Colin Lloyd talks to John Wade about individual development at broker Perkins Slade

The economic development and organic growth of an organisation owes much to the people that it employs.

Flourishing and prosperous businesses appoint individuals who share and believe in the same mentality and philosophical stance as their corporate mission.

It is because of this binding of philosophy and harmonious marriage between employer and employee that the organisation becomes appealing to others.

Insurance is a particularly incestuous market in which word spreads rapidly, especially when a broker develops new corporate procedures or when there is movement in the labour market.

Indeed, it is because of the market's incestuous nature that brokers care about who is moving where, when they are moving and who is replacing them.

Brokers are having to tackle the issue of staff retention head-on and have been given the responsibility, one way or another, to develop procedures that will progress the workforce in terms of personal development and training in line with the expectations of the business.

Each broker operates under different philosophies and cultures, which in turn contributes hugely to the style of in-house training and development programmes.

John Wade, director at Perkins Slade, offers just one account of how a national broker continues to build upon the training and development of a workforce.

John Wade:Training starts before you appoint an individual. I start thinking about training before an individual comes in for his or her first day.

What you must ensure is that the organisation offers a flexible approach to training because, although you might pre-plan activities relating to a role, the activities may not comply with the individual.

I make sure that I clearly define the job role and the competencies needed to satisfy the role. Also I define the standards by which Perkins Slade operates so that both the candidate and myself are clear of what is expected.

When I find the individual I take up references, which is now an FSA requirement, allowing me to obtain proof of academic achievement.

Essentially, these variables provide a clear objective for the role and indeed for whoever will carry out the role.

Next, the process of interviewing and selecting a candidate can begin because the necessary objectives are available to me. This is why training starts before we even place someone.

Furthermore, people do not generally view training as something that can take place in the workplace. Training is learning and should be recognised as such.

Training can be broken down into: coaching, mentoring, socialisation and technical advancement. In order to assess which area an individual needs more development in, a process needs to be worked through.

The clients might well be questioning where the professional advice that should be given comes from, and of course somewhere among all that you have the FSA with its own demands and expectations.

That is the thinking behind how I develop training programmes. Training is all about job definition.

Colin Lloyd: How do you as an organisation develop the career and training of individuals?

Wade:As an organisation we have to make sure we train a person so he or she can comfortably fulfil the role. We assess the individual's competency and thanks to the FSA which has helped to focus the minds of individuals, we are able to select the most appropriate procedure.

We are able to do this in a number of ways; supervision, file audits, customer complaints and speaking to other people who know the individual. These are all general methods of defining core competencies of staff.

Before staff are put on programmes they are assessed on a scale based on their current ability. Those at one end should be given no responsibility while those at the other end of the scale receive full responsibility.

This assessment enables us to benchmark where they are today and where they should be in 12 months time. There is a fallacy that everyone has to be competent at everything. It is far better to have a team of people who excel in different areas than having them all good at the same things.

We encourage people to take exams as we recognise the benefits of having a qualified and technically competent workforce. We give three days' study plus a revision day in every six-month exam period. We pay for people's membership and exams, but we don't pay for a re-sit.

Although this is a great policy it is not an easy option. We want to get the best out of people and so the stakes have to be high. The return on investment here for Perkins Slade is a greater qualified workforce. However, this does not mean that technical ability is what makes an excellent broker.

Because the business is evolving we have introduced coaching and mentoring. It is very much an awareness raising exercise aiming to get people in the right mindset and giving them the ability to recognise that coaching is happening.

There is a difference between coaching and mentoring. I do not believe you can be a mentor until you have coached. Mentoring should be an off-line procedure - that is, the mentor is not someone's line manager.

A coach will advise someone on how to carry out duties, but cannot be a mentor because the individual being coached might have an issue with him or her. Therefore we offer an alternative, objective perspective to training.

We often hire people who know nothing about insurance but have excellent key skill sets. We then put them on a 12-month programme encompassing all aspects of our business and the insurance market.

This training programme is designed for someone at the beginning of his or her career. Once completed, they know where they want to go and more importantly we know if they have what it takes.

We also have the management development programme, which was put into place in November 2004. It addresses individuals who come to us having secured their own ability and wanting to progress.

For this area of the market we take a longer-term view and assess them over a two, five or seven year period. This is less practical in terms of what is going to happen to the individual's job role, but is much more aspirational in terms of identifying what the individual is capable of over that time period.

We ask the individual to outline why he or she matches the mentality of Perkins Slade. Their response tells us if the individual needs to have his or her expectations managed, or if there just needs to be work in a few areas to secure a future with us. In this instance we use outsourced training companies.

Lloyd: Aside from training designed to improve the technical abilities of workers, how do you train people with regards to the philosophy and mindset of Perkins Slade?

Wade:We have moved away from saying, "let's hire the person who can do the job" because if they can do the job they may have nowhere else to go in the organisation .

It is very much about realising you cannot train personality, but you can influence perception.

In an interview you can never tell what type of individual a candidate is. You have a good idea from the CV and references but you will not fully understand the way someone works until you work with him.

The best you can hope for is that they have some philosophical alignment with your organisation.

For instance, one particular candidate I interviewed was technically brilliant but very 'me' focused. We look for someone who demonstrates a basic liking of our way of thinking. This helps to define his or her role in the organisation and how he will contribute to the make-up of the Perkins Slade culture.

Part of the training we do is the socialisation aspect. This consists of bringing the new starter in a week or two prior to the start date and introducing them to their team and showing him or her around the office.

More importantly we introduce him to those he will be working with on a daily basis. In this way he will have some exposure to the social structure of the office before they begin work.

Lloyd: Does the responsibility of training and development of employees fall to brokers or should the burden be shared with an outsourced entity, or the FSA?

Wade:It is completely the responsibility of the individual broker, because each broker is a completely different animal.

Every broking firm has its own personality therefore making it impossible for an outside body, like the FSA, to say how training should be addressed. What works for us will not work for our competitors and vice-versa. Our socialisation approach is part of the fabric of what we represent.

This approach is designed exclusively by us for our business, which is why it works. The model cannot be marketed as a general programme because it might not fit with the culture of other firms.

Lloyd: How much do you spend on training a year?

Wade:We spend on average £450-£500 per head on training each year. Although that figure has stayed the same in recent years we have become cleverer in the way we spend it. Plus we offer the mentoring and coaching scheme. Organisations should not view training as a cost but as an investment. IT

' Colin Lloyd is a consultant with Reed Insurance