As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Williams, Brokers International.
A thought leader in the financial and insurance sectors, Mark Williams has been muscling his way up the ladder since age 16, when he went to a local business owner to ask for a job. He didn’t walk in with experience or a resume, but he did have guts and an enviable work ethic. Today, Mark is the CEO of Brokers International, earning his seat at the table every day and expecting others to do the same.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Absolutely. I actually started down the insurance advisor career path because of my father. He was an insurance agent for most of his career. One of the first work stories I remember him telling me was about the time he delivered a death benefit check to a recently widowed mother of three young kids. She was a stay-at-home mom, and the impact of the benefit check and her husband’s decision to buy a policy literally changed that situation. She did not have to go back to work or uproot her children and further disrupt their lives because he bought a life insurance policy. Hearing that story, seeing that power to help someone in a time of great need, was the catalyst for my own career path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career, when I was representing an insurance carrier, I met with the president of a field marketing organization to talk about our products. I noticed he didn’t do a lot of production work and asked him right out of the gate why he didn’t move under someone else and take a different contract. Speaking very directly, he let me know in no uncertain terms why he had the contract he did (which was the top one) and taught me an important lesson that I practice today: to always know who I’m visiting with and never offer a solution without fully knowing all the facts.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It may sound cliché, but no one has had a stronger influence on my professional success than my father. He taught me many of the important things in life, including the value of a strong work ethic. I’ve joyfully had a job since I was 14 years old and truly believe, because of him, that having a job is better than having no job at all. When my son was in college, he worked at a fast food restaurant for two years. While his buddies gave him a hard time for it, I didn’t. I let him know I was proud of him for displaying a desire to work.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Since 1983, our entire business model has been to support the success of our agency partners and their financial professionals through our exceptional service, innovative tools and proven marketing programs. Our vision has been to build successful partner agencies, not to compete against them. Our purpose is to support the success of our partners nationwide. We reflect that purpose in the Brokers International mission statement: “Our exclusive tools, services, and years of expertise allow us to help agencies and financial professionals serve their clients and grow their business.”
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
A timely example comes from our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I always believe in 100 percent transparency as much as possible. Sugar coating hard truths can lead to confusion, so I try to communicate consistently, clearly and transparently. When COVID-19 caused us to move to a remote work environment, we gave people a clear plan to follow to get set up and working efficiently from home. We’ve continued to be clear and precise about our return to work plan. And, as the economy continues to reel, we’ve been transparent about our financial situation as well as the opportunity we have to continue to sell our products to people who need them now more than ever.
I encourage our employees by emphasizing what we do, why we do it and why we’re not going anywhere. I’ve also increased opportunities for employees to express their concerns, needs, fears and thoughts with myself and other managers through new virtual chat times. Especially during turbulent times, people want to be heard, so it’s important to give them avenues to express themselves.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There’s really nothing I’ve ever given up on. There have been times I’ve had to know when to stop investing in projects that aren’t turning out the way I’d hoped, but I don’t consider that giving up. We invested two years and two million dollars into a lead-generating retail website and realized our end goal couldn’t be accomplished, so we shut it down. We learned a lot from the process and are using much of what we learned, although that specific endeavor did not work out. I would have been more upset about not trying something I really thought was going to work, than trying and having to walk away.
Personally, I’m kind of a perfectionist, which drives me to persevere until tasks, projects and goals are completed. I get much satisfaction from completing things, so it’s just antithetical to my core as a person to give up. That doesn’t mean I don’t fail, but I never stop trying and never stop learning.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The well-being of those you lead, whether as a manager, CEO or community leader, is and always should be your foremost concern. I know it has been for me. When COVID-19 hit, when the great recession occurred in 2007 and all the less challenging, but still difficult times in between, the well-being of my employees and their families has always been the axis around which I make business decisions. That’s a leader’s role in challenging times, to inspire, encourage and motivate his or her people to rise up and press forward until that bright tomorrow we’re working for arrives.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Be available. Be transparent. Be present for your people. Give them opportunities to express their concerns, fears and ideas. We started a coffee hour recently over Zoom where employees can pop in and chat with me about anything they please. We’ve also done breakfast Zooms where employees take turns cooking a meal while we watch so we can learn the recipe and make it ourselves. We’ve done the same thing with happy hour and sharing favorite cocktail recipes. During troubled times, other than transparency, availability and authenticity are two key things leaders can do to engage and inspire the people they lead.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be straight, clear, honest and concise. Don’t try to hide the truth or present only a portion of it. People are smart. They can tell when their leaders are lying to them or holding something back. Trust your people enough and your customers enough to be upfront and transparent with them. And, while you’re communicating honestly, share your plan forward. People need their leaders to lead. That means showing everyone a confident path forward and what role they play in it. I’ve found people are willing to contribute toward the greater good when they understand the big picture and their part in it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’m a planner by nature; always have been. I’m the kind of person who has a ladder on the second floor of his house in case there’s a fire and we need to climb down through the window. I was that dad who had his family practice their emergency fire drills every year. We never had a fire, but I don’t regret it. I understand not everyone is a natural planner, but I am shocked by how many successful business people fail to adequately plan for the future. Start with what you know and then create a series of models based on normal sales, half sales and even no sales. Watch your expenses like a hawk, but don’t stop marketing your products and services. If you can’t plan, bring someone on your team to help you. Turn this challenge into a positive by letting it be the starting point for a new habit of planning and preparing for the future of your business.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Solicit feedback from your employees and customers and listen intentionally to their responses. Many times, because we’re so busy, we ask a question and then while the person is answering, we move on to the next question we want to ask. Listen intently and continually ask questions of your people. Run your thoughts and plans by them; doing so breeds trust and confidence in your leadership.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Often during hard times, people stop investing in their business and/or marketing, and I think that’s a mistake. They will consider marketing to be an additional expense. We do not. They will be quick to eliminate jobs. We won’t. When the business comes back, those who haven’t marketed and/or downsized will find they have fallen behind their competitors.
Secondly, you need to prepare for the future. I am often amazed at the lack of planning by some businesses’ and individuals during tough times. The military taught me that you prepare for the worst always. So the things you train for and work towards and plan are worst case scenarios which very rarely happen, but when they do, like what we are in now, you have something to fall back on. If the worst happens, you’re as ready as you can be for it. You make better decisions in the middle of it and you put yourself in a stronger position to succeed, and to come out of the challenge ahead.
Finally, you have to know when to cut your losses. One of the biggest mistakes of my career was allowing people to stay in a position longer than I should have. I had the right position and wrong person in it and I kept them there too long. It’s not good for the person, the morale of other workers and the company as a whole.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
First and foremost, it’s important to make sure that your business is operating in as healthy a position as possible. Whether that means cutting back on nonessential expenses or budgeting based on new sales forecasts, you always want to make sure you’re operating from a position of strength.
Aside from that, there are a few specific steps I’ve encouraged others to take in order to maintain or grow momentum during tough times.
Look into ways you can expand the portfolio of services or products you offer. For a salesperson, are there similar lines you can add to your portfolio? Perhaps there are new markets you can expand into.
Embrace technology. One benefit of the challenging situation we find ourselves in today has been the rapid adoption of technology to keep business moving forward. Chances are everyone has had to rely on technology in a new way over the past six months, and new technologies are being developed all the time to meet identified needs. Explore what new (or new to you) tools you can employ to keep your business driving forward.
And if you do find that business is slow and you’ve got extra time on your hands, don’t sit idle. Take advantage of continuing education and professional development opportunities. And when things get back to normal, you’ll be set up for even greater success than before.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
First, communicate; frequently and transparently. This is always important, but especially in turbulent times. Provide clear and concise instructions about what you want people to do.
Second, especially in turbulent times, people like to be told what to do. So, offer clear direction on what their role and responsibilities are.
Third, you have to be really patient. That’s a very difficult thing to do when times are turbulent. People don’t handle stress well. They can become impatient and nervous and even say things they don’t mean. We have to be patient with each other and that kind of attitude flows from the top down.
Fourth, be a good listener. People are afraid and most of them just want to be heard. Provide opportunities for people to express their feelings, and as they share, practice intentional listening. Be present with them in a real and meaningful way.
Finally, don’t overlook the value of levity. My dad showed me the power of finding the positive in any situation, of bringing laughter into even the darkest day. Sometimes a little lightheartedness reminds people that times won’t always be so hard. Sometimes a laugh is what helps an employee get through the day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my all-time favorite quotes is, one I’ve adapted from John Wooden, who said, “if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.” I prefer to say, “if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not working.” I expect people to make mistakes, because it means they’re taking risks and growing. Failure can be the greatest teacher. I don’t reward mistakes, but I allow them. I just expect you, and myself, not to repeat them endlessly. But I always remember if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not trying very hard.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I try to stay active on social media, primarily LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-williams-bi/). I think that’s an important aspect of maintaining transparency, and I like to use it as a platform to share resources that I’ve found helpful. Additionally, you can connect with me and see what events I’m participating in on my website: https://www.markwwilliams.com/.