Filed Under:Agent Broker, Agency Management

Why Do You Serve?

Reflect on why you work in a service industry

Most of us, at some point or another, have volunteered with an organization or charity that needed our help. Sometimes we work with civic groups like homeowners’ associations or at the schools our kids attend. Many insurance people also attend career groups such as the Big I or CPCU. reports that 62.8 million Americans are volunteers. That’s more than a quarter of our population stepping up and helping out where they are needed, for a total of 8 billion hours with no request for recompense.

But why do we do it? Some would have us believe that the American pioneer spirit has left us, or that we have become selfish, or that our culture has become one of all take and no give. I firmly disagree. Our statistics prove otherwise. If you don’t believe the numbers, look around you. Have you coached Little League? Does your sister work in a soup kitchen? Has your best friend ever walked in the purple leukemia vest?

Related: Read the article by David D. Thamann "The Flipside of Altruism."

And don’t count out corporate America. Despite the random incidents of corporate greed run amuck, far more do good than harm. The National Conference on Citizenship reports that even big corporations have continued to donate in this "new normal" economy, and, for example, some of the biggest firms sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Japan and Haiti after the earthquakes. Add to that, small businesses are the heart and soul of our economy, creating 65 percent (or 9.8 million) of the 15 million net new jobs created between 1993 and 2009, according to SCORE. And what small business owner do you know who hasn’t sponsored a kids’ hockey team or bought at table for 10 at the puppy rescue dinner? What grocery chain or convenience store hasn’t collected at the checkout for muscle diseases or infant care?

One theory holds that if every American could give ten cents of every dollar to any charity, every government entitlement program could end immediately. Many already do give at that level and more.

Why do we do it? Why is it so ingrained in our nature, our humanness, our culture, to give back? Our natural tendency is to do that which aids in our survival. It’s an instinct that we cannot ignore. Maybe we serve because we know instinctively that we need each other to survive in the long run.

Related: Read the another column by Lisa H. Harrington "Letting Go."

On the other hand, some start with the more selfish intent. "If I join," he or she thinks, "someone will hire me/buy from me/contract with me…won’t they?" In the end, anyone who serves on a regular basis will tell you that they receive far more than they give—but by then, that’s no longer the reason they continue to show up to clean cages, serve food or distribute toys. They keep going because it feeds our souls to do good for others.

We live in an industry of service. Once you’re in insurance long enough, you realize that the whole idea is that everyone pitches in when someone in the herd is having a problem. That’s the whole gist of it, isn’t it? If you’re in the business, you need a servant attitude, at least most of the time—no matter what the media say, or how badly a few might behave.

I want to challenge each of us to think about why we serve—not just in our personal lives, but also in insurance. Why do we do it? What gets us up day after day to push applications or claims checks? Are we just tentmakers like Paul, receiving a paycheck to pursue other passions? Or are we genuinely driven by the nature of insurance as a social instrument of good?

There is a terrific book called "Start with Why" by Simon Sinek that is worth reading. He asks us to find our "why" in what we do. It’s aligned with the idea of having a vision statement (our why) in addition to our mission statement (our what). Story after story in the book help the reader see that companies and individuals succeed when they know their reason/vision/why and apply it every day to their actions.

Best practices materials, other management texts, sales courses and more have made this point over the years. Why should we pay attention now? Abraham Maslow may have given us a clue about that. As we grow past the need to worry about food, air, shelter and the like, we begin to realize we are obligated to do more. As we self-actualize, we must decide our purpose—what Sinek calls our "why."

Corporately, this also becomes a map for the ranks to follow. Rank-and-file employees can easily make decisions when they know why we are in business. Layers of bureaucracy can be eliminated because everyone already knows the reason for the end result; they can follow the map. They can adjust as needed and think independently. This leads to faster, smarter results and smarter people, and it fuels cooperation. We can keep our eye on the goal because we know what it is.

Mission statements are critical, but they tell us only what to do. When there is a variance in the process, productivity must halt if everyone doesn’t have all the information to right the problem. The vision, the why, will help your folks figure out how to move a process along despite a roadblock if the reason is clear and the parameters are well set for them.

Related: Read the article "Praying for Rain" by Lisa H. Harrington.

We must take care in defining our vision. It would be easy to say our reason, our why, is to "make money" or "be the biggest or the best"—but that’s still just a "what" and gives no indication of our passion. Nothing about making money or being the best explains why we serve.

Sinek elaborates about the brain and why it’s so difficult to articulate our passions and our "why." John Medina, author of "Brain Rules" can tell us in detail which neurons fire during any particular thought process, but also acknowledges the difficulty in moving those thoughts from the brain to the communication system otherwise known as language. We just naturally have a hard time describing our reasons for being, our passions. Have you ever asked someone why they love you? Or tried to answer that question yourself for someone else? Then you know what I mean here.

Describing what we really intend to leave as our legacy in the long run helps us with all the short-term gain we also seek. Just the simple articulation of the "why" will lead to reaping more than we sow. I’ve found my why: to live in the truth, be a friend first, and to serve graciously.

When others can understand our reasons, they can rally around us and aid our cause. This is more than emotion. It’s a valid response to the need for humans to band together in a common cause. It’s "top of the mountain" stuff, and it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. And what better way to check yourself? Take a few minutes now, and see if you can find the words. What is your "why"?

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