The End of a Chapter

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I had several other topics planned for my next posts, but I think it would be disingenuous to ignore the current situation – my layoff this past week from my company. It’s a hard thing to talk about, but already I have found help in others who have been through this before me. I think, therefore, sharing my experience might help others.

Let me say this first. I bear my (now previous) company no ill will. Whatever the reasons for the layoff or the reasons my particular position was eliminated, this is, after all, just business. One of the most oddly comforting things anyone said to me was when my friend John asked, “Is this just your first layoff?” It is powerful knowing that you are not alone.

The news of my layoff came to me in a rather unusual way – by phone, in the middle of a presentation I was giving at a conference out of town. Many people asked if we had any warning. The short answer is no. At least, not the specifics.

The longer answer – there had been rumors circling for months and all manner of suggestions had been offered. That’s the way so much of this goes. Actions have to be taken but explanations cannot be offered. That leaves everyone to fill in the blanks with speculation.

A week out I am experiencing what the handy transition workbook I have been given calls “an emotional rollercoaster.” In fact, those are the exact words I have been using. Normally I love rollercoasters, but in this case, not so much.

There are moments when I am scared as can be. I have cried, I have had a panic attack or two. I have had moments of self-doubt and anger. As the main breadwinner for my family, the feeling that the futures of my children are in jeopardy can be overwhelming. Also overwhelming – the well-meaning comments that keep coming that say I will certainly find something incredible, something amazing. What if I don’t?

To find a new job, I suddenly find I need a clear vision of what I want for the future. Having to instantly articulate who I am, what I want out of a career…not easy stuff on a good day.

At other times on this rollercoaster, I am up. I am dreaming, scheming, networking, and planning for a brilliant future that may never have been possible without the layoff. I feel free. The world is my oyster. My family and I can go anywhere we want. While the kids do not want to move, we are all coming around to the idea that this inevitability could be an exciting (if daunting) possibility. I am generally a positive, don’t-look-back kind of person. I am fortunate this way – more of my time is spent in this space.

For the last week, I have been busier than I have been in a long time. I have been reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances. I have been talking with recruiters. I’ve been meeting with coaches and participating in all of my non-profit organizations. I’ve been continuing my research. And I have been driving my children around the city seemingly non-stop (I’m considering adding Pro-bono Uber Driver to my resume).

I am grateful for all of the opportunities I have had up to now. I have met so many incredible, wonderful, exceptional individuals, and worked alongside some of the most brilliant minds I have ever met. The teams I worked with were extraordinary. I’m sure many of these friendships will survive this.

And I will survive. The workbook says that unemployment can feel the same as the loss of a loved one. All of the stages: shock, fear, anger, depression, acceptance (many of them appearing simultaneously) are all there. I can confirm this.

I’m trying to learn now how to take things one day at a time now. I realize this is a whole new world for me and I am bound to make some mistakes along the way. I accept that. I am working to ensure I am not concerned about the expectations of others and that I keep the expectations of myself in line.

I am excited. I am scared. I am empowered. I am nervous. I am full of ideas. I am overwhelmed.

And I will continue to keep writing. I hope all is well with you!

What it takes to be yourself in corporate America…

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One piece of artwork I have in my office

This has been an incredibly difficult article to write. I am curious about your experience in finding yourself in corporate America. Please, if you would, share your experiences by leaving a comment on this post.

While I believe that corporations are evolving and that individual expression is becoming more acceptable than ever before, I believe we still have a problem. Certainly, some corporations are significantly further ahead on this than others. In many, though, the rules of the game demand that individual expression be left at the door.

What I want to share here is my personal journey and experiences I have had over my career. In doing so, I hope to offer others some guidance and if I do this right, some hope.

I have been doing quite a bit of thinking on the topic of what it takes to be yourself in corporate America lately. Over the last few years, I have been on a journey to ‘find myself.’ Or perhaps I mean I have been looking for my purpose in life, or my true happiness, or my mission.

Whatever it is, what I do know is that It can easily be lost in corporate America. This may not be true for everyone, and may be true for those outside of corporate America. What I know is that I lost part of myself somewhere along the way, and am now working hard to bring her back.

Before I go any further, let me say that what has lead to my success thus far may have been necessary. It seems to me that there is a pretty clear recipe for success in corporate American. Many people may not like this part of what I have to say – I honestly don’t like it myself.

Most of us, in joining the corporate world, begin at the bottom in an entry level position. We are one of many. In this position, we have to find ways to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. How we go about doing this determines whether we rise or whether we stay.

The best way to differentiate yourself is quite obvious – work harder, work smarter, and work politically. Notice that none of this says anything about being yourself. In fact, I would argue that all of this asks you specifically to subvert your uniqueness. This is, of course, true only if you are looking to move up the corporate ladder. If you are content where you are and have no ambition to climb higher, I believe corporate America will willingly take you as you are. We need people like you.

But if you are trying to get ahead, advance your career, earn more money, have a greater influence, you are going to hit some road bumps. You are going to find situation after situation where being yourself just doesn’t feel possible.

That may be your truth for a time.

You may find that you have to cover those tattoos, forego the bright blue hair color, save the crazy shoes for the weekend, talk more quietly/loudly, write your blog under an assumed name. You may have to play the game. For a time.

I am here, though, to tell you it won’t always be that way. Not completely.

I have found that when an individual has proven their skills and has earned the respect and admiration of their colleagues, that door cracks back open. Those parts of you that were stashed away can come back out to play. As your success grows, your ability to fully share your uniqueness will grow as well.

Before I share some examples from my own career, I want to address the need to be authentic to be a successful leader. I believe firmly in the need to be authentic. I believe that even when hiding away important parts of yourself, you can still be true to your ethics and beliefs. I believe that what I am suggesting here is not in opposition to being authentic. It is simply finding a way to be authentic while playing a game with rules written by someone else.

Here are some examples from my career:

I am an artistic sort. As such, I love to add color to anything I do. While managing a number of different teams, I was sending out emails that had updates for each team color coded. Team A was in blue, Team B was in pink, and so on. My manager had a rather violent reaction to this (he felt that I had produced something that belonged in a kindergarten classroom rather than a business office), and henceforth, I withheld color from all emails, and from most of what I did in the office. This was 10 years ago or so.

Whether he was right or wrong does not matter. What matters is that I had learned a rule of the game – when working for this manager (and others like him), do not use color. Got it.

Recently, I felt pulled to bring color back into all areas of my life. Taking a huge risk given the conservative industry in which I work and the conservative town in which I live, I added a few pink streaks to my hair. Then a few more. Before I knew it, I had a large swath of purple hair on the left side of my head. It felt amazing!

The exciting part – the only comments I got at work were positive ones. From there I have been adding other elements of creativity and color back into my work life – my office is decorated with different and crazy art and I have been intentionally buying brighter colors for my wardrobe.

Another example:

When I was first promoted into management, my manager pulled me aside and said this: “You need to be careful who you spend your time with during the day. You would do yourself a favor by choosing new lunch companions. Who you are seen with will reflect back on you.” I remember at the time being thoroughly confused – my friends were wonderful people, as far as I could tell.

The lesson there, though, was that people like to paint with wide brushes. Apparently, the folks I was eating with were not viewed as management types, and were, in some cases, seen as ‘difficult.’ If I continued to associate with them, I would risk being painted the same. What a horrible thing, and yet it was the truth.

Today, however, I have lunch with whomever I want – many, many different people – and I enjoy every one of them. I am not worried any longer about being painted one way or another – the privilege of my position protects me from that.

Final example:

Anyone who knows me knows my laugh. I love to laugh! I love to talk with others and share fun and delightful stories. I like to get to know others, hear about their lives, share in their joy. Early on, however, I learned that being loud and boisterous was not seen as having ‘executive presence.’ It was crass and unprofessional.

I have heard managers, regarding other associates say things like, “I need to get her to clean up that wardrobe,” or “She really needs to be wearing makeup,” or for men, “I really need him to shave/trim/get rid of that facial hair.” I even heard a comment at a recent event on workplace dress that all women who wish to get ahead should wear skirts and high heels every day. All of this in service to the rules of the game.

Nowadays for me, however, very few days go by without a loud, hearty haHA! and I feel much better for it. And I rarely wear high heels anymore. They hurt my feet!

So, what changed? From the early days to today? Time, effort, dedication, and proof that I am here, I am all-in, I am a leader, and I am serious. Despite (terrible word) the colored hair, the crazy artwork, the loud laughter, I am invested in the success of my organization and my employees.

In a word, I have earned privilege.

So what gives? Are we, the ambitious leaders of corporate America, doomed to a life of repressed self-expression? Of subverting our wishes and desires for the greater good?

The hard answer is, in many ways, Yes. The purpose of the corporation is to provide a return on investment to the owners, not to allow space for the personal expression of all employees. We win the game by playing the game.

But once you begin to climb, the freedom comes. You just have to insist on it.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this. Please share!

Have a great Wednesday!

An Experiment All Leaders Should Try

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I had an amazing experience this past week. I went to summer camp (Yes! Summer camp! For grownups!) up in the woods of Michigan with 70 or so other women. We did all kinds of fun things like swimming in the lake, having a pool-side happy hour, and sharing many deep and magical conversations.

We did arts and crafts, we danced, we did ropes courses complete with the biggest climbing wall ever (not me, but some stronger, braver people did). We cried, we laughed, we stayed up late and shared stories we couldn’t share anywhere else.

This was all due to the amazing work of Molly Mahar and her Stratejoy team. I give my highest recommendation for her work.

Underlying all of the fun, games and conversations at camp was one basic premise. This is what I want to bring back to all of you leaders.

In coming to camp, we all pledged to be completely judgment free for the whole week. We were coming from all corners of the US and further, and we were everything from doctors to lawyers, professional photographers to stay-at-home moms, vice presidents of life insurance companies (that’s me) to pharmacists, and everything in between. We were introverts and extroverts, early birds and night owls, single, married and divorced, young and old(er).

Bottom line, we were all very different.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to be judgmental. For most of us, it is nearly second-nature. “She shouldn’t be wearing something that short/long/tight/loose!” “Why does she talk so much/so little?” “Is she really going to eat that much/that little?” All of this is part of what we do to some extent every day.

Think about what it would take to remove all of this judgment. It’s tough! When someone sat right in the spot where I had been planning to sit, instead of thinking, “That jerk! She is so rude!” I had to think “Okay, that spot is now taken, and I can probably find another one that will work just as well.”

When someone kept talking for an extended period of time, I might have thought, “Dang it! Is she ever going to stop talking? Can’t someone else have a turn?” but instead I thought, “She has quite a bit to get off her chest, and I should listen to see if I can learn from her or help in some way.”

The results were astonishing. People were suddenly free to be exactly who they wanted to be and who they were meant to be. There was absolutely no drama. Women were able to share deep, intimate stories quickly and without fear or inhibitions. We could dress however we wanted. We could be comfortable and rid ourselves of self-consciousness.

A very wise friend and I discussed this phenomenon on the way home from camp. One of the main reasons this judgment-free stuff worked is that there was an explicit agreement on both sides of any interaction at camp that whatever happened would be judgment free. This built an incredible level of trust. The trust helped us connect quickly and easily. Without this trust, it would have taken much longer to make connections. Without this trust, a person could be taken advantage of. Or maybe not.

So, I have a challenge for you.

Pick an hour of the day. Or pick a particular meeting. Or a particular person. And then try removing all judgment.

Start small. See what happens.

In a meeting, instead of thinking “I hate when he says things like that,” try going deeper to figure out why you feel that way, and/or why he might feel the need to say the things he says. You might find yourself surprised at what you come up with.

During a conversation with a colleague, instead of thinking, “She is so ignorant! Why doesn’t she get this?” try thinking, “What can I do here to help her understand what I am trying to say? How can I be clearer?” or “What piece of information might I be missing here?”

Try it once, then try it again. Then keep trying.

One lesson we hear often that will help is the idea of listening to hear, rather than listening to respond. In other words, while someone else is talking, instead of trying to figure out what you are going to say next, stop and just listen to what the other person is saying. The difference is rather incredible.

This can open us to different perspectives, different opinions, and additional facts and ways of thinking. It results in a more diverse workplace where everyone feels welcome, and everyone feels comfortable sharing their knowledge and opinions. We would be more effective and our companies would be more successful.

I think we, as leaders, can set an example to others by being open and accepting and meeting people where they are instead of expecting them to meet us where we are. This can sometimes take more effort and energy. It will take attention and concentration. I think, though, that we can create a better world for our employees, our friends and our family members by removing as much judgment as we can from our daily lives.

If we as leaders can model this behavior, in doing so we can create open, sharing environments where we aren’t constantly overwhelmed by politics.

It will take extreme corporate and personal courage to make this work, but I believe that we can all do hard things.

Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

Women in Insurance – A History – The 1980s

 

met life advert 1980s

From the disillusionment of the 1970s, the 1980s moved America to the right with the conservative politics of President Ronald Reagan. Elected by an overwhelming majority in 1980, despite his conservative views, Reagan oversaw the nomination of the first female Supreme Court Justice (Sandra Day O’Connor), saw the first American woman to go to space (Sally Ride), and ushered in the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. When Reagan left office in 1989 he had the highest approval rating of any president since FDR.

Inflation that had risen significantly during the 1970s continued to rise in the 1980s. In 1982, the United States experienced the worst recession since the Great Depression. While the economy recovered rather quickly, another stock market crash on October 19th, 1987, highlighted to investors that the economy had entered a new era of volatility.

In terms of women’s rights, the legal battles over discrimination continued. In 1984, the US Supreme Court found it illegal for clubs such as the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs to discriminate based on sex. In 1986, the Supreme Court found in the Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case that sexual harassment was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and as such was a form of illegal job discrimination.

In 1980, the first woman was elected to Congress without following a husband or father into the position. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1984, the first woman was nominated to be vice president on a major party ticket.

The 1980s saw the rise of the yuppie, the emergence of MTV, the introduction of the blockbuster film (E.T., Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, to name a few), and the birth of the 24-hour news cycle.

LIFE INSURANCE DURING THE 1980S

The demographics of the US were changing dramatically during this decade. The traditional family, with the husband as the primary (and only) breadwinner was gone, and in its place were single-mother families (approximately 33% of all households in 1984), divorcees, new immigrants, people who chose never to marry, married couples with no children, and retirees. The population had grown 60% since 1960 to 236 million people. These demographic shifts had a marked impact on an industry built on the foundation of the traditional family with a father who needed to protect his family.

Life insurance sales had been flat throughout the prior decade, and the trend continued into the 1980s. In 1960, 64% of all individuals in the US carried some form of life insurance; in 1984, it was 63%. In 1960, 72% of all households owned life insurance purchased through an agent; in 1984 this had dropped to 56%.

In 1981, $371 billion in individual life insurance was sold. Group life insurance sales brought the total to $544 billion. Products shifted during this decade. The “family plan” policy that was popular in the 1960s virtually disappeared. Term insurance took on significant popularity. Due to the increase of women in the workplace, families covered by group life jumped by 12 million between 1976 and 1984.

One LIMRA study showed that replacement activity (dropping one policy in place of a new policy) jumped from 36% of all households in 1980 replacing a policy to 56% in 1984. This marked increase was attributed to agents working their existing market and neglecting new, hard-to-reach markets. Another contributing factor was the industry tendency to recruit existing agents that were more likely to sell to their existing customers rather than reach out to a new market.

Inflation continued to be a major issue for the industry. Loan activity was higher than ever, with policy holders able to earn significant gains by withdrawing their funds from their whole life policies and investing them elsewhere. This inflation along with the recession saw many consumers turning to term insurance and shunning the whole life policy that had been so popular for decades prior. Early in the decade, term insurance accounted for over half of the volume of life insurance sold.

Hotly debated during this decade was the tax-free build up of the accumulating cash value within life insurance policies. President Reagan’s tax plan would have eliminated this provision, and the life insurance industry would have “died a slow death” (New York Times, 1985) as the value in purchasing cash value life insurance dried up. Fortunately for the industry, after all the debate, the cash value was protected from taxes.

In 1985 the news was dominated by the debate in the insurance industry over the use of gender to determine insurance rates. That year, the National Organization of Women filed a lawsuit against Metropolitan Life Insurance Company accusing the company of discrimination in both life insurance and disability insurance pricing. Organizations throughout the industry took sides, and legislatures across the country debated this hotly contested issue.

In March of that year, the American Council of Life Insurance took out a full-page ad in the Boston Globe and other newspapers across the country in order to defend the industry against NOW. The advertisement read: “Some people would charge women more than their fair share for insurance and call it equality. Sound like a good idea to you? We hope not.” The implication here is that if unisex rates were to be implemented, women would have to pay more to compensate for the higher mortality rates of men. Advocates for the unisex rates and NOW’s lawsuit claimed, “The insurance industry is the only industry that practices sex discrimination overtly [by setting rates based on gender].”

Montana was the only state to have implemented the unisex rates when the Massachusetts legislature began to seriously consider mandating unisex rates for all types of insurance. It is important to note that this issue was larger than just life insurance. At the time, women were paying higher rates than men for health, accident, annuities and disability income insurance, but lower life insurance rates. In the end, likely due to the intense lobbying efforts by the industry, Massachusetts did not include life insurance in the legislation it passed. In 1987, a similar law was struck down in New York.

In 1987, the AIDS epidemic hit center stage for the US and for the life insurance industry. In that year, a test was developed for life insurance applications, and rules were set regarding when and where such a test could be required. Companies added new questions to their applications regarding AIDS, and a new era of medical testing was introduced.

In that year, AIDS-related claims reached $487.2 million, a 67% increase over the year prior. This was thought to be an understatement of the effect on claims given that insurance companies rarely investigate the cause of death beyond the incontestability period (usually the first two years of the policy). In terms of claims counts, in 1987 1.2% of all individual life claims were attributed to AIDS, up from 0.9% the year prior.

The advent of AIDS introduced the industry to “living benefits,” although the concept was already in the introduction phase when the epidemic hit. The ability and willingness to pay out a portion of the life insurance proceeds to aid a person who is terminally ill came about at the end of the decade. Initially these benefits were offered to those with cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and complications of AIDS. There were some initial concerns over this benefit, with many companies worried such a payment would be subject to taxation, that medical diagnoses could differ between doctors, and that some beneficiaries may disagree with the arrangements. Despite these concerns, this practice quickly became standard in the industry.

WOMEN IN LIFE INSURANCE DURING THE 1980S

In the beginning of the decade, over half of all adult women in the US were employed, and the vast majority of them were employed full time. The number of single women delaying marriage and/or having children was growing, as was the number of single mothers. This, in turn, meant that the number of female heads of households were increasing, reaching 7.7 million families in 1980. In 1981, women made up 54% of the workforce, and the numbers were increasing.

While women had started to climb the corporate ladder, they were well behind men in terms of pay. A study conducted near the opening of the decade showed that in the 1,000 largest industrial companies in the US, 28% of the officers were women. However, nearly two-thirds of these officers were earning less than $50,000 per year, and a third of them were paid less than $30,000 per year. The average business woman in 1982 earned $10,000 per year, while the average man earned $17,000 according to a report from a study done in Chicago. In 1984, 64% of the largest American companies still had no women on their boards, and only 8% had two or more women on their boards.

In the insurance industry, a study by the ACLI in 1987 showed that only 2% of the women working in this industry made more than $25,000 per year while 42% of the men did. Reasons given for this phenomenon included the possibility that men at the highest ranks of the companies had not yet grown comfortable with women in leadership roles, and that women in life insurance may have concentrated themselves in self-segregated groups, keeping them from the mainstream where jobs paid more.

One important issue causing trouble for working women was that childcare options were not keeping up with the change in women’s status. As more moms went to work, they had to battle a system that simply had not kept up. The number of daycares was extremely low, many had inconvenient hours, and the cost, if a woman could find one, was prohibitively high.

As women continued to gain access and higher level positions in the work place, they were still, in terms of life insurance, underinsured or in many cases not insured at all. In 1980, 65% of all adult women held some kind of life insurance, but this was nowhere near the 80% of adult men who held life insurance. In addition, the average face amount for women’s policies was $7,680 compared to men’s at $29,000.

The Life Insurance industry continued to recognize the importance of the women’s market. In one article the author stated, “Women are important enough as buyers and decision makers for insurance companies to be concerned with them” (Wexler, 1980). A marketing magazine suggested that the women’s market was a “special” market, and as such, deserved “special treatment.” Although what this treatment would entail is not defined, the author does indicate that there is a difference between single women and married women.

Nearly everyone was saying the same thing about the Women’s Market – it was new, it was something separate from the “mainstream,” and it was something worth paying attention to. The Boston Globe announced, “For the industry, there’s the prospect of an almost entirely new market.” A representative from Travelers Life stated, “We noticed the status of women had changed. Women were economically more valuable. They had a life insurance value” (Saltzman, 1980). Manager’s Magazine wrote “The last great untapped market is the women’s market” (Myers, 1983). Metropolitan Life was quoted as saying, “We think its [the women’s market] going to be a tremendous market…Traditionally insurance companies would talk to the so-called head of the household, the breadwinner…but with more women in the workplace…the distinction between earner and dependent has often ceased to apply” (O’Connor, 1981). The Globe Mail stated “Many industry insiders still consider women an untapped market…It would be utter folly to ignore such a vast market potential” (Stinson, 1982).

Some strides were made in reaching the women’s market. In 1981, John Hancock Mutual Life sold 32% of their policies to women, up from 20% in 1971. In 1989, AIG Life launched their Women’s Group, a network of female agents challenged with reaching the women’s market. While they do not present statistics on how effective the effort was, they did report that the first printing of their marketing material went out of stock extraordinarily quickly.

Sun Life introduced a product named HER, the main feature being that the rates were based on a separate mortality table for women instead of the setback method used in decades past. These new tables claimed to save women up to 40% on their life insurance premiums. Sun Life was not alone in adapting pricing for the new mortality gains recognized for women. Equitable Life Assurance developed a new classification for women based on new mortality tables, and Manhattan Life instituted discounts on the male 3-year setback for women.

An article in a 1983 edition of Manager’s Magazine encourages salesmen to avoid female stereotypes such as (1) women are basically emotional; (2) successful women are tough, pushy and less than feminine; and (3) woman’s place is in the home (Myers, 1983). Women were, in fact, looking at life insurance differently. A focus group in 1989 revealed that the main reason women purchased insurance was to help fund the education of their children. Women wanted more information on their options and how their life insurance would help them reach their goals.

WOMEN AS LIFE INSURANCE SALES REPRESENTATIVES

A prediction from an article in 1980 claims “During the 1980s, women will play a greater part in the distribution of insurance products…Currently the percentage of women in the agency forces has increased dramatically, due primarily to social and government pressures and good experience with women in sales” (Weech, 1980).

In some places, women were finally being seen the same as men. One author wrote, “Women will generally fail and succeed in the same ways as men, provided that they are selected in the same manner that is used to select males.” The women that were successful reported great satisfaction with their jobs. One agent for Metropolitan Life, June Visconti, said insurance sales was “one of the most financially and personally satisfying careers a woman can embark on.”

In 1980, Mutual of New York’s Pittsburgh agency formed a Women’s Unit, and found it to be a success. The company found that by capitalizing on the natural skills of women, including teaching, listening, nurturing and influencing, women were successful in reaching female customers. In 1981, 13% of the sales agents with both John Hancock Mutual Life and New York Life were women. In 1982, Sun Life of Canada, a company that had stepped up recruiting efforts in the women’s market, boasted 24% women in their new recruits.

One report stated that in 1983, there had been a significant increase in US women selling life insurance. A LIMRA report from 1984 stated that 12% of the agency force was female at that time. By mid-1986, it had risen to 18%. The reasons given for the increase in the number of female agents included the fact that no particular education level was required for the profession, that the pay had no ceiling and was the same regardless of gender, and that life insurance was rewarding for those who were looking to doing something good for other people.

In the 1980s, the retention of women agents increased to equal that of men, however most of the women entering the field were new. According to the 1984 LIMRA report, 40% of the women agents that year were in their first year of selling.

There was recognition that selling life insurance to women would require a different approach. Women typically needed more information and more time to make decisions. Companies and agents alike were called on to provide additional information and services in order to attract the female market. Women also were believed to trust other women, and were believed to be the decision-makers in the home when dealing with financial concerns.

As we move closer and closer to present day, it will be harder to generalize on the women’s market. We will try, however, to look at the 1990s next.
Sources:
Allen, Frank (1980). “Women Managers Get Paid Far Less Than Males, Despite Career Gains.” The Wall Street Journal, Oct 7, pg 35.
American Council of Life Insurance (1985). “Advertisement: Some People Would Charge Women More.” The Boston Globe, Mar 25, pg 5.
Anonymous (1983). “Did You Know?” Atlanta Daily World, Jul 15, pg 3.
Anonymous (1989). “Life insurance cash for terminally ill.” Chicago Tribune, Jun 15, pg 9.
Anonymous (1980). “The life insurance industry’s relationship with women.” PR Newswire, Sep 16.
Anonymous (1980). “Recruiting Women Agents.” Manager’s Magazine, 55(8), 32.
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Anonymous (1981). “Tells WLUC of Disparity in Cover for Women.” National Underwriter, 85(37), 14.
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Barnes, Don (1987). “The Woman in life Insurance.” National Underwriter, Life, Health, Financial Services Edition, 91(2), pg 17.
Brostoff, Steven (1989). “AIDS-linked claims jump dramatically.” National Underwriter, Life & Health – Financial Services Edition, 10, pg 1+.
Brozan, Nadine (1980). “Insurance: New Policies Toward Women.” The New York Times, Sep 22, pg. A24.
Burrows, Julie A. (1987). “Start Selling to 50% of the Population!” Insurance Sales, 130(12), pg 20.
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Jamison, Kent S., Retzloff, Cheryl D. (1987). “What the Numbers Show.” Best’s Review, 88(4), pg 36+.
King, Carole (1984). “Female agents: a progress report.” Best’s Review – Life-Health Insurance Edition, 85, pg 132+.
Kleiman, Carol (1982). “A Portrait of Chicago’s Working Women.” Chicago Tribune, Mar 7, pg J22.
Knox, Richard A. (1987) “AIDS test readied for life insurance.” The Boston Globe, Sep 12, pg 17.
Landes, Jennifer (1989). “AIG Women’s Grp. markets ins. to working mothers.” National Underwriter Life & Health – Financial Services Edition, 50, pg 7+.
Lewin, Tamar (1984). “Women in Board Rooms Are Still the Exception.” The New York Times, Jul 5, pg C1.
Lipson, Benjamin (1980). “Improvements coming in insurance for women.” The Boston Globe, Nov 3, pg 22.
Myers, Ann (1983). “Selling to the Woman on Her Way Up.” Manager’s Magazine, 58(5), 34.
Myers, Ann (1983). “Selling to the Woman at the Top.” Manager’s Magazine, 58(4), 12.
Nussbaum, Karen (1983). “9 to 5: women’s role has changed.” The Boston Globe, Jun 28, pg 48.
O’Connor, Bob (1981). “Beneficiaries to buyers: Women are growing market for life insurance.” The Baltimore Sun, Sep 27, pg T1.
Ross, Nancy L. (1987). “Women’s Group Dealt Setback On Insurance.” The Washington Post, Jun 25, pg F1.
Saltzman, Cynthia (1980). “Troubled Life-Insurance Companies Try Mass-Marketing tactics to Increase Sales.” The Wall Street Journal, Dec 19, pg 50.
Stinson, Marian (1982). “Increasing Financial Clout of Women Attracts Insurers.” The Globe and Mail, May 31.
Weech, C Sewell Jr. (1980). “Internationally Speaking…Women in Life Insurance Sales.” Manager’s Magazine, 55(8), 36.
Wessel, David (1985). “Insurers Battle to Stop Massachusetts From Adoption Gender-Neutral Rates.” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, pg 20.
Wexler, Beatrice L. (1980). “Marketing to Women: Women Really Do Count as Buyers and Decision Makers for Insurance Companies.” Insurance Marketing, 81(6), 26.

Dealing with issues head on

girls fighting

Last night my 10-year old daughter learned a lesson. It was hard, and it was important.

Last night she learned that dealing with problems head on is the best way to handle of them. She learned that no matter how bad she feels, or how much she just wants to crawl under the covers and pretend that nothing had happened, she will be much, much happier if she owns her problems and addresses them as quickly as possible.

We could all learn from this. In the workplace, just as it is outside, problems come up from time to time. Most of the time, these issues have something to do with imperfect communication, and many times, can be addressed with a quick correction. But add in emotions and you have a Problem. If the Problem is not addressed quickly and directly it tends to take on a life of its own.

Here’s what happened with my daughter. Its a common problem for 10-year old girls. She and her best friend got in a fight over what game they were going to play. This time it escalated to yelling and in the heat of the moment, my daughter yelled something she could see hurt her friend. The fact that she had caused this pain threw her into a cycle of shame, embarrassment, and regret.

Her first instinct was to run home, sneak upstairs, hide under her blanket in her bed, and sob. She quickly realized this wasn’t really working and came downstairs for comfort from her parents. It took quite some time and not a little courage to share what she had done.

Together we talked through a plan. What she said she wanted to do was to simply forget that anything had happened and deal with it all tomorrow. She was certain that her friend would never talk to her again, and even if she did, her mother would never allow her over to the house again. She was so upset about the whole ordeal that we had to help her to stop hyperventilating.

What we decided to do instead, a plan she agreed to with much trepidation, was for me to text her friend’s mom and ask if we could come over to talk. She would simply apologize for her part in the disagreement and would expect nothing in return.

Her friend’s mom was quick to say yes, and we headed across the street. My daughter was incredibly courageous and apologized to her friend, and also apologized to her friend’s mom. It was awkward for a minute or two, and then, suddenly, everything was back to normal.

What could have been a long drawn-out night of tears, fears, anxiety and hyperventilation became a night of just plain normal. What could have spiraled into a major drama that ruined their last week of summer was quickly resolved and put back to right.

So, the lesson here is that the same thing works in the work world. When there is a problem:

  1. Talk to someone who can help you – just as important, don’t talk to people who can’t help you. This just adds fuel to the fire.
  2. Face the issue head on – don’t bury yourself under the blanket.
  3. Be brave.
  4. Have a plan.
  5. If called for, apologize for your part in a misunderstanding.
  6. And while there are always two sides to a misunderstanding, do not expect anything in return – but be grateful when it comes.
  7. Move on. Let go, and let things return to normal.

Sound familiar? Do you have other thoughts on addressing problems in life or at work? I’d love to hear them!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

 

Leaders, take care of yourself!

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Butter and Lily on one of our hikes

I am not entirely sure why this is happening, but recently I am seeing more and more leaders, on Facebook and in real life, reaching the point of near-burnout. In fact, just a few days ago, there was an article on this very topic on the Forbes website, and a few articles elsewhere since then. The problem is real.

Some of this could be due to over-working (in which case see this post). Some of this could be the heat of the summer (I know it makes me grouchy), or some of it could be the unsettled political environment that seems to be affecting us all. Whatever it is, burnout is real and it is seemingly everywhere.

What does burnout do to us leaders? Several things, and none of them good.

First, life becomes exhausting. Everything seems harder. I know when I was suffering from burnout, one of the first signs was difficulty getting out of bed. I knew I needed to, I knew I was going to eventually, but actually doing it was incredibly hard.

Even harder – getting out of the car at work. Have you ever done this? Just sat in the car, waiting, hoping that things would somehow miraculously get better? I know I have.

Then we fall back into bad habits. We eat poorly. We give up on our exercise. We drink more alcohol. We don’t get enough sleep. We oversleep.

On top of all of this, our attitude plummets. We develop tempers, not just at work, but at home too. Or we check out. We are not engaged, we don’t participate. Worst of all, we forget how much our attitude affects others around us.

I have talked with a whole host of employees who are angry, confused, and on the verge of burnout themselves, who simply seem to be suffering under a boss who is burned out. If for no other reason than this, we must address burnout.

Look for the signs of burnout in yourself and your employees. Be vigilant about this. As with most things, it is so much easier to correct when you catch it early. Address situations head-on and with compassion. Especially when dealing with yourself. Most importantly….

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF!

There is quite a bit out there on self-care. One of the most important lessons I have learned about self-care is that self-care is NOT the same as self-comfort. Molly Mahar, the creative genius behind Stratejoy.com, shared an important essay on this on her blog, and I encourage you to check it out. The difference boils down to what you need. Molly stresses that there is a time and a place for both care and comfort.

It seems to me that we are all probably pretty good at the self-comfort piece. More often than not, though, when dealing with burnout, it is self-care that we need. Here are some ideas for taking care of yourself:

  1. Take a vacation. Something as small as just driving out of town for the afternoon. Just find a way to put yourself into a new environment. Do this on a regular basis.
  2. Take up a new hobby. Try lots of different things until you find something you love. I did a quick search for local options here and found a warehouse that will allow you to weld, a t-shirt shop that will allow you to design and produce your own shirt, a glass-blowing workshop, an archery range, several yarn shops, ballroom dancing classes, a pottery shop….so many options!
  3. Schedule those doctors and dentist appointments you’ve been putting off. I just listened to a podcast on Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam about how we all seem to avoid health information that could help us to live better lives. Take a deep breath and go take care of this.
  4. Find a new gym. There are so many interesting options out there! I met someone recently who was trying a new gym each month or so to see what option worked best for her. She was having an interesting time with this – and if nothing else, was coming away with some amazing stories!
  5. Get yourself to a therapist. Many companies have employee assistance programs that provide for free appointments. There is nothing wrong with talking to a therapist. Talking to an independent, disinterested third party can be so healing. I have done so myself when life has become overwhelming and cannot speak highly enough of the important work therapists do.
  6. Get out into nature. There is something particularly healing about being out in the woods or on a lake or in a field. Go for a walk or a hike, go fishing, or kayaking down a river. Get in touch with that side of yourself, and get some exercise while you do so.
  7. Go to the spa. Do something new while you are there. Acupuncture? Why not! Mud wrap? Sure! Float tank? Just might be your new thing.
  8. Reach outside your comfort zone. This summer, I am going to summer camp! For grown-ups! Find something that seems crazy to you, and go do it. Open mike night, poetry jam, bungee jumping, 5K, TedTalk….just go!

Burnout is real, and it affects everyone around us when we don’t address it. Take some time to take care of yourself now!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

 

 

(First Re-blog): Feel Like Giving Up? Read this. — The Art of Blogging

I find this an important reminder of all of the excuses we make up to not do the thing we need to do. For those of you who might need some help not giving up, give this a read!

I launched my first blog in January 2011. I had released my first self-published novel on Amazon. I was very excited, and I was sure that I’d soon conquer the world… I quit after three posts, no views, no comments, no nothing. Five days into my career as a blogger, I grew bitter and remorseful, […]

via Feel Like Giving Up? Read this. — The Art of Blogging

Tips for making that tough decision

decision making

The other day I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague of mine. She had come to me for help in sorting out a particularly difficult decision she needed to make.

Together, we brainstormed some creative ways she could go about making this decision, and I thought I would share these ideas with you.

Some basic assumptions first, though:

  • This was a (personal) career decision. While these ideas may very well work for other types of decisions, I am not specifically suggesting them for anything other than a personal decision.

Examples of these types of decisions: Should I take the promotion if it means I have to relocate to Texas/Iowa/Alabama? Is it time for me to switch careers? Should I take this other assignment when I think I might be getting a promotion if I just stay where I am?

  • All of these ideas were likely suggested to me by the many and various wise teachers I have met during my life. Apologies for any oversight in attribution.
  • Some of these things may seem a little “wacky” for the average business person. I simply ask you to give them a shot. At the very least, don’t dismiss them immediately.

Some things it is important to keep in mind when these types of decisions come up:

  1. It is always important that you actually make a decision. If you don’t, you give the power over to someone else (see previous post on personal accountability);
  2. Be sure you right-size the problem. By that I mean do not give your problem more importance than they deserve. In most cases, if the choice you make doesn’t work out, you then have the option to make another choice;
  3. Most of the time, we know in our gut what we should do – any of these techniques I list below will likely only function to confirm your gut instinct.

So now, the ideas! I’ll use a hypothetical situation and question to work through each suggestion:

Hypothetical Situation: I have been offered a new position within the company. It is a lateral move into an area I find interesting. I am not fully challenged in my current position, but I am concerned that there does not appear to be any upward mobility in the new area.

Question: Should I take the new position?

1. The tried-and-true method of pluses and minuses.

How this might look:
Plus

  • New area offers more of a challenge
  • I would be learning something new
  • I am genuinely interested in the new job

Minus

  • No upward mobility
  • Might lose out on a promotion opportunity in current job
  • Risky – I might not like the new job

2. List your values, what is most important to you in life, determine which choice best aligns with this.

How this might look:

Current (hypothetical) values:

I need to be challenged. When I am bored at work, I am miserable, and then my family is miserable. While salary and advancement are important, I believe that if I am doing something I love, the money will follow.

3. Journal. Spend some time with a notebook, journal, or computer, and simply pour all of your thoughts onto the page. Keep going. Don’t think about what you are writing, just write. Many times I find that I write myself right into the decision. If not, go back and read over what you have written, and see if you find any clues there.

Some tips on how to do this:

  1. Ask yourself a question, then set a timer for three minutes. Write for the full three minutes without stopping. This is important – do not stop! Do not judge what you are writing (no one else is going to read this unless you let them).
  2. Ask yourself the opposite question. If you started with “Why should I take this other position?” now ask yourself “Why should I not take this other position?”
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 as many times as necessary.
  4. Go back and underline, circle, or simply take note of what seems to rise to the surface for you.

4. The “Why” game. This works best with a journal/notebook as well. Ask yourself what decision you want to consider first and write down your answer. Follow this with the question “why”. Write that answer down, and repeat this as many times as it takes to get to the real, underlying truth.

What this looks like:

I want to stay in the position I am currently holding. Why? Because it isn’t that bad. Why? Because there is stability here. Why do I care about that? Because I have ambition and student loans to pay off.

5. Talk it out. It often helps to include movement with this – going on a walk while you talk is a great idea!

There are some very important rules for this one, and these rules are incredibly important:

  1. This person has to be someone you trust, someone you know will have your best interests at heart;
  2. This person needs to be someone who does not have a vested interest in your choice. For example, do not talk this out with your boss who might be invested in you staying put, or a colleague who might benefit if you were leave;
  3. This person should only ask questions to help you dig deeper, and/or repeat back what they hear you say. They should use phrases like, “What I hear you saying is….” and “It sounds like you are really feeling….” and “So why is that particular thing important?”
  4. This person should be patient, empathetic, open, and understanding.business meditation

6. Meditate or pray. I highly recommend guided meditations. If you do a Google search for “guided meditations for decision making,” you can find all kinds of free examples. You may need to go through a few to find one that works for you, but keep trying. Praying can also be effective, no matter what your religion. Simply focusing on your problem and then releasing it to God, the Universe, your choice of higher power, can be extremely effective.

One thing I particularly like is the Rotarian Four-Way Test. This is an ethical guide to be used in personal and professional relationships, and would be an excellent start to a mindful meditation exercise.

Of the things we think, say, or do:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

7. Finally, try changing your perspective.

You could do this many different ways.

  1. Consider the situation as if an employee was asking you for advice. What would you tell him or her?
  2. Take a drive. Put on some tunes. Go somewhere you have never been, or haven’t been in a long time.
  3. Get out into nature. Breathe deep. Ask the trees and the birds for advice. (You’ll have to answer for them, but then that’s the trick!)
  4. Call a friend who knew you way-back when. See what they think.
  5. Do a headstand. Sit on the other side of your desk. Drive home a different way. Anything to shake up that brain of yours.
  6. Jump on a treadmill. Try a walking meditation (Google can help here again). Or try out a new playlist.

I know there are many other things people do to help them make a big decision. What is your go-to method? I’d love to hear from you!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

Women In Insurance – A History – Black Owned Insurance Companies in the 1970s

ncm

While writing the general post on the 1970s, I found I had a sizable amount of information on black-owned businesses that just did not fit in easily. It seemed important enough to warrant its own post. Of course, this means it also mimics one of the problems with black-owned insurance companies at that time – they were, in many ways, kept separate in the national economy.

Black-owned life insurance companies were formed as far back as 1899, largely developing out of the secret societies and fraternal organizations created to support the black community. Most of these organizations existed to support families in their communities in paying for funerals at the time of death.

In 1970, there were 42 black-owned life insurance companies. This was a significant reduction from the 60 companies in existence twenty years prior. By 1979, this number had decreased to 38. Most of the loss in number was due to mergers between the smaller companies. Of the rest, some companies were purchased by larger white-owned companies looking to capture some of the negro market, and other companies simply failed.

The National Insurance Association (NIA), a trade organization for the black-owned life insurance companies across the US, was formed in 1921. In 1970, only two of the member companies ranked in the top 400 life insurance companies; the largest was ranked at 299. In 1974, all member firms had nearly $3 billion of insurance in force, and held $451 million in assets.

In 1971 black families held less insurance on average than white families. This was largely due to the heavy concentration of blacks in the lower income brackets. A study completed in 1971 (Starr Roxanne Hiltz) found that even within income brackets, black families still held less insurance. In 1970, the average policy in force for black families had a face value of $2,126, up from $593 in 1960. This compares to $3,461 average policy face amount across the entire industry, up from $2,000 in 1960.

The findings from this study indicate that there were three main reasons for this. First, blacks tended to own more expensive insurance, so it was difficult to afford as much. Much of the insurance written on black lives at this time was debit (also called industrial) insurance, where premiums were collected by agents going door-to-door on a weekly or monthly basis. Because of the extra work required by the agents, the companies charged higher premiums.

In addition, mortality rates were higher for blacks at that time, driving up the price. Ivan J. Houston, chairman of the board of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. explained in one interview that the higher mortality rate was attributed to “a higher rate of homicide, accidents, and a lack of adequate health care” (Black Enterprise, June 1979).

Second, manual laborers of both races tended to hold less insurance than white collar workers, and with a heavy concentration of blacks in that segment of industry, their life insurance dollars were suppressed. Finally, women tended to be the heads of household in black families, and women in general held less insurance at that time.

Prior to this decade, white companies did not actively pursue the negro market. In some instances, these companies actively avoided this business, and some even declined this business. That began to change in the 1970s as the general market growth slowed considerably and white companies looked for new areas of expansion. Suddenly, black-owned companies found themselves in direct competition with the white companies for sales they could have counted on in the past.

Sales from black-owned life insurance companies comprised only one-half of one percent of all life insurance companies in 1970. Suggestions were made by scholars and journalists on how to help black companies grow and continue to be alive and healthy. One suggestion put forth was for black companies to aggressively enter the white market, something many of the companies had tried on a limited basis beginning in the 1960s. One author felt this would be an extraordinarily difficult task, stating:

At our present stage of race relations, such a relationship, with the black in the advisor role, will be achieved neither widely nor easily.

On the other hand, it could be that being black in the white market actually worked as a benefit where the white customer “acting out of social consciousness may prefer black agents” (Duker & Hughes, 1973, pg. 223).

Another suggestion was that the black companies could rely on a “buying black” sentiment to continue to grow in their traditional negro market. Because the market had been built to serve the negro market when white companies refused to do so, some companies felt they could build on the pride blacks felt in the industry to keep them with black-owned businesses. The president of United Mutual Life of New York, Nathanial Gibbon was quoted as saying:

We need more clout so we can have greater input on legislative and regulatory matters, and this can only come from increased participation by blacks in black insurance institutions.

One thing almost everyone agreed to – the black companies had to move beyond the debit policies on which they had built their companies. The general feeling was that the black insurance industry had approximately 10 years to develop new products and markets, the idea being that in general the black market tended to trail approximately a decade behind the white market.

The black-owned life insurance companies were also facing direct competition from white-owned companies for personnel. One reason for this was the push for equal opportunity in the white companies. The white companies were using sophisticated means to recruit black talent including regular visits to college campuses and partnerships with several national black organizations. There are also some hints in the press of white companies poaching top talent from the successful black companies. The white companies were often able to offer higher salaries, additional training programs, and greater promotional opportunities.

aetna ad 1970

In a particularly interesting article, four men who had been recruited to sell for white insurance companies discussed their experiences. One young successful man, with just two years of experience under his belt shared:

I was the first black man hired by my company in the city, and I feel like everyone was watching me. I knew that if I was a failure they would look at every black as being a failure and say that black people just were not interested in supporting black insurance men.

Black Executive, March 1974

Another man, a sales manager with a significant number of years in the industry shared his belief that it was his responsibility to be successful so that others could see it was possible. He said:

I think success breeds success and that success of the early million dollar producers made everyone realize that there was a black market out there, that it did have money, and it was willing to buy insurance to meet his needs. It’s required an education, but now I think we’ve got across the idea that black people have the same types of aspirations, the same types of abilities as white people have. And I mean that to cover the buying of the insurance as well as the selling of it.

Black Executive, March 1974

The top black-owned insurance companies during the decade were North Carolina Mutual, Supreme Life Insurance Co. of America, and Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company.

North Carolina Mutual opened for business in 1899 in Durham, North Carolina, in order to provide black families with life insurance the white-owned companies refused to issue. By 1974, the company had over $2 billion insurance in force, putting the company at 177 out of 1,810 insurance companies. Over 97% of the policy owners were black.

In order to continue growing, the company made the decision to enter the white market and to aggressively pursue white salesmen. Initial efforts proved this would be a rather difficult endeavor, with most agents leaving the company after only 6 months.

The company also held over $138 million in total assets in 1974, putting the ranking at 150th by this measure. The company employed over 1,300 individuals, nearly all of them black. The company also employed 750 sales agents, many of whom were women.

Over 60% of the business North Carolina Mutual wrote was industrial/debit insurance. The balance was group insurance and ordinary life insurance policies. In the 1970s, the company acquired several other black-owned life insurance companies including Unity Mutual Life from Chicago and Great Lakes Mutual of Detroit.

Golden State Mutual was formed in 1925 as the only black-owned life insurance company on the West coast. The company was almost exclusively focused on debit insurance sales, but decided in 1974 to begin focusing more on middle- and upper- income brackets as black incomes began to climb.

In 1979, Golden State Mutual was the second largest black-owned firm in the West after Motown Records. The company was licensed in 20 states and Washington D.C. The average sized policy the company sold at this time was $2,500 with a monthly premium of $8.35, collected by agents going door-to-door on a monthly basis. Approximately 57% of the company’s insureds were women, reflecting the tendency for women to be the head of household in the black communities.

Golden State had 722 agents, and at the end of the decade had $2.5 billion of insurance in force which included a significant amount of reinsurance and group insurance.

In large part, the black-owned life insurers did not participate heavily in the social movements of the day. The CEO of North Carolina Mutual, William J. Kennedy 3d, was quoted as saying:

Our role is not to become involved in social issues because we feel we can do black people more good in another sense – as an economic symbol. Many of our individual members get involved in social causes. But for the company I think it is necessary that some element in the black community work from the inside as much as possible.

New York Times, 26 May 1974, pg 131

That said, the company did provide loans to black homeowners and business men who could not find money at white-owned institutions.

At the close of the decade, the biggest black-owned insurance companies remained strong. North Carolina Mutual, by far the largest of the group, was well ahead of the others with over $4 billion in force, nearly $170 million of assets, and over 1200 individuals, both black and white employed.

The industry ended the decade healthy and with strong plans for growth in the 1980s. While integration was not fully under consideration, it did appear to be the way of the future. With white-owned insurance companies recruiting black employees and sales representatives, and black-owned insurance companies recruiting white employees and sales representatives, it seems that an integrated insurance landscape was destined to come.

Sources:
Anonymous (1978). “How Insurance Companies Invest Their Money.” Black Enterprise, June, 157-164.

Anonymous (1977). “Insurance Companies: An Overview.” Black Enterprise, June, 121-127.

Anonymous (1975). “North Caroline Mutual: Reaches Two Billion.” Black Enterprise, June, 57.

Anonymous (1979). “Ordinary is Extraordinary for Golden State.” Black Enterprise, June, 197-201.

Anonymous (1974). “Seventy-Six Years of Black Insurance.” Black Enterprise, June, 141-145.

Duker, Jacob M., Hughes, Charles E. (1973). The Black-Owned Life Insurance Company: Issues and Recommendations. Journal of Risk and Insurance, 40(2), 221-230.

Hiltz, Starr Roxanne (1971). Why Black Families Own Less Life Insurance. Journal of Risk and Insurance, 38(2), 225-235.

Parker, Robert A. (1974). “Four Black Salesmen in a White Company.” Black Enterprise, March, 59-61, 71-72.

Puth, Robert C. (1974). Can Black Insurance Companies Survive? Challenge, May-June, 51-59.

Smith, Faye McDonald (1977). “Atlanta Life: 72 Years Old and Still Looking Ahead.” Black Enterprise, June, 133-139.

Stuart, Reginald (1974). “Prudent Insurer Is A Black Business Symbol.” New York Times, 26 May, 131.

Why you (workaholics) should go home and take the day off

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Me and Dad enjoying a hike and a selfie one random day (2014)

Hi, my name is Melinda, and I am a workaholic.

I don’t know if you are like me – I certainly hope for your sake you aren’t! But for years, I neglected to take my vacation days. That isn’t to say I didn’t take vacation. I have three children, and between all of their activities and the need to show them the rest of the world, I have certainly had days out of the office. “Vacation Days” – or so my calendar at work calls them. Really, they just feel like “My Other Unpaid Job Days.”

My job was exceedingly demanding for several years. Luckily (for the company and for me), I thrive on ‘demanding’. I worked long hours, weekends, even became an expert on-line shopper for holidays. And I didn’t take extra days off.

It got to the point that I was “losing” days. We had a policy at that time where you could only roll over into the next year half of your vacation days. Then you had to use those days before the middle of the following year. If you used less than half, you lost the balance. If you didn’t use the days you rolled over by the June, you lost those days. I lost days in December and in June for many years.

It didn’t really matter to me – I was exceptionally happy at work. I felt like I was contributing at a high level and that kept me motivated. I loved my team, I loved my company, and most importantly I had an incredible partner at home (my husband). I made sure that every minute I spent with my kids and my husband was meaningful, if it wasn’t plentiful.

It seemed like everything was going along perfectly, until I lost my dad. I had dealt with loss in my life – just a few years before this I lost my great aunt, my grandfather and my grandmother. Loss and grief were not foreign to me.

In fact, when I lost my father, I was smart. I took care of myself, and (hopefully) my mother, my brother, my kids and my family. I took a week off of work. I turned off my phone for that entire week (I had never done this before). I never even thought about work. I took some time (its never enough time) to grieve and to heal. This post isn’t about that week.

It’s about the following year. At that point I was fortunate enough to be working with a brilliant executive coach. During one of our sessions, I mentioned that recently I had been having trouble focusing, that things weren’t coming so easily for me, and that I had been overreacting to seemingly small errors or differences in opinion. In fact, things had gotten so bad that I was not certain that I was able to contribute in a meaningful way any longer. The entire future looked bleak.

She asked me a simple question, “So what’s going on?”

Suddenly I realized that it was the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. And I was not coping well. I was relying on old habits of pushing through and working hard. It wasn’t going well. At all. I thought I would be fine. I thought a top-notch worker didn’t take days off for things like this, and I wanted to be top-notch. I thought that the strongest thing to do would be to go to work, swallow the tears, and keep moving forward.

Turns out I was wrong. For me, for this particular situation, this was the absolute worst thing (okay, maybe not the worst) I could do. My coach told me to pack up my things and head home. I can’t tell you why, but it was one of the hardest and best things I have done.

She talked to me about taking time for myself. About taking care of myself. Of listening to myself, and granting myself a little grace. She showed me that laying on the couch, staring at the ceiling with a bowl of buttered popcorn balanced on my belly was the best thing I could do for myself, if that was what I needed.

I needed to go home and take the day off.

And it turns out I only needed a day. I needed space to breathe and understand why I was feeling the way I felt. I needed to be free, for just a few hours, from the demands of other people. From the expectations of work and family.

You won’t be surprised to hear that it worked. I have a feeling that if I had I not taken that day off, I would have been miserable for much longer.

Since then, I have become a huge proponent of what I call “Mental Health Days.” If you are not going to be productive and you need some time to reflect, recharge, heal, sleep, journal, run, whatever it is, it is better that you take care of that right away rather than subjecting your unsuspecting coworkers to an ugly side of you.

In the event that you are a workaholic like me, I have some other suggestions for reasons to take a day off here and there:

  1. To help out in your child’s classroom or supervise a field trip
  2. To celebrate an anniversary with your significant other
  3. To appreciate the fall foliage or spring flowers
  4. To celebrate your birthday!
  5. To play with your puppies
  6. To just sleep in. For once.

Whatever you do, just be sure you are taking care of yourself. Do what you need to do to perform your very best each and every day.

And as always, keep it positive, and smile!