Are your clients interested in hiring a broker or a benefits consultant? What is the structure of your clients' benefits program and what are their issues? What happens to you, your boss, or your clients' employees if you did nothing about those issues? In many cases, the adoption of one job title over the other is driven by the type and execution of one's skills versus the firm's name. For example, let's consider Acme Consulting. Apparently no brokers are employed there based on the name on the building. The proof will lie in how they accomplish the scope of their assignment. As another example, a client once introduced me to an associate as "our broker". Funny, I thought I was a consultant and subsequently did not feel so good about my role with this client.

What's the difference? Organizational behavior experts provide valuable insight on this issue when they discuss leadership in organizations. In their 2010 book Organizational Behavior Managing People and Organizations, Ricky W. Griffin of Texas A&M University and Gregory Moorhead of Arizona State University outline two styles of leadership: transactional and transformational. According to Griffin/Moorhead:

  • Transactional leadership is essentially the same as administration or management in that it involves routine, regimented activities.
  • Transformational leadership is the set of abilities that allows the leader to recognize the need for change, to create a vision to guide that change, and to execute the change effectively.

The nature of the benefits world is, at its heart, transactional. We help a customer complete a financial contract with a benefits vendor every year. This we call "the renewal." We also help with claim dispute resolution, enrollment meetings, and benefit satisfaction surveys (just to name a few). Most of the work is regimented, predictable and routine. The skill set required for success in this aspect of the business includes premium rate negotiation, attention to detail, effective communication with customers internal and external, and great record keeping. The broker is concerned with the placement and ongoing administration of insurance contracts. This is what I call brokering.

On the other hand, as benefits professionals, we sometimes are asked to provide direction for transformation or change. This may be the transition from a traditional medical plan to a high deductible HSA plan. Or, a client may call for advice about forming employee teams and how to incent and reward them. These types of transformational shifts in benefits programs require the skills of a consultant, one who understands how different business models, government regulation, insurance law, economics, communications and employee behaviors all intertwine and can successfully navigate them on behalf of their client. The hallmark of a consultant is the ability to recognize the need for change, create the vision for change, and execute the change effectively. Here, it is about ideas. The consultant is concerned with the long-term vision of the benefits program, how it interacts with other aspects of the client's business, and the overall impact to the client's bottom line. Consultants are concerned about ideas, vision and change.

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