Opinion

The value of discomfort

One of my colleagues has a paperweight on her desk with the quote, “Being uncomfortable is the price of growth.” I don’t know who said it, but I feel like printing the message on a flag and wildly waving the banner every time I encounter someone in our industry.

If you work in the employee benefits sector and are feeling nostalgic about your job, I suspect you’ll be in serious trouble in the not too distant future.

When dealing with the monumental change confronting our industry, the only viable option is to transform yourself and your approach to business. It requires expanding your knowledge base, developing new revenue streams and adding value. It means leveraging new resources, expanding your conceptual framework about compensation and repositioning your agency. You must do things differently. Much differently.

Most of us engaged in thinking about tomorrow spend a lot of time devising specific tactics to get there. Regardless of what innovative solutions we develop, I’ve recently come to a significant conclusion: The biggest obstacle standing in our way is our own resistance to change.

While it’s annoying for most of us to stretch past our comfort zones, I am sometimes astonished at the barriers others create for themselves. Once we get past our formative years, our species seems inclined toward inertia.

In reality, the past decade-plus in the health benefits business reinforced this behavior. For those of us specializing in small- and mid-sized markets, we could focus on the three Rs (reading, relationships and responsiveness) and watch our revenue grow at rates of 10 percent annually, simply because rates increased. In effect, if you were well informed and worked hard, you could watch your income grow. Compared to the energy we need to exert today, the effort was equivalent to pulling the lever on a Barcalounger to lift the leg rest.

To succeed in this evolving world, we need to unlearn what we know and take fresh approaches. While many of us already have new tools and resources in our sales solution kits, it is fascinating to watch advisers default to their old scripts. We want to stick with what’s familiar. So, how do we get people to stop saying what they’ve always said and acting as they always have? How can we inspire others to broaden their perspectives beyond their comfort zone?

As our industry undergoes transition, our leaders must motivate those around them to move with it. If we want to be agents of change and, quite frankly, remain relevant in the future, we must foster environments that encourage discomfort. After a couple of pleasant decades coasting around in a Lexus, the allure of learning to ride a unicycle disappears. It is too much work, and there is too much risk. Yet those who embrace such challenges will be rewarded. This applies equally to individuals and agencies, as well as sales and service personnel. Each of us must go through a bumpy phase until the new concepts and solutions become ingrained.

We must nudge each other to the edge of the proverbial cliff. When I prompt others in such a direction, I'm often met with these responses:

  • “I’m too busy to relearn so much.”
  • “I feel like you’re asking me to go back to school.”
  • “I can’t handle the amount, and speed of, change.”

When most of us entered into this business, we were highly motivated. Yet, I feel our success has inspired us to become…content. Perhaps success has us more inclined to play defense and hold on to things as opposed to playing offense and capturing new market opportunities. People who were A students at the beginning of their careers now perform at a different level. In essence, we do need to go back to school. For those operating independent agencies, following is list of subjects to master:

  • Analytics to support plan design decisions
  • Defined contribution software solutions
  • Emerging decision support tools for employers and employees
  • Health care costs and quality transparency tools
  • Truly integrated voluntary and worksite solutions
  • Payroll and benefits administration technologies and solutions
  • Care support solutions
  • Next generation wellness and lifestyle management solutions

Education has always been a powerful tool in the change arsenal. It certainly was in my personal tale. I grew up on the south side of Buffalo, N.Y. It’s a blue collar, Irish Catholic enclave with a church and bar at almost every intersection.

Alliances were divided between the area’s two steel mills and proximity to the closest Catholic school. I was surrounded by family and friends, and ensconced in a comfy existence attending P.S. 67 with all my buddies. During eighth grade, someone got the bright idea that I had the aptitude to attend a top prep academy in Buffalo, the elite Nichols School on the north side of town. I took an entrance exam and was admitted. My reaction: There’s no freaking way I’m going to that place.

It was gut-wrenching to leave my happy life and board multiple city buses for the daily rides to and fro, accompanied by adults commuting to work. I was ripped from everything I knew and felt like a poser trapped in a school populated by wealthy kids. Somehow I made peace with it. Accepting the change resulted in a rewarding outcome. I excelled academically and socially. I even saw the value of money and thought I might like some for myself one day. Initially, it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had—yet it changed the trajectory of my life.

Those trips to Nichols each day of high school taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. Although I experience echoes of that same discomfort in my career these days, I am now exhilarated by the lure of what can come next. There’s a rough trip ahead, but if you don’t get on the bus, you’ll never reach your destination.  

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