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Glass ceilings: where you hit them and how you smash through them

What are glass ceilings?

The concept of glass ceilings is one that has been around for some time now – it’s essentially the notion that there are barriers in place which are often invisible, but that have a real impact in preventing advancement.

The term is regularly raised in the context of discrimination against certain demographics or minorities, however, glass ceilings also surface in the business world where a company experiences bottle necks or limitations that prevent progression. The insurance industry is as vulnerable to this as any other.

How do insurance brokers encounter glass ceilings?

Glass ceilings tend to arise at certain income levels, with our research showing the most common triggers for independent insurance brokers coming when annual turnover is around £200k, £450k, £1m, £1.8m or £4m.

For instance, a common example of a glass ceiling occurs when a brokerage has grown from a start-up or a one-man-band and taken on more staff through company growth. A bottle neck often arises where the MD has ownership of all the key relationships, and company growth begins to slow as there aren’t enough hours in the day to focus on nurturing new leads whilst also offering existing clients the time they require.

What is needed in order to progress?

In such instances, successful growth has led to a natural glass ceiling: there are invisible barriers in place resulting from the organisational structure which are hindering further development.

The first steps in overcoming these obstacles are to first accept there is a barrier in place, and then to identify its source. A pre-requisite of this has to be the conscious decision that something must be done to progress; overcoming glass ceilings will always require a behavioural change.

Many leaders fall into the trap of working in the business when they should be working on it. Many of the people in this trap aren’t aware of it. Often people can’t seem to find the time to grow

How do you break through?

The behavioural change needed to progress typically falls into three categories. To smash through glass ceilings one, two, or all three of the following changes need to be implemented:

  1. Change the structure of the business. Adapt roles and / or re-distribute responsibilities within the team.
  2. Recruit. Expand the team to ease workloads and take on new skill sets.
  3. Prepare to inject cash into the business. This could be retained profits, external investments or other sources.

Which of these three changes and the number that need to be actioned will be largely influenced by the life stage of the business as well as the levels of ambition from key stakeholders. Let’s go back to our one-man-band brokerage struggling to grow the business whilst tending to clients; expanding the team to facilitate further growth could be a key change to break through the glass ceiling, with a strong possibility that no further changes are necessary.

Contrast this with a £2m income brokerage looking to reach the next milestone in their business plan. They might find themselves in a position where growth rates are starting to plateau and they may look into acquisitions (people or businesses) to fuel further progression. This will necessitate capital to invest, but could also mean changes in other categories: acquiring new business could be a new experience for stakeholders requiring new skills to be adopted, and added workloads or infrastructural shifts could create new roles which would need to be filled.

It pays to keep a constant eye on your own organisation, particularly when frustration begins to grow that you can’t get business to the next level. Whilst self-reflection is good practice, it’s often easier said than done, and sometimes it can be challenging to step back and view your infrastructure objectively. Seeking outside consultation can be a good way to get an objective assessment of potential areas for improvement, as well as a good source of new ideas.

One option available to Broker Network Members is the groundbreaking Organic Growth programme, which is specifically designed for insurance brokers to overcome glass ceilings at all life stages of the business.

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