in Lewiston, Maine. “What I got wasn’t what I expected, because what I got exceeded my expectations. I didn’t realize that I would step back and take such an in-depth personal look at who I am and what I believe in. And when I did that, and defined my personal vision and mission, I found that I am really eager and anxious to become that person I defined.”

What exactly is this institute that so changed Laliberte? LILI is a series of six, one-day classes held over six months. A moderator leads the small class of six to 12 participants through the curriculum, which is based on the premise that leadership of others begins with leadership of yourself. The institute offers participants the opportunity to “increase productivity, efficiency, effectiveness and overall life satisfaction. … And experience an attitude and environment conducive to deep, prolonged personal and professional growth.”

There are certain skills the participants cover. These include: understanding the fundamentals of time management, assessing and working with divergent personality styles, developing a personal vision and mission statement with an appropriate action plan, putting team-building skills to work, learning to lead, and fostering deeper relationships in every aspect of life. Much of the coursework is based on material from motivational and self-improvement gurus Stephen Covey and John Maxwell, with their books serving as the foundation for much of the participants’ homework.

Laliberte, a member of NAIFA-Androscoggin (Maine), participated in the 2002-2003 LILI program through the New England Forum. She was so moved and changed by her participation that she decided to become a moderator for this year. She sees it as both a personal and professional growth opportunity “because you can’t separate the two in our profession,” she stresses. “You can’t separate who I am as a person from who I am as a professional. And if I don’t understand who I am on a personal level and have not defined those principles that I want to live by, then I can’t be a better professional.”

Laliberte points to Covey’s book,The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, as key in her learning process: “I am finding the Covey books are really about the tools to get to where I am going. Covey isn’t easy reading. I tried to read it three or four times, and I just couldn’t get through it. But reading the book in LILI, coming together and discussing ‘the habits’ and applying them, trying to live them … has given me the direction manual on how to live Covey, not just read it.”

Get involved
There are 18 institutes scheduled for this association year, scattered across the country, with 4 more institutes being formed. There are 160 candidates currently participating in LILI, which is a substantial increase over the first graduating class of 15 when the institute started in 2000.

The state associations administer the institute, organize the class and provide a selection committee that chooses the candidates from among the applications. The LILI program costs between $500 and $800, depending on where the sessions are located. Some local associations help participants with the cost of tuition. In return for this learning opportunity, NAIFA asks the LILI graduates to commit to two years of association service, which, according to Laliberte, “is such a small thing to ask of me for what I get in return.”

Websites to visit:

• Coachville (

• (

• International Coach Federation (

• Million Dollar Round Table (

• GAMA International (


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