Before you become a customer account representative in Zurich Canada's Integrated Group Solutions division, you are given an invitation to the reading of a last will and testament. Attendance is required.
When you arrive, the will of a certain Colonel Burgess, who may or may not have been murdered, is read article by article. Over the course of the following week you and other potential customer account reps (CARs), also in attendance, will consider each point of the document and make a number of decisions as to the legitimacy of various claims to the Burgess inheritance. Together you'll interview the Colonel's two sons (Roger and Ridley) and delve into the particulars of their late father's varied businesses, from a restaurant to a white-water rafting outfit.
Getting to the bottom of the fictional Colonel's fate and estate isn't a game, it's training. And while it's certainly fun, it's also hard work. The story and its accompanying activities are jam-packed with everything a new CAR needs to know to pass a property/casualty (P&C) licensing exam--which they must do to stay on the job.
"The people who come into this course are under pressure. In part, that's by design. They'll be under pressure in the call center," says Al Henderson, training and development specialist for the Integrated Group Solutions unit in Toronto. The 130-person IGS unit has a rapidly growing call center where CARs give insurance quotes over the phone. Building a training program around a theme relaxes the CARs-to-be. "People who are having fun retain more," says Michelle Hiscott, administrative assistant, training and development. (She should know. She was a CAR until a few months ago.) But having fun and being in a relaxed state are not the primary benefits of this training method.
More important is the idea that upending the traditional stand-up lecture by using themes and activities gets better results. Students learn things faster and remember them longer. Those are also the goals of accelerated learning, a training theory developed in the late 1970s, the principles of which Henderson and Hiscott follow in designing courses. The theory holds that learning is not the absorption of knowledge. Learning is creating. "It's not spoon-feeding people information," says Hiscott. "It's having people do more creating with their learning, getting physical in learning, getting up and moving around."
The Bottom Line: Results David Meier founded the Center for Accelerated Learning in Lake Geneva, Wis., in 1980. "Our mission is to change the assumptions underlying traditional training--that learning is consumption, that people are empty vessels to be filled with information along an assembly line," Meier says. "Our belief is that learning is production." In addition, it's something that students do in a social context, not individually.
While Meier emphasizes that accelerated learning involves changing long-held principles rather than simply adopting new techniques, training programs grounded in its theories do have (at least) two characteristics in common: They are multisensory and they are collaborative.
Music, color, games, stories--all of these are important elements in IGS training programs, says Henderson. "The idea is to create a smorgasbord for learners," he explains. "If you're visual, you should be able to learn that way; if you're auditory, you should be able to learn that way." For example, one piece of the licensing program involves learning a glossary of terms. The glossary is available for study in print form and on an audiotape.
"It's learner-based," Henderson continues. "The facilitator should represent 30 percent of the learning experience, the learner 70 percent. The facilitator gets the tools out there, the learner puts them together."
That brings us to collaboration. Putting those tools together is a joint effort for students, not something to be puzzled out alone. "We use partners and teams. There is a lot of sharing of information," Henderson says. A specific example: Once certain P&C concepts are presented, a team of students sets about deciding whether or not to insure the white-water rafting business that Ridley Burgess may or may not have inherited from his father.
If teams acting out story lines seems like little more than a gimmick to you, consider this: IGS prepares its recruits for the P&C license exam in five days, compared to two to three weeks at most companies; some 70 percent of those who take the exam pass it the first time, and more than 90 percent pass with one rewrite.
That shows up on the bottom line. "This is hugely rewarding for the individual and the company. We're saving a week of training for each person," says Henderson. "The recruitment process is very extensive, so money has already been spent. The more we can increase the success rate, the more money we're saving the company."
The Training Commitment--It Comes from the Top Training at IGS falls into two broad categories. There's the mandatory stuff, such as licensing training for new CARs and an orientation program for all employees; and there's "point-of-need" training, one-time programs created for specific purposes--to explain a new insurance product, for example, or to correct some service problem identified by a customer survey. Sometimes these point-of-need programs work so well they are integrated into the standard orientation or, as in the case of a training program created last year to introduce the basics of life insurance, they are picked up and used by the other divisions of Zurich Canada. (See sidebar, page 60.)
Outside those categories are more casual training opportunities, such as a recent series of "Lunch 'n' Learn" sessions with Daphne FitzGerald, the president of IGS. "Everyone got to attend one of them. They're very interactive. Everyone feels like they're contributing," Henderson notes. Among the things this series demonstrated about the IGS culture, he adds, is that "the buy-in is really from the top all the way down."
A word about facilitators: FitzGerald is as likely to lead a class as any other executive or, indeed, a particularly productive sales rep. It depends on the content. In one recent training program, the goal was to improve cross-selling of Zurich's P&C and life products. The facilitators? The three CARs who were best at cross-selling.
"We brought them in and said, 'Okay, how do you do this?' and they put together an information package," Henderson explains.
In all training programs, he and Hiscott are co-facilitators. Their expertise is how the training is delivered. Their partners are the content experts. "We take the experts and teach them to be trainers," Henderson explains. "And we help them have fun, interactive sessions."
He also regularly sends facilitators through Accelerated Learning courses (with David Meier) and presentation courses.
If it seems like quite a commitment to training, Henderson says simply, "That's what a learning organization is. And that Daphne facilitates is part of the philosophy. To some degree we have a very flat business unit. The distance between the president and the front line is small. In a lot of other companies you would never see a president coming in and doing that."
FitzGerald sees the emphasis on training as furthering the company's overall goals. "Zurich is committed to the principle of achieving and sustaining superior value for customers and shareholders through our people," she says. "By taking this approach to training, we create an environment where learning is fun and success is inevitable."
The Lunch 'n' Learn series is being continued with other executives. "Employees like to talk to management," Henderson notes. "Once a month they'll meet a key person for a discussion in an informal setting."
No More Napping Training can--and should--be about a whole lot more than giving employees the information they need to do their jobs. When a potential CAR passes the P&C licensing exam, that's not the only positive result Henderson expects to see. IGS's training is designed to improve morale and boost employee retention rates, goals that are every bit as critical. And because new employees have worked in teams during training, he points out, "there's a nice unity that develops."
So what do your sales reps and agents think when they hear they're headed for training? Here is Hiscott's assessment of the typical reaction: "Oh, no, I have to go to training. I hope they have coffee."
You can't eliminate that kind of dread by simply hanging your training on a story or a theme. The most interesting plot line in the world is pointless if students are still stuck in their seats listening to it.
Nor can you create games and activities willy-nilly. "If the games are not grounded in what you want to teach, you're wasting time," Hiscott says, "no matter how much fun you're having."
The themes and activities work by making learners participants in the content, by engaging all of their senses, and by having them work together and learn from each other. "Our goal is to have them think about what they're learning rather than memorize it," Henderson says.
"Traditional, conventional learning lives out of assumptions that have proven to be false," says Meier of the Center for Accelerated Learning. "But those conventional beliefs are still out there, big time. This movement represents the future of learning."*
Why Life Insurance is Like Having a Baby Okay, it's not. But when Al Henderson, training and development specialist at Zurich Canada in Toronto, was brainstorming themes for a life insurance training course, this is what he and his team came up with: a prenatal class.
Last year, Zurich Canada's property/casualty insurance subsidiary became integrated with Zurich's life insurance subsidiary. The goal of the Prenatal Class: to teach P&C employees the basics of life insurance. Even though P&C customer account reps in the call center would not be licensed to sell life insurance, the thinking went, they might still interact with customers who had questions about life insurance, which they should be prepared to answer. "We want to have an educated workforce," Henderson says. "Whether in their personal lives or their business lives, when they talk about Zurich, we want them to be able to talk about life insurance."
The class starts with Genetics. (As in all of the training in Henderson's Integrated Group Solutions unit, getting students physically involved in the learning process is important.) Using pieces of colored paper with types of insurance products or features printed on them, the students build three gene pools on a wall. Each pool represents a particular type of insurance: individual life with living benefits, individual life with a death benefit, and group life. After the activity, the students sit back and review the wall: Where are the similarities among the different types of insurance? What are the major differences?
The second phase of the class, Raging Hormones, is a group discussion of what might trigger a life insurance purchase. "It's a lot different from the P&C side, where the bank says you must have home insurance and the government says you must have auto insurance," Henderson says. "There's no regulation that says you must purchase life insurance." Students brainstorm what life events--such as marriage or having a baby--might spur a purchase.
The third step is the Ultrasound. Here the students learn how insurance companies assess the risk of writing insurance.
The next step is the Delivery, where the different distribution channels are discussed using images and asking students to draw representations of the different methods of distribution (broker, direct, agency).
Step five is the Doctor's Bill, where the class learns how every dollar of premium is broken down. "We want them to have an understanding that most of the premium is not going in the company's pocket," Henderson says.
Finally there is the Birth Announcement, where cards are created describing each of the life products that Zurich offers. As a review, the students place each card where it belongs on the genetic wall. When they leave, each one gets a color copy of that wall.
Designed as a one-time exercise, Henderson's Prenatal Class has become part of IGS's standard orientation for new employees. It was also picked up as a best practice by Zurich Canada's corporate training and development team, and is now available for use by the company's other business units.
Passport to Zurich Canada On their first day of work, new employees in the Integrated Group Solutions business unit of Zurich Canada get a "passport," which guides them through their orientation to the unit and the company. The passport gets filled (with stickers instead of stamps) as they visit nine "destinations" (workshops), on topics such as the company'smission/vision, customer strategy, and continuous learning. When the passport is completely filled, which takes about a month, Henderson says, "employees know where they are in Zurich Canada globally, locally, and personally. They know how they affect the strategic plan."
As a result of positive feedback from passport graduates, a second passport (or "renewal") is currently being developed to have employees "travel" to other business units and learn about the company's resources for professional development, career advancement, and more.